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Ancient Egyptian literature

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Inscribed hieroglyphics cover an obelisk in foreground. A stone statue is in bac
Egyptian hieroglyphs with cartouches for the name "Ramesses II", from the Luxor
Temple, New Kingdom
Ancient Egyptian literature was written in the Egyptian language from Ancient Eg
ypt's pharaonic period until the end of Roman domination. It represents the olde
st corpus of Egyptian literature. Along with Sumerian literature, it is consider
ed the world's earliest literature.[1]
Writing in Ancient Egypt both hieroglyphic and hieratic first appeared in the late 4
th millennium BC during the late phase of predynastic Egypt. By the Old Kingdom
(26th century BC to 22nd century BC), literary works included funerary texts, ep
istles and letters, religious hymns and poems, and commemorative autobiographica
l texts recounting the careers of prominent administrative officials. It was not
until the early Middle Kingdom (21st century BC to 17th century BC) that a narr
ative Egyptian literature was created. This was a "media revolution" which, acco
rding to Richard B. Parkinson, was the result of the rise of an intellectual cla
ss of scribes, new cultural sensibilities about individuality, unprecedented lev
els of literacy, and mainstream access to written materials.[2] However, it is p
ossible that the overall literacy rate was less than one percent of the entire p
opulation. The creation of literature was thus an elite exercise, monopolized by
a scribal class attached to government offices and the royal court of the rulin
g pharaoh. However, there is no full consensus among modern scholars concerning
the dependence of ancient Egyptian literature on the sociopolitical order of the
royal court.
History of Literature
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Classical literatures
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Medieval literature
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18th century
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v d e
Middle Egyptian, the spoken language of the Middle Kingdom, became a classical l
anguage during the New Kingdom (16th century BC to 11th century BC), when the ve
rnacular language known as Late Egyptian first appeared in writing. Scribes of t
he New Kingdom canonized and copied many literary texts written in Middle Egypti
an, which remained the language used for oral readings of sacred hieroglyphic te
xts. Some genres of Middle Kingdom literature, such as "teachings" and fictional
tales, remained popular in the New Kingdom, although the genre of prophetic tex
ts was not revived until the Ptolemaic period (4th century BC to 1st century BC)
. Popular tales included the Story of Sinuhe and The Eloquent Peasant, while imp
ortant teaching texts include the Instructions of Amenemhat and The Loyalist Tea
ching. By the New Kingdom period, the writing of commemorative graffiti on sacre
d temple and tomb walls flourished as a unique genre of literature, yet it emplo
yed formulaic phrases similar to other genres. The acknowledgment of rightful au
thorship remained important only in a few genres, while texts of the "teaching"
genre were pseudonymous and falsely attributed to prominent historical figures.
Ancient Egyptian literature has been preserved on a wide variety of media. This
includes papyrus scrolls and packets, limestone or ceramic ostraca, wooden writi
ng boards, monumental stone edifices and coffins. Texts preserved and unearthed
by modern archaeologists represent a small fraction of ancient Egyptian literary
material. The area of the floodplain of the Nile is under-represented because t
he moist environment is unsuitable for the preservation of papyri and ink inscri
ptions. On the other hand, hidden caches of literature, buried for thousands of
years, have been discovered in settlements on the dry desert margins of Egyptian
1 Scripts, media, and languages
1.1 Hieroglyphs, hieratic, and Demotic
1.2 Writing implements and materials
1.3 Preservation of written material
1.4 Classical, Middle, Late, and Demotic Egyptian language
2 Literary functions: social, religious and educational
3 Dating, setting, and authorship
4 Literary genres and subjects
4.1 Instructions and teachings
4.2 Narrative tales and stories
4.3 Laments, discourses, dialogues, and prophecies
4.4 Poems, songs, hymns, and afterlife texts
4.5 Private letters, model letters, and epistles


4.6 Biographical and autobiographical texts

4.7 Decrees, chronicles, king lists, and histories
4.8 Tomb and temple graffiti
Legacy, translation and interpretation
External links

[edit] Scripts, media, and languages

[edit] Hieroglyphs, hieratic, and Demotic
Main article: Writing in Ancient Egypt
A flat limestone block with a painted, carved raised-relief of woman in spotted
linen cloth, seated near table with food items. Painted hieroglyphs decorate the
rest of the surface.
The slab stela of the Old Kingdom Egyptian princess Neferetiabet (dated c. 2590 25
65 BC), from her tomb at Giza, with hieroglyphs carved and painted on limestone[
By the Early Dynastic Period in the late 4th millennium BC, Egyptian hieroglyphs
and their cursive form hieratic were well-established written scripts.[4] Egypt
ian hieroglyphs are small artistic pictures of natural objects.[5] For example,
the hieroglyph for door-bolt, pronounced se, produced the s sound; when this hie
roglyph was combined with another or multiple hieroglyphs, it produced a combina
tion of sounds that could represent abstract concepts like sorrow, happiness, be
auty, and evil.[6] The Narmer Palette, dated c. 3100 BC during the last phase of
Predynastic Egypt, combines the hieroglyphs for catfish and chisel to produce t
he name of King Narmer.[7]
The Egyptians called their hieroglyphs "words of god" and reserved their use for
exalted purposes, such as communicating with divinities and spirits of the dead
through funerary texts.[8] Each hieroglyphic word both represented a specific o
bject and embodied the essence of that object, recognizing it as divinely made a
nd belonging within the greater cosmos.[9] Through acts of priestly ritual, like
burning incense, the priest allowed spirits and deities to read the hieroglyphs
decorating the surfaces of temples.[10] In funerary texts beginning in and foll
owing the Twelfth dynasty, the Egyptians believed that disfiguring, and even omi
tting certain hieroglyphs, brought consequences, either good or bad, for a decea
sed tomb occupant whose spirit relied on the texts as a source of nourishment in
the afterlife.[11] Mutilating the hieroglyph of a venomous snake, or other dang
erous animal, removed a potential threat.[11] However, removing every instance o
f the hieroglyphs representing a deceased person's name would deprive his or her
soul of the ability to read the funerary texts and condemn that soul to an inan
imate existence.[11]
A faded document with cursive hieratic handwriting in black ink, slightly torn a
nd fragmented on the right
The Abbott Papyrus, a record written in the hieratic script; it describes an ins
pection of royal tombs in the Theban Necropolis and is dated to the 16th regnal
year of the Ramesses IX, c. 1110 BC.
Hieratic is a simplified, cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphs.[12] Like hierogl
yphs, hieratic was used in sacred and religious texts. By the 1st millennium BC,
calligraphic hieratic became the script predominantly used in funerary papyri a
nd temple rolls.[13] Whereas the writing of hieroglyphs required the utmost prec
ision and care, cursive hieratic could be written much more quickly and was ther
efore more practical for scribal record-keeping.[14] Its primary purpose was to
serve as a shorthand script for non-royal, non-monumental, and less formal writi
ngs such as private letters, legal documents, poems, tax records, medical texts,
mathematical treatises, and instructional guides.[15] Hieratic could be written
in two different styles; one was more calligraphic and usually reserved for gov
ernment records and literary manuscripts, the other was used for informal accoun

ts and letters.[16]
By the mid-1st millennium BC, hieroglyphs and hieratic were still used for royal
, monumental, religious, and funerary writings, while a new, even more cursive s
cript was used for informal, day-to-day writing: Demotic.[13] The final script a
dopted by the ancient Egyptians was the Coptic alphabet, a revised version of th
e Greek alphabet.[17] Coptic became the standard in the 4th century AD when Chri
stianity became the state religion throughout the Roman Empire; hieroglyphs were
discarded as idolatrous images of a pagan tradition, unfit for writing the Bibl
ical canon.[17]
[edit] Writing implements and materials
A light-colored stone fragment with hieratic handwriting in black ink scrawled o
n its surface
An ostracon with hieratic script mentioning officials involved in the inspection
and clearing of tombs during the Twenty-first dynasty of Egypt, c. 1070 945 BC
Egyptian literature was produced on a variety of media. Along with the chisel, n
ecessary for making inscriptions on stone, the chief writing tool of ancient Egy
pt was the reed pen, a reed fashioned into a stem with a bruised, brush-like end
.[18] With pigments of carbon black and red ochre, the reed pen was used to writ
e on scrolls of papyrus a thin material made from beating together strips of pith
from the Cyperus papyrus plant as well as on small ceramic or limestone ostraca kn
own as potsherds.[19] It is thought that papyrus rolls were moderately expensive
commercial items, since many are palimpsests, manuscripts that have their origi
nal contents erased to make room for new written works.[20] This, alongside tear
ing off pieces of papyrus documents to make smaller letters, suggests that there
were seasonal shortages caused by the limited growing season of Cyperus papyrus
.[20] It also explains the frequent use of ostraca and limestone flakes as writi
ng media for shorter written works.[21] In addition to stone, ceramic ostraca, a
nd papyrus, writing media also included wood, ivory, and plaster.[22]
By the Roman Period of Egypt, the traditional Egyptian reed pen had been replace
d by the chief writing tool of the Greco-Roman world: a shorter, thicker reed pe
n with a cut nib.[23] Likewise, the original Egyptian pigments were discarded in
favor of Greek lead-based inks.[23] The adoption of Greco-Roman writing tools h
ad an impact on Egyptian handwriting, as hieratic signs became more spaced, had
rounder flourishes, and greater angular precision.[23]
[edit] Preservation of written material
Underground Egyptian tombs built in the desert provide possibly the most protect
ive environment for the preservation of papyrus documents. For example, there ar
e many well-preserved Book of the Dead funerary papyri placed in tombs to act as
afterlife guides for the souls of the deceased tomb occupants.[24] However, it
was only customary during the late Middle Kingdom and first half of the New King
dom to place non-religious papyri in burial chambers. Thus, the majority of well
-preserved literary papyri are dated to this period.[24]
Most settlements in ancient Egypt were situated on the alluvium of the Nile floo
dplain. This moist environment was unfavorable for long-term preservation of pap
yrus documents. Archaeologists have discovered a larger quantity of papyrus docu
ments in desert settlements on land elevated above the floodplain,[25] and in se
ttlements that lacked irrigation works, such as Elephantine, El-Lahun, and El-Hi
Two black-haired Egyptian peasants dressed in white-colored linen garb, standing
in a field while collecting papyrus plants, with a motif of green vegetation at
the bottom, and cut-off lower portion of another scene with peasants in a field
at the top
Egyptian peasants harvesting papyrus, from a mural painting in a Deir el-Medina
tomb dated to the early Ramesside Period (i.e. Nineteenth dynasty)

Writings on more permanent media have also been lost in various ways. Stones wit
h inscriptions were frequently re-used as building materials, and ceramic ostrac
a require a dry environment to ensure the preservation of the ink on their surfa
ces.[27] Whereas papyrus rolls and packets were usually stored in boxes for safe
keeping, ostraca were routinely discarded in waste pits; one such pit was discov
ered by chance at the Ramesside-era village of Deir el-Medina, and has yielded t
he majority of known private letters on ostraca.[21] Documents found at this sit
e include letters, hymns, fictional narratives, recipes, business receipts, and
wills and testaments.[28] Penelope Wilson describes this archaeological find as
the equivalent of sifting through a modern landfill or waste container.[28] She
notes that the inhabitants of Deir el-Medina were incredibly literate by ancient
Egyptian standards, and cautions that such finds only come "...in rarefied circ
umstances and in particular conditions."[29]
John W. Tait stresses, "Egyptian material survives in a very uneven fashion ...
the unevenness of survival comprises both time and space."[27] For instance, the
re is a dearth of written material from all periods from the Nile Delta but an a
bundance at western Thebes, dating from its heyday.[27] He notes that while some
texts were copied numerous times, others survive from a single copy; for exampl
e, there is only one complete surviving copy of the Tale of the shipwrecked sail
or from the Middle Kingdom.[30] However, Tale of the shipwrecked sailor also app
ears in fragments of texts on ostraca from the New Kingdom.[31] Many other liter
ary works survive only in fragments or through incomplete copies of lost origina
[edit] Classical, Middle, Late, and Demotic Egyptian language
Two stone columns supporting a roof, painted with faded colors and incised with
writing of Egyptian hieroglyphs
Columns with inscribed and painted Egyptian hieroglyphs, from the hypostyle hall
of the Ramesseum (at Luxor) built during the reign of Ramesses II (r. 1279 1213 B
Although writing first appeared during the very late 4th millennium BC, it was o
nly used to convey short names and labels; connected strands of text did not app
ear until about 2600 BC, at the beginning of the Old Kingdom.[33] This developme
nt marked the beginning of the first known phase of the Egyptian language: Old E
gyptian.[33] Old Egyptian remained a spoken language until about 2100 BC, when,
during the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, it evolved into Middle Egyptian.[33]
While Middle Egyptian was closely related to Old Egyptian, Late Egyptian was si
gnificantly different in grammatical structure. Late Egyptian possibly appeared
as a vernacular language as early as 1600 BC, but was not used as a written lang
uage until c. 1300 BC during the Amarna Period of the New Kingdom.[34] Late Egyp
tian evolved into Demotic by the 7th century BC, and although Demotic remained a
spoken language until the 5th century AD, it was gradually replaced by Coptic b
eginning in the 1st century AD.[35]
Hieratic was used alongside hieroglyphs for writing in Old and Middle Egyptian,
becoming the dominant form of writing in Late Egyptian.[36] By the New Kingdom a
nd throughout the rest of ancient Egyptian history, Middle Egyptian became a cla
ssical language that was usually reserved for reading and writing in hieroglyphs
.[37] For the rest of ancient Egyptian history, Middle Egyptian remained the spo
ken language for more exalted forms of literature, such as historical records, c
ommemorative autobiographies, religious hymns, and funerary spells.[38] However,
Middle Kingdom literature written in Middle Egyptian was also rewritten in hier
atic during later periods.[39]
[edit] Literary functions: social, religious and educational
A painted, realistic stone statue of a black-haired, perhaps middle-aged man sit
ting cross-legged while holding a stone-carved depiction of a papyrus reading sc
roll in his lap
Seated statue of an Egyptian scribe holding a papyrus document in his lap, found
in the western cemetery at Giza, Fifth dynasty of Egypt (25th to 24th centuries

Throughout ancient Egyptian history, reading and writing were the main requireme
nts for serving in public office, although government officials were assisted in
their day-to-day work by an elite, literate social group known as scribes.[40]
As evidenced by Papyrus Anastasi I of the Ramesside Period, scribes could even b
e expected, according to Wilson, "...to organize the excavation of a lake and th
e building of a brick ramp, to establish the number of men needed to transport a
n obelisk and to arrange the provisioning of a military mission".[41] Besides go
vernment employment, scribal services in drafting letters, sales documents, and
legal documents would have been frequently sought by illiterate people.[42] Lite
rate people are thought to have comprised only 1% of the population,[43] the rem
ainder being illiterate farmers, herdsmen, artisans, and other laborers,[44] as
well as merchants who required the assistance of scribal secretaries.[45] The pr
ivileged status of the scribe over illiterate manual laborers was the subject of
a popular Ramesside Period instructional text, The Satire of the Trades, where
lowly, undesirable occupations, for example, potter, fisherman, laundry man, and
soldier, were mocked and the scribal profession praised.[46] A similar demeanin
g attitude towards the illiterate is expressed in the Middle Kingdom Teaching of
Khety, which is used to reinforce the scribes' elevated position within the soc
ial hierarchy.[47]
The scribal class was the social group responsible for maintaining, transmitting
, and canonizing literary classics, and writing new compositions.[48] Classic wo
rks, such as the Story of Sinuhe and Instructions of Amenemhat, were copied by s
choolboys as pedagogical exercises in writing and to instill the required ethica
l and moral values that distinguished the scribal social class.[49] Wisdom texts
of the "teaching" genre represent the majority of pedagogical texts written on
ostraca during the Middle Kingdom; narrative tales, such as Sinuhe and King Nefe
rkare and General Sasenet, were rarely copied for school exercises until the New
Kingdom.[50] William Kelly Simpson describes narrative tales such as Sinuhe and
The shipwrecked sailor as "...instructions or teachings in the guise of narrati
ves", since the main protagonists of such stories embodied the accepted virtues
of the day, such as love of home or self-reliance.[51]
There are some known instances where those outside the scribal profession were l
iterate and had access to classical literature. Menena, a draughtsman working at
Deir el-Medina during the Twentieth dynasty of Egypt, quoted passages from the
Middle Kingdom narratives Eloquent Peasant and Tale of the shipwrecked sailor in
an instructional letter reprimanding his disobedient son.[31] Menena's Ramessid
e contemporary Hori, the scribal author of the satirical letter in Papyrus Anast
asi I, admonished his addressee for quoting the Instruction of Hardjedef in the
unbecoming manner of a non-scribal, semi-educated person.[31] Hans-Werner Fische
r-Elfert further explains this perceived amateur affront to orthodox literature:
What may be revealed by Hori's attack on the way in which some Ramesside scr
ibes felt obliged to demonstrate their greater or lesser acquaintance with ancie
nt literature is the conception that these venerable works were meant to be know
n in full and not to be misused as quarries for popular sayings mined deliberate
ly from the past. The classics of the time were to be memorized completely and c
omprehended thoroughly before being cited.[52]
A stone fragment with brightly-painted colors and raised-relief images of Egypti
an hieroglyphs, written in vertical columns, set against a beige background
Hieroglyphs from the Mortuary Temple of Seti I, now located at the Great Hyposty
le Hall of Karnak
There is scant but solid evidence in Egyptian literature and art for the practic
e of oral reading of texts to audiences.[53] The oral performance word "to recit
e" ( dj) was usually associated with biographies, letters, and spells.[54] Singing

(?sj) was meant for praise songs, love songs, funerary laments, and certain spe
lls.[54] Discourses such as the Prophecy of Neferti suggest that compositions we
re meant for oral reading among elite gatherings.[54] In the 1st millennium BC D
emotic short story cycle centered around the deeds of Petiese, the stories begin
with the phrase "The voice which is before Pharaoh", which indicates that an or
al speaker and audience was involved in the reading of the text.[55] A fictional
audience of high government officials and members of the royal court are mentio
ned in some texts, but a wider, non-literate audience may have been involved.[56
] For example, a funerary stela of Senusret I (r. 1971 1926 BC) explicitly mention
s people who will gather and listen to a scribe who "recites" the stela inscript
ions out loud.[56]
Literature also served religious purposes. Beginning with the Pyramid Texts of t
he Old Kingdom, works of funerary literature written on tomb walls, and later on
coffins, and papyri placed within tombs, were designed to protect and nurture s
ouls in their afterlife.[57] This included the use of magical spells, incantatio
ns, and lyrical hymns.[57] Copies of non-funerary literary texts found in non-ro
yal tombs suggest that the dead could entertain themselves in the afterlife by r
eading these teaching texts and narrative tales.[58] See also Egyptian influence
s in the Hebrew Bible.
Although the creation of literature was predominantly a male scribal pursuit, so
me works are thought to have been written by women. For example, several referen
ces to women writing letters and surviving private letters sent and received by
women have been found.[59] However, Edward F. Wente asserts that, even with expl
icit references to women reading letters, it is possible that women employed oth
ers to write documents.[60]
[edit] Dating, setting, and authorship
A flat stone surface, beige in color, with incised markings of Egyptian hierogly
phs written in clearly-marked horizontal columns
The stela of Minnakht, chief of the scribes, hieroglyph inscriptions, dated to t
he reign of Ay (r. 1323 1319 BC)
Richard B. Parkinson and Ludwig D. Morenz write that ancient Egyptian literature n
arrowly defined as belles-lettres ("beautiful writing") were not recorded in writt
en form until the early Twelfth dynasty of the Middle Kingdom.[61] Old Kingdom t
exts served mainly to maintain the divine cults, preserve souls in the afterlife
, and document accounts for practical uses in daily life. It was not until the M
iddle Kingdom that texts were written for the purpose of entertainment and intel
lectual curiosity.[62] Parkinson and Morenz also speculate that written works of
the Middle Kingdom were transcriptions of the oral literature of the Old Kingdo
m.[63] It is known that some oral poetry was preserved in later writing; for exa
mple, litter-bearers' songs were preserved as written verses in tomb inscription
s of the Old Kingdom.[62]
Dating texts by methods of palaeography, the study of handwriting, is problemati
c because of differing styles of hieratic script.[64] The use of orthography, th
e study of writing systems and symbol usage, is also problematic, since some tex
ts' authors may have copied the characteristic style of an older archetype.[64]
Fictional accounts were often set in remote historical settings, the use of cont
emporary settings in fiction being a relatively recent phenomenon.[65] The style
of a text provides little help in determining an exact date for its composition
, as genre and authorial choice might be more concerned with the mood of a text
than the era in which it was written.[66] For example, authors of the Middle Kin
gdom could set fictional wisdom texts in the golden age of the Old Kingdom (e.g.
Kagemni, Ptahhotep, and the prologue of Neferti), or they could write fictional
accounts placed in a chaotic age resembling more the problematic life of the Fi
rst Intermediate Period (e.g. Merykare and The Eloquent Peasant).[67] Other fict
ional texts are set in illo tempore (in an indeterminable era) and usually conta
in timeless themes.[68]

A museum display of an ancient fragment of a papyrus document safeguarded by sea

led thick glass, with cursive hieratic handwriting in black ink on its surface
One of the Heqanakht papyri, a collection of hieratic private letters dated to t
he Eleventh dynasty of the Middle Kingdom[69]
Parkinson writes that nearly all literary texts were pseudonymous, and frequentl
y falsely attributed to well-known male protagonists of earlier history, such as
kings and viziers.[70] Only the literary genres of "teaching" and "laments/disc
ourses" contain works attributed to historical authors; texts in genres such as
"narrative tales" were never attributed to a well-known historical person.[71] T
ait asserts that during the Classical Period of Egypt, "Egyptian scribes constru
cted their own view of the history of the role of scribes and of the 'authorship
' of texts", but during the Late Period, this role was instead maintained by the
religious elite attached to the temples.[72]
There are a few exceptions to the rule of pseudonymity. The real authors of some
Ramesside Period teaching texts were acknowledged, but these cases are rare, lo
calized, and do not typify mainstream works.[73] Those who wrote private and som
etimes model letters were acknowledged as the original authors. Private letters
could be used in courts of law as testimony, since a person's unique handwriting
could be identified as authentic.[74] Private letters received or written by th
e pharaoh were sometimes inscribed in hieroglyphics on stone monuments to celebr
ate kingship, while kings' decrees inscribed on stone stelas were often made pub
[edit] Literary genres and subjects
For technical works outside literature proper, see Medical papyri and Egyptian m
Modern Egyptologists categorize Egyptian texts into genres, for example "laments
/discourses" and narrative tales.[76] The only genre of literature named as such
by the ancient Egyptians was the "teaching" or sebayt genre.[77] Parkinson stat
es that the titles of a work, its opening statement, or key words found in the b
ody of text should be used as indicators of its particular genre.[78] Only the g
enre of "narrative tales" employed prose writing, yet many of the works of that
genre, as well as those of other genres, were written in verse format.[79] Most
ancient Egyptian verses were written in couplet form, but sometimes triplets and
quatrains were used.[80]
[edit] Instructions and teachings
An ancient, torn and fragmented papyrus document, with cursive hieratic handwrit
ing in black and red ink on its surface
A New Kingdom copy on papyrus of the Loyalist Teaching, written in hieratic scri
The "instructions" or "teaching" genre, as well as the genre of "reflective disc
ourses", can be grouped within the larger corpus of wisdom literature found in t
he ancient Near East.[81] The genre is didactic in nature and is thought to have
formed part of the Middle Kingdom scribal education syllabus.[82] However, teac
hing texts often incorporate narrative elements that can instruct as well as ent
ertain.[82] Parkinson asserts that there is evidence that teaching texts were no
t created primarily for use in scribal education, but for ideological purposes.[
83] For example, Adolf Erman (1854 1937) writes that the fictional instruction giv
en by Amenemhat I (r. 1991 1962 BC) to his sons "...far exceeds the bounds of scho
ol philosophy, and there is nothing whatever to do with school in a great warnin
g his children to be loyal to the king".[84] While narrative literature, embodie
d in works such as The Eloquent Peasant, emphasize the individual hero who chall
enges society and its accepted ideologies, the teaching texts instead stress the
need to comply with society's accepted dogmas.[85]
Key words found in teaching texts include "to know" (rh) and "teach" (sba.yt).[8
1] These texts usually adopt the formulaic title structure of "the instruction o

f X made for Y", where "X" can be represented by an authoritative figure (such a
s a vizier or king) providing moral guidance to his son(s).[86] It is sometimes
difficult to determine how many fictional addressees are involved in these teach
ings, since some texts switch between singular and plural when referring to thei
r audiences.[87]
Examples of the "teaching" genre include the Maxims of Ptahhotep, Instructions o
f Kagemni, Teaching for King Merykare, Instructions of Amenemhat, Instruction of
Hardjedef, Loyalist Teaching, and Instructions of Amenemope.[88] Teaching texts
that have survived from the Middle Kingdom were written on papyrus manuscripts.
[89] No educational ostraca from the Middle Kingdom have survived.[89] The earli
est schoolboy's wooden writing board, with a copy of a teaching text (i.e. Ptahh
otep), dates to the Eighteenth dynasty.[89] Ptahhotep and Kagemni are both found
on the Prisse Papyrus, which was written during the Twelfth dynasty of the Midd
le Kingdom.[90] The entire Loyalist Teaching survives only in manuscripts from t
he New Kingdom, although the entire first half is preserved on a Middle Kingdom
biographical stone stela commemorating the Twelfth dynasty official Sehetepibre.
[91] Merykare, Amenemhat, and Hardjedef are genuine Middle Kingdom works, but on
ly survive in later New Kingdom copies.[92] Amenemope is a New Kingdom compilati
[edit] Narrative tales and stories
A fragmented papyrus scroll slightly torn at the edges, with cursive hieratic ha
ndwriting in black ink
The Westcar Papyrus, although written in hieratic during the Fifteenth to Sevent
eenth dynasties, contains the Tale of the Court of King Cheops, which is written
in a phase of Middle Egyptian that is dated to the Twelfth dynasty.[94]
The genre of "tales and stories" is probably the least represented genre from su
rviving literature of the Middle Kingdom and Middle Egyptian.[95] In Late Egypti
an literature, "tales and stories" comprise the majority of surviving literary w
orks dated from the Ramesside Period of the New Kingdom into the Late Period.[96
] Major narrative works from the Middle Kingdom include the Tale of the Court of
King Cheops, King Neferkare and General Sasenet, The Eloquent Peasant, Story of
Sinuhe, and Tale of the shipwrecked sailor.[97] The New Kingdom corpus of tales
includes the Quarrel of Apepi and Seqenenre, Taking of Joppa, Tale of the doome
d prince, Tale of Two Brothers, and the Report of Wenamun.[98] Stories from the
1st millennium BC written in Demotic include the story of the Famine Stela (set
in the Old Kingdom, although written during the Ptolemaic dynasty) and short sto
ry cycles of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods that transform well-known historica
l figures such as Khaemweset (Nineteenth Dynasty) and Inaros (First Persian Peri
od) into fictional, legendary heroes.[99] This is contrasted with many stories w
ritten in Late Egyptian, whose authors frequently chose divinities as protagonis
ts and mythological places as settings.[51]
Light gray stone surface with carved and painted images of two woman, a falcon-h
eaded god, a black-haired man with a long goatee, a jackal-headed god, and Egypt
ian hieroglyphs inscribed along the top
A raised-relief depiction of Amenemhat I accompanied by deities; the death of Am
enemhat I is reported by his son Senusret I in the Story of Sinuhe.
Parkinson defines tales as "...non-commemorative, non-functional, fictional narr
atives" that usually employ the key word "narrate" (sdd).[95] He describes it as
the most open-ended genre, since the tales often incorporate elements of other
literary genres.[95] For example, Morenz describes the opening section of the fo
reign adventure tale Sinuhe as a "...funerary self-presentation" that parodies t
he typical autobiography found on commemorative funerary stelas.[100] The autobi
ography is for a courier whose service began under Amenemhat I.[101] Simpson sta
tes that the death of Amenemhat I in the report given by his son, coregent, and
successor Senusret I (r. 1971 1926 BC) to the army in the beginning of Sinuhe is "
...excellent propaganda".[102] Morenz describes The shipwrecked sailor as an exp
editionary report and a travel-narrative myth.[100] Simpson notes the literary d

evice of the story within a story in The shipwrecked sailor may provide "...the
earliest examples of a narrative quarrying report".[103] With the setting of a m
agical desert island, and a character who is a talking snake, The shipwrecked sa
ilor may also be classified as a fairy tale.[104] While stories like Sinuhe, Tak
ing of Joppa, and the Doomed prince contain fictional portrayals of Egyptians ab
road, the Report of Wenamun is most likely based on a true account of an Egyptia
n who traveled to Byblos in Phoenicia to obtain cedar for shipbuilding during th
e reign of Ramesses XI.[105]
Narrative tales and stories are most often found on papyri, but partial and some
times complete texts are found on ostraca. For example, Sinuhe is found on five
papyri composed during the Twelfth and Thirteenth dynasties.[106] This text was
later copied numerous times on ostraca during the Nineteenth and Twentieth dynas
ties, with one ostraca containing the complete text on both sides.[106]
[edit] Laments, discourses, dialogues, and prophecies
The Middle Kingdom genre of "prophetic texts", also known as "laments", "discour
ses", "dialogues", and "apocalyptic literature",[107] include such works as the
Admonitions of Ipuwer, Prophecy of Neferti, and Dispute between a man and his Ba
. This genre had no known precedent in the Old Kingdom and no known original com
positions were produced in the New Kingdom.[108] However, works like Prophecy of
Neferti were frequently copied during the Ramesside Period of the New Kingdom,[
109] when this Middle Kingdom genre was canonized but discontinued.[110] Egyptia
n prophetic literature underwent a revival during the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty an
d Roman period of Egypt with works such as the Demotic Chronicle, Oracle of the
Lamb, Oracle of the Potter, and two prophetic texts that focus on Nectanebo II (
r. 360 343 BC) as a protagonist.[111] Along with "teaching" texts, these reflectiv
e discourses (key word mdt) are grouped with the wisdom literature category of t
he ancient Near East.[81]
An anthropomorphic bird with a human head in ancient Egyptian style, colored in
green, yellow, white, red, brown, and black
The ba in bird form, one component of the Egyptian soul that is discussed in the
Middle Kingdom discourse Dispute between a man and his Ba
In Middle Kingdom texts, connecting themes include a pessimistic outlook, descri
ptions of social and religious change, and great disorder throughout the land, t
aking the form of a syntactic "then-now" verse formula.[112] Although these text
s are usually described as laments, Neferti digresses from this model, providing
a positive solution to a problematic world.[81] Although it survives only in la
ter copies from the Eighteenth dynasty onward, Parkinson asserts that, due to ob
vious political content, Neferti was originally written during or shortly after
the reign of Amenemhat I.[113] Simpson calls it "...a blatant political pamphlet
designed to support the new regime" of the Twelfth dynasty founded by Amenemhat
, who usurped the throne from the Mentuhotep line of the Eleventh dynasty.[114]
In the narrative discourse, Sneferu (r. 2613 2589 BC) of the Fourth dynasty summon
s to court the sage and lector priest Neferti. Neferti entertains the king with
prophecies that the land will enter into a chaotic age, alluding to the First In
termediate Period, only to be restored to its former glory by a righteous king Am
eny whom the ancient Egyptian would readily recognize as Amenemhat I.[115] A simil
ar model of a tumultuous world transformed into a golden age by a savior king wa
s adopted for the Lamb and Potter, although for their audiences living under Rom
an domination, the savior was yet to come.[116]
Although written during the Twelfth dynasty, Ipuwer only survives from a Ninetee
nth dynasty papyrus. However, A man and his Ba is found on an original Twelfth d
ynasty papyrus, Papyrus Berlin 3024.[117] These two texts resemble other discour
ses in style, tone, and subject matter, although they are unique in that the fic
tional audiences are given very active roles in the exchange of dialogue.[118] I
n Ipuwer, a sage addresses an unnamed king and his attendants, describing the mi
serable state of the land, which he blames on the king's inability to uphold roy

al virtues. This can be seen either as a warning to kings or as a legitimization

of the current dynasty, contrasting it with the supposedly turbulent period tha
t preceded it.[119] In A man and his Ba, a man recounts for an audience a conver
sation with his ba (a component of the Egyptian soul) on whether to continue liv
ing in despair or to seek death as an escape from misery.[120]
[edit] Poems, songs, hymns, and afterlife texts
Cursive hieratic handwriting in black ink with inks of various colors used to pa
int pictures of men and anthropomorphic deities traveling through the afterlife
in vignette scenes covering the central portion of the document as well as the t
op right
This vignette scene from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer (Nineteenth dynasty) sh
ows his heart being weighed against the feather of truth. If his heart is lighte
r than the feather, he is allowed into the afterlife; if not, his heart is swall
owed by Ammit.
The funerary stone slab stela was first produced during the early Old Kingdom. U
sually found in mastaba tombs, they combined raised-relief artwork with inscript
ions bearing the name of the deceased, their official titles (if any), and invoc
Funerary poems were thought to preserve a monarch's soul in death. The Pyramid T
exts are the earliest surviving religious literature incorporating poetic verse.
[122] These texts do not appear in tombs or pyramids originating before the reig
n of Unas (r. 2375 2345 BC), who had the Pyramid of Unas built at Saqqara.[122] Th
e Pyramid Texts are chiefly concerned with the function of preserving and nurtur
ing the soul of the sovereign in the afterlife.[122] This aim eventually include
d safeguarding both the sovereign and his subjects in the afterlife.[123] A vari
ety of textual traditions evolved from the original Pyramid Texts: the Coffin Te
xts of the Middle Kingdom,[124] the so-called Book of the Dead, Litany of Ra, an
d Amduat written on papyri from the New Kingdom until the end of Ancient Egyptia
n civilization.[125]
Poems were also written to celebrate kingship. For example, at the Precinct of A
mun-Re at Karnak, Thutmose III (r. 1479 1425 BC) of the Eighteenth dynasty erected
a stela commemorating his military victories in which the gods bless Thutmose i
n poetic verse and ensure for him victories over his enemies.[126] In addition t
o stone stelas, poems have been found on wooden writing boards used by schoolboy
s.[127] Besides the glorification of kings,[128] poems were written to honor var
ious deities, and even the Nile.[129]
A brown-skinned man in white-linen garb, seated and playing a stringed harp with
both hands
A blind harpist, from a mural of the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, 15th century B
Surviving hymns and songs from the Old Kingdom include the morning greeting hymn
s to the gods in their respective temples.[130] A cycle of Middle-Kingdom songs
dedicated to Senusret III (r. 1878 1839 BC) have been discovered at El-Lahun.[131]
Erman considers these to be secular songs used to greet the pharaoh at Memphis,
[132] while Simpson considers them to be religious in nature but affirms that th
e division between religious and secular songs is not very sharp.[131] The Harpe
r's Song, the lyrics found on a tombstone of the Middle Kingdom and on Papyrus H
arris 500 from the New Kingdom, was to be performed for dinner guests at formal
During the reign of Akhenaten (r. 1353 1336 BC), the Great Hymn to the Aten preserve
d in tombs of Amarna, including the tomb of Ay was written to the Aten, the sun-di
sk deity given exclusive patronage during his reign.[134] Simpson compares this
composition's wording and sequence of ideas to those of Psalm 104.[135]
Only a single poetic hymn in the Demotic script has been preserved.[136] However

, there are many surviving examples of Late-Period Egyptian religious hymns writ
ten in hieroglyphs on temple walls.[137]
No Egyptian love song has been dated from before the New Kingdom, these being wr
itten in Late Egyptian, although it is speculated that they existed in previous
times.[138] Erman compares the love songs to the Song of Songs, citing the label
s "sister" and "brother" that lovers used to address each other.[139]
[edit] Private letters, model letters, and epistles
A stone fragment with cursive hieratic handwriting in black ink
Hieratic script on an ostracon made of limestone; the script was written as an e
xercise by a schoolboy in Ancient Egypt. He copied four letters from the vizier
Khay (who was active during the reign of Ramesses II).
The ancient Egyptian model letters and epistles are grouped into a single litera
ry genre. Papyrus rolls sealed with mud stamps were used for long-distance lette
rs, while ostraca were frequently used to write shorter, non-confidential letter
s sent to recipients located nearby.[140] Letters of royal or official correspon
dence, originally written in hieratic, were sometimes given the exalted status o
f being inscribed on stone in hieroglyphs.[141] The various texts written by sch
oolboys on wooden writing boards include model letters.[89] Private letters coul
d be used as epistolary model letters for schoolboys to copy, including letters
written by their teachers or their families.[142] However, these models were rar
ely featured in educational manuscripts; instead fictional letters found in nume
rous manuscripts were used.[143] The common epistolary formula used in these mod
el letters was "The official A. saith to the scribe B".[144]
The oldest-known private letters on papyrus were found in a funerary temple dati
ng to the reign of Djedkare-Izezi (r. 2414 2375 BC) of the Fifth dynasty.[145] Mor
e letters are dated to the Sixth dynasty, when the epistle subgenre began.[146]
The educational text Book of Kemit, dated to the Eleventh dynasty, contains a li
st of epistolary greetings and a narrative with an ending in letter form and sui
table terminology for use in commemorative biographies.[147] Other letters of th
e early Middle Kingdom have also been found to use epistolary formulas similar t
o the Book of Kemit.[148] The Heqanakht papyri, written by a gentleman farmer, d
ate to the Eleventh dynasty and represent some of the lengthiest private letters
known to have been written in ancient Egypt.[69]
During the late Middle Kingdom, greater standardization of the epistolary formul
a can be seen, for example in a series of model letters taken from dispatches se
nt to the Semna fortress of Nubia during the reign of Amenemhat III (r. 1860 1814
BC).[149] Epistles were also written during all three dynasties of the New Kingd
om.[150] While letters to the dead had been written since the Old Kingdom, the w
riting of petition letters in epistolary form to deities began in the Ramesside
Period, becoming very popular during the Persian and Ptolemaic periods.[151]
The epistolary Satirical Letter of Papyrus Anastasi I written during the Ninetee
nth dynasty was a pedagogical and didactic text copied on numerous ostraca by sc
hoolboys.[152] Wente describes the versatility of this epistle, which contained
"...proper greetings with wishes for this life and the next, the rhetoric compos
ition, interpretation of aphorisms in wisdom literature, application of mathemat
ics to engineering problems and the calculation of supplies for an army, and the
geography of western Asia".[153] Moreover, Wente calls this a "...polemical tra
ctate" that counsels against the rote, mechanical learning of terms for places,
professions, and things; for example, it is not acceptable to know just the plac
e names of western Asia, but also important details about its topography and rou
tes.[153] To enhance the teaching, the text employs sarcasm and irony.[153]
[edit] Biographical and autobiographical texts
Further information: Weni the Elder and Harkhuf
Catherine Parke, Professor Emerita of English and Women's Studies at the Univers

ity of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, writes that the earliest "commemorative i

nscriptions" belong to ancient Egypt and date to the 3rd millennium BC.[154] She
writes: "In ancient Egypt the formulaic accounts of Pharaoh's lives praised the
continuity of dynastic power. Although typically written in the first person, t
hese pronouncements are public, general testimonials, not personal utterances."[
155] She adds that as in these ancient inscriptions, the human urge to "...celeb
rate, commemorate, and immortalize, the impulse of life against death", is the a
im of biographies written today.[155]
A stone stela with raised-relief images of a man seated with his son and wife, w
hile a man stands to the right giving libations; Egyptian hieroglyphs are writte
n in distinctly-marked horizontal columns at the bottom portion of the stela.
A funerary stela of a man named Ba (seated, sniffing a sacred lotus while receiv
ing libations); Ba's son Mes and wife Iny are also seated. The identity of the l
ibation bearer is unspecified. The stela is dated to the Eighteenth dynasty of t
he New Kingdom period.
Olivier Perdu, a professor of Egyptology at the Collge de France, states that bio
graphies did not exist in ancient Egypt, and that commemorative writing should b
e considered autobiographical.[156] Edward L. Greenstein, Professor of Bible at
the Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University, disagrees with Perdu's terminol
ogy, stating that the ancient world produced no "autobiographies" in the modern
sense, and these should be distinguished from 'autobiographical' texts of the an
cient world.[157] However, both Perdu and Greenstein assert that autobiographies
of the ancient Near East should not be equated with the modern concept of autob
In her discussion of the Ecclesiastes of the Hebrew Bible, Jennifer Koosed, asso
ciate professor of Religion at Albright College, explains that there is no solid
consensus among scholars as to whether true biographies or autobiographies exis
ted in the ancient world.[159] One of the major scholarly arguments against this
theory is that the concept of individuality did not exist until the European Re
naissance, prompting Koosed to write "...thus autobiography is made a product of
European civilization: Augustine begat Rosseau begat Henry Adams, and so on".[1
59] Koosed asserts that the use of first-person "I" in ancient Egyptian commemor
ative funerary texts should not be taken literally since the supposed author is
already dead. Funerary texts should be considered biographical instead of autobi
ographical.[158] Koosed cautions that the term "biography" applied to such texts
is problematic, since they also usually describe the deceased person's experien
ces of journeying through the afterlife.[158]
Beginning with the funerary stelas for officials of the late Third dynasty, smal
l amounts of biographical detail were added next to the deceased men's titles.[1
60] However, it was not until the Sixth dynasty that narratives of the lives and
careers of government officials were inscribed.[161] Tomb biographies became mo
re detailed during the Middle Kingdom, and included information about the deceas
ed person's family.[162] The vast majority of autobiographical texts are dedicat
ed to scribal bureaucrats, but during the New Kingdom some were dedicated to mil
itary officers and soldiers.[163] Autobiographical texts of the Late Period plac
e a greater stress upon seeking help from deities than acting righteously to suc
ceed in life.[164] Whereas earlier autobiographical texts exclusively dealt with
celebrating successful lives, Late Period autobiographical texts include lament
s for premature death, similar to the epitaphs of ancient Greece.[165]
[edit] Decrees, chronicles, king lists, and histories
Ground-level outside view of stone walls with raised-relief carvings of human fi
gures and hieroglyphic writing; a doorway is positioned at the center; the top l
eft portion shows a blue sky without clouds.
The Annals of Pharaoh Thutmose III at Karnak
Modern historians consider that some biographical or autobiographical texts are impo
rtant historical documents.[166] For example, the biographical stelas of militar

y generals in tomb chapels built under Thutmose III provide much of the informat
ion known about the wars in Syria and Palestine.[167] However, the annals of Thu
tmose III, carved into the walls of several monuments built during his reign, su
ch as those at Karnak, also preserve information about these campaigns.[168] The
annals of Ramesses II (r. 1279 1213 BC), recounting the Battle of Kadesh against
the Hittites include, for the first time in Egyptian literature, a narrative epi
c poem, distinguished from all earlier poetry, which served to celebrate and ins
Other documents useful for investigating Egyptian history are ancient lists of k
ings found in terse chronicles, such as the Fifth dynasty Palermo stone.[170] Th
ese documents legitimated the contemporary pharaoh's claim to sovereignty.[171]
Throughout ancient Egyptian history, royal decrees recounted the deeds of ruling
pharaohs.[172] For example, the Nubian pharaoh Piye (r. 752 721 BC), founder of t
he Twenty-fifth dynasty, had a stela erected and written in classical Middle Egy
ptian that describes with unusual nuances and vivid imagery his successful milit
ary campaigns.[173]
An Egyptian historian, known by his Greek name as Manetho (c. 3rd century BC), w
as the first to compile a comprehensive history of Egypt.[174] Manetho was activ
e during the reign of Ptolemy II (r. 283 246 BC) and used The Histories by the Gre
ek Herodotus (c. 484 BC c. 425 BC) as his main source of inspiration for a history
of Egypt written in Greek.[174] However, the primary sources for Manetho's work
were the king list chronicles of previous Egyptian dynasties.[171]
[edit] Tomb and temple graffiti
Surface of a stone wall with incised graffiti artwork of a dog, highlighted by a
ngled late afternoon light
Artistic graffiti of a canine figure at the Temple of Kom Ombo, built during the
Ptolemaic dynasty
Fischer-Elfert distinguishes ancient Egyptian graffiti writing as a literary gen
re.[175] During the New Kingdom, scribes who traveled to ancient sites often lef
t graffiti messages on the walls of sacred mortuary temples and pyramids, usuall
y in commemoration of these structures.[176] Modern scholars do not consider the
se scribes to have been mere tourists, but pilgrims visiting sacred sites where
the extinct cult centers could be used for communicating with the gods.[177] The
re is evidence from an educational ostracon found in the tomb of Senenmut (TT71)
that formulaic graffiti writing was practiced in scribal schools.[177] In one g
raffiti message, left at the mortuary temple of Thutmose III at Deir el-Bahri, a
modified saying from The Maxims of Ptahhotep is incorporated into a prayer writ
ten on the temple wall.[178] Scribes usually wrote their graffiti in separate cl
usters to distinguish their graffiti from others'.[175] This led to competition
among scribes, who would sometimes denigrate the quality of graffiti inscribed b
y others, even ancestors from the scribal profession.[175]
[edit] Legacy, translation and interpretation
See also: Transliteration of Ancient Egyptian
After the Copts converted to Christianity in the first centuries AD, their Copti
c Christian literature became separated from the pharaonic and Hellenistic liter
ary traditions.[179] Nevertheless, scholars speculate that ancient Egyptian lite
rature, perhaps in oral form, had an impact on Greek and Arabic literature. Para
llels are drawn between the Egyptian soldiers sneaking into Jaffa hidden in bask
ets to capture the city in the story Taking of Joppa and the Mycenaean Greeks sn
eaking into Troy inside the Trojan Horse in Homer's Iliad.[180] The Taking of Jo
ppa has also been compared to the Arabic story of Ali Baba in One Thousand and O
ne Nights.[181] It has been conjectured that Sinbad the Sailor may have been ins
pired by the pharaonic Tale of the shipwrecked sailor.[182] Some Egyptian litera
ture was commented on by scholars of the ancient world. For example, the Jewish
Roman historian Josephus (37 c. 100 AD) quoted and provided commentary on Manetho
's historical texts.[183]

A large, ancient, black-colored stone block with written inscriptions covering o

ne side of its surface, with pieces clearly broken off with now missing text
The trilingual Rosetta Stone in the British Museum
The most recently carved hieroglyphic inscription of ancient Egypt known today i
s found in a temple of Philae, dated precisely to 394 AD during the reign of The
odosius I (r. 379 395 AD).[184] In the 4th century AD, the Hellenized Egyptian Hor
apollo compiled a survey of almost two hundred Egyptian hieroglyphs and provided
his interpretation of their meanings, although his understanding was limited an
d he was unaware of the phonetic uses of each hieroglyph.[185] This survey was a
pparently lost until 1415, when the Italian Cristoforo Buondelmonti acquired it
at the island of Andros.[185] Athanasius Kircher (1601 1680) was the first in Euro
pe to realize that Coptic was a direct linguistic descendant of ancient Egyptian
.[185] In his Oedipus Aegyptiacus, he made the first concerted European effort t
o interpret the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs, albeit based on symbolic infere
It was not until 1799, with the Napoleonic discovery of a trilingual (i.e. hiero
glyphic, Demotic, Greek) stela inscription on the Rosetta Stone, that modern sch
olars were able to decipher ancient Egyptian literature.[186] The first major ef
fort to translate the hieroglyphs of the Rosetta Stone was made by Jean-Franois C
hampollion (1790 1832) in 1822.[187] The earliest translation efforts of Egyptian
literature during the 19th century were attempts to confirm Biblical events.[187
Before the 1970s, scholarly consensus was that ancient Egyptian literature althoug
h sharing similarities with modern literary categories was not an independent disc
ourse, uninfluenced by the ancient sociopolitical order.[188] However, from the
1970s onwards, a growing number of historians and literary scholars have questio
ned this theory.[189] While scholars before the 1970s treated ancient Egyptian l
iterary works as viable historical sources that accurately reflected the conditi
ons of this ancient society, scholars now caution against this approach.[190] Sc
holars are increasingly using a multifaceted hermeneutic approach to the study o
f individual literary works, in which not only the style and content, but also t
he cultural, social and historical context of the work are taken into account.[1
89] Individual works can then be used as case studies for reconstructing the mai
n features of ancient Egyptian literary discourse.[189]