II: Definitions and Examples (C)

C. “Didactic” Tales

After looking at a few of the tales that Lichtheim classifies as “prose,” one must examine literature that she defines as “didactic.” Consider first The Instruction of Amenemhet I to his son Sesostris I, preserved on the Papyrus Millengren (Lichtheim 1973:136) — circa 1550-1292 BCE.  Within Lichtheim’s tri-partite definition of “didactic,” this story clearly falls within the category of “father to son.” The tale laments the actual regicide of King Amenemhet I in the thirtieth year of his reign (Lichtheim 1973:135), although it was obviously written after his death, perhaps by a scribe at the behest of Sesostris I, son of Amenemhet I.  It seeks to warn Sesostris against committing the same blunders that Amenemhet himself committed.  Chief among these is to, “[b]eware of subjects who are nobodies/Of whose plotting one is not aware.  Trust not a brother, know not a friend,/Make no intimates, it is worthless” (Lichtheim 1973:136).  Simply put, Amenemhet I cautions his son against trusting anyone, for everyone is secretly out to get him.  As Amenemhet reminds Sesostris, he was a good king.  He says, “I gave to the beggar, I raised the orphan/I gave success to the poor as to the wealthy; But he who ate my food raised opposition,/He whom I gave my trust used it to plot” (Lichtheim 1973:136).  Amenemhet then explains the events surrounding his death, namely that he was betrayed by his own guards (Lichtheim 1973:137).  He had no time to defend himself, because he was roused from sleep just before being assassinated.  Surprise in the night is, of course, the only way that the task of killing a pharaoh could succeed, because he is considered to be Horus- a living god (James 2005:105).  This instruction epitomizes the genre of “inscription motifs” which list positive moral attributes, because it explains why Amenemhet was a good ruler in life and therefore why he deserves an afterlife.  Thus, the last few lines of this instruction are very important, because they ensure that Sesostris would take over the throne in place of the conspirators.  In this way, “[k]ingship is again what it was in the past!” (Lichtheim 1973:138). Order in the sense of ma’at as represented by the royal family will be maintained, triumphing over chaos as represented by the conspirators.

Contrasted with Amenemhet’s Instruction is that of The Eloquent Peasant, a work preserved on four different Middle Kingdom fragmentary papyri, which together make up the full story (Lichtheim 1973:169).  Lichtheim defines The Eloquent Peasant as “didactic” because it is identified as an admonition; that is, a speech by a learned sage to individuals who are committing some injustice.  In the case of this story, the learned sage is a peasant named Khun-Anup, who rebukes both the steward Nemptynakht for his evildoing (Lichtheim 1973:171) and the magistrate for not fulfilling his duties as a justice.  In so doing, he appeals to the magistrate nine times, ostensibly getting nowhere on each occasion. Because the magistrate and His Majesty are so taken by Khun-Anup’s eloquence, they pretend to ignore his pleas, thereby inducing him to stay and petition further while secretly caring for the peasant and his family through an intermediary (Lichtheim 1973:173). Thus, the peasant becomes more and more desperate with each subsequent petition, until he finally threatens to invoke the god Anubis in order to obtain justice (Lichtheim 1973:182).  This ironic turn of events is what leads Lichtheim to suggest that the tale, beyond a discourse on the necessity for justice, is “…a parable on the utility of fine speech” (1973:169).  In her opinion, the basic message is that through the use of beautiful diction and persistence, people will always receive their just rewards. In the case of The Eloquent Peasant, the evil steward Nemptynakht is ultimately stripped of everything of worth, and his possessions are given to the peasant Khun-Anup as retribution.  Thus, the story has a just ending, and ma’at is restored (Lichtheim 1973:182).

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[2].  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.


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(C) May 2012: Devon Armstrong

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