Demotic Literature

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Demotic Literature


The word "Demotic" refers to both the natural developmental stage of the Egyptian language in the Late Period (664–332 b.c.e.), Ptolemaic Period (332–30 b.c.e.), and Roman Period (30 b.c.e.–395 c.e.), as well as a new script. The script developed from a highly cursive form of hieratic, the cursive form of hieroglyphs. This even more cursive hieratic appeared in Memphis toward the end of the New Kingdom (1075 b.c.e.). In the seventh century b.c.e., there is some evidence that scribes deliberately modified the script for writing legal contracts and documents. These changes were related to the Twenty-sixth Dynasty's reorganization of the government. Demotic, however, was not actually used to record literature until the fourth century b.c.e. Scribes used Demotic under the native Egyptian government and subsequent Greek and Roman governments.


Most Egyptologists find Demotic more difficult to learn than the earlier forms of the Egyptian language. This difficulty has influenced the study of Demotic literature and has to some extent kept the study of Demotic literature separate from the earlier literature written in Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian. Additionally, many early twentieth-century Egyptologists considered the period when Demotic was used as a period of decline. The fact that this period coincided with the classical age of Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e. reinforced this perception of Egypt as a backwater. Most later twentieth and early twenty-first century scholars, however, view Egypt of this period as a mature civilization that both reflected its ancient past and created new and vital means of expression.


A genre refers to a type of literature. Each genre has a formal pattern known to readers and authors and is related to the culture surrounding it. Egyptian authors in the time when Demotic was written might have had more familiarity with the ancestors of modern genres. Modern, Western literary genres derive from theories developed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.). Demotic literature comes from the time when Greeks ruled Egypt. Yet Demotic literature, still written in the Egyptian language, seems not to have imitated Greek genre. The genres of Demotic literature are not clearly understood. The Petition of Petiese is the story of the wrongs committed against one family. It seems to date to the reign of the Persian king Darius I (521–486 b.c.e.) who ruled Egypt at this time. The text does not follow exactly the form of petitions known from actual court archives. It is both too long and it includes hymns along with the legalistic material. There is also a mixture of genres in the text called The Demotic Chronicle. The text contains a series of oracles that the distinguished English scholar of Demotic W. John Tait called "baffling." The action takes place in the reign of Teos (365–362 b.c.e.), though the date of composition is probably in the later fourth or early third century b.c.e., nearly 100 years later. The text appears to be a critique of Egyptian kings. Some scholars view it as an attack on the Greek (Ptolemaic) kings of Egypt, though not all agree. The text depends on word play, an important literary device common in the long Egyptian tradition but not so common in Demotic literature in general.


The intended audience for Demotic is an important issue because for most of the time Demotic literature was composed the language of government was Greek. Literate Egyptians still knew hieratic and hieroglyphic which they used for religious texts like the Bookof the Dead. A few rare Demotic copies of the Book of the Dead exist, but traditional texts were still written in the old language. The new contemporary script and language seems to be used mostly for business, government, and narratives after Alexander the Great conquered the country in 332 b.c.e. Scholars assume that the royal court had little interest in Demotic literature and the audience was lower-level Egyptian scribes and priests. This group constituted the native Egyptian literate elite. After the arrival of the Romans, there is at least one archive that included both Demotic and Greek manuscripts, indicating that native Egyptians had an interest in both languages. Additionally there is the literature called Graeco-Egyptian. These texts might represent Greek translations of Demotic and Greek literature set in Egypt for the Greek-speaking Egyptians. This evidence suggests that the majority of Greeks in Egypt did not read Demotic even if they could speak it.

Range of Materials.

Most of the Demotic literary papyri now known to scholars were excavated between 1964 and 1973 in North Saqqara. The texts date from Saite (Dynasty Twenty-six, 664–525 b.c.e.) to Roman times (30 b.c.e.–395 c.e.). Included in this group of papyri are stories, teachings, satire, prophecy, astrology, magic, and medical texts. Very few of these texts have been studied beyond identifying their basic context. In fact, the sudden rise in the number of known Demotic texts in the late twentieth century will inevitably revolutionize scholarly ideas about the period. The majority of these texts are narratives.

Earliest Narratives.

The fragmentary preservation of the earliest narratives found in Saqqara makes it difficult to reconstruct any stories. One papyrus seems to contain several stories within stories. They include the sufferings of a priest and of a young couple. Another Saqqara papyrus deals with a villain who kidnaps Pharaoh. The goddess Hathor then guides a hero who finds the king through the use of a horse. Another story tells of a magician making wax figures. A group of Ptolemaic stories (332–30 b.c.e.) set in the reign of King Amasis (570–526 b.c.e.) begins with the king drinking so much wine that he becomes drunk. The next day, plagued by a hangover, the king asks for stories to divert him while he recovers. Here again it is difficult to understand these stories as other than criticism of the current regime, set in the earlier period.

Oral Tradition.

Earlier twentieth-century scholars attempted to connect Demotic literature with oral tradition, assuming that the nature of the stories was popular rather than a part of high culture. Yet it is hard to make the connection between oral tradition and Demotic literature. In favor of the theory is the large number of catch phrases repeated throughout a text, reminiscent of a device used by storytellers in many cultures. Additionally, some stories include extended repetition of paragraphs in different places, another common oral storytelling technique. Yet, these stories are prose, and most oral traditions are verse in the ancient world.


Many stories are found in groups in the same papyrus and center on one character who lived in the distant past. For example, there is a cycle concerning a character called Setna Khaemwas, who was historically the fourth son of Ramesses II (1279–1213 b.c.e.). Setna stories all involve the use of magic. Many of the stories involve Setna and the ghost of a magician from former times. Another cycle centers on the character called Inaros and the members of his family. Inaros stories center on military exploits, perhaps set in the time of a King Petubastis of Dynasty Twenty-three (838–712 b.c.e.). In any case, the stories resemble the earlier tradition of historical rather than contemporary settings.


Scholars have known two long texts belonging to the genre the Egyptians called seboyet, or "teachings," since the nineteenth century. One text is known as Papyrus Insinger, the other as The Teachings of Ankhsheshonqi. Papyrus Insinger is named after J. H. In-singer, a Dutch museum patron who purchased the text for the Royal Museum of Antiquities in Leiden in the Netherlands. The beginning is lost. A scribe copied this manuscript in the first century c.e., but the author composed it up to 300 years earlier. A second copy of the text in the Ny Carlsberg Museum in Copenhagen demonstrates that there were multiple copies. Both Ankhsheshonqi and Insinger consist of one-line sentences. Insinger's author, however, grouped the sentences into themes and chapters which he numbered, while the arrangement of Ankhsheshonqi is less clear. The theme in both texts is that there is a good and a bad way to live. Yet living by the good is no guarantee of success in life. These texts admit, unlike earlier teachings in Egypt, that sometimes the wicked prosper. Yet the texts counsel that the wise man does not judge his life so much by results as he does by his morality and piety. The wicked, however, are always punished ultimately. The author of In-singer believed that there was an all-embracing moral order in the world which governed nature and human existence. The Ankhsheshonqi manuscript dates to about the first century b.c.e., but the date of composition remains a matter of debate. Certainly, though, the structure of Ankhsheshonqi relates it to earlier teachings. It begins with the story of a man who inadvertently learns that his friend is involved in a plot against the Pharaoh's life. This man is jailed when the plot is discovered, but avoids execution. He writes this instruction for the good of his son. The format of the advice is single sentences on how to act. As was true in the earlier Teachings, the advice is pragmatic and humorous. It remains utilitarian rather than lofty and moralistic.


Demotic literature remains a fertile but as yet nearly untilled field for literary research. An unknown number of individual papyri remain to be studied in the future. Most have not been published even in the form of photographs. It is likely that these texts hold the answer to many of the questions that remain about Egyptian literature. They are especially important, on the one hand, because they are the last stage of a 3,000-year old literary tradition. But they also, on the other hand, represent the only stage of Egyptian literature written while the Egyptians were in close contact with a foreign culture, the Greeks and Romans. Since Greek and Roman writers are the ancestors of Western authors, it will be fascinating to learn how Egyptian and classical literature interacted with and perhaps influenced each other.


Miriam Lichtheim, Late Egyptian Wisdom Literature in the International Context (Freiburg, Switzerland: Universitätsverlag, 1983).

W. John Tait, "Demotic Literature: Forms and Genres," in Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Forms. Ed. Antonio Loprieno (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1996): 175–190.