Undergraduate Honors Thesis II C: Pt. 2

The Prophecies of Neferti (Papyrus Westcar, Dynasty 18) involves a wise individual lamenting the injustices of the world. Set in the court of King Snefru, one immediately notices similarities not only to The Eloquent Peasant but also to the Three Tales of Wonder.  What separates this story from the other two is that the sage Neferti is neither a wronged commoner nor one whose presence in court merely serves to amuse a bored pharaoh. Instead he is summoned to the royal court to prophesize the future (Lichtheim 1973:140).

I shall describe what is before me,/I do not foretell what does not come:/Dry is the river of Egypt,/One crosses the river on foot;/One seeks water for ships to sail on,/Its course having turned into shoreland./Shoreland will turn into water,/Watercourse back into shoreland./Southwind will combat northwind,/Sky will lack the single wind (Lichtheim 1973:141).

Unfortunately for King Snefru, prospects are not good.  Instead of Egypt being peaceful and orderly, Neferti belies a sinister future in which everything is turned topsy-turvy (Lichtheim 1973:140-143). As the

Sage’s exaggerated speech suggests this is a prime example of the literary topos of “natural distress” (Lichtheim 1973:139). In the quote above, Neferti provides particular examples of what will come to pass; namely, the entire geography, so central to Ancient Egyptian culture, will completely reverse, causing a massive upheaval in its peoples’ way of life.  Somehow, the “Asiatics” (Lichtheim 1973:140) which are mentioned at the beginning of the story, are the reason for the upheaval, which is not addressed until, “a king [comes] up from the South,/Ameny, the justified, by name” (Lichtheim 1973:143).  In fact, this sentence provides an important piece of evidence to show that this prophecy was written much later than its setting.  “Ameny” is referred to as “the justified,” which in ancient Egyptian means that he is dead.

A Dispute between a Man and His Ba typifies Lichtheim’s final tri-partite definition of “didactic” literature. One of the most famous Middle Egyptian texts, it is also the most controversial.  Maintained solely on one fragmentary papyrus (Papyrus Berlin), dating from between 1991 and 1802 BCE in the Twelfth Dynasty (Lichtheim 1973:163), the first part is missing.  Considering its subject matter, there has been much scholarly debate on its meaning[1].  What is clear, however, is the basic storyline of the remainder of the papyrus.  The known portion begins with a man arguing with his ba, which has just threatened to leave him (Lichtheim 1973:164). The man laments life and makes known his desire to be buried in the West in the proper fashion (Lichtheim 1973:164-165).  As he explains, “If my ba listens to me [without malice], its heart in accord with me, it shall be happy.  I shall make it reach the West like one who is in his tomb, whose burial a survivor tends” (Lichtheim 1973:165).  He further enumerates on all of the benefits allotted to the ba of a person who has been properly buried, in an attempt to entice it into complacency.  However, the ba refutes this tactic by offering two rather puzzling parables in an attempt to make the man reconsider his desire for death.  In response, the man laments, emphatically stating repetitively that, “Lo, my name reeks” and that society is destitute (Lichtheim 1973:166).  “Brothers are mean,” he complains, “The friends of today do not love” (Lichtheim 1973:166).  In any case, he is certain that “Death is before me today” (Lichtheim 1973:168), a poetic construction which finally serves to convince the ba to stay with him, despite its misgivings.


de Buck, A. The Papyrus Westcar.  Egyptian Reading Book, 2nd Ed.  Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten. 1963

Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol. I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms.  Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. 1973.

References for Translation:

de Buck, A.  The Papyrus Westcar.  Egyptian Reading Book, 2nd Ed.  Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten. 1963.

Gardiner, Sir Alan.  Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs, Third Edition.  Oxford, UK: Griffith Insitute. 1957.

Hoch, James E. Middle Egyptian Grammar.  Toronto, Canada: Benben Publications. 1997.

Faulkner, Raymond O. A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian.  Oxford: Griffith Institute. 1962.

Shennun, David. English-Egyptian Index of Faulkner’s Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian.  Malibu, CA: Undena Publications. 1977.

[1] This paper will not delve into the scholarly discussion, but interested parties are encouraged to research all

commentaries on their own, as Lichtheim suggests (1973:163).

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