The Blind Solo Harpist and His Song

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The Blind Solo Harpist and His Song

Musical Genre and Artistic Convention.

As early as 1768 when James Bruce discovered the tomb of Ramesses III, Westerners have been aware of the idea of the blind harpist in Egyptian art. Bruce discovered two images of a blind harpist who sang about death in the tomb. Bruce had discovered what proved to be a very common theme in Egyptian art. At least 47 tombs in the Theban necropolis depict blind harp players. This motif decorated tombs of nobles and royalty. The blind harpist entertained at banquets but sang of death and life after death. It was only in the mid-twentieth century that M. Lichtheim conducted a full study of the blind harpists' songs. The songs reveal the history of Egyptian attitudes toward death and the afterlife, although the convention of the blind or blindfolded harpist remains an intriguing mystery.

Earliest Blind Harpists' Songs.

The blind harpists' songs were carved on tomb walls and on stelae in the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom. Their lyrics discuss the nature of death and the afterlife but are not necessarily part of the funeral ritual. Because their purpose was contemplative rather than ritual words to effect the transformation from this world to the next, the authors of these lyrics contemplated death on a broader level. The earliest blind harpists' songs reassure the deceased that the tomb is a joyful place and that the dead are happy. Such is the point made by the blind harpist Neferhotep, son of Henu, on the stele of Iki, now in the Leiden Museum. The blind harpist Tjeniaa gave an even more elaborate description of the joys of the tomb on a stela carved for Nebankh, now in the Cairo Museum. Tjeniaa assured Nebankh that his tomb itself was well-built and eternal, that it would always be filled with food for his spirit, and that his ka-soul would always be comfortable there. It is clear that this sort of song fits well with the other inscriptions associated with Egyptian tombs. The positive words uttered or sung about the deceased's future after death were part of the ritual that assured the word's truth.

The Song from the Tomb of King Intef.

There are two copies of a blind harpist's song that the scribe attributed to a certain King Intef. One copy is part of Papyrus Harris 500 in the British Museum. A scribe copied the song on this papyrus during the Ramesside Period (1292–1075 b.c.e.). The second copy was made slightly earlier. It is carved in the tomb of Paatenemheb, an official who died at the beginning of the Amarna Period (1352–1336 b.c.e.). The best-known kings named Intef lived at least 650 years before Paatenemheb was buried. They include Intef I (2075–2065 b.c.e.), Intef II (2065–2016 b.c.e.), and Intef III (2016–2008 b.c.e.) of the Eleventh Dynasty. A less-well known king, Intef V (after 1630 b.c.e.), might also have been the author. Nevertheless, aside from the Amarna text and Ramesside papyrus, there are no copies of the song from the period when a king named Intef ruled. Nevertheless, the language of the copies is classical Middle Egyptian, the dialect spoken during the earlier period. Thus M. Lichtheim believes that the true time of composition must have been in the Middle Kingdom. The song suggests that not all the assurances about the joys of the afterlife can be trusted. The author suggests that no one on earth knows for sure what will happen in the land of the dead, and thus it is important to enjoy life here. He urges everyone to dress well, wear soothing oils, and have fun. Death is inevitable, he says, but that is no reason not to enjoy life. The answer to this critical approach is found in a New Kingdom tomb of a priest named Neferhotep who was buried in Thebes. Nefterhotep claims that in spite of the "old songs" which urge that life on earth must be enjoyed to the hilt, the land of the dead holds even more joys. It is fascinating to know that among Egyptians there was room for disagreement and doubt about basic beliefs.

The Blind Solo Harpist.

Representations of the blind solo harpist in the Ramesside Period perhaps developed from Eighteenth-dynasty tomb representations of musical ensembles at banquets. The characteristics of the male blind harpists found in these tombs resemble the blind solo harpists found in Ramesside tombs. Egyptian artists represented the blind solo harpist as wealthy. As a fat man he was interpreted as well fed and thus had access to greater resources than the average person. He was also well dressed in a linen garment with a shawl. The blind solo harpist was also bald, a characteristic that associated him with priests who shaved their heads to achieve ritual purity. He was often, though not always, represented with impaired vision, a fact that led to his usual designation by Egyptologists as blind. However, L. Manniche estimates that only one-quarter of the known representations of the blind solo harpist were shown with unusual eyes. These unusual eyes are generally interpreted as blindness or visual impairment. Blindness can be represented in one of four ways. First, a normal eye can be represented without an iris. Second, the eye could be shown as a slit with an iris. Third, the slit-shaped eye could have no iris. Fourth, only the upper curve of the eye can be shown, without any further representation of the eye. Manniche, however, observes that in cases where the iris appears to be omitted in the carving, it might have been painted in the original state. Moreover, even the slit eyes might only represent closed eyes. Thus it is not altogether certain that the blind solo harpist was represented as blind.

Symbolic Blindness.

Because there is some doubt about whether so-called blind solo harpists were truly blind, L. Manniche has suggested that many harpists were represented with symbolic blindness. She observes that large numbers of musicians represented at the palace in Amarna were wearing blindfolds when they played. She describes this condition as temporary lack of sight. One of her strongest arguments concerns the tomb of Raia, a musician who lived in the Rames-side Period. When represented in his tomb playing the harp for the god, Raia's visible eye was depicted as only a slit. In his other representations, his eye appears to be normal. Perhaps, Manniche argues, his blindness was symbolic, only present when he sat playing for the god.

Doubts and Puzzles.

The tomb of Raia represents a puzzle about the harpist's blindness. The harpist is represented with a slit eye while he plays, but a normal eye in other parts of the tomb. If he was truly blind in life, perhaps Raia's representations with normal eyes represented a wish for total health in the next world. On the other hand, perhaps Raia was not blind at all nor even intended to be represented as blind while playing his harp before the god. Perhaps all of the so-called blind harpists are only closing their eyes with emotion while they sing. A look at the so-called blind harpist reveals both ancient Egyptian doubts about the next life and a puzzle about artistic representation. The songs the harpists sing both affirm that the next life is a happy one and offer doubts that there is any other happiness but life on earth. The eyes of the harpist, represented in a variety of ways, either show the harpist as blind or as an emotion-filled singer, closing his eyes in the grip of his feelings while chanting for the god.


introduction: The earlier examples of the harpists' song stress the good to come in the afterlife. These two examples of harpists' songs were carved in the Middle Kingdom.

Song of Neferhotep

This is the song:
O Tomb, you were built for festivity,
You were founded for happiness!
The singer Neferhotep, born of Henu.

Song of Tjeniaa for Nebankh

The singer Tjeniaa says:
How firm you are in your seat of eternity,
Your monument of everlastingness!
It is filled with offerings of food,
It contains every good thing.
Your ka is with you,
It does not leave you,
O Royal Seal-bearer, Great Steward, Nebankh!
Yours is the sweet breath of the northwind!
So says his singer who keeps his name alive,
The honorable singer Tjeniaa, whom he loved,
Who sings to his ka every day.

source: "Song of Neferhotep" and "Song of Tjeniaa for Nebankh," in The Old and Middle Kingdoms. Vol. 1 of Ancient Egyptian Literature. Trans. Miriam Lichtheim (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973): 194.


Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).

Lisa Manniche, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1991).


introduction: This song is preserved in two New Kingdom documents. It is known from a tomb from early in the reign of Amenhotep IV, later called Akhenaten (1352–1336 b.c.e.). It is also known from a Ramesside (1292–1075 b.c.e.) papyrus called Papyrus Harris 500, now in the British Museum. The text, however, states that it was written in the reign of King Intef who would have lived in the Middle Kingdom, perhaps 800 to 1,000 years earlier. The language of the text is consistent with this claim. This song urges people to enjoy life on earth since it is not certain what will follow.

Song which is in the tomb of King Intef, the justified, in front of the singer with the harp.
He is happy, this good prince!
Death is a kindly fate.
A generation passes,
Another stays,
Since the time of the ancestors.
The gods who were before rest in their tombs,
Blessed nobles too are buried in their tombs.
(Yet) those who built tombs,
Their places are gone,
What has become of them?
I have heard the words of Imhotep and Hardedef,
Whose sayings are recited whole.
What of their places?

Their walls have crumbled,
Their places are gone,
As though they had never been!
None comes from there,
To tell of their state,
To tell of their needs,
To calm our hearts,
Until we go where they have gone!
Hence rejoice in your heart!
Forgetfulness profits you,
Follow your heart as long as you live!
Put myrrh on your head,
Dress in fine linen,
Anoint yourself with oils fit for a god.
Heap up your joys,
Let your heart not sink!
Follow your heart and your happiness,
Do your things on earth as your heart commands!
When there comes to you that day of mourning,
The Weary-hearted hears not their mourning,
Wailing saves no man from the pit!
Make holiday,
Do not weary of it!
Lo, none is allowed to take his goods with him,
Lo, none who departs comes back again!

source: "Songs and Hymns," in The Old and Middle Kingdoms. Vol. 1 of Ancient Egyptian Literature. Trans. Miriam Lichtheim (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973): 196–197.

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The Blind Solo Harpist and His Song

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