II: Definitions and Examples (A/B)


A. Definitions

Miriam Lichtheim identifies “didactic literature” as consisting of three types (1973:134). She describes the first asa father figure providing advice to his son, as in the case of The Instruction of Amenemhet I.  The second refers to admonishing, or prophetic speech, usually given by some wise man or prophet, often in defense of the public good (Lichtheim 1973:134).  Both The Eloquent Peasant and The Prophecies of Neferti fall into this category.  The final classification is an argumentative dialogue between two individuals, as in the case of The Dispute between a Man and His Ba (Lichtheim 1973:134).  With respect to “prose” tales, she recognizes that they “come from the sphere of the educated scribes and from the ambiance of the court” (Lichtheim 1973:211), which means that they all reflect elite values.  What distinguishes these tales from their didactic counterparts, however, is that they share similarities to modern folk tales.  They often incorporate wondrous or fantastical events.  They are tales that may be true or at least meant to be perceived as true (Lichtheim 1973:211).  For Lichtheim, “prose”tales are either biographical accounts or complete fiction.

B. “Prose” Tales

In order to properly compare these genres, it is necessary to first look at several individual examples of literature that are encompassed by them.  First, I consider three stories designated as “prose,” beginning with The Three Tales of Wonder. As stated earlier the only known copy, Papyrus Westcar, dates from the Hyksos Period (Lichtheim 193:215) — approximately 1620 to 1530 BCE.  Much of the beginning of the papyrus is lost, but researchers agree that the story itself is comprised of five sub-stories (Lichtheim 1973:215).  However, Lichtheim translates only the three latter ones because the first section is all but completely lost and the second is largely lacunae.  She begins with the “Boating Party” of King Snefru, father of the pharaoh Khufu (Lichtheim 1973:216), as told to Khufu by one of his sons, Baufre. King Snefru is quite bored and orders scantily clad women to row him around in a boat.  One of the women drops her pendant into the water (Lichtheim 1973:217), but the chief lector-priest is able to call it back from the depths of the lake.  Upon completion of this tale by his brother, Prince Hardedef informs King Khufu of the magical prowess of the magician Djedi, a living powerful magician.  The Pharaoh directs Prince Hardedef to locate Djedi and invite him to the court (Papyrus Westcar VII 8).  After arriving at the palace and demonstrating his magical abilities, Djedi prophesizes the birth of a set of triplets, each destined to become a pharaoh (Papyrus Westcar IX 9- IX 14).  The King is upset by this, out of concern for his own family line, but Djedi assures him that it would be “[a]s how I said- first your son, then his son, then one of them” (Papyrus Westcar IX 14).  King Khufu then asks about Redjadet, the mother of these triplets, ushering in the third and supposedly final tale: that of the actual birth of the triplets.  These children are named as follows: Wsrf (Papyrus Westcar X 9), Ra sAx (or “Sahure”- because it is undoubtedly an honorific transposition – Papyrus Westcar X 17), and Kkw (Papyrus Westcar X 23).  These names have been commonly understood to be puns on names of the real pharaohs of Dynasty V.  Although their mother, Redjadet, was “suffering herself with her irksome birth” (Papyrus Westcar IX 22), thanks to the gods that were sent to her aid (Papyrus Westcar IX 23), she successfully delivered the three future kings.  The miracle of her and her children surviving the difficult birth seems to be the focus of the tale. Since these tales are true, or meant to be perceived as true, Lichtheim classifies the Three Tales of Wonder as prose.

I now turn to The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor.  This story is preserved on the Papyrus Leningrad, whose provenience is unknown (Lichtheim 1973:211).  The papyrus is currently housed in a museum in Moscow.  This story is set as a story within a story, framed within yet another story.  It begins with a ship returning from an expedition to Wawat (Lichtheim 1973:212) and the captain is lamenting the troubles that he experienced during the journey.  One of his attendants, in an attempt to cheer him up, begins to tell his own tale.  This man had been on an earlier expedition, with a crew comprised of Egypt’s finest sailors, “[e]ach of them- his heart was stouter, his arm stronger than his mate’s” (Lichtheim 1973:213).  Caught in a storm, “the ship died” (Lichtheim 1973:213), along with the crew, leaving the man marooned alone on an island.  This proves to be fortuitous, because the island is rich with all of the goods that an Egyptian would ever need (Lichtheim 1973:212).  Also on this island lives a giant snake, described most magnificently as being, “…of thirty cubits; his beard was over two cubits long.  His body was overlaid with gold; his eyebrows were of real lapis lazuli” (Lichtheim 1973:212).  Originally, the snake is firm and threatening:

“Who brought you, who brought you, fellow, who brought you?  If you delay telling me who brought you to this island, I shall make you find yourself reduced to ashes, becoming like a thing unseen” (Lichtheim 1973:212-213).

However, upon learning of the sailor’s predicament, the snake turns out to be quite benevolent.  He informs the man that he would be saved by “a ship…with sailors in it whom you know” (Lichtheim 1973:213).  But first, he tells his own tale of woe, in which he laments the death of his family due to a meteor striking the island (Lichtheim 1973:213).  Four months later, the foretold ship arrives and carries the man home so that he, “may die in [his] town” (Lichtheim 1973:213), an extremely important event for an ancient Egyptian.  Returning to the present time, the captain rebukes the attendant’s attempts to cheer him up, convinced that he is in deep trouble with the pharaoh and has no hope of redemption (Lichtheim 1973:215).

The final prose tale I shall discuss is The Story of Sinuhe, which describes the supposedly real-life events of a man fleeing the court of Amenemhet I after that king had been assassinated.  Two principle manuscripts come from the Middle Kingdom, one from Dynasty XII and the other from the end of Dynasty XIII (Lichtheim 1973:222-223) — approximately 1750 BCE.  One other papyrus dates from Dynasty XIX (1298 to 1187 BCE), but is more incomplete.  Sinuhe, at the beginning of the story, is a governor and the beloved attendant of King Amenemhet I (Lichtheim 1973:223).  However, soon into the story the “king ascended to his horizon” (Lichtheim 1973:223), which is a euphemism referring to the death of Amenemhet I, apparently due to regicide. Sinuhe, out of fear, flees Egypt.

But the royal sons who had been with him had also been sent for.  One of them was summoned while I was standing (there).  I heard his voice, as he spoke, while I was in the near distance.  My heart fluttered, my arms spread out, a trembling befell all my limbs.  I removed myself in leaps, to seek a hiding place.  I put myself between two bushes, so as to leave the road to its traveler (Lichtheim 1973:224).

Whether Sinuhe fears he will be wrongfully accused, or whether he fears that he will be a target of the plot, is not clear, but he flees Egypt for the friendly regions in Asia.  He eventually settles in Upper Retenu, at the invitationof its ruler, Ammunenshi (Lichtheim 1973:224).  During this time, Sinuhe becomes quite successful, eventually becoming chief of the tribe.  He marries and has good “strong men” for sons (Lichtheim 1973:227).  He wins every battle he fights and takes away many spoils of war, for which the ruler is grateful.  This behavior incites a jealous enemy, against whom he is also victorious (Lichtheim 1973:228).  Hearing of Sinuhe’s situation, King Sesostris I, son of the assassinated pharaoh, Amenemhet I, sends a decree to Sinuhe, urging him to return home to his people (Lichtheim 1973:230).  Additionally, he asks why it was that Sinuhe left in the first place, because he was clearly not a party to the regicide.  Sinuhe admits that his behavior was rash, explaining that there was no logic to his self-exile.  “I was not afraid; no one ran after me; the god who had willed this flight dragged me away” (Lichtheim 1973:231).  Forgiven of any wrongdoing, Sinuhe returns home, where he is accepted back into the royal palace as a beloved friend of the pharaoh (Lichtheim 1973:232).


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(C) May 2012: Devon Armstrong

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