Spoken Drama

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Spoken Drama

Determining Texts.

Though Egyptologists generally agree that some Egyptian texts were dramatic, there is little agreement on which texts fall into this category. The most commonly identified drama is the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus, but there are other texts thought by some Egyptologists to constitute dramas, including the Shabaka Stone, parts of the Coffin Texts, parts of the Book of the Dead, the Metternich Stele, the Papyrus Bremner-Rhind, the Louvre Papyrus 3129, and the Horus Myth carved on the walls of the Edfu temple. The lack of agreement on which texts constitute drama leads to difficulties in studying drama as a distinct class of text. The following reviews the evidence that these texts represent dialogue and stage directions for dramatic presentations.

Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus.

The Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus received its name from its first editor, Kurt Sethe, the distinguished German Egyptologist who worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The English archaeologist James Edward Quibell discovered the papyrus in a tomb near a temple built by Ramesses II, called the Ramesseum, in 1896. The text most probably dates to the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1759 b.c.e.). The text describes the coronation of Senwosret I, the second king of the Twelfth Dynasty (1919–1875 b.c.e.). The ceremony portrayed in the text is probably even older than Senwosret I's reign. The funeral ceremony for Senwosret's father, Amenemhet I, begins the text. The culmination of the funeral is Senwosret's coronation.

Structure of the Ramesseum Papyrus.

The structure of any Egyptian text must be interpreted by the modern reader. The Egyptians used no punctuation. Thus sentence and paragraph division is sometimes a matter of opinion, though usually no Egyptologist disputes the order in which the lines are read. Sethe believed that the author of the Ramesseum Papyrus had divided it into scenes. Each scene included stage directions, provided as a narrative. The actor's dialogue followed the narrative. The narrative, according to Sethe, describes the actions that the actors perform. It begins with the phrase "what happened was …," but often the second sentence in the narrative is a comment on the religious meaning of the action in the previous sentence. Thus such stage directions would also include religious interpretation. The dialogue always begins with the Egyptian formula, "Words spoken by …," found often at the beginning of Egyptian prayers and magic spells. Sethe called the third section of each scene "scenic marks." The scribe wrote these marks horizontally, in contrast to the vertical columns of the dialogue. The first scenic mark included either the name of a god, the name of a ritual object, a ritual theme, or a ritual action. The second scenic mark gave an earthly equivalent of the divine antecedent in the first mark. The third scenic mark was the name of a place, an action, or a person. The scenic marks seem also to interpret the preceding action and dialogue.


"Vignette" is the name Egyptologists give to the illustrations found in a papyrus manuscript. Sethe noted that the vignettes included in the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus do not relate directly to the texts. Sometimes the vignette combined more than one scene. At other times, the vignette bears no clear relationship to the words found near it in the papyrus. Hence, Sethe concluded that the vignettes were used only for reading the text, not for performing it. This situation is similar to that found in illustrated examples of the Book of the Dead.


introduction: The German Egyptologist Kurt Sethe believed that the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus consisted of scenes composed in a regular pattern. The scenes began with stage directions. These directions began with the phrase, "It happened that …" The following sentence was an interpretation of the religious meaning of the stage directions. Then the formula "words spoken by …" followed with the dialogue. Finally, the scenic marks included the names of gods, actions, or places. The following scene, which Sethe numbered three follows this pattern.

It happened that the royal bull burnt-offering was made. Horus is the one who is angry and his eye takes when the (falcon) with the great breast of Thoth comes and when the one who empties the eye during the making of the burnt-offering of all sacrificial cattle. Words spoken by Isis to Thoth: "Your lips are those which have done it." Thoth. Making the burnt-offering and chaining the sacrificial cattle for the first time. Words spoken by Isis to Thoth. "Open your mouth again." Thoth. Slaughtering of the sacrificial cattle.

Translated byEdwardBleiberg.

Other Theories on the Ramesseum Papyrus.

Sethe was not the final word on the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus. Two Egyptologists working in Germany during the 1960s and 1970s believed that the currently known copy of the Ramesseum Papyrus included both the original script as well as comments made after the composition of the script. According to these scholars, the comments are part of the interpretive comments found in the second sentence of Sethe's narrative stage directions and in the scenic marks. They believed this commentary to be religious in nature and evidence that the Ramesseum Papyrus was a religious ritual. Even Sethe implied such a conclusion because he referred to it as a festival play and emphasized its ceremonial character. Other Egyptologists have debated the proper order of the scenes. Egyptian writing on papyrus is most often arranged right to left. Indeed the individual lines of the Ramesseum Papyrus are arranged in this typical fashion. Some Egyptologists, however, have attempted to arrange the scenes from left to right, while reading the individual lines from right to left. This sort of arrangement is not otherwise known in Egyptian texts. The motivation for rearranging the scenes was to make their order more closely resemble the order of some relief sculptures carved in the Tomb of Kheruef, an official of King Amenhotep III (1390–1352 b.c.e.), nearly 550 years after the date of the papyrus. Though the scenes in Kheruef's tomb contain some of the same subject matter as the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus, no scholar has been able to convincingly argue that the order of the scenes in the papyrus should be read in the same order as the relief scenes.

Shabaka Stone.

Sethe's second example of an Egyptian drama was the Shabaka Stone. Egyptologists named this inscribed black slab of slate after King Shabaka (716–702 b.c.e.) who ordered that it be carved. The inscription begins with the note that it is a copy of a papyrus that was written "in the time of the ancestors." Some problems in understanding the text stem from the fact that millers used the Shabaka Stone as part of a millstone at some time. Many parts of the center of the inscription are so worn away that they are illegible. Furthermore, Egyptologists continue to question the true date of this text. The first commentators thought it was a Fifth-or Sixth-dynasty text which would date it to approximately 2500–2170 b.c.e. These scholars saw similarities between the language used in the Shabaka Stone and the Pyramid Texts, known to be written at that time. Others believe that scribes in the time of Shabaka purposely created a text that sounded old to validate current theological ideas and imply these ideas had an ancient pedigree.


introduction: The Shabaka Stone was among the first texts which the German Egyptologist Kurt Sethe identified as drama. The text includes both narratives that Sethe understood as stage directions and speeches by the gods that Sethe viewed as dialogue. The major themes of the drama include the battle between Horus and Seth to inherit the right to be king from Osiris and the unity of Horus, the rightful king with the god Ptah. The text was either composed in the Fifth or Sixth Dynasty (2500–2170 b.c.e.) and recopied in King Shabaka's time (716–702 b.c.e.) or composed during Shabaka's time and attributed to ancient history to increase its importance.

This writing was copied out anew by his majesty in the House of his father Ptah-South-of-his-Wall, for his majesty found it to be a work of the ancestors which was worm-eaten, so that it could not be understood from beginning to end. His majesty copied it anew so that it became better than it had been before, in order that his name might endure and his monument last in the House of his father Ptah-South-of-his-Wall throughout eternity, as a work done by the Son of Re [Shabaka] for his father Ptah-Tatenen, so that he might live forever …

[Geb, lord of the gods, commanded] that the Nine Gods gather to him. He judged between Horus and Seth; he ended their quarrel. He made Seth king of Upper Egypt in the land of Upper Egypt, up to the place in which he was born, which is Su. And Geb made Horus king of Lower Egypt in the land of Lower Egypt, up to the place in which his father was drowned which is "Division-ofthe-Two-Lands." Thus Horus stood over one region, and Seth stood over one region. They made peace over the Two Lands at Ayan. That was the division of the Two Lands.

Geb's words to Seth: "Go to the place in which you were born." Seth: Upper Egypt. Geb's words to Horus: "Go to the place in which your father was drowned." Horus: Lower Egypt. Geb's words to Horus and Seth: "I have separated you."—Lower and Upper Egypt.

Then it seemed wrong to Geb that the portion of Horus was like the portion of Seth. So Geb gave to Horus his inheritance, for he is the son of his firstborn son.

Geb's words to the Nine Gods: "I have appointed Horus, the firstborn." Geb's words to the Nine Gods: "Him alone, Horus, the inheritance." Geb's words to the Nine Gods: "To this heir, Horus, my inheritance." Geb's words to the Nine Gods: "To the son of my son, Horus, the Jackal of Upper Egypt—" Geb's words to the Nine Gods: "The firstborn, Horus, the Opener-of-the-ways." Geb's words to the Nine Gods: "The son who was born—Horus, on the Birthday of the Opener-of-the-ways" …

Reed and papyrus were placed on the double door of the House of Ptah. That means Horus and Seth, pacified and united. They fraternized so as to cease quarreling in whatever place they might be, being united in the House of Ptah, the "Balance of the Two Lands" in which Upper and Lower Egypt had been weighed.

source: "The Shabaka Stone," in The Old and Middle Kingdoms. Vol. 1 of Ancient Egyptian Literature. Trans. Miriam Lichtheim (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973): 52–53.

Debate Over Text.

When Sethe studied the text of the Shabaka Stone, he concluded it was a drama, expanding on the ideas of his teacher, Adolf Erman. He came to this conclusion based on the existence of dialogues through which the gods give speeches and others reply. Again he used the formula "words spoken by …" to recognize the dialogue. The text also contains some free spaces and squares that Sethe believed divided the text. Other commentary on the Shabaka Stone, however, has suggested that the gods' dialogue only reinforces ideas in a philosophical treatise. The major themes of the text concern the gods Horus and Seth quarreling over which is the rightful heir to Osiris, the first Egyptian


introduction: The French Egyptologist Emile Drioton regarded Coffin Text Spell 148 as the written evidence for a drama involving the goddess Isis, her child Horus, and the father of the gods, Geb. Scribes wrote Coffin Texts on the interiors of Egyptian coffins beginning in the First Intermediate Period (2130–2008 b.c.e.) and throughout the Middle Kingdom (2008–1630 b.c.e.); Egyptologists understand them as part of the funerary ritual. The narrative in Drioton's opinion constitutes stage directions while the speeches represent dialogue. This spell refers to the gods' reaction when Isis learns that she has become pregnant posthumously with Osiris' child. The child Horus was destined to become the next legitimate king of Egypt. This story is basic to the political legitimacy of each Egyptian king. It remains doubtful whether this text was enacted as a ritual drama.

The lightning flash strikes, the gods are afraid, Isis wakes pregnant with the seed of her brother Osiris. She is uplifted, (even she) the widow, and her heart is glad with the seed of her brother Osiris. She says: "O you gods, I am Isis, the sister of Osiris, who wept for the father of the gods, (even) Osiris who judged the slaughterings of the Two Lands. His seed is within my womb, I have moulded the shape of the god within the egg as my son who is at the head of the Ennead. What he shall rule is this land, the heritage of his (grand-)father Geb, what he shall say is concerning his father, what he shall kill is Seth the enemy of his father Osiris. Come, you gods, protect him within my womb, for he is known in your hearts. He is your lord, this god who is in his egg, blue-haired of form, lord of the gods, and great and beautiful are the vanes of the two blue plumes."

"Oh!" says Atum, "guard your heart, O woman!"

"How do you know? He is the god, lord and heir of the Ennead, who made you within the egg. I am Isis, one more spirit-like and august than the gods; the god is within this womb of mine and he is the seed of Osiris."

Then says Atum: "You are pregnant and you are hidden, O girl! You will give birth, being pregnant for the gods, seeing that(?) he is the seed of Osiris. May that villain who slew his father not come, lest he break the egg in its early stages, for the Great-of-Magic will guard against him."

Thus says Isis: "Hear this, you gods, which Atum, Lord of the Mansion of the Sacred Images, has said. He has decreed for me protection for my son within my womb, he has knit together an entourage about him within this womb of mine, for he knows that he is the heir of Osiris, and a guard over the Falcon who is in this womb of mine has been set by Atum, Lord of the gods. Go up on earth, that I may give you praise. The retainers of your father Osiris will serve you, I will make your name, for you have reached the horizon, having passed by the battlements of the Mansion of Him whose name is hidden. Strength has gone up within my flesh, power has reached into my flesh, power has reached.…"

" … who conveys the Sunshine-god, and he has prepared his own place, being seated at the head of the gods in the entourage of the Releaser(?)."

"O Falcon, my son Horus, dwell in this land of your father Osiris in this your name of Falcon who is on the battlements of the Mansion of Him whose name is hidden. I ask that you shall be always in the suite of Re of the horizon in the prow of the primeval bark for ever and ever" …

Isis goes down to the Releaser(?) who brings Horus, for Isis has asked that he may be the Releaser(?) as the leader of eternity.

"See Horus, you gods! I am Horus, the Falcon who is on the battlements of the Mansion of Him whose name is hidden. My flight aloft has reached the horizon, I have overpassed the gods of the sky, I have made my position more prominent than that of the Primeval Ones. The Contender has not attained my first flight, my place is far from Seth, the enemy of my father Osiris. I have used the roads of eternity to the dawn, I go up in my flight, and there is no god who can do what I have done. I am aggressive against the enemy of my father Osiris, he having been set under my sandals in this my name of … I am Horus, born of Isis, whose protection was made within the egg; the fiery blast of your mouth does not attack me, and what you may say against me does not reach me, I am Horus, more distant of place than men or gods; I am Horus son of Isis."

source: "Spell 148," in Spells 1–354. Vol. I of The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. Trans. Raymond O. Faulkner (Warminster, England: Aris and Phillips, Ltd., 1973): 125–126.

king. Horus, son of Osiris, and Seth, brother of Osiris, each claim to be the next legitimate king. The god Geb judges between them, first giving Horus the north and Seth the south, then finally proclaiming the whole inheritance belongs to Horus. Much of this plot is also known from the Ramesside story, the Contendings of Horus and Seth. But in the Shabaka Stone the story then places the god Ptah as the chief of the gods. The author describes Ptah as the ultimate creator god who created the world from speech. Memphis, Ptah's home city, is further declared the proper capital of all Egypt. Hence, many commentators regard these themes as strictly political and religious and do not regard it as a ritual drama.



[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


Coffin Texts.

Scribes wrote the Coffin Texts on the inside of coffins, beginning in the First Intermediate Period and throughout the Middle Kingdom (2130–1630 b.c.e.). There are many different spells, mostly concerned with the deceased gaining admittance to the next world. The French Egyptologist Emile Drioton believed that spells 148, 162, and 312 represented extracts from dramas. Though few Egyptologists today accept this view, these spells represent dramatic dialogues and monologues that offer a view of the drama inherent in certain religious rituals for the Egyptians.

Coffin Text 148.

Much of Drioton's conjecture comes from the dialogue between the deities Isis, Atum, and Horus in Coffin Text 148. According to Drioton, the text begins with a title and the stage directions that Isis awakes, pregnant. She then speaks, describing in outline the conflict between Osiris, her husband, and Seth, his brother. She proclaims that the child within her womb, Horus, will become the next king. Atum first questions her knowledge, but then agrees to protect her after she insists that this child belongs to Osiris. Isis repeats Atum's assurances and describes Horus. Horus himself then gives a speech to the gods, claiming his right to the throne. The action thus is magical and not clearly logical. The inherent drama from this text comes from the audience already knowing the story and making other connections to mythological tales while hearing this recitation. The speeches thus belong to the realm of ritual and could possibly have been acted out by priests during the ritual.

Book of the Dead 39.

The Book of the Dead contains spells designed to enable the owner to enter the afterlife. They replaced coffin texts during the New Kingdom and through the end of pagan Egyptian religion (1539 b.c.e. to the second century c.e.). Some of these spells, such as the one contained in Chapter 39, also resembled drama to Drioton. Chapter 39 bears the title "Repelling a Rerek-snake in the God's Domain," and it contains long speeches made by the god Re and an unnamed speaker, and short speeches made by the deities Geb, Hathor, and Nut. Again the situation is heavily dialogue-based. It concerns saving the god Re from the attacks of a snake. Again the text resembles a typical Egyptian ritual, but unlike the Coffin Texts, there is no clear evidence of stage directions or the intention to stage the recitation of these speeches.

Metternich Stele.

The Metternich Stele received its modern name because it was once in the collection of the early nineteenth-century Austrian prince Klemens von Metternich. An artist carved the stele (a slab with an inscribed or sculpted surface) in the reign of Nectanebo I (381–362 b.c.e.) during the final native Egyptian dynasty. Most Egyptologists today consider the stele a cippus, a magical device used to protect the owner from snake bites and scorpion stings. Drioton, however, regarded the story carved on the stele as a drama. The text describes the rescue by the goddess Isis of a rich woman's son from a scorpion bite, and her subsequent curing of her own son, Horus, with the help of the gods when he is poisoned. Though Drioton understood the narrative as stage directions and the magic spells as dialogue, no other Egyptologist accepts this interpretation.


introduction: Emile Drioton's desire to discover ancient Egyptian drama in some texts also led him to search among Egyptian texts for people who had been actors. Drioton translated the Biography of Emhab in a way that implied that Emhab had been an itinerant actor, rather than a drummer in the Egyptian military. Drioton translated a word that means "followed" as "tour" and a word that means "utterance" to mean "declaim" and thus could interpret the text to mean that Emhab was an actor. Jaroslav Čerńy, the Czech Egyptologist, retranslated the Biography of Emhab according to standardized meanings of the words and discovered that Emhab was a military drummer.

A boon which the king gives (to) Osiris, lord of Busiris, the great god, lord of Abydos, that he may give invocation-offerings consisting of bread and beer, oxen and fowl, to the spirit of the hereditary noble and favoured count Emhab, called Tamereru, repeating life. He says: I am one who followed his lord in his movements and one who did not fail in (any) utterance which he said. I put all strength and suppleness in (my) two hands. It was said to Hetinet: "Come! He will fight with you in endurance." I beat him with fingers seven thousand (times) in endurance. (I) spent year 3 beating drum every day. I gave satisfaction to my lord in all his affairs, (for) he is now a god, while I am (only) a ruler. He killed and I let live. I reached Miu without counting all foreign countries, while I followed him day and night, and I reached Auaris. My lord acquired Gemishena for Lower Egyptian barley and one pot full of choice oil …

source: Jaroslav Čerńy, "The Stela of Emhab from Tell Edfu," Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Kairo 24 (1969): 89.

Return of Seth.

Drioton draws the drama The Return of Seth from the Louvre Papyrus 3129 and the British Museum Papyrus 10252. The Louvre papyrus dates to the Ptolemaic period (332–30 b.c.e.) while the British Museum papyrus dates to the reign of Nectanebo I (381–362 b.c.e.). These texts describe the god Seth's return from banishment after losing his battles with the god Horus. These battles resume upon his return. This story relates to the narrative in the Shabaka Stone and, like the Shabaka Stone, it has a mix of dialogue and narrative. Yet no other Egyptologist recognizes these texts as drama.

Papyrus Bremner-Rhind.

Drioton also recognized a drama in Papyrus Bremner-Rhind. A scribe wrote this papyrus during the Ptolemaic period (332–30 b.c.e.). The story concerns a battle between the god Thoth and the demon-snake Apophis. The papyrus contains neither stage directions nor the formula that introduces speech, the criteria Drioton used to identify drama in other texts. Hence the Papyrus Bremner-Rhind is the least convincing of Drioton's examples.

Fairman's Dramas.

The English Egypotolgist H. W. Fairman believed that the best evidence for drama in ancient Egypt came from the texts and relief sculptures carved on the walls of the temple at Edfu. These texts and reliefs date to the Ptolemaic period (332–30 b.c.e.) and concern the conflict between Horus and Seth. At Edfu, Seth takes the form of a hippopotamus, a theme found also in the Ramesside story that considers the same topic. Fairman advanced the discussion of drama in Egypt by showing concrete proof that drama was most likely connected to a festival. From the reliefs he identified musical instruments included in the performance as well as a chorus of singers and dancers. Fairman also believed that the king participated in the performance from the evidence of the reliefs. Most Egyptologists accepted Fairman's analysis of the scenes as accurate. The question still remains as to whether it represents only a festival ritual or whether that ritual can be identified as a drama.


Hartwig Altenmüller, "Zur Lesung und Deutung des dramatischen Ramesseum Papyrus," in Jaarbericht van Het Vooraziatsich-Egyptisch Genootschap Ex Oriente Lux VI (1967): 421–442.

Emile Drioton, "Le théâter dans l'ancienne Égypte," in Revue de la Société d'Histoire du Théâtre VI (1954): 7–45.

H. W. Fairman, The Triumph of Horus (London: Batsford, 1974).

Kurt Sethe, Dramatische Texte zu altägyptische Mysterienspiel (Leipzig, Germany: J. C. Heinrichs Verlag, 1928).