III: Analyzing “Three Tales of Wonder”


In interpreting Egyptian “prose” tales as representing some sort of historicity, one misses the underlying message these texts attempt to achieve.  For example, we read in Three Tales of Wonder, “He spoke concerning her [Redjadet] that they [her 3 sons] shall achieve this excellent office in this land in its entirety” (Papyrus Westcar IX 11). By making this claim, the magician Djedi prophetically tells of the coming of the first three kings of Dynasty V.  These three kings serve as the precedent that the entirety of the Papyrus Westcar is an explanation of the change in political powerfrom Dynasty IV to V (Lichtheim 1973:216), as well as the change in the religious dynamic.  Dr. Harold M. Hays disagrees with this assessment.


“For my own part, even after having set its wonders aside, I would argue that the text comes up short when approached for its historical content, but that, on the contrary, it can be prized as a literary work” (Hayes 2000:2).


In laying out his thesis in The Historicity of Papyrus Westcar, Hays enumerates on three main points, thereby rejecting the theory that Three Tales of Wonder should be viewed as purely historical in intent.  His first point addresses the claim that Papyrus Westcar demonstrates the development of the sun cult in Dynasty V (Hays 2000:2).  As early as Dynasty IV, the pharaohs appear to increase their use of the “Son of Re” (i.e., “son of the sun”) name. Concerning the advent of the “Sun Temple,” under Pharaoh Userkaf (the first Pharaoh of Dynasty V[3]) Hays notes several issues.  Three of the kings after Khufu, he points out, use the “Son of Re” name in Dynasty IV.  These are the Pharaohs Djedefre, Khafre, and Menkaure (Hays 2000:2-3). Khafre and Menkaure are two of the three pharaohs who constructed the large pyramids at Giza.  Conversely, when one considers the pharaohs of Dynasty V, the dynasty in which some scholars claim the “Son of Re” name developed, there exist only four uses of the title (Hays 2000:3): Sahure, Niuserre, Izezi, and Wenis.

Thus, there is no significant rise in the use of the “Son of Re” name, and no correlation with the advent of sun temples.  Izezi and Wenis are the last two pharaohs of Dynasty V, and yet these two kings did not have sun temples constructed in their name.  Conversely, Sahure and Niuserre are the only pharaohs who used the “Son of Re” name and who also had sun temples constructed.  This means that the construction of sun temples and use of the “Son of Re” name are not connected (Hays 2000:3), and that Re was already an important deity before the start of the Fifth Dynasty.  Furthermore, Hays suggests that the “Harmakhis temple” at the base of the Sphinx (carved in the Fourth Dynasty, at the time that Khafre’s pyramid was constructed), could also be considered a sun temple, which seriously challenges the belief that these temple types are purely a Dynasty V phenomenon.

Hays’ second point discusses the issue of kingship succession.  In response to King Khufu’s discontent with Djedi’s prophecy, the sage explains, “… [F]irst your son, then his son, then one of them” (Papyrus Westcar IX 14).  This means that Khufu’s son, Hardedef, will assume power after Khufu, followed by Hardedef’s son, before shifting power to the three sons of Redjadet.  However, Hays points out that the Old Kingdom king lists clearly illustrate that not two, but four pharaohs intervened between Khufu (Dynasty IV) and the first king (Userkaf) of Dynasty V (Hays 2000:7).

Finally, Hays’ discusses (based on the king lists) the names of the first three pharaohs of Dynasty V (Hays 2000:7): Userkaf, Sahure, and finally Nefirerkare, whose birth name was Kakai.  In referring to the names as translated from the Ancient Egyptian, similarities of the first and last of these names are of interest to Hays (Hays 2000:7).  He leaves the second name out of his discussion, believing it to not be close enough in spelling to mention. Furthermore, although he mentions in a footnote that the name “Redjadet,” referring to the mother of the three kings in the story could actually be a reference to Khentikaus, who was the mother of probably two of the first three kings of Dynasty V (Hays 2000:8), he concludes that these two names are too dissimilar to be taken as mere artistic license. However, he does admit that there is a certain artistic similarity between the names of the first and third pharaohs: Wsrf (Papyrus Westcar X 9) with Userkaf, and Kkw (Papyrus Westcar X 23) with Kakai, the birth name of Nefirerkare (Hays 2000:7).

Although he believes the second name of Ra sAx (Papyrus Westcar X 17)is not at all related to the name of Sahure, one can interpret the name Ra sAx as quite similar to the actual king’s name.  This is because it was common in ancient Egyptian writing to honorifically transpose names: i.e., to write the deity’s name first because it was the most important element in the name (Brewer and Teeter 2007:138).  By placing Re at the end of the name, and then transliterating it into Ancient Greek, one easily gets the name Saphres, or Sahure as we know him.  Perhaps, then, one can understand the names in Three Tales of Wonder as representing the names of the first three kings of Dynasty V.  Yet, this does not detract from Hays’ overall argument.  The names, as accurate as they may be, are still only puns on the originals.  Therefore, there is artistic license in how this scene is constructed; artistic license, which Hays is certain, has some motive other than merely representing or misrepresenting history.

Hays’ first point concerning solar imagery in Dynasty IV seems reasonable. For example, some have suggested that the function of the mortuary temple of Khufu in his pyramid complex at Giza was to venerate the pharaoh’s “celestial aspect of Ra” (Brewer and Teeter 2007:182).  Ritual boats found at the site suggest this interpretation.  These boats could have served the pharaoh on his celestial journey across the heavens in his afterlife (Brewer and Teeter 2007:182) in order to forever manage Egypt from above. With respect to Hays’ second point, modern scholars basically agree that three or four Dynasty IV pharaohs followed after Khufu’s reign to the beginning of Dynasty V.  A footnote from Hays discusses the argument of two “blood-successors standing for more than one each” (Hays 2000:7), which suggests that the ancient author could have, as artistic license, lumped multiple successors together.  However, this is a weak argument, and one that Hays does not readily accept.  Rather, to explain this inaccuracy, Hays argues that there must have been another reason for doing so (Hays 2000:8).

In looking at Hays’ theory of the current interpretation of Papyrus Westcar, one can see how labeling the work as “prose” is problematic.  There is a message being imparted to the reader, and it is not just history.  If the historicity of Papyrus Westcar is the entire purpose of the tale, then why include a section in which Khufu is told about a boating party conducted years ago by his father, Snefru? Why include a story in which Khufu actually witnesses a sage replace severed heads onto their proper bodies? These questions represent the crux of Hays’ argument (Hays 2000:8).  After hearing the story of the boating party, Khufu states “I have seen his display of skill” (Lichtheim 1973:217) and decrees an offering to be made.  Yet, it is clear that he has not witnessed this miracle.  His son, Prince Hardedef, points this out, and suggests that he witness a true miracle in his own time (Papyrus Westcar VI 22-25), the miracles of the magician Djedi.  Hays argues that by introducing Djedi, Prince Hardedef introduces “a narrative about true and false things” (Hays 2000:9), reflecting how truth and lies are represented.  Entertainment and seriousness, an extension of the dichotomy of true and false things, are blurred throughout the story. A chief lector-priest like Djada-em-ankh in the boating party story (Lichtheim 1973:217) and the magician Djedi in the story of the severed heads are called upon to placate the bored pharaoh.  Compare that with the three gods sent down to aid Redjadet in giving birth. They are disguised as “female musicians with Khnum as their palanquin” (Papyrus Westcar IX 27-28). The lector-priest might not have existed, or managed to reclaim a lost pendant from the sea, but the three future pharaohs certainly did exist and were bound to the aid of those who appear as entertainers.  In the former two cases, the role of chief lector-priest and the role of the magician are adopted for whimsy, but in the case of the births frivolity is a disguise for importance.

Taking into consideration the dichotomy of “true and false things” (Hays 2000:9), Papyrus Westcar questions itself as a relevant historical source (Hays 2000:9).  We have already seen how the names of the three kings are puns on their original names, and that the order of kings is misrepresented.  Therefore, according to Hays, Papyrus Westcar is using history to impart a message and it is this: “…[I]f the story is to be read as a coherent whole, then how all of the old kings are characterized has to be put in relation to the new line” (Hays 2000:11).  The tale is perfectly balanced.  At the front, there is King Snefru, King Khufu, and Prince Hardedef.  At the end, there are the three sons of Redjadet.  Snefru, as seen through the boating party, is bored and decides to have scantily clad women take him for a joyride in a boat (Lichtheim 1973:216).  Khufu, also bored, demands his sons to tell him tales of miracles and magicians (Hays 2000:12).  Prince Hardedef secures the magician Djedi for the purpose of entertainment.  These are all incredibly selfish undertakings; instead of conducting the duties of the State, these decadent pharaohs look for an escape from their work. Contrast this with the three new kings. They, Re promises the gods, will “build [them] new temples, and [that] their altars will be endowed, their offering tables abundantly provided for, and their divine offerings multiplied” (Hays 2000:12); all things, in other words, that a true pharaoh ought to do. Additionally, these offerings will be made available to all the gods, not just to the sun-god Re, further weakening the theory that this is a treatise on the sun cult.  Finally, the miracle of Redjadet’s birthing experience is a miracle created for the greater good of Egypt rather than for personal satisfaction.  Thus, Three Tales of Wonder elaborates on what it means to be a “good” king, thereby placing the tale within a specific historical context to drive home the point.  The historicity of the tale is generally irrelevant, except to provide a historical context for which kings the author considers to be effective rulers versus which ones are not.


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(C) May 2012: Devon Armstrong

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