Writings from Ancient Egypt

by Anonymous (tr. Toby Wilkinson)

Rating: ★★★

Toby Wilkinson here collects a selection of new translations from ancient Egypt's scattered inheritance, drawing specifically from the heiroglyphic and hieratic inscriptions (I was a little surprised to learn that he cannot read demotic, but I guess two millennia of language is broad enough as a field of study). Alongside the translated texts, Wilkinson provides introductions with highly-necessary context to introduce the reader to how each of them would have been encountered. These notes are very useful, yet concise enough that they don't overwhelm the primary material. I also particularly appreciated that additional footnotes were not banished to the very end of the book, a practice I find exhausting, but were kept close to the text to which they refer (though actual footnotes are usually better than this).

On the material: there is a lot of rather boring self-aggrandising autobiography and funerary ritual text, including many tedious titles and appeasements. I think Wilkinson is well aware these are of limited interest to the general reader, though, and selected his texts with an eye to more variety, being particularly keen to highlight elements of Egyptian writing that relate to non-monumental purposes, such as a woman's rather particular division of her assets in her will (some of her kids will rue not looking after her), or the quite forceful language in a letter from a man to his servants at home.

There are a few gems even among the more traditional types of text. The autobiographical inscription of Harkuf is amusing for its preservation -- in the entirety -- of a letter sent to Harkuf by the young boy-king of his time as he was returning from one of his expeditions to Yam. Harkuf has captured a dancing dwarf, and the king is absolutely fascinated to hear of this, writing explicit and exact instructions for the dwarf to be well-cared-for, and promising Harkuf great rewards if he manages to bring the dwarf to the king safely. Meanwhile, the battle narrative of the Battle of Meggido captures the earliest detailed battle in history, and the Pianki Stela, while rather turgid, covers an entire military campaign in a fashion that could lend itself to novelisation.

The lamentation texts are both highly interesting. The Dialogue of a Man and His Soul is, well, you get the idea, and it's quite an intriguing discussion on the topic of whether the man should kill himself, and whether life is worth living, enriched by the unusually reflective nature of the text. The Words of Khakheperraseneb is however even more powerful, and its description of the state of turmoil in society is highly relatable:

Silence toward what is heard is like a contagion, but it is painful to answer the ignorant, and contradicting an opinion creates enemies. The mind does not accept the Truth. There is no patience with the reply to an opinion: all a man loves is his own words. Everyone is crooked to the core; honest speech has been forsaken.

The lamentations are properly related to the other teachings, which include some wisdom literature (the Teaching of Ptahhotep gives especially impressive statements of virtuous behaviour for people across the social spectrum) and two texts directed particularly at novice scribes. The Satire of the Trades is amusing as a disparagement of all other professions (and also gives insight into daily Egyptian life), while Be A Writer is a text stressing the great opportunity provided for aspiring scribes, pointing out that tombs and monuments might turn to dust, but the names of great writers echo on. Particularly ironically, one of the eight names it lists as examples of this literary immortality is an author we now have no other reference for. Let Ptahemdjehuty's fate teach us all humility.

Finally, Egypt also had fantastic tales! The Tales of Wonder are of a familiar genre of short, wryly-amusing stories, each involving some special magic or strange occurrence -- you might call them fairy tales if that wasn't terribly anachronistic. The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, on the other hand, is more recognisably literature: within a structurally complex plot involving a magical island and a gigantic talking snake, it meditates on a moral about how to face circumstances beyond your control.