The Egyptian Literary Canon

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

The Egyptian Literary Canon


A literary canon is a group or body of related literary works, often sanctioned by an authority. Though modern canons of literature have traditionally been set by universities or other official bodies, there is no authoritative body that scholars know today from ancient Egypt that would have designated an Egyptian literary canon. In fact, for ancient Egypt the canon consists of the works that have survived into modern times. New works can still emerge as they are discovered in museum storerooms and through archaeology. Many papyri collected in the nineteenth century remain unread in Egyptian, European, and American museums. A slow and painstaking process of study and publication gradually has added works to the Egyptian canon. At this time, scholars cannot know whether or not modern knowledge of Egyptian literature contains important gaps or if it is nearly complete.

Admonitions of Ipuwer.

Egyptologists have disagreed on when the author first created The Admonitions of Ipuwer. The composition date probably falls in the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1759 b.c.e.) based on the language used, though the setting is the First Intermediate Period (2130–2003 b.c.e.), a time of social chaos. The only manuscript is a long papyrus now in Leiden, The Netherlands. It dates to the Nineteenth Dynasty (1292–1190 b.c.e.), demonstrating the longstanding popularity of descriptions of national chaos followed by resolution by a strong king. The author describes terrible social disorders including rebellion and death. He longs for the social order that only the king can provide.

Astarte and the Sea.

This story, composed in the Eighteenth Dynasty (1539–1292 b.c.e.), may be a direct translation of a Canaanite story. One papyrus in New York preserves it. The story describes how the goddess Astarte defeated a sea-monster called Yam with the help of the god Seth. The story demonstrates that the Egyptians were familiar with foreign literature during this period.

Complaints of Khakheperre-sonb.

The narrator of the Complaints bears a name that honors Senwosret II (1844–1837 b.c.e.), using his throne name plus the phrase "may he live!". The author must have written it during this reign. The only copy dates to the Eighteenth Dynasty (1539–1292 b.c.e.), preserved on a writing board in London, showing the continued popularity of pessimistic descriptions of national chaos in Egyptian literature hundreds of years later. Since this author lived in a peaceful time, it is difficult to know whether he had a political purpose in writing this text or whether it is a strictly literary enterprise.

Contendings of Horus and Seth.

This Rames-side (1292–1075 b.c.e.) story, preserved in one papyrus in Dublin, describes the long court battle between the falcon-god Horus and his uncle, the god Seth, over who should inherit the throne from Osiris, Egypt's mythical first king. Eighteen courtroom sessions are interrupted by four trials of ritual combat. In the end, the court of gods awards Horus the throne as the rightful heir of Osiris. The story seems somewhat satirical and possibly reflects political events in the Nineteenth or Twentieth Dynasty.


introduction: The Doomed Prince contains elements associated with the myth of Osiris and does not occur in a recognizable historical period. Additionally, sections of dialogue repeat verbatim in the text. These elements are typical of the new style of narrative composed in the Nineteenth Dynasty (1292–1190 b.c.e.). The author also considers the nature of fate. Because the papyrus lacks an ending, it is not clear whether or not the prince is able to escape the doom mentioned in the story's modern title. The story occupies four columns on the back (verso) of Papyrus Harris 500. The numbers in parentheses give the column and line numbers.

(4,1) It is said, there once was a king to whom no son had been born. [After a time his majesty] begged a son for himself from the gods of his domain, and they decreed that one should be born to him. That night he slept with his wife and she [became] pregnant. When she had completed the months of childbearing, a son was born.

Then came the Hathors to determine a fate for him. They said: "He will die through the crocodile, or the snake, or the dog." When the people who were with the child heard (it), they reported it to his majesty. Then his majesty's heart became very very sad. His majesty had [a house] of stone built [for him] upon the desert, supplied with people and with every good thing of the palace, and the child was not to go outdoors.

Now when the boy had grown, he went up to his roof, and he saw a greyhound following a man who was walking on the road. He said to his servant, who was beside him, "What is it that is walking behind the man who is coming along the road?" He told him: "It is a greyhound." The boy said to him: "Have one like it brought to me." Then the servant went and reported (4,10) it to his majesty. His majesty said: "Bring him a little puppy, [so that] his heart [will not] grieve." So they brought him a greyhound.

Now when many days had passed and the boy was fully grown in all his body, he sent to his father saying: "To what purpose is my sitting here? I am committed to Fate. Let me go, that I may act according to my heart, until the god does what is in his heart." Then a chariot was harnessed for him, equipped [with] (5,1) all sorts of weapons, and [a servant was given him] as an attendant. He was ferried over to the eastern shore and was told "Go wherever you wish," and his greyhound was with him. He went northward across the desert, following his heart and living on the best of all the desert game.

He reached the Prince of Nahrin. Now the Prince of Nahrin had no children except one daughter. For her a house had been built whose window was seventy cubits away from the ground. Ha had sent for all the sons of all the princes of Khor and told them: "He who reaches the window of my daughter, his wife she shall be." Now when many days had passed and they were at their daily pursuit, the youth passed by them. Then they took the youth to their house. They washed him; they gave fodder to his team. They did everything for the youth. They anointed him; they bandaged his feet; they (5,10) gave food to his attendant. And they said to him by way of conversation: "Whence have you come, you good youth?" He said to them: "I am the son of an officer of the land of Egypt. My mother died; my father took another wife, a stepmother. She came to hate me, and I went away, fleeing from her." Then they embraced him and kissed him on [all his body].

[Now when many days had passed], he said to the sons: "What is this you are doing [here?" They said]: "For three [months] now we are here passing (6,1) the time [in leaping. For he] who reaches [the] window of the daughter of the Prince of Nahrin [will] get her as [wife]." [He] said to them: "If only my feet did [not] hurt, I would go leaping with you." They went leaping in their daily manner, while the youth stood at a distance watching, and the gaze of the daughter of the Prince of Nahrin was upon him.

Now when many days had passed, the youth came to leap with the sons of the princes. He leaped, he reached the window of the daughter of the Prince of Nahrin. She kissed him, she embraced him on all his body. One went to inform her father and told him: "One man has reached the window of your daughter." Then the Prince questioned him saying: "Which prince's son?" They said to him: "The son of an officer who came fleeing from Egypt, away from his stepmother." Thereupon (6,10) the Prince of Nahrin became exceedingly angry. He said: "Am I to give my daughter to this fugitive from Egypt? Make him go away!"

They went and told him: "Go back where you came from!" But the daughter held him, and she swore by the god saying; "As Pre-Harakhti lives, if he is taken from me, I shall not eat, I shall not drink, I shall die right away!" The messenger went and reported to her father every (word) that she had said. And her (father) sent men to slay him on the spot. But the daughter said to (them): "As Pre lives, if they slay him, when the sun sets I shall be dead. I will not live an hour longer than he!"

They [went] to tell her father. Then her (7,1) [father had] the [youth brought] before him [together with] his daughter. And when [the youth stood before him] his dignity impressed the Prince. He embraced him, he kissed him on all his body; he said to him: "Tell me about yourself, for now you are my son." He said to him: "I am the son of an officer of the land of Egypt. My mother died; my father took another wife. She came to hate me; I left fleeing from her." Then he gave him his daughter as a wife. He gave him a house and fields as well as cattle and all sorts of good things.

Now when many days had passed, the youth said to his wife: "I am given over to three fates: the crocodile, the snake, the dog." Then she said to him: "Have the dog that follows you killed." He said to her: "What foolishness! I will not let my dog be killed, whom I raised when it was a puppy." So she began to watch her husband very much and did not let him go out alone.

Now on the day on which the youth had left Egypt in his wandering, the crocodile, (7,10) his fate [had followed him]—. It came to be opposite him in the village in which the youth was, [and it dwelled in] the lake. But there was a demon in it. The demon did not let the crocodile come out; nor did the crocodile let the demon come out to stroll about. As soon as the sun rose [they] stood and fought each other every day for three months now.

And when more days had passed, the youth sat down to a feastday in his house. Then when night had come, the youth lay down on his bed, and sleep overwhelmed his body. Then (8,1) his wife filled a [bowl] with [wine] and another bowl with beer. Thereupon a [snake] came out [of its] hole to bite the youth. But his wife was sitting beside him, not sleeping. [She placed the bowls before] the snake. It drank, it became drunk, it lay down on its back. Then [the woman had] it hacked to pieces with her axe. They woke her husband——. She said to him: "Look, your god has given one of your fates into your hand. He will protect [you from the others also]." [Then he] made an offering to Pre, praising him and extolling his might every day.

Now when many days had passed, the youth went out for a pleasure stroll on his estate. [His wife] did not go out [with him], but his dog was following him. Then his dog began to speak [saying: "I am your fate]." Thereupon he ran before it. He reached the lake. He descended into [the water in flight from the] dog. Then the crocodile [seized] him and carried him off to where the demon was. [But he was gone. The] crocodile said to the youth: "I am your fate that has come after you. But [for three months] now I have been fighting with the demon. Now look, I shall release you. If my [enemy returns] to fight [you shall] help me to kill the demon. For if you see the——the crocodile." Now when it dawned and the next day had come, [the demon] returned——.

source: "The Doomed Prince," in The New Kingdom. Vol. 2 of Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Trans. Miriam Lichtheim (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976): 200–203.

The Destruction of Mankind.

This story is part of a larger work called The Book of the Heavenly Cow. The oldest copy known today was inscribed in the tomb of King Tutankhamun (1332–1322 b.c.e.), and scribes also inscribed it in five other royal tombs of the New Kingdom. The last known copy was in the tomb of Ramesses VI (1145–1137 b.c.e.). Thus all the copies date to the New Kingdom, but the language is Middle Egyptian, the vernacular of the Middle Kingdom (2008–1630 b.c.e.). Scholars disagree about whether an author composed it in the Middle Kingdom or if it is an original work of the New Kingdom. The story describes the sun-god Re becoming tired of humanity's wickedness. Re sends his daughter Sakhmet, a lioness goddess, to destroy mankind. After some time, Re changes his mind. In order to stop Sakhmet, he floods the world with beer dyed red to resemble blood. Sakhmet drinks the beer, becomes drunk, and ceases her destruction. The story echoes the Hebrew Bible's account of Noah and the flood, especially in the deity's decision to destroy mankind because of its wickedness and in the use of a flood and drunkenness as key elements in the story.

Dialogue of a Man with His Ba.

This Middle Egyptian dialect text is preserved on one papyrus now in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. The grammar and word choice found in the document suggest a date of composition in the early Twelfth Dynasty, shortly after 1938 b.c.e. The substance of the text is a discussion between a man and a part of his soul, called the ba in Egyptian. The man argues that traditional funeral arrangements meant to ensure a happy afterlife are useless. His ba tries to reassure him that this is untrue. It is not clear who wins this debate. The text surprises modern readers since it suggests that not all Egyptians believed the traditional reassurances that the afterlife was a continuation of life on earth.



[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


The Eloquent Peasant.

The author composed The Eloquent Peasant late in the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1759 b.c.e.) but set the story earlier in the reign of a King Nebkaure, perhaps the king of this name who reigned in the Ninth or Tenth Dynasty (2130–1980 b.c.e.). In the introductory story, an official robs a peasant on his way to market. The peasant protests to the official's superior. Though the superior intends to rule in favor of the peasant, he insists that the peasant return to orate on justice many days in a row because the peasant is so eloquent. The text plays both on the meaning of justice and the Egyptian love of oratory. The four papyrus copies of this text, now in Berlin and in London, all date to the Middle Kingdom. There is no proof that readers of the later periods knew this text.

The Doomed Prince.

The author composed this story early in the Nineteenth Dynasty. One papyrus, now in London, preserves it. In the story, a fictional prince is fated at birth to die either through an attack by a snake, a dog, or a crocodile. The prince grows to adulthood in a protected palace. He then travels to western Asia and marries a princess. One day his dog tries to attack him, but he escapes. Then a crocodile carries the prince away to witness a fight with a demon. The papyrus breaks off with the crocodile requesting help from the prince in his fight with the demon. The ending is unknown.

The Teachings of Amenemhet.

The author of this text composed it during the reign of Senwosret I (1919–1875 b.c.e.) but after 1909 b.c.e. The narrator is the deceased King Amenemhet I (1938–1909 b.c.e.), speaking from beyond the grave. Some scholars believe the author was a certain Akhtoy. All the manuscripts date to the New Kingdom (1539–1075 b.c.e.). The primary manuscripts are long papyri in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin and in the British Museum in London. There are also many fragments, a copy on a leather roll, three wooden tablets and over 100 ostraca (copies on potsherds and limestone chips). This text must have been one of the most widely read of ancient Egyptian compositions since so many copies exist. In the text, King Amenemhet I advises King Senwosret I not to trust anyone. Amenemhet suggests that he was assassinated in spite of his good deeds throughout his life. The discourse is surprisingly pessimistic.

The Teachings of Ptahhotep.

The author of The Teachings of Ptahhotep composed it during the Middle Kingdom, probably during the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1759 b.c.e.). The author set the text during the reign of King Djedkare Isesy (2415–2371 b.c.e.) during the Old Kingdom, approximately 400 years before his own time. Scribes continued to copy the text into the Nineteenth Dynasty (1292–1190 b.c.e.). Four copies on papyrus have survived to modern times along with five ostraca and a wooden writing board. This evidence suggests that this text was widely read for over 600 years in ancient Egyptian schools. The author composed 37 maxims, including both rules of conduct and proverbs. The theme throughout the text is the proper conduct that will lead to success in life. The narrator, Ptahhotep, argues that following these maxims will result both in success and in justice. Yet many of the maxims strike a modern reader as banal; one rule, for example, suggests that at the dinner table it is best to wait to serve yourself until after your boss is served.

Teachings for Merykare.

This text might have been composed during the First Intermediate Period (2130–2008 b.c.e.), perhaps by a king, the father of King Merykare (exact dates unknown). Yet the only copies of the text date to the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties (1539–1075 b.c.e.). The copies include three papyri now in St. Petersburg and Moscow in Russia, and in Copenhagen in Denmark. An ostracon (a copy on a limestone chip) now in the Cairo Museum originated in the artists' village of Deir el-Medina. Though the text seems to include advice from a king to his son, more middle-class Egyptians took an interest in that advice as much as 800 years later. The narrator discusses the best ways for a king to win the hearts of his followers, stressing the importance of justice in his dealings with all.

Khufu and the Magicians.

The late Middle Kingdom (2008–1630 b.c.e.) author of Khufu and the Magicians set the story in the time of the builder of the Great Pyramid, King Khufu (2585–2560 b.c.e.). Only one manuscript, written during the Hyksos Period (1630–1539 b.c.e.), preserves the story. It is now in Berlin. The story describes a contest conducted among Khufu's sons. Each tries to tell a story that will relieve the king's boredom. The stories all involve miracles performed by magicians. The last story, however, describes the miraculous birth of triplets who were the kings of the Fifth Dynasty (2500–2350 b.c.e.). Such a story would seem to have a political meaning. Yet it is difficult to understand how the events described here relate to the period when the story was actually written.

Neferkare and the General Sisene.

The Middle Kingdom author set this story in the reign of Pepy I (2338–2298 b.c.e.), though it was written approximately 400 years later. There are two manuscripts: one on papyrus, now in Paris, and an ostracon in Chicago. Using Pepy's throne name, Neferkare, the story describes the king visiting one of his generals late at night, sneaking into the general's house through a window. Because both manuscripts are very fragmentary, it is not clear what the author meant to portray. Some scholars have understood the text to describe furtive homosexual activity.

Prophecy of Neferty.

The author set The Prophecy of Neferty during the reign of King Khufu (2585–2560 b.c.e.) during the Fourth Dynasty. Yet the author probably lived in the reign of King Amenemhet I (1938–1909 b.c.e.) nearly 650 years later. In the text, Neferty explains the future that Egypt will experience. First, the country will fall into chaos, the period that Egyptologists call the First Intermediate Period (2130–2008 b.c.e.). Then, King Amenemhet I will save Egypt and reunite it. Clearly the author lived during Amenemhet's reign and was adding to the literature that glorified the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1759 b.c.e.). Yet all the copies known today—a papyrus in St. Petersburg in Russia, writing tablets in Cairo and in London, and twenty ostraca—originate during the New Kingdom (1539–1075 b.c.e.). This New Kingdom interest in the Twelfth Dynasty reflects the way the kings of this period used the past to legitimate their own rule.

The Quarrel of Apophis and Seqenenre.

The author of this early Nineteenth-dynasty narrative (1292–1190 b.c.e.) set the story during the reigns of the Hyksos king Apophis and the Theban prince Seqenenre about 1543 b.c.e. At this time the foreign kings called the Hyksos controlled the north and Theban princes controlled southern Egypt. The story describes the quarrel between these two rulers that led to the war between them. Eventually the historic Theban princes expelled the Hyksos from Egypt. In this story, preserved on one manuscript now in London, Apophis complains to Seqenenre in a letter that a Theban hippopotamus is bellowing so loudly that it disturbs his sleep in the town of Avaris. Since Thebes and Avaris were 500 miles apart, it seems that Apophis' claim was meant as an insult or a taunt. The meaning of this story for readers living 250 years later, when the story was composed, is unclear.

The Report of Wenamun.

The author of The Report of Wenamun set the text in the time of King Smendes (1075–1049 b.c.e.) in the Twenty-first Dynasty, just after the close of the New Kingdom. The one papyrus manuscript, now in Moscow, is roughly contemporary with the setting of the story. The story, written in the style of a bureaucratic report, describes Wenamun's journey to Byblos, in modern Syria, to purchase wood for a new boat for the god Amun. One disaster follows another as pirates steal Wenamun's money and the prince of Byblos mistreats him. At the end of the papyrus, Wenamun flees to Cyprus where he is apparently sheltered by the local queen. The end of the story is not preserved. Scholars disagree about whether the story is fictional or reflects the historical situation in Smendes' time. Arguments for the former focus on the fact that the misfortune Wenamun reports never was included in other bureaucratic reports. Wenamun would be a rare fictional narrative if it was actually set in the same period as the time of its composition, since most ancient Egyptian fiction is set in time periods centuries before their date of composition. The difficulty in categorizing the text adds to its interest.

Satire on the Trades.

The grammar and word choice found in The Satire on the Trades indicate that an author composed it in the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1759 b.c.e.), but all the manuscripts known in modern times date to the New Kingdom (1539–1075 b.c.e.). The manuscripts include four papyri preserved in both London and New York, two wooden boards in Paris, and nearly 100 ostraca on potsherds and limestone chips in Cairo. The large number of copies demonstrates that the text was well-known and popular hundreds of years after it was written. In the introductory story, a man from the northern-most provinces is bringing his son to school in the capital city, Memphis. As they travel by boat, the father explains to the son that only a scribe can have a happy life. He describes all other occupations in both derogatory and satirical terms. Because the father who narrates the text bears the name Dua-khety, some scholars call him the author.

The Shipwrecked Sailor.

The author composed this story in the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1759 b.c.e.) and set it on a mythical island. Only one Twelfth-dynasty papyrus manuscript, now in Moscow, survives. In the story, a sailor attempts to comfort his ship's captain with a story. He describes how he was shipwrecked on an island and saved according to the prophecy of a gigantic snake who lived there. The snake also tells a story-within-the-story to the sailor. In the end, the captain tells the sailor that this story is no comfort at all. The meaning of the story and its multiple layers of narrative continues to be problematic. Some scholars have regarded it as an adventure tale, comparing it to Sinbad the Sailor. Others have recognized religious teachings, especially in the story that the snake tells.

The Story of Sinuhe.

The author composed The Story of Sinuhe during the Twelfth Dynasty, probably during the reign of Senwosret I (1919–1875 b.c.e.). Six papyrus manuscripts written shortly after Senwosret's reign preserve the text. The two earliest copies are now in Berlin. There are also numerous ostraca both on potsherds and on limestone chips. Many of these ostraca date to the New Kingdom (1539–1075 b.c.e.) but at least one is as late as the seventh century b.c.e. The text's wide distribution throughout Egyptian history demonstrates the importance of Sinuhe in Egyptian culture. The story recounts a nobleman's flight into western Asia when he believes he has been accused of a crime. He has many adventures and marries a bedouin woman, but eventually returns to Egypt at the end of his life. This return and offer of forgiveness from King Senwosret I was the real theme of the story because it emphasized the king's mercy. Yet the story was immensely popular and important throughout ancient Egyptian history.

The Taking of Joppa.

The story's Nineteenth-dynasty author (1292–1190 b.c.e.) set it during the reign of King Thutmose III (1479–1425 b.c.e.), 200-300 years earlier. Only one manuscript, now in London, preserves the story of General Djeheuty capturing the town of Joppa, in modern Israel. The Egyptian army hides in baskets attached to donkeys in a caravan to enter the walled city. The story reflects a more general interest in Thutmose III's reign popular during the early Nineteenth Dynasty.

The Story of Two Brothers.

In this Nineteenth-dynasty story, preserved on one papyrus in London, a woman makes sexual advances to her brother-in-law, Bata. When he rejects her advances, she tells her husband that Bata raped her. Bata's brother confronts him with his wife's charges and Bata responds by castrating himself. Bata then undergoes several changes in form, most importantly when he transforms into a bull. The story is probably an account of the origins of the bull-god, Bata.

Truth and Falsehood.

The Nineteenth-dynasty story Truth and Falsehood, preserved on one papyrus in London, describes a dispute between two brothers with these obviously allegorical names. Truth accuses Falsehood of stealing his dagger. Falsehood convinces a court consisting of the nine major gods that this charge is untrue. The court blinds Truth as punishment for the charge. Truth's son, however, eventually avenges him by arguing before the same court that Falsehood has stolen the son's ox. When the son wins this case, Falsehood is punished and Truth is compensated for his previous unjust conviction.


Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature. 3 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973–1980).

William K. Simpson, ed., The Literature of Ancient Egypt (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972).

see also Philosophy: Teaching Philosophy ; Religion: Magic in Egyptian Religion