Ancient Egypt 2675-332 BCE: Literature

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Egyptian Writing and Language 

Birth and Loss

The earliest evidence for writing the Egyptian language in hieroglyphs dates to about 3300 B.C.E. During the 1990s, the archaeologist Gunter Dreyer discovered the earliest known inscriptions, a group of seals bearing the names of early Egyptian kings who reigned from 3300 B.C.E. to about 3100 B.C.E., in the town of Abydos, located in central Egypt. Dreyer’s discoveries newly suggest that Egyptian was the first written language in the eastern Mediterranean, pre-dating Sumerian, the next oldest written language, whose writing system was invented in what is now modern Iraq about 3000 B.C.E. Hieroglyphs and more cursive forms of Egyptian writing called hieratic and demotic continued in use in Egypt for nearly 3,500 years. The Pyramid Texts, the funeral liturgy found in royal pyramids in the late Fifth and early Sixth Dynasties, and the autobiographies found in tombs of the same period (2500-2170 B.C.E.) constitute the first known Egyptian literature. In contrast to the vague date and unknown scribes of the first inscriptions, the last known Egyptian inscription written in hieroglyphs includes a date equivalent to 24 August 394 C.E. and the name of the scribe, Nesmeterakhem, son of Nesmeter, who composed it and carved it on a wall at the Temple of Isis in Philae on Egypt’s southern border. By this time, Macedonian Greeks ruled Egypt following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the country in 332 B.C.E. Greek had become the official language of the Egyptian government with Alexander’s conquest, though ordinary Egyptians continued to speak and write their own language. Yet the ruling class, even among Egyptians, began to speak and write Greek because this language was now the key to power and success. Approximately 100 years after the last hieroglyphic inscription at Philae, an Egyptian named Horapollo who lived in Alexandria wrote a book in Greek called The Hieroglyphics of the Egyptian, completely mischaracterizing the hieroglyphic writing system. Horapollo probably based his description of hieroglyphs on lists he found in the Library of Alexandria. He had access to some accurate facts about the meaning of particular hieroglyphic signs, but he did not know that most of the hieroglyphic signs had phonetic values and that the hieroglyphs were a means of writing ordinary language. He wrote instead that hieroglyphs were pictures that could convey philosophical ideas to readers who were initiated in their mysteries. Horapollo’s ideas derived from neo-Platonism, a Greek philosophical school current during his lifetime that stressed the role of contemplation in achieving knowledge. Horapollo believed that hieroglyphs were an object of contemplation and thus a source and expression of knowledge. Horapollo’s book led early European scholars astray for the 403 years between his book’s modern publication in Italy in 1419 and French scholar J.-F. Champollion’s decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822.

Deciphering Hieroglyphs

In 1822 Champollion became the first modern person to read Egyptian hieroglyphs. He based his study of hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone, a tri-lingual inscription bearing a date equivalent to 27 March 196 B.C.E. It is a decree issued by King Ptolemy VI, exempting the priests of Memphis from certain taxes, and recorded in Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphic, and in Egyptian Demotic, a cursive writing system derived from hieroglyphic. Champollion began his work with the assumption that the hieroglyphs represented the same text as the Greek. Since European scholars had never lost the ability to read ancient Greek, Champollion understood the contents of that section of the inscription with little difficulty. Champollion may have been aware of an English scholar named Thomas Young, whose private work on hieroglyphs, written in 1819 but never published, suggested that the ovals with hieroglyphic signs inside them carved on the Rosetta Stone were a phonetic writing of King Ptolemy VI’s name. Champollion assigned sounds to the signs that represented Ptolemy’s name by relying on the Greek text. He then compared the text in Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphs on the Bankes’ Obelisk, a monument brought to England from southern Egypt in the early nineteenth century. This monument exhibited a Greek inscription with the name Cleopatra and a hieroglyphic inscription that included an oval with signs inside it. Taking the sounds “p,” “t,” “o,” “l,” and “e” that are common to both Ptolemy and Cleopatra’s names, Champollion made a comparison between the two groups of hieroglyphic signs. He found that the expected hieroglyphic sign was in a predictable place. The same sign was present to write “p,” the first sound in Ptolemy and the fifth sound in Cleopatra, in the first and fifth position of the writing of their names. The same expectations were met for the sounds “t,” “o,” “l,” and “e.” This comparison demonstrated that hieroglyphs were phonetic, not mystical, philosophical symbols. Using these known signs as equivalents for known sounds, Champollion was quickly able to identify the hieroglyphic writings of the names of many of the Roman emperors who ruled Egypt after Octavian (later the Roman emperor Augustus) conquered the country in 31 B.C.E. He used his knowledge of Coptic, the last stage of the Egyptian language written with Greek letters, to further identify the meanings of Egyptian words written in hieroglyphics. Subsequent scholarly work since Champollion’s discovery has resulted in a nearly complete understanding of the Egyptian language, its grammar, and its place among the languages of the world.

Dialects of Egyptian

Egyptologists have discovered five different dialects of the Egyptian language, all of which had literature. A dialect is a variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation from other varieties, but constituting together with them a single language. Some dialects are associated with different regions of a country. Other dialects, as is true with Egyptian, are separated by time. A more familiar example of this phenomenon is the language of the medieval English poems Beowolf and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. They were composed in dialects of English, but are nearly incomprehensible to modern English speakers. Yet the languages of these poems are still the natural ancestors of our modern language. In the same way, the dialects of Egyptian—called Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, Demotic, and Coptic—each grew out of the previous dialectical stage of the language and represent different time periods. There must also have been regional dialects that scholars cannot recognize from the written evidence. Of the dialects preserved on papyrus, stone, and other writing materials, the oldest is Old Egyptian, used to compose the Pyramid Texts and the autobiographies found in Old Kingdom (2675-2170 B.C.E.) tombs. Middle Egyptian, spoken during the Middle Kingdom (2008-1630 B.C.E.) was Egypt’s most important dialect. It was the classical language used to compose poetry and prose for 1,500 years after Egyptians stopped speaking it as their day-to-day language. Late Egyptian was the day-to-day speech of the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.) and was favored by authors of popular tales. Demotic, used in speech by Egyptians during the Late Period through the Roman Period (664 B.C.E.-395 C.E.) was a vehicle for popular literature and business deals. At the same time that Demotic predominated among the Egyptian-speaking populace, the ruling class spoke Greek. Finally Coptic, written with the Greek alphabet and some additional characters used to convey sounds not found in Greek, is the last stage of the Egyptian language, emerging in the first century C.E. Egyptian Christians still use it as the language of prayer. Egyptians began speaking Arabic after the Moslem conquest of their country in 641 C.E.

Language Family

The ancient Egyptian dialects form one language and one language family called Hamito-Semitic or Afro-Asiatic. A language family normally groups together languages with similar vocabulary and grammar. English, for example, is a branch of the Indo-European language family with close connections to both German and French. The Egyptian language’s close connections are with languages now spoken in other parts of Africa and in the Near East. Among the many African languages related to Egyptian are Berber, spoken in North Africa; Wolof, spoken in West Africa; and Bedja, spoken in Eritrea in East Africa. Egyptian also shares similarities with the vocabulary and grammar of the Semitic languages including Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew. These connections illustrate that Egypt was always a bridge between the African continent and western Asia.

Egyptian Scripts

Hieroglyphs are the most easily recognized ancient Egyptian script, but were not the most commonly used. Hieratic, a cursive writing system based on hieroglyphs, was the most commonly used Egyptian script from the Old Kingdom (2675-2170 B.C.E.) to the beginning of the Late Period about 664 B.C.E. Scribes used cursive hieroglyphs, a writing of hieroglyphs that included fewer interior details in each sign, for writing the Book of the Dead. During the Late Period, scribes developed the Demotic writing system, a cursive writing system that does not correspond sign-for-sign with either hieratic or hieroglyphic writings of words. It is by far the most difficult writing system for modern scholars to master. Finally, the Coptic alphabet emerged with Christianity in Egypt during the first century C.E. The Coptic alphabet uses the 24-letter Greek alphabet plus seven signs from Demotic to represent sounds that do not exist in Greek but are needed to write Egyptian.

Language and Literature

Compared to other ancient languages such as Greek, Latin, or Hebrew which were never lost, Egyptian is a newcomer to the scholarly scene. Though scholars have made great strides in understanding Egyptian since Champollion’s initial accomplishment, translations of Egyptian literature have not yet established the Egyptian achievement in modern consciousness alongside their ancient neighbors in Greece, Rome, and Judea. Yet Egyptian literature included great works whose continuing study will eventually establish it among the world’s great literary accomplishments.

Egyptian Writing Materials and Publishing 

Medium and Message

The Egyptians normally used a particular kind of writing surface for particular purposes. Papyrus, the most famous of Egyptian inventions, was not the most commonly used writing surface. Papyrus was relatively expensive but very durable so scribes used it for important texts that had to last a long time. Works of poetry, letters, and Books of the Deadpreserved for eternity in tombs were normally written on papyrus using cursive hieroglyphs or hieratic and later Demotic or Coptic. Scribes made ostraca (singular: ostracon) from large pieces of broken pots or from limestone chips. Ostraca were much cheaper and more plentiful than papyrus. Scribes used them to practice writing, nearly always in hieratic, but also for letters, contracts, and receipts. Students practiced writing literary texts on ostraca. Archaeologists have recovered thousands of ostraca on limestone from the artists’ village at Deir el-Medina, one of the few places where large numbers of literate, but relatively poorer people lived. Scribes also prepared wooden boards with a plaster surface to practice writing in hieratic. Some scholars believe these boards served as a display text, a kind of writing sample that could be used when a scribe wanted to find work. They preserve literary texts. Scribes also used leather as a writing surface, but very few examples have survived into modern times. Yet inscriptions on stone that are normally abbreviated sometimes include the information that the full text was written on leather and stored in the library. Tomb walls provided a writing surface for prayers, captions to sculptural reliefs, and, by the Sixth Dynasty, for extended biographies written either by or for the deceased. Many scholars view these biographies as the first literature in Egypt written with aesthetic values in mind. Temple walls provided a surface for kings to publish long inscriptions that proclaimed royal success in military matters or to describe rituals. Stelae (singular: stela)—upright, inscribed slabs of stone—provided a surface for writing prayers, historical accounts, and royal decrees. The Egyptians placed them in tombs, memorial chapels, and in temples of the gods. Tomb and temple walls and stelae preserve the most extensive inscriptions written with hieroglyphs. Scarabs—small images of beetles carved from stone or molded in faience with a smooth underside that could serve as a writing surface—also preserve kings’ names and, rarely, preserve extended historical texts. The faience scarabs were created in molds and constitute one means of publishing multiple copies other than writing copies by hand.

Multiple Copies

Some Egyptian works of literature still exist in multiple copies. Other works exist in only one sometimes heavily damaged copy. Scholars who hope to establish the popularity or importance of a particular work in ancient times are frustrated by the accidents of discovery and preservation that result in knowing dozens of partial copies of the The Story of Sinuhe but only one copy of The Shipwrecked Sailor, two works of Middle Egyptian literature. Multiple copies both complicate and facilitate the establishment of the true text of a particular work. There are almost always small variations in spelling and even word choice in different copies of the same work. With Sinuhe, many of these variations stem from the time period when the text was written. Sinuhe was a classic, composed and copied by scribes in the Middle Kingdom but still studied in the New Kingdom and Late Period. Sometimes multiple copies help modern scholars learn the meaning of the text. But other times, poorly written and spelled student copies frustrate and mislead modern scholars. Multiple copies can also complicate the determination of a text’s date of composition.

Date of Composition

Scholars must attempt to distinguish between the date of composition and the date of a copy of a work of literature. The date of composition refers to the time when the author created the work. The date of the copy refers to the dates of copies made for the publication and dissemination of a work of literature, sometimes many years after the date of composition. It is not always easy to determine the date of composition. For example, an anonymous author composed the text known as The Teachings of Ptahhotep in the Middle Kingdom (2008 to after 1630 B.C.E.) using as the narrator a vizier who lived in the reign of King Djedkare Isesy (2415-2371 B.C.E.) during the Old Kingdom, approximately 400 years before the text was composed. Only one known copy of the text dates to the Middle Kingdom, the time of composition. The three other copies known to scholars all date to the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.) about 500 years after the composition and one thousand years after the setting found in the text. When scholars first examined the text, they assumed that Ptahhotep himself composed it in the Old Kingdom. In the late twentieth century, as scholars learned more about the differences between the dialects of the Old Kingdom (Old Egyptian) and the Middle Kingdom (Middle Egyptian) they realized that the language in the text mostly reflects the way scribes talked and composed in Middle Egyptian rather than Old Egyptian. This study resulted in reassigning the text to a composition date in the Middle Kingdom. Copies reveal their dates through the handwriting on them. The study of handwriting, called paleography, reveals that scribes used particular letter forms in particular periods. Paleographers compare the forms of particular signs found in dated copies to undated copies to establish the date of a copy. In general, scholars agree more often on the date of a copy than they do on the date of composition for particular texts. Dating texts, naturally, is central to any understanding of the history of Egyptian literature.

Titles of Works

The Egyptians probably referred to literary works by the first line, using it as a title. Today scholars assign a name to Egyptian texts, but there is no authority that can impose one standard title on each text. Thus in different books it is possible to see The Tale of Sinuhe, The Story of Sinuhe, or even just Sinuhe used as the title of the Egyptians’ great national epic poem. In this book, the titles for the texts are listed in the section on the Egyptian literary canon near the end of the chapter. There are also some examples found in ancient literature that refer to the “Book of Sinuhe” using the word for “papyrus roll.”

The Author 

Determining the Author

Nearly all Egyptian works of literature are anonymous. Even in works of wisdom or teaching attributed to famous sages of the past, it is never clear to modern readers whether or not the “I” of a first person text is the actual author or whether the attribution to a famous sage is a literary device that adds value to the advice given in the text. Though authors are difficult to name, it is still possible to detect the voice of a real author behind many kinds of stories and texts. The best method for finding the voice of an author, suggested by the French Egyptologist Phillipe Derchain, is to compare two or more texts that relate similar information. Yet even when there is only one version of a text, it is possible to appreciate the author’s voice.

Narrator and Author

Literary critics distinguish between the “I” of a first-person narrative, called the narrator, and the author of the text. In Egyptian literature, modern scholars have often supposed that the author was either the person named as the “I” in the text or that the author was the scribe who wrote down an oral tradition. For example, Egyptologists once identified the author of the text called The Teachings of Ptahhotep with a vizier who lived during the reign of King Djedkare Isesy (2415-2371 B.C.E.) during the Old Kingdom, approximately 400 years before the text was composed in the Twelfth Dynasty. This attribution, in Egyptian thought, made the text more important. Modern culture attaches such importance to knowing the author that it seems unimaginable that the person who composed the text would attribute it to the long-dead vizier. Sometimes Egyptologists have thought that the author of the text was the scribe who wrote it down or who owned it. Such is the case with the poem composed about the Nineteenth-dynasty Battle of Qadesh. Older Egyptologists thought that Pentawer, the scribe who wrote it down and possibly owned the papyrus, was the author. Derchain suggested that even the Egyptians became confused about this practice in the New Kingdom. In the Ramesside text known as Papyrus Chester Beatty, eight famous authors of the past are praised. Among them is Ptahhotep, who almost certainly did not write the text that Ramesside readers had available. In the end, the anonymity of the majority of Egyptian authors is similar to the anonymity of almost all Egyptian artists.

Author’s Role

One way to assess the author’s role, suggested by Derchain, is to compare the way that different writers described similar experiences. Derchain analyzed three Middle Kingdom stelae (upright slabs of stone with inscriptions), that each commemorate a different writer’s pilgrimage to Abydos, the city sacred to the god Osiris. The three authors are Sehetepibre, Iyhernefert, and Mentuhotep. All three came from families wealthy enough to ensure that they were literate. They also had access to libraries and archives and were familiar with Egyptian literature. As authors, they each chose different aspects of the pilgrimage to emphasize in their accounts. Sehetepibre emphasized his loyalty to the king and the way that the pilgrimage demonstrated that loyalty. Iyhernefert wrote about the ritual of Osiris that he observed and attended when he went to Abydos. Mentuhotep’s account supplements Iyhernefert’s account of the ritual, but he also included information on his own earlier career and more epithets about himself. His account is the most literary of the three. Its style is the most sophisticated, and he makes more references to other Egyptian literature in his account. This higher style confirms his contention that he worked in the library of a temple and might be considered more of an intellectual than the other two authors. Sehetepibre and Iyhernefert write more like the bureaucrats they were. But beyond style, each author chose to include different details of the pilgrimage. When combined with stylistic decisions, these choices are what distinguish them as authors.

Fiction Author

Another example of a story whose author had a distinctive voice was the anonymous writer of The Contendings of Horus and Seth. Alan Gardiner, the English Egyptologist, suggested in the early twentieth century that this story was a tale, written down from an oral storyteller’s recitation. Derchain and others have realized that the story is too sophisticated, especially in its literary allusions, to be merely a popular story. In fact, it probably contains veiled references to the struggle for power which followed the death of Ramesses III (1156 B.C.E.) and continued in the reign of Ramesses IV (c. 1156-1150 B.C.E.). Some scholars have suggested that the story celebrates the accession of Ramesses IV in the same way European kings used to commission operas for their coronations. The story has a definite point of view and that in itself suggests that there was a real author, though his name is not known.

Wars of Thutmose III

Another case study for an examination of authors’ voices concerns two works of literature on the wars of Thutmose III (1479-1425 B.C.E.). The differences between the two accounts of his wars—The Annals and The Gebel Barkal Stele (named after the place where it was found)—illustrate how two different authors approached similar subject matter. Scribes carved The Annals on the walls of the Karnak Temple, just north of modern Luxor, in an inner court. The author remarks in the text that he based it on extracts from the journal that military scribes kept while the campaigns were in progress. In addition to lists of places that the army subdued, the most remarkable segment is the description of the council of war preceding the Battle of Megiddo (1458 B.C.E.). The scene is common to a genre that Egyptologists call the Königsnovelle, or the “King’s Story,” in which the king’s bravery, cunning, and wisdom are emphasized. In this instance, the officers advise the king against proceeding to the battle along a narrow path, fearing an ambush. In imploring the king to take the army along a longer, safer route, they speak to the king in a way that would be impossible for mere officers in actuality, suggesting that the author took some liberties in describing the event in order to underline the king’s valor. Derchain recognizes this liberty as a mark of a particular author. This material, however, is completely omitted from The Gebel Barkal Stele, a text that another scribe wrote based on the same sources. The stele also recounts the highlights of the reign. Though the author includes the Battle of Megiddo, he fails to mention the council of war. The author narrates the stele in the first person, using the king as narrator. The language is hyperbolic and triumphant. The profits of the war are its first concern. Unlike the more factual presentation of The Annals, the king is presented as an orator and a man of destiny who stands above the crowd, indicating the purely political intentions of the text. Perhaps the author of The Gebel Barkal Stele wrote for a different audience from the one envisioned by the author of The Annals. Based on the differing depictions of the same historical event, scholars can conclude that the author of The Annals was an historian, while the author of the Gebel Barkal Stelewas a rhetorician and poet. These two texts reveal how authors shaped the material, even though they were anonymous. All Egyptian authors left some mark on the texts that they composed. Even when a work is a compilation of stereotyped claims, the author’s importance is clear in the way he chooses, combines, and emphasizes the information he conveys.

The Idea of Genre in Middle Egyptian Literature 


Understanding Middle Egyptian genres is central to any understanding of ancient Egyptian literature. The literature created during the Middle Kingdom (2008-1630 B.C.E.) in the Middle Egyptian dialect, the spoken language of this period, was the classical literature of ancient Egypt. Egyptians continued to read, study, and enjoy it through the New Kingdom into the Late Period—essentially the full extent of subsequent ancient Egyptian history. In modern times, a genre refers to a type of literature. Each genre has a formal pattern known to readers and authors and is related to the culture surrounding it. Egyptian authors and readers had no idea of modern literary genres like the novel, epic, tragedy, or comedy. These European literary genres derive from theories developed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) who lived 1,500 years after authors composed in Middle Egyptian. The Egyptians did have their own categories of literature, however. It is important to remember that such systems of classification belong to a particular culture. There are no universal classification systems in literature, but the idea of genre does exist across cultures. Knowledge of genre is important because it influences judgments of quality. When modern readers try to appreciate ancient Egyptian literature, a particular work seems deficient because the rules and expectations held by the original readers and authors are not clear. For example, The Shipwrecked Sailor has been compared to a modern short story. Yet it lacks the clear motivations and characterizations that a modern reader might expect in this modern genre. Modern readers, thus, judge by rules unknown to the original readers and authors. It is thus important to define ancient Egyptian genres that the original readers from the culture would have recognized intuitively. If modern readers are to understand an ancient literature they must understand the expectations the original readers had when they read. Indeed, the author shaped narratives while writing to conform to the original reader’s expectations.

Discovering Ancient Genres

Egyptologists have recognized certain patterns in Egyptian literary works and then grouped works by type to establish ancient genres. These patterns sometimes can be recognized in the contents. For example, Egyptologists group together narratives that tell a story, teachings that give advice, or poetry that describes emotions. They also group works by linguistic forms. These forms include formulae—exact wordings repeated from work to work—or patterns—such as the thought couplet where the same thought is expressed twice in different words. Another criterion for distinguishing genres is the social setting. Some works describe only royalty or commoners or priests. Scholars consider all of these factors when identifying genres.

The Sample

It is very difficult to judge the representative nature of a sample of surviving ancient Egyptian literature. Often scholars cannot know if a work that has survived had a wide audience or whether ancient readers thought it represented the highest quality. When a work survives in many copies from different historical periods, it seems safe to assume that the Egyptians considered it important. But with works surviving in one copy near its time of composition, it is harder to judge.

Titles and Genre

The Egyptians used the first line of the text as its title. Some titles provide the name of the genre. For example, the genre name seboyet (“teaching”) often occurs in the phrase “Beginning of the teaching which [narrator’s name] made” that is the title of the text. The German Egyptologist Siegfried Schott made a catalog of ancient Egyptian book titles that provide some genre names. Unfortunately, many preserved texts do not preserve the beginning. Of 33 works from the Middle Kingdom, only fifteen are complete. The three most common genres are narratives, teachings, and discourses.


No Egyptian word bears the same meaning as the English word “narrative,” but certain texts definitely tell a story. These narratives include the prose text The Shipwrecked Sailor and the verse epic The Story of Sinuhe. Each of these stories appears to the modern reader to have a moral. The Shipwrecked Sailor counsels against despair, while Sinuhe urges the reader to depend on the king’s mercy. All of the known Egyptian narratives lack titles. Some narratives begin with words best translated “There was once,” a formula similar to the modern English “Once upon a time.” But there is no reason to think that this could be the name of the genre or the name of the work.


The genre called seboyet in Egyptian is best translated with the word “teaching.” Many Egyptologists formerly called these documents “Wisdom Texts,” creating an artificial parallel with the books of the Hebrew Bible that are classified in this way including Job, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. Egyptian teachings deal with the nature of the ideal life. Of the three broad genres that Egyptologists have identified, the teaching is the most coherent. It has an Egyptian name, assuring modern scholars that the Egyptians also recognized this form as a genre. The texts labeled as teachings also have a common form, theme, and style. Egyptologists divide the teachings into two subgroups: royal and private. For example, the advice given in The Teachings of Amenemhet or The Teachings for Merykare describe a king’s ideal life whereas the advice found in The Teachings of a Man for his Son centers on the life of a private person. Both types consist of descriptions of the proper response for very specific situations. For example, in many private teachings, the author includes the proper way to behave when a nobleman speaks or the right way to behave at the dinner table. Kings receive advice on specific matters of state or in handling underlings.


A second kind of wisdom is the discourse. A discourse includes meditations known in Egyptian as medjet(“pronouncement”) or tjesu (“utterance”). These discourses are often laments such as the Complaints of Khakheperre-sonb or the Prophecy of Neferty. In both texts the speaker contrasts an ideal past with the degraded present. In Neferty—the one complete example with an ending—there is also a future restoration of the ideal past attributed to King Amenemhet I. Another group of texts that considers similar content is the dialogue. In the Dialogue of a Man with His Ba, for example, two speakers debate the effectiveness of preparations for the afterlife.

Other Texts

Some known texts fall outside of this scheme of genres. They include a description of the king performing athletic feats and an account of fishermen performing their tasks. Both are discourses, but are otherwise not well understood. Neither one seems pessimistic like the other laments in dialogue form. These positive dialogues might have been an important genre themselves. In addition, they are difficult to understand because they are very fragmentary and preserved in only one copy each. Thus it is difficult to predict the events described in them, and to classify them.


Some texts preserve a combination of genres. Sinuhe, for example, includes narrative, hymns, and a letter. The Eloquent Peasant includes discourse within a narrative frame. These mixtures suggest that the modern understanding of ancient genres is incomplete.

First Literature

Egyptian noblemen recorded the earliest Egyptian literature in tomb inscriptions called autobiographies. They composed them in the first person and included some details of the author’s own life. The real purpose of these texts is to demonstrate that the author lived a moral life. Thus the texts illustrate Egyptian ideas of morality. These texts are also the first attempts at extended narrative. Previous to these autobiographies, Egyptians wrote only short inscriptions, usually captions to tomb scenes carved in relief describing the action or identifying the participants. The autobiographies include three topics: protection of the tomb, major events in the tomb owner’s life, and a moral self-portrait. These three areas correspond to ideas of self-esteem, interconnectedness with others, and recognition that the world is governed by an ideal of justice called maat. Maat is the ideal that each author demonstrates was the basis for his life. It is the most important concept in Egyptian thought embodying correct conduct in the world and in man’s relations with the king and with the gods.

The Idea of the Person

Miriam Lichtheim, the American Egyptologist, traced the development of claims of self-worth among Egyptian noblemen as recorded in their tombs. She found a progression from self-esteem based on fulfilling filial responsibilities, to a reliance on the king’s regard as the source for self-worth, and finally to the development of an objective standard called “maat” to measure self-worth. The short statements carved in Fourth-dynasty mastaba-tombs mostly state that a son fulfilled his duty to his father and that the tomb owner never did anything wrong. For example, Ihy, a nobleman of the early Fourth Dynasty, informs visitors to his tomb in an inscription, “I made this for my father, when he had gone to the West [the land of the dead], upon the good way on which the honored ones go.” Another writer, the King’s Companion Sefetjwa wrote in his tomb inscription, “I never did an evil thing against anyone.” Lichtheim argued that such statements are the first literary works that make the claim for an individual’s moral identity. They record a sense of self based on filial duty and relationships with other people. By the end of the Fourth Dynasty in the reign of King Menkaure (2532-2510 B.C.E.) the prime minister Ptahshepses carved in his tomb short inscriptions that described his life and its importance in terms of his relationship with the reigning king. In captions to separate reliefs, Ptahshepses lists the reasons why he was important. He specifically mentions that he attended school with King Menkaure’s children. Ptahshepses describes in the next caption that he reached adulthood in the reign of the next king, Shepseskaf (2508-2500 B.C.E.). Ptahshepses’ marriage to a daughter of an unnamed king follows in the caption to the next adjacent relief scene. A fourth scene and inscription describe Ptahshepses’ claim that he worked as an administrator for King Userkaf (2500-2485 B.C.E.). In the scene corresponding to the period when he worked for Neferirkare Kakai (2472-2462 B.C.E.), Ptahshepses mentions that the king accorded him a special honor: Ptahshepses could kiss the king’s foot rather than the ground directly in front of the king’s foot when he greeted the king. These statements demonstrate that Ptahshepses’ self-worth was based on the king’s high regard for him. Ptahshepses worked for a total of seven kings, including Sahure (2485-2472 B.C.E.), Shepseskare (2462-2455 B.C.E.) and Reneferef (c. 2462-2455 B.C.E.), before dying in the reign of Nyuserre (c. 2455-2425 B.C.E.). He thus lived about sixty years. Another nobleman named Rawer who lived in the time of Neferirkare Kakai, and thus was a contemporary of Ptahshepses, also described an example of this king’s high regard for him. One day, according to the tomb inscription, Rawer stood next to the king on a boat sailing on the Nile. The king unintentionally struck Rawer with the royal scepter, probably due to the movement of the boat. The king apologized and ordered that his apology be described in Rawer’s tomb. Both the king and the nobleman regarded this apology as a special mark of favor. The king accorded a certain dignity to his official by apologizing. By the late Fifth Dynasty (about 2350 B.C.E.) noblemen began to claim in their tomb inscriptions that the tomb owner followed maat, a quality that the king both liked and required. This is a subtle shift from the idea that all self-esteem comes from the king’s favor. Now man’s right behavior is the direct source of self-esteem. This view prevailed throughout subsequent Egyptian literature.

Goodness is Innate

Fifth-dynasty nobles also began to express in their autobiographies the idea that goodness was innate. They used the expression “since birth” to make this claim. Thus Werhu, a priest of the cult of King Menkaure, could write in his tomb, “I never let anyone spend the night angry with me about a thing since my birth.” Likewise the Sixth-dynasty nobleman Metjetji could claim, “Never did I make anyone unhappy since my birth.” Such statements continued through the First Intermediate Period (Dynasty Seven through the first part of Dynasty Eleven, 2130-2008 B.C.E.). By the Twelfth Dynasty (1938-1759 B.C.E.), when noblemen serving kings were again writing autobiographies to place on stelae (upright pieces of stone), they described knowledge and skills as innate since birth. But during the later Old Kingdom (Dynasties Five and Six), noblemen described only good qualities as innately part of a person’s character. Lichtheim observed that the same progression from qualities to skills and knowledge being innate was also true of the king, but such statements were first made in regard to nobles. Egyptians also believed that one could be evil at birth. The Twelfth-dynasty text attributed to the Old Kingdom prime minister Ptahhotep speaks of “one whose guilt was fated in the womb.” But the Egyptians also understood that instruction could bring out the best in people. Thus they recognized that both nature and nurture played a role in the way a person behaved. By the Nineteenth Dynasty (1292-1190 B.C.E.), the wise man Any wrote that a person could choose between good and bad impulses that are both innate.

Siding With Good

As early as the Fourth Dynasty nobles declared in their autobiographies that they always sided with the good. The Sixth-dynasty architect Nekhebu makes this claim in its most developed form when he wrote, “I am one who speaks the good, and repeats the good. I never said an evil thing against anyone.” Nekhebu speaks here of avoiding speaking ill of others. But the Egyptians also assumed other definitions of the good by the Eleventh Dynasty (2008-1938 B.C.E.). The good includes good character and kindness according to The Teachings for Merykare, The Teachings of Ptahhotep, and The Teachings of a Man for his Son. All of these texts remark that good character will be remembered in the future, while evil men are forgotten. Good character is even more important than good deeds. The stela of a man named Mentuhotep makes this point: “A man’s good character is better than doing a thousand deeds. People’s testimony is the saying on the lips of commoners. His goodness is a man’s monument. The evil-natured [one] is forgotten.”

Basis for the Future

The earliest autobiographies inscribed on tomb walls in the Old Kingdom and on stelae during the Middle Kingdom served scribes as the basis for composing both narratives and teachings during the Middle Kingdom. They represent Egyptian authors’ first experiments with defining justice and the good. In later narratives, authors both illustrated these moral traits and established with the instructional literature the best teachings to nurture both the good and the just within a young man’s character.

Tjetji and Transitional Autobiography

Tjetji’s autobiography reflects traditions of the late Old Kingdom and anticipates the best of Dynasty 11. It serves as an excellent example of the way autobiographies changed from the previous time period while still carrying the tradition forward. It is carved on a stela that is divided into three unequal fields. At the top is a fourteen-line, horizontal, autobiographical inscription reading right to left. The lower left portion depicts Tjetji facing right, in high raised relief, with two members of his staff; a small figure presents offerings before him. The lower right field is an elaborate, five-line, vertical offering prayer listing wishes for the afterlife. Tjetji’s autobiography revives an Old Kingdom literary tradition nearly 200 years after its disappearance. In Tjetji’s era, autobiographies typically praise provincial leaders’ efforts on behalf of their provinces. But Tjetji, a court official, returns to an Old Kingdom theme: the ideal of service to the king. He makes constant reference to his success at carrying out the king’s wishes. This ideal continued to dominate subsequent autobiographies written during the Middle Kingdom. Tjetji recounts his service as Overseer of the Seal Bearers of the King to Wahankh Intef II (2065-2016 B.C.E.) and Nakht-neb-tep-nefer Intef III (2016-2008 B.C.E.), establishing for historians the order of these kings. Tjetji also describes the borders of the Theban kingdom just before the reunification of Egypt under Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II (2008-1957 B.C.E.). These borders stretch from Elephantine in the south to Abydos in the north. The text is limited in length by the size of the stela, unlike later, extended autobiographies carved on tomb walls. Yet Tjetji’s use of the Egyptian language is striking and eloquent. Ronald J. Leprohon, the Canadian Egyptologist, suggested that this elaborate language, structured in tight grammatical patterns, derives from the deceased’s own efforts to attain the ancient Egyptian ideal of “perfect speech.” Tjetji’s stela clearly demonstrates the high standards of language that had been established in Thebes before political unification with Lower Egypt. These standards and their connection to the previous period of political unity perhaps point toward the early Eleventh Dynasty’s conscious political plans for reunifying the country.

Pessimistic Literature 

Reflecting on Chaos

The exact cause of the collapse of the central government at the end of the Old Kingdom between 2170 and 2130 B.C.E.remains the subject of debate. Nevertheless, it is clear that the central government located in Memphis gradually surrendered its control to local rulers of the provinces during this forty-year period. From 2130 to about 2003 B.C.E., Egypt experienced decentralized, local government with each province ruled separately by local noble families. This is the period Egyptologists call the First Intermediate Period. When Mentuhotep II restored the central government about 2008 B.C.E., the newly re-established central bureaucracy, composed of the literate class, generated a literature sometimes called the literature of pessimism. The theme of these works, mostly composed in the early Twelfth Dynasty, is a reproach or accusation against the gods for allowing chaotic conditions between the end of the Old Kingdom and the establishment of the Middle Kingdom. The texts include laments about the insecure state of society and nature, and assert the hopelessness of discussing these problems. In general, the authors wrestle with the problem that reality does not match the Egyptian ideal of justice. The list of texts included with the pessimistic literature comprises The Admonitions of Ipuwer, The Complaints of Khakheperre-sonb, The Dialogue of a Man with his Ba, The Eloquent Peasant, The Teachings for Merykare, The Prophecy of Neferty, and The Teachings of Amenemhet. These seven texts, all written during the Twelfth Dynasty (1938-1759 B.C.E.), form a group unified by theme, if not a distinct literary genre. They thus reflect an intellectual position which was probably widely held among the literate class during this time period. They shared a fear of two things: disrespect for traditional wisdom and the loneliness of the individual without an ordered society. At least some of the authors of these texts recommended trust in the king and his government as the only antidote to these severe social problems. No authors are known and the exact order and date of composition remains difficult to ascertain. Yet they all share important themes: accusations against the gods, the insecure state of the world, and, by contrast, the nature of a secure world.

Insecure World

An insecure world serves as the setting for the seven works of pessimistic literature. Each author describes the world slightly differently, but they all touch on similar ills that they find in it. First, they acknowledge a threat to or loss of important political, economic, and religious institutions that leads to chaos. The threatened institutions include an effective king who controls an operating government and administers swift justice, a functioning economy, proper religion, and a permanent funerary cult. The Teachings of Amenemhet, for example, begins by narrating the assassination of a king by his trusted advisors. In the Teachings for Merykare, a king either colludes in grave robbing or is powerless to stop it. False friends threaten both Amenemhet and Merykare. The result of ineffectively functioning kings is a chaotic world defined by abandoned fields, empty granaries, and hungry people and animals. Trade breaks down because robbers stalk the highways while corrupt officials act arbitrarily; local rulers fight each other, fomenting civil war. According to the German Egyptologist Elke Blumenthal, the authors of Ipuwer, Neferty, and Khakheperre-sonb regard all of these circumstances as equally important, with none assigned more weight than another. None of the authors specifically diagnose the cause to be a weak or ineffective king because no author is willing to state unequivocally that the king is responsible for chaos in the world. Yet the implication can easily be read between the lines of the text. Thus the author seems to say that a weak king is just another circumstance on the same level as the prevalence of hunger, robbers, and corrupt officials. No author willingly condemns the king’s weakness.

Gods Betrayed

The king was responsible in Egyptian ideology for guaranteeing the integrity of divine rituals, both for the gods and for the dead. Yet in spite of lengthy descriptions of inadequately supplied temples, desecrated altars, the destruction of the sun-god Re’s temple at Heliopolis, the expulsion of priests, the profanation of holy texts—all apparently everyday occurrences in this group of texts—none of the authors of the pessimistic literature even mention the king’s role as protector of order. The king also guaranteed that the mortuary cult would be effective, according to Egyptian belief. Even though the king supplied financial help with burial only to high-level officials, funeral prayers all assume that the king will provide offerings for everyone throughout all time. Yet the pessimistic literature portrays kings’ cults as defiled. The rabble disturbs the king’s mummy in its tomb or during the embalming and throws it in the river. Yet even the current king is not directly blamed in the literature. No author is willing to charge the king directly with responsibility for chaos and disorder, even though this clearly is the implication of the author’s words.

Accusations Against the Gods

The roots of the world’s troubles include ungrateful royal advisors, the king’s weakness, and men’s greed. Yet no author can specifically accuse the king of weakness. The Admonitions of Ipuwer suggests that there is a being responsible for this state of affairs: the creator god Atum. Atum never recognized people’s capacity for evil and never inhibited people’s attempts to be evil, according to the narrator. From this idea grew the accusations against the gods found mixed with complaints about chaos among men in the pessimistic literature. The god is both guilty and withdrawn from the world. Not only has the god allowed injustice, but also has become unjust himself by betraying the very justice he created. Neferty goes even farther than Ipuwer, claiming, “Creation is as if it were never created. Re should begin creation anew.” Yet this view was not universal among Egyptians. In Coffin Text 1130, a text commonly inscribed on Middle Kingdom coffins, the sun-god Re describes four acts of creation that he performed in the world. He made the wind so people could breathe. He made the Nile flood to benefit both the humble and the great. He also claims that he created all people to be the same. He never told anyone to act in an evil way. Thus acting in an evil way contradicts the gods’ wishes. Finally, Re claims that people were created to carry out the mortuary cult. This text thus shows that there was a debate about mankind’s nature and whether men were inherently evil because of the gods or were themselves responsible for their actions. The origin of evil and the degree to which humans’ actions are fated occupy much of the pessimistic literature.

The Secure World

The debate over the origin of evil and human fate can also continue within a single work. Thus descriptions of the secure world can also be found within works that accuse the gods of creating evil. The Prophecy of Neferty is structured as a series of antithetical statements contrasting the evil world of the First Intermediate Period with the better world to come during the Twelfth Dynasty. Rebellion will end, foreign enemies will be subdued, people will celebrate, and the king will restore justice. The contemporary literary texts called “teachings” also provide a method for subduing evil through practicing justice. The Teachings for Merykare discusses how a king can act to create a better world for all. Merykare receives advice on how to handle each class of people including officials, soldiers, rebels, and criminals. His father in the text urges reliance on tradition, the daily divine cult, and the mortuary cult in order to foster justice. Even the very pessimistic The Teachings of Amenemhet seems to anticipate better from the reign of his son Senwosret I in his teachings. The author of The Eloquent Peasant is also able to describe a world with justice, appropriate punishments, and the merciful treatment of the weak that is all part of the Egyptian idea of justice. In The Dialogue of a Man with his Ba, the next world contains many of the elements of justice that are missing in the world of the living, including properly provisioned temples and punishment of evildoers.

Important Themes

The pessimistic literature shows that the Egyptians contemplated many of basic problems facing mankind. They were particularly concerned with the origin of evil, the proper way to combat evil, and the proper way to promote justice in an insecure world.

Story of Sinuhe 


The Story of Sinuhe survives in many manuscripts, suggesting that the Egyptians considered it among their most important literary works. The oldest manuscripts date to the Twelfth Dynasty (1938-1759 B.C.E.), also the time of the story’s setting. There are also more than twenty New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.) copies and even a Late Period copy (664-332 B.C.E.). This large number of copies surviving in all major periods is due to the fact that scribe schools required scribes to copy this text as part of scribal training. Yet, the fact that so many scribes worked on copying Sinuhesuggests that it was also studied in all time periods. It is thus a work of literature that connected the Egyptian literate class for 2,000 years. The text also includes variations on many literary genres. Overall, it is structured to resemble an autobiography and is narrated in the first person. Unlike a tomb autobiography, however, Sinuhe’s life goes astray rather than meeting the ideal as in the standard biography. It also includes songs, monologues, and even a letter.


Though Sinuhe was an important point of reference for all literate Egyptians, it also provides an important window into the Twelfth Dynasty, the time when it was written. The story deals briefly with the assassination of King Amenemhet I (1938-1909 B.C.E.) and the accession of his son King Senwosret I who had co-ruled with him since 1919 B.C.E. The story emphasizes Senwosret’s mercy to Sinuhe. This has led scholars to believe that the story provided propagandistic support for this king. The story also reveals Egyptian attitudes toward foreigners in the period directly preceding an actual foreign domination of Egypt by the Hyksos. Thus it has great importance for helping scholars understand Egyptian attitudes toward foreigners before the Hyksos. More recent study has emphasized the high literary quality found in the text. All of these elements combine to make Sinuhe important both in its own time and to scholars today.

The Story

The Story of Sinuhe narrates the adventures of a nobleman who served Queen Neferu, daughter of Amenemhet I (1938-1909 B.C.E.) and wife of Senwosret I (1919-1875 B.C.E.). When the story opens, Sinuhe is on a military campaign in Libya with Senwosret I, son of the reigning king Amenemhet I. The news of Amenemhet I’s assassination reaches the army and Sinuhe panics, fearing that Egypt will fall into turmoil. He is particularly worried that his close connections to the royal family will jeopardize his own life should Senwosret I be denied his legitimate claim to the throne. He decides to flee Egypt, traveling across Egypt’s eastern border into the lands beyond. In his haste to leave, however, he does not pack sufficient provisions and nearly dies of thirst in the desert. A bedouin chief rescues him, and Sinuhe is able to reach the town of Byblos in modern Lebanon, eventually settling in Upper Retenu in modern Syria. There he meets a local ruler named Amunenshi, who gives him his daughter in marriage and land in a place called Yaa. Sinuhe prospers in Yaa, has children, and successfully leads Amunenshi’s army against other tribes. Near the end of his life, however, he decides he wants to return to Egypt for burial. He sends a letter to the king, and the benevolent Senwosret I welcomes him back to Egypt with full honors despite his cowardly flight years before. Senwosret I arranges for Sinuhe’s burial in Egypt, and the final verses describe Sinuhe’s tomb and his final contented days in Egypt waiting for death.


John L. Foster, the American Egyptologist, analyzed Sinuhe’s personal development from his loss of status when he fled from Egypt to his eventual restoration to his rightful place in Egyptian society. Foster demonstrated that the real interest of the story for modern readers is in Sinuhe’s personal development. It is one suggestion that perhaps helps modern readers understand the story’s appeal to ancient readers. At the start of the story Sinuhe is a coward who deserts his king out of fear of losing his own life. His action nearly costs him his life, but he is rescued by a bedouin chief, a man whom Sinuhe would never have recognized as an equal earlier in his life. When Sinuhe meets Amunenshi, he feigns ignorance of his reasons for leaving Egypt, claiming that it was the act of a god. The real turning point in Sinuhe’s life comes when an unnamed “hero” challenges him to single combat. Though Sinuhe is smaller, he successfully overcomes the hero through physical courage. This scene witnesses Sinuhe’s transformation from the coward who abandoned Senwosret to an effective agent himself. Sinuhe recognizes the change himself in the poem he recites after his victory over the hero. In the poem, Sinuhe remembers the story of his life and contrasts his cowardly escape from Egypt with his current situation as a conqueror. With his transformation from cowardly nobleman to victorious hero now complete, Sinuhe is ready to return to his homeland.

The Goodness of the King

Senwosret’s response to Sinuhe’s request to return to Egypt indicates that this story served a political purpose. The king readily forgives Sinuhe for his disloyalty and welcomes him with open arms, restoring him completely to his former status. Most commentators have seen the king’s forgiveness of Sinuhe as the central purpose of the story. As propaganda, the story established Senwosret’s goodness and loyalty to those who remained loyal to him. But Foster’s analysis, which stresses Sinuhe’s development, demonstrates that this epic was also a close look at individual psychology. The story depicts Sinuhe’s development, starting with his removal from his own society to full restoration as a nobleman. Sinuhe moves from disgrace, to renewal, to forgiveness. In the course of this development he also passes from ignorance of his own motives to self-awareness and acknowledgement of his own responsibilities. Not only does he learn to take responsibility for his actions but he also ponders man’s proper relationship to the temporal powers of the world.

Emergence of New Kingdom Literature 


Egyptian literature of the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.) presents a puzzle for scholars. Looking at the evidence that survives, no original narrative fiction or teachings date to the first historical division of the New Kingdom, called the Eighteenth Dynasty (1539-1292 B.C.E.). Most of the texts copied at this time seem to have been composed in the Twelfth Dynasty hundreds of years earlier. Historical narratives on temple walls might be an innovation of this time. There is also meager evidence of poetry. The second part of the New Kingdom (Dynasties Nineteen and Twenty, 1292-1075 B.C.E.), in contrast, seems to abound with new literary genres including narratives in a new colloquial dialect, love poetry, and new manuals of advice in the old tradition. Egyptologists question whether the surviving evidence that creates the picture outlined here is truly indicative of how events occurred. They note in connection with this situation the enormous creativity found in the visual arts during the Eighteenth Dynasty. They question whether scribes of the Eighteenth Dynasty ceased to create new fiction and composed only historical texts and hymns. Perhaps the accidents of discovery have created a false picture of the Eighteenth Dynasty.

Historical Background

The golden age of Egyptian literature coincided with the end of the Twelfth Dynasty in 1759 B.C.E. when the reign of Queen Sobeknefru came to a close. The Thirteenth Dynasty ushered in a time of conflict that had split the country in two by 1630 B.C.E. The divided nation was ruled by Semitic-speaking foreigners called the Hyksos in the north and Theban princes in the south until 1539 B.C.E. when Theban princes drove the Hyksos out of Egypt. The Theban prince Ahmose (1539-1514 B.C.E.) founded the Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom, the period of greatest geographical power of the ancient Egyptian state. The New Kingdom included three dynasties—the Eighteenth (1539-1292 B.C.E.), led by descendants of Ahmose; the Nineteenth (1292-1190 B.C.E.), ruled by descendants of a certain General Ramesses which included Ramesses the Great; and the Twentieth (1190-1075 B.C.E.), led by a new family which continued to use the Ramesses name even though they were probably unrelated. Although Egypt was again unified, this period of Egyptian history was not without its share of upheaval; in the Eighteenth Dynasty, King Akhenaten (1352-1336 B.C.E.) introduced religious reforms in a period known to modern scholarship as the “Amarna Period,” in which he proclaimed a new religion that excluded the traditional gods. His successor, King Tutankhamun, restored the traditional gods about four years after Akhenaten died, and subsequent Nineteenth- and Twentieth-dynasty kings continued in this old tradition. These historical events perhaps were a major influence on the composition of literature during the New Kingdom. In the early years of this period, scribes reached back to the historical precedents of the Middle Kingdom for an authentically Egyptian mode of expression after years of foreign domination. However, as the New Kingdom kings provided a more stable state over the course of time, authors expressed a new Egyptian self-confidence through creating new forms of literature.

Copied from the Middle Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom’s literary achievements in prose and verse narrative fiction were not duplicated in the Eighteenth Dynasty, and scholars question whether scribes from this dynasty composed new works of literature of the type and intent of those written in the Middle Kingdom. Many surviving texts from this dynasty are generally copies of works from the Middle Kingdom, acknowledged even then to be Egypt’s classical age of literature. At least one Eighteenth-dynasty copy of The Story of Sinuhe, the great epic poem composed in the Twelfth Dynasty, is known. The earliest preserved manuscripts of the Twelfth Dynasty works The Teachings for Merykare, The Prophecy of Neferty, The Teachings of Amenemhet, and The Instruction of Khety also date to the Eighteenth Dynasty.

Original Compositions

Scholars have proposed three possible genres where Eighteenth-dynasty scribes could have broken new ground: historical texts, love poetry, and advice. The earliest preserved historical narratives date to this period. These works include The Kamose Stele, The Annals of Thutmose III, and The Gebel Barkal Stele. It is unclear whether there were Twelfth-dynasty texts of this type. Love poetry is well known from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties. One text from the Eighteenth Dynasty might anticipate the later work, though it is a description of the city of Thebes. Finally, two manuals of advice might date to the Eighteenth Dynasty, though the only manuscripts date to the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties. These texts are known as The Teachings of Any and The Teachings of Amenemope.

Historical Writing

Eighteenth-dynasty scribes produced historical narratives that might represent an original literary genre. The Kamose Stele is considered to be a work of literature because it narrates a story, but this text has a stronger affinity with historical literature than with classical, fictional narrative. This text, though, certainly dates to the early Eighteenth Dynasty because it is preserved on a dated stela (an upright, inscribed slab of stone). It tells the story of Kamose’s war to expel the Hyksos from Egypt. This was the first stage of driving these foreign rulers out of the country. Scribes working for Hatshepsut (1478-1458 B.C.E.) produced narrative inscriptions that described her birth and also the expedition to the land of Punt (modern Ethiopia) that she commissioned. They are found along with sculptural relief at her temple in Deir el Bahri. The Annals of Thutmose III, carved on the walls of the Karnak Temple, present a narrative of battles, tactics, and booty that seems to be a new kind of writing. Some scholars suggest that there was a Middle Kingdom tradition for such texts, though the evidence is meager. There is a fragmentary Twelfth-dynasty inscription from Memphis published in the reign of Amenemhet II (1876-1842 B.C.E.) that might represent the precedent for Thutmose III’s inscription. There is also an Eighteenth-dynasty manuscript called The Berlin Leather Roll (because it is written on leather and preserved in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin) that might be a New Kingdom copy of an historical inscription written in the Twelfth Dynasty during the reign of Senwosret I (1919-1875 B.C.E.). Some scholars, however, have argued that this text was an Eighteenth-dynasty forgery, designed to serve as a precedent for similar New Kingdom texts. This argument assumes that scribes were not free to invent new forms in the Eighteenth Dynasty and had to create a precedent from the age of the classics in order to write new kinds of works.


Eighteenth-dynasty autobiographies have not been closely studied, but they seem to be less central to the literature of the Eighteenth Dynasty than they were in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Nobles published these autobiographies in their tombs, as was done in the Old Kingdom, and on statues, which was an innovation. There are no autobiographies on stelae, a practice typical in the Middle Kingdom. The personal subject matter in these autobiographies often concentrates on military exploits or on religious subjects. Later in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties the autobiographies are entirely religious rather than narratives of personal experience. For some unknown reason, officials no longer considered these personal experiences to be important.


Hymns were also a new creation in the New Kingdom. They were published mostly in tombs of nobles and bureaucrats, two of the social classes that could afford elaborate Egyptian burials. Most of the hymns are unique copies, suggesting that perhaps the tomb owner composed them for his own use. Hymns seem to be the literary form used to develop religious debates in writing. The Great Hymn to Osiris, for example, recorded on the Stela of Amenmose, gives the most complete account in Egyptian of the myth of Osiris. It helps establish the cities where the god had temples, describes Osiris’ relationship with other gods, and associates the deceased king with the god. The Hymns to the Sun God, recorded on the stela of Suti and Hor, argues through its multiple stanzas the primacy of the sun as a god. It lists the sun’s multiple names such as Amun, Harakhti, Re, Khepri, and Aten. It makes the argument that all of these gods are the equivalent of Amun. It was only during the Amarna Period of the Eighteenth Dynasty (1352-1332 B.C.E.), a period of tremendous religious upheaval, that hymns utilized the language of common everyday speech, a dialect called Late Egyptian. Late Egyptian represented the spoken language as it had evolved during the hundreds of years since the end of the Middle Kingdom. The classical texts of the Twelfth Dynasty were written in Middle Egyptian, the spoken language of that period. Now once again scribes were using everyday speech to create new works of literature. Some scholars suggest that Akhenaten understood the use of the colloquial language as a way to conform with maat or right conduct. The Egyptians themselves provide no explanation for this change.

Two Languages

Whether or not Eighteenth-dynasty scribes created new literature, they were familiar with both the classical language of Middle Egyptian and the spoken language called Late Egyptian. In the historical work The Annals of Thutmose III, the author wrote in Middle Egyptian, though there are clues in certain word choices and grammatical forms that he was a Late Egyptian speaker. By the Nineteenth Dynasty, at least one scribe living in Deir el-Medina in Upper Egypt owned a library that contained texts in both Middle and Late Egyptian. Numerous examples of Nineteenth-dynasty student copies of classics such as Sinuhe demonstrate that students used copying as one way to learn the older language. From the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Dynasty, highly literate scribes must have known how to read the classical and the modern language.


The preserved record of New Kingdom literature certainly creates the impression that the early Nineteenth Dynasty witnessed a sudden literary revolution. New forms including love poetry, narrative fiction, and occasional pieces appear, written in Late Egyptian. Scribes also wrote works following older forms such as teachings, but composed in everyday speech rather than the classical Middle Egyptian dialect. Still, it remains difficult to know whether there really was a revolution or if such texts existed in the Eighteenth Dynasty but did not survive into modern times.

Political Fiction

At least two stories written in the Nineteenth Dynasty are set in the reign of the Eighteenth-dynasty king Thutmose III (1479-1425 B.C.E.), at least 200 years before the time of composition. The Taking of Joppa and The Story of a Military Expedition of Thutmosis III into Syria both assume this period was a golden age of Egyptian military prowess. In The Taking of Joppa, Egyptian soldiers sneak over the town walls using baskets, a theme anticipating the Greek story of the Trojan Horse and tales of Ali Baba and the forty thieves. Such stories suggest the Nineteenth-dynasty policy that restored values associated with Egypt’s rulers before the time of Akhenaten and the Amarna period. Military values which had received less attention during the Amarna period once again rank high in authors’ estimation.

Other Narratives

Other narratives in Late Egyptian occur outside of time, when the gods still walked the earth. The Contendings of Horus and Seth recounts a series of struggles between these gods as they compete to follow Osiris as rightful king of the living. Horus, Osiris’ son, faces many difficulties in his fight against his uncle Seth, brother of Osiris. Horus eventually triumphs with the aid of his mother Isis, the goddess of magic. The Doomed Prince also contains elements associated with the myth of Osiris and does not occur in a recognizable historical period. It also considers questions of the nature of fate. Because the papyrus lacks an ending, it is not clear whether or not the prince is able to escape the doom mentioned in the story’s modern title. The Story of Two Brothers contains an episode strongly reminiscent of the biblical story of Potiphar’s wife found in Genesis of the Bible. In both stories, a handsome young man suffers for refusing to betray his master with the master’s wife. The wife turns on the young man, accusing him of rape. This episode serves as the mechanism for subsequent adventures in the story. All of these stories exist in unique manuscripts on papyrus. This circumstance raises questions of how widely known such literature was among Egyptians. Some scholars have suggested that this literature also circulated orally and that it is the manuscripts that are exceptional.

Love Poetry

About fifty love poems composed during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties represent a unique aspect of New Kingdom literature. Though an Eighteenth-dynasty poem about the author’s love of the city of Thebes might represent a precedent for these poems, they otherwise seem the sole examples of personal lyric. They are unusual in the ancient world because they are completely secular. While Twelfth- and Eighteenth-dynasty authors had composed verse hymns and prayers or praise of the king, these love songs concern the affairs of ordinary men and women. The songs are usually twenty to thirty lines long. The translator John L. Foster has described the broad range of emotion they summon, including tenderness, romance, and joy. They hint at both elevated, pure love and at physical passion. They also capture familiar situations: the young woman surprised at meeting her lover unexpectedly, or a young couple sitting together in the garden. They include a young lover cataloging his girlfriend’s charms and a young woman trying to sleep but distracted by thoughts of her boyfriend. Both male and female voices speak in the poems, but it is not clear that there were both male and female authors. The love poems represent a rare window into the emotions of ancient people.

Classical Allusions

One Twentieth-dynasty teaching, a form known from the Twelfth Dynasty, contains quotations from much older texts.The Instruction of Menna for his Son quotes the Twelfth-dynasty texts The Shipwrecked Sailor and Eloquent Peasant. Though the text is written in Late Egyptian, the author must have believed his audience could appreciate such an elevated literary technique.

Fictional Non-Fiction

The last two known Late Egyptian stories take a non-fictional genre—the government report and the letter—and use it as a basis for telling a fictional story. The Report of Wenamun and the Tale of Woe both were composed late in the Twentieth Dynasty, based on the language used and the setting the author describes. Yet they are known in unique manuscripts of the Twenty-second Dynasty (945-712 B.C.E.). The language in both documents is the most colloquial Late Egyptian found in any narrative. It most closely reproduces everyday speech and avoids any literary flourishes. Both stories recount unhappy experiences and reflect the government’s failures as the New Kingdom collapsed and central government once again retreated. Both stories, however, reflect a cultural vibrancy that demonstrates that political strength and flourishing artistic movements do not always overlap.

Remaining Questions

This picture of New Kingdom literature remains unconvincing for many Egyptologists. Most scholars would expect that Eighteenth-dynasty writers would both copy Twelfth-dynasty predecessors and create new literature in that tradition. Yet there is no evidence that Eighteenth-dynasty authors wrote in the traditional genres of their predecessors. There is no Eighteenth-dynasty equivalent of Old Kingdom tomb biographies, Middle Kingdom stela, fictional narratives such as The Shipwrecked Sailor and Sinuhe, pessimistic studies of chaos, or even advice manuals. In a tradition-bound culture like ancient Egypt, it seems impossible that these genres were not carried forward. Yet the evidence that does survive hints that Eighteenth-dynasty authors developed a new historical literature and created new hymns as a literary genre. This picture is even less convincing because of the hypothetical rebirth of narrative fiction in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties. These later writers created many variations on fictional writing that discussed politics, the gods, and used bureaucratic genres to create fictional non-fiction. Only the discovery of new manuscripts can solve the mystery of this gap in Egyptian literary history.

Demotic Literature


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


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


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


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

Range of Materials

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

Earliest Narratives

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

Oral Tradition

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


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


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


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

The Egyptian Literary Canon


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

Admonitions of Ipuwer

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

Astarte and the Sea

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

Complaints of Khakheperre-Sonb

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

Contendings of Horus and Seth

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

The Destruction of Mankind

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

Dialogue of a Man with His Ba

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

The Eloquent Peasant

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

The Doomed Prince

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

The Teachings of Amenemhet

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

The Teachings of Ptahhotep

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

Teachings for Merykare

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

Khufu and the Magicians

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

Neferkare and the General Sisene

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

Prophecy of Neferty

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

The Quarrel of Apophis and Seqenenre

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

The Report of Wenamun

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

Satire on the Trades

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

The Shipwrecked Sailor

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

The Story of Sinuhe

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

The Taking of Joppa

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

The Story of Two Brothers

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

Truth and Falsehood

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