IV(B): Analyzing “The Story of Sinuhe”

B. The Story of Sinuhe

The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor is not supposed to be taken as historical fact, whereas The Story of Sinuhe is considered by scholars to be autobiographical, or at least quasi-autobiographical.  Surely, by Lichtheim’s definition, this must be a “prose” work.  However, there is much about the tale that suggests a different interpretation.  For example, Sinuhe provides a list of his successes and good qualities.  Says Sinuhe, “I let everyone stay with me.  I gave water to the thirsty; I showed the way to him who had strayed; I rescued him who had been robbed” (Lichtheim 1973:227).  This is clearly reminiscent of the monumental inscriptions, which were clearly idealized lists of desirable moral traits.  Eventually, his bragging leads to a battle with a jealous man, whom he defeats in combat.  “When I had made his weapons attack me, I let his arrows pass by me without effect; one following the other.  Then, when he charged me, I shot him, my arrow sticking in his neck” (Lichtheim 1973:228).  This scene illustrates his fortune in battle; somehow Sinhue manages to defeat his opponent, the hero of Retenu, with only one shot to the neck, while the “hero” emptied his entire quiver at Sinuhe, failing to score a single hit. Although perhaps symbolizing the superiority of Egypt, the likelihood of this combat actually happening seems implausible. If these events are not literally true, but rather exaggerations of Sinuhe’s experiences, then perhaps one should question Lichtheim’s classification of the tale as predominately prose.  There is a style of story known as a “story that might be true” (Strauss 1996:12). This type of story is presented as if it had actually happened even though it has no basis in reality. Perhaps one could include The Story of Sinuhe in this category, thereby interpreting it as a treatise on what it means to be a good king; in this caseone who is at once understanding and accepting.  Sinuhe, out of fear for himself, flees Egypt for Asia, unsure of his future if he were to remain in the wake of the upheaval.  Yet, in his old age, he cries out for his homeland, “Whichever god decreed this flight, have mercy, bring me home!  Surely you will let me see the place in which my heart dwells!” (Lichtheim 1973:228)    Pharaoh, learning of his plea to return, reassures him that he can do so without consequence.  Indeed, Pharaoh does not understand why Sinuhe left, because he was so clearly not a part of the coup.  Taking solace in the knowledge that the pharaoh has forgiven his cowardice, Sinuhe returns to Egypt, ready to renew his original position as the beloved of his lord. Understanding the importance of The Story of Sinuhe involves returning to the Three Tales of WonderThree Tales is set within a given historical period, and is fairly accurate, except for the issues enumerated by Harold Hays.  How then, is The Story of Sinuhe similar to the Three Tales?  Both relate stories that may be true, a type of tale that utilizes historical fact to help drive the story.  Sinuhe may well have existed, as King Khufu definitely did, but that is not what is actually important.  The relevant fact here is that the pharaoh allowed Sinuhe to return home after the assassination of Amenemhet I.  In this tale, the new king, Sesostris I, made his benevolence unquestionable, readily accepting Sinuhe back to Egypt.  Pharaoh’s benevolence is analogous to that of the new born king, Wsrf, and his two brothers in The Three Tales of Wonder, wherein it is promised that these future pharaohs will be sure to make the proper sacrifices to all of the gods, a duty from which Kings Snefru and Khufu appear to have been shirking. Given this comparison it seems that the story venerates the righteousness of the new king for his compassion and it is therefore not difficult to see how one should label The Story of Sinuhe as didactic.


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(C) May 2012: Devon Armstrong

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