Ancient Egypt : Language and Literature


The ancient Egyptian language, which developed in the early Christian era into Coptic, formed one of the five branches of the Afro-Asiatic language family, a group of languages spoken in the Middle East south of the Taurus and west of the Zagros mountains and across the northern half of Africa. Literature, as the cultivation and refinement of language, was purstıed in Egypt with great interest and devotion from the beginnings of recorded history.

Language. Egyptian shared many words and constructions with other Afro-Asiatic languages, as well as certain sounds unknown in English. Some of these sounds are consonants transcribed as h, l, k, t, and ℑ. Perhaps the most striking is termed ‘ayin, a voiced consonant made deep in the throat. ‘Ayin has an unvoiced counterpart h. Three Egyptian vowels can be reconstructed: a, i, and u, each of which could be both short and long. By sometime in the New Kingdom, after about 1550 b. c., a number of sound changes had led to the development of at least two additional vowels, o and e. Because of the uncertainty of identifying vowels in particular words, they are excluded from the transcription system. The interior period used in the transcription is a mark of punctuation.

Some idea of the nature of Egyptian syntax can be gained from the variety of predicate constructions that can be formed from the word kni, “be powerful; conquer.” One fînds: knÌ pw, “it is a great deal“; kni sw,he is powerful“; iw.f kniw, “he is powerful [for the time being]“; iw knif,he [usually]conquers“; kni.f, “he will conquer; let him conquer“; knn.f, “how he conquers. . .“; (iw) kni.n.f, “he has become powerful; he has conquered“;, “[given certain conditions]he will conquer‘;, “he will conquer [as a result]“; knit.f, “when he had conquered. . . “; kniw.f, “he is to be conquered; he has been conquered“; iw.f r knt, “he is going to conquer“; ntf kniy, “he is the one who conquered“; ntf knny, “he is the one who conquers“; and ntf kni.f, “he is the one who will conquer.” These forms show that the predicate consists of several elements: a root kni; various markers of tense, mood, and aspect: for example, in, hr, and n; and some indication of the subject: for example, f, sw, pw, and ntf.

Egyptian word order requires that modifiers follow the words they modify and mirror their endings: tsrn nfr (literally, “dog good”), “a good dog”; and tsmıv nfrtv (literally, “dogs goods”), “good dogs.” Subject, object, and indirect object follow the verb in an order that is determined by the morphological classification of the word.

Literature. Some 2,500 years before Christ, the 5th dynasty vizier Ptahhotep wrote: “A good word is rarer than an emerald, but it can be found with slave girls at the mill-stone.” The power of literature to move men and events gave writers an immortality greatly envied, as the following papyrus indicates:

As for the scribes who have been famous since the time of those who succeeded the gods, those who foretold the future, it so happens that their names remain forever when they are gone and have finished their lives and ali their relatives have been forgotten.

They have not made themselves pyramids of bronze with stelae for them of iron. They could not leave behind heirs as children [who would faithfully?]pronounce their names [in the mortuary ceremonies]. How they made heirs for themselves was in the form of writings, the books of Instruction that they made.

Types of Literature. Egyptian literature served various purposes. Certain works were primarily for entertainment, especially The Shipıorecked Sailor, The Story of the Herdsmen, King Khufu and the Magician, The Myth of the Sun’s Eye, The Enchanted Prince, and Khaemwase. The moralistic essay, called sbℑt, “instruction,” was very popular. This “wisdom literature” is generally known by the names of its putative authors—for example, The instruction of Ptahhotep —and they were generally high ofHcials: Ptahhotep and Kagemni from the Old Kingdom; Akhtoy, son of Duauf, from the Middle Kingdom; Amenemope from the New Kingdom; and Onkhsheshonqy from the Saite Period.

As one would expect, Egypt also produced a substantial political literature. In The Story of Sinuhe, dating from the 12th dynasty, a courtier describes his self-imposed exile and his return to Egypt. The instruction of King Amenemhet, also from the 12th dynasty, is presumably a posthumous account of this king’s assassination. In The instruction for King Merykare, dating from the lOth dynasty, King Akhtoy (Wahkare Khety III) reviews the policies of his reign.

Religious literature is represented by etiological myths, such as The Story of the Two Brothers, which attempts to explain the vagaries of the cult of the obscure god Bata. Of the numerous hymns to the gods, perhaps the most famous are The Great Hymn to Amon, The Hymn to the Nile, and The Hymn to the Sun’s Disk, ali from the New Kingdom.

A continuous tradition of magical spells in literary form may be found in various texts. The Pyramid Texts, carved on the walls of the burial chambers of pyramids of the late Old Kingdom, gave rise to the Coffin Texts, carved on Middle Kingdom coffins. These inscriptions subsequently led to the making of book rolls, which were deposited within the coffin and came to receive the collective name Book of the Dead.

Secular poetry is represented by love songs. Dramatic works of a religious nature are also known. The absence of the novel and the shortness of literary compositions in general are due, in part, to the difficulty of producing books in a laborious script in an age before printing.

Ancient Egypt Language and Literature

An Egyptian Literary Theme. The themes of Egyptian literature deal in part with universal human experiences, but also with purely Egyptian subjects. Naturally, the treatment of themes is coloıed by the values and prejudices of the fairly idiocentric Egyptian way of life. The attitudes displayed in Egyptian literature are, in general, tolerant and realistic, with little fanaticism or prudery.

Among the many themes of Egyptian literature, one may single out, for purposes of illustration, success in human relationships. This is the theme of the sb3t literature, or literature of instruction. Such literature was devoted to the notion that people could be modifîed by precept. It attempted to pass on to the student aspiring to become a member of the bureaucracy the knowledge and insight into human nature that successful government ofHcials had acquired in the course of their careers.

Since cooperation was a matter of life and death in a country that depended on a national irrigation system, community spirit was indispensable, and individualism posed a distinct threat. Isolating oneself from the experience of the group is strongly condemned by Ptahhotep:

Do not feel superior because of what you know, nor rely upon being a wise man. Ask advice from the ignorant as well as from the leamed. The limits of art have not been reached, and there is not any artist who is born with his skill.

Because of the somewhat precarious nature of the Egyptian economy in antiquity, greediness meant a threat to the survival of the community. Ptahhotep warns:

If you want your conduct to be good, keep away from ali evil; avoid any act of greed. It is the bitter sickness that is left alone, that cannot be approached. It corrupts fathers, mothers, and uncles and embitters good friends. It alienates the favorite from the master and drives the wife away. It is a bundle of every sort of evil and a bag of every kind of viciousness.

The attitude of consideration for one’s equals is replaced by a far less tolerant one taken by superiors toward inferiors, particularly within the family. This authoritarian attitude may be due to the fact that parents had to rely on their children to support them in old age and to perform the mortuary ceremonies that would guarantee them eternal life after death. Ptahhotep advises his son:

If you become successful, get married, so that you may beget a son by the grace of god. If he is prudent, serves your interests, and heeds your instructions, promote his status within your household so that he will watch over your things properly. Look out for any kind of special opportunity for him, [since]he is a son that your soul begot for you. Do not separate your heart from him, [since]seed is usually a quarrelsome thing. If he goes astray, violates your arrangements, does not carry out your instructions, and his behavior is miserable in your house, and he rebels at everything you say, and runs off at the mouth with vile words, and does not realize that he owns nothing— throw him out! He is not your son! It is not [true]that he has been born to you.

The relation of father and son forms the basis of the relation of ruler and subjeet. This theme is common in Egyptian literature, probably because the ruler-subject relation had great importance for the majority of literate Egyptians— mainly bureaucrats—whose fortunes were tightly bound up with those of the king. From the First Intermediate Period, a time of dynastic weakness after the fail of the Old Kingdom, comes the policy statement of King Akhtoy. Ostensibly addressing his son Merykare, the King gives advice about treating the turbulent nobility:

Make your nobles great so they can execute your laws. A man with a rich estate does not judge corruptly. He is a property owner and not impoverished. A needy man does not judge in a just way, and one who says “I wish I had . . .” is not scrupulous when he supports someone he favors and leans toward someone who has bribed him. Great is the great man whose great men are great.

In the more settled period of the Middle Kingdom, there was a conscious, politically motivated attempt to idealize the king. The Egyptian exile in The Story of Sinuhe eulogizes Senusert (Sesostris) I in terms that are curiously personal for a political document. The relation of subject and monarch was so deeply embedded in the emotional life of Sinuhe and his audience that he could, without embarrassment, portray the ruler in terms suggestive of hero worship:

He is a master of grace and rich in sweetness, having triumphed through love, whose city loves him more than its own self, [rejoicing]over him more than over their own gods, with men and women going by exulting in him. He is a king who conquered in the egg. His face was set towards it [rule]since the time he was born.

After Sinuhe’s return to Egypt the king’s warm welcome overwhelms him:

. . . and this god [the king]addressed me in a friendly way. I was like a man seized in the darkness; my soul fled, my body trembled, my heart was not in my body for me to distinguish life from death.

This sort of attitude was offset in part by a certain realism that tended to portray kings in more human terms, particularly if the king in question had long been safely dead. Several hundred years after his death, the Old Kingdom monarch Snefru is described as having had himself rowed around a pleasure lake by a bevy of beautiful girls dressed only in nets. In another account, the 4th dynasty King Khufu shows a sadistic interest in finding out whether a famous magician can reattach a prisoner’s head if it is chopped off, and he has to be dissuaded from having the experiment performed. Pepi II, of the 6th dynasty, is described as having a nocturnal rendezvous with his lover, General Sisenet. King Amasis (Ahmose II), of the 26th dynasty, is presented in the grip of a monumental hangover.

Through a mixture of cynicism and mischief, the Egyptians of antiquity attempted to escape from the psychological pressures of the authoritarian relationships that dominated most areas of their lives. Conditions of the Egyptian social order definitely discouraged heroic attitudes. Drawings on potsherds show overseers as well-dressed cats supervising industrious mice. tin literature, the ridicule of occupations considered inferior is a favorite theme. The incompetent seribe is another favorite subject, and one particular vietim of satire is accused of using ghost writers:

. . . you have given two columns to each man so you can finally finish your letter. One compliments, the other denounces, and another stands [over them]examining them for form.

Almost a thousand years later, in the Saite Period, Onkhsheshonqy advises his son:

Do not put your property in your younger brother’s hand and cause him to play the elder brother toward you with it.

Do not prefer one of your children over another one; you do not know which one of them will be kind to you.

If you find your wife with her lover, take a bride in exchange,

In addition to the relation of father and son and of king and subject, Egyptian literature also deals with the relation of people to intermediate authorities, particularly the collective “persons” of the society, among which were the various religious cults. It is perhaps not unusual, in a society based on irrigation, that the primary cultic myth should involve litigation over property. In the famous myth of Osiris, Osiris Onnophris (“the Good Being”), the King of Egypt, is killed by his brother Set (Seth). Horus, the son of Osiris and Isis, disputes with Set over who should inherit the kingship. The final decision is in favor of Horus, and its significance is stressed in the New Kingdom Hymn to Osiris:

The Son of Isis has avenged his father, whose name has been sanctified and exalted. Dignity has assumed its proper place and honor remains on its own terms. The road stretehes out and the highways are open.

How content are the Two Lands, since evil has disappeared and wickedness has been thwarted. The land is in peace under its lord, since proper order has been established for him who maintains it, and the back has been turned on iniquity.

Rejoice, O Good Being! The Son of Isis has received the white crown, and the office of his father has been granted to him in the court of Geb. As Re speaks and Thoth writes, the court is pleased. When Geb gave orders for you, it was done as he said.

The excessive claims of Egyptian institutions were sometimes challenged, particularly in times of social crisis when the contradictions between the ideals and practices of society took on a cruel elarity. The vapious mortuary institutions are examined in a composition of uncertain date, known as The Dialogue of a Suicide with His Soul, although authorities have disputed whether suicide is actually in question. The elaborate mortuary preparations turn out to be ultimately useless:

Those who built in granite, who constructed halis in a pyramid, which are beautiful with beautiful craftsmanship … it happens that when the builders are gods, their offering tablets are missing, just like those of the stiff corpses, even those people who die on the riverbank through lack of a surviving relative, so that the flood grabs its part [of their body]and the sun likewise, and only the shoreline fish speak to them.

In conclusion it should be stressed that the theme of success in personal relationships is only one of the many themes that merit serious attention in Egyptian literature.

Future Study. Continued investigation of the form and content of Egyptian literature must proceed on various fronts. The study of language will inelude lexical investigations that will elarify many words and expressions that are as yet obscure. The new grammatical models that are now available for syntactic analysis, such as generative grammar, will also contribute to our understanding of the literary texts.

Literary studies devoted to the content and style of ancient Egyptian works are stili unfortunately few in number, and works in English are underrepresented. But inereasing interest in this important area may be expected to result in a great expansion of our knowledge of Egyptian literature and the society it portrays.


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