IV(A): Analyzing “The Shipwrecked Sailor”


A. The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor

Given Hays’ interpretation of Three Tales of Wonder, one can similarly analyze The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor. Consider the shipwrecked sailor as an analogue of the eloquent peasant.  In both cases, the protagonist is an individual who has fallen into trouble, but through fine speech, rectifies the situation.  For the eloquent peasant, his fine speech allows his petitions to be heard and finally answered, while for the sailor, it is about telling the simple truth and trusting in righteousness.  In using their eloquence, both individuals demonstrate a deeper moral value that permeates the work.  In the case of the Shipwrecked Sailor, itis about providing advice to the captain, utilizing an allegory to suggest what the captain should expect.

Now listen to me, my lord!  I am not exaggerating.  Wash yourself, pour water over your fingers.  You must answer when questioned.  You must speak to the king with presence of mind.  You must answer without stammering!  A man’s mouth can save him.  His speech makes one forgive him” (Lichtheim 1973:212)


The attendant here urges the captain to listen to his advice, for he has gone through similar turmoil.  His own experience, of course, is fantastical.  There is no real island with a giant snake. Yet, this fortune is not simply fantasy; like Djedi in Three Tales of Wonder, it serves a purpose.  Consider why the sailor believes this experience to be akin to what the captain is experiencing now.  The captain has had some misfortune in Wawat.  The attendant’s own story involves misfortune; indeed what could be more unfortunate than the sailor who washes ashore alone, his entire crew having been lost at sea?  The appearance of the snake scares the shipwrecked sailor just as much as the impending meeting with the pharaoh instills fear in the heart of the captain.  “Though you speak to me, I do not hear it; I am before you without knowing myself,” the shipwrecked sailor says in fear, responding to the snake who has just asked him how he came to be there on the island.  When he is interrogated again, the sailor effectively articulates his predicament, earning the snake’s benevolence.

The snake’s benevolence is indicative of another point.  The snake in the sailor’s story serves as a king/god-figure; the description of the snake seems to symbolize pharaoh.  “He was 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).  This description sounds very much like that of an inner sarcophagus lid, a masterful depiction of royalty in semi-precious metals.  Indeed, this snake-king is a most kind and loving creature, yet simultaneously stern and fair, able to provide everything that the sailor needs to survive until he is rescued.  As a god-figure, the snake knows all, and is able to predict that the sailor will be rescued.  As the sailor is about to leave with his rescuers, the snake urges him to load the ship with the island’s riches, and only asks to be “a good name in [his] town” (Lichtheim 1973:214).  He does not need anything except to be venerated for his kindness.  This is no different than a pharaoh erecting a stela containing an offering formula to the gods (and by extension the whole country), to demonstrate his power to care for all of Egypt. Given this parallel, it is clear that the sailor is making a statement about what true kingship entails.  “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, fellow…” the snake-king says (Lichtheim 1973:213), “…It is god who has let you live and brought you to this island of the ka.”  The snake-king will not harm the man, but instead offers aid to him.  This suggests the image of a good pharaoh who will forgive people of their misfortunes and help them through their troubles.  In so doing, the sailor argues that the man should be glad to be alive after the trials in Wawat, a circumstance that the pharaoh will most probably take into consideration. If one accepts that the snake is an allegory for Pharaoh, then the snake’s tale becomes even more important.  It demonstrates that even one as powerful as a king can have misfortune befall him.  Therefore, the captain should not concern himself with how he will be received in the court.  All will be well.

Despite the sailor’s efforts, the captain is not convinced. He says, “Don’t make an effort, my friend.  Who would give water at dawn to a goose that will be slaughtered in the morning?” (Lichtheim 1973:215)  Wholly convinced that his own dilemma is beyond hope, the captain resigns himself to his fate.  The tale ends here, with no resolution of whether the captain is pardoned or not. Yet we may conclude the following: if Pharaoh is just and seeks to uphold ma’at, the captain would be forgiven for his misfortunes.  But if Pharaoh is not just, then he (the pharaoh) would be at fault.  The actual pharaoh is never named in the text, which means that the main purpose of the story is not to venerate or vilify any particular pharaoh, but is supposed to be a broader commentary on kingship in general.  The fact that the pharaoh never appears to make a decision on the matter leaves it up to the readers, challenging them to make the right decision[4].  As such, it is not merely a story for its own sake, but rather seeks to impart a specific message through the use of advice.  Clearly, The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor is, in actuality, “didactic.”


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(C) May 2012: Devon Armstrong

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