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An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Literature

An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Literature

by E. A. Wallis Budge

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A superb cross-section of literature produced over 4,000 years ago, translated by the author and including extracts from The Book of the Dead, legends of the gods, historical and autobiographical literature, tales of travel and adventure, fairy tales, moral and philosophical literature, poetical compositions, and much more.


A superb cross-section of literature produced over 4,000 years ago, translated by the author and including extracts from The Book of the Dead, legends of the gods, historical and autobiographical literature, tales of travel and adventure, fairy tales, moral and philosophical literature, poetical compositions, and much more.

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An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Literature

By E. A. Wallis Budge

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1997 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14586-0



THE Literature of ancient Egypt is the product of a period of about four thousand years, and it was written in three kinds of writing, which are called hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic. In the first of these the characters were pictures of objects, in the second the forms of the characters were made as simple as possible so that they might be written quickly, and in the third many of them lost their picture form altogether and became mere symbols. Egyptian writing was believed to have been invented by the god Tehuti, or Thoth, and as this god was thought to be a form of the mind and intellect and wisdom of the God who created the heavens and the earth, the picture characters, or hieroglyphs as they are called, were held to be holy, or divine, or sacred. Certain religious texts were thought to possess special virtue when written in hieroglyphs, and the chapters and sections of books that were considered to have been composed by Thoth himself were believed to possess very great power, and to be of the utmost benefit to the dead when they were written out for them in hieroglyphs, and buried with them in their coffins. Thoth also invented the science of numbers, and as he fixed the courses of the sun, moon, and stars, and ordered the seasons, he was thought to be the first astronomer. He was the lord of wisdom, and the possessor of all knowledge, both heavenly and earthly, divine and human; and he was the author of every attempt made by man to draw, paint, and carve. As the lord and maker of books, and as the skilled scribe, he was the clerk of the gods, and kept the registers wherein the deeds of men were written down. The deep knowledge of Thoth enabled him to find out the truth at all times, and this ability caused the Egyptians to assign to him the position of Chief Judge of the dead. A very ancient legend states that Thoth acted in this capacity in the great trial that took place in heaven when Osiris was accused of certain crimes by his twin-brother Set, the god of evil. Thoth examined the evidence, and proved to the gods that the charges made by Set were untrue, and that Osiris had spoken the truth and that Set was a liar. For this reason every Egyptian prayed that Thoth might act for him as he did for Osiris, and that on the day of the Great Judgment Thoth might preside over the weighing of his heart in the Balance. All the important religious works in all periods were believed to have been composed either by himself, or by holy scribes who were inspired by him. They were believed to be sources of the deepest wisdom, the like of which existed in no other books in the world. And it is probably to these books that Egypt owed her fame for learning and wisdom, which spread throughout all the civilised world. The "Books of Thoth," which late popular tradition in Egypt declared to be as many as 36,525 in number, were revered by both natives and foreigners in a way which it is difficult for us in these days to realise. The scribes who studied and copied these books were also specially honoured, for it was believed that the spirit of Thoth, the twice-great and thrice-great god, dwelt in them. The profession of the scribe was considered to be most honourable, and its rewards were great, for no rank and no dignity were too high for the educated scribe. Thoth appears in the papyri and on the monuments as an ibis-headed man, and his companion is usually a dog-headed ape called "Asten." In the Hall of the Great Judgment he is seen holding in one hand a reed with which he is writing on a palette the result of the weighing of the heart of the dead man in the Balance. The gods accepted the report of Thoth without question, and rewarded the good soul and punished the bad according to his statement. From the beginning to the end of the history of Egypt the position of Thoth as the " righteous judge," and framer of the laws by which heaven and earth, and men and gods were governed, remained unchanged.

The substances used by the Egyptians for writing upon were very numerous, but the commonest were stone of various kinds, wood, skin, and papyrus. The earliest writings were probably traced upon these substances with some fluid, coloured black or red, which served as ink. When the Egyptians became acquainted with the use of the metals they began to cut their writings in stone. The text of one of the oldest chapters of the Book of the Dead (LXIV) is said in the Rubric to the chapter to have been "found" cut upon a block of "alabaster of the south" during the reign of Menkaur, a king of the fourth dynasty, about 3700 B.C. As time went on and men wanted to write long texts or inscriptions, they made great use of wood as a writing material, partly on account of the labour and expense of cutting in stone. In the British Museum many wooden coffins may be seen with their insides covered with religious texts, which were written with ink as on paper. Sheepskin, or goatskin, was used as a writing material, but its use was never general; ancient Egyptian documents written on skin or, as we should say, on parchment, are very few. At a very early period the Egyptians learned how to make a sort of paper, which is now universally known by the name of "papyrus." When they made this discovery cannot be said, but the hieroglyphic inscriptions of the early dynasties contain the picture of a roll of papyrus, and the antiquity of the use of papyrus must therefore be very great. Among the oldest dated examples of inscribed papyrus may be noted some accounts which were written in the reign of King Assa (fourth dynasty, 3400 B.C.), and which were found at Sakkarah, about 20 miles to the south of Cairo.

Papyrus was made from the papyrus plant that grew and flourished in the swamps and marshes of Lower Egypt, and in the shallow pools that were formed by the annual Nile flood. It no longer grows in Egypt, but it is found in the swamps of the Egyptian Sudan, where it grows sometimes to a height of 25 feet. The roots and the stem, which is often thicker than a man's arm, are used as fuel, and the head, which is large and rounded, is in some districts boiled and eaten as a vegetable. The Egyptian variety of the papyrus plant was smaller than that found in the Sudan, and the Egyptians made their paper from it by cutting the inner part of the stem into thin strips, the width of which depended upon the thickness of the stem; the length of these varied, of course, with the length of the stem. To make a sheet of papyrus several of these strips were laid side by side lengthwise, and several others were laid over them crosswise. Thus each sheet of papyrus contained two layers, which were joined together by means of glue and water or gum. Pliny, a Roman writer, states (Bohn's edition, vol. iii. p. 189) that Nile water, which, when in a muddy state, has the peculiar qualities of glue, was used in fastening the two layers of strips together, but traces of gum have actually been found on papyri. The sheets were next pressed and then dried in the sun, and when rubbed with a hard polisher in order to remove roughnesses, were ready for use. By adding sheet to sheet, rolls of papyrus of almost any length could be made. The longest roll in the British Museum is 133 feet long by 16 ½ inches high (Harris Papyrus, No. 1), and the second in length is a copy of the Book of the Dead, which is 123 feet long and 18 ½ inches high; the latter contains 2666 lines of writing arranged in 172 columns. The rolls on which ordinary compositions were written were much shorter and not so high, for they are rarely more than 20 feet long, and are only from 8 to 10 inches in height.

The scribe mixed on his palette the paints which he used. This palette usually consisted of a piece of alabaster, wood, ivory, or slate, from 8 to 16 inches in length and from 2 to 3½ inches in width; all four corners were square. At one end of the palette a number of oval or circular hollows were sunk to hold ink or paint. Down the middle was cut a groove, square at one end and sloping at the other, in which the writing reeds were placed. These were kept in position by a piece of wood glued across the middle of the palette, or by a sliding cover, which also served to protect the reeds from injury. On the sides of this groove are often found inscriptions that give the name of the owner of the palette, and that contain prayers to the gods for funerary offerings, or invocations to Thoth, the inventor of the art of writing. The black ink used by the scribes was made of lamp-black or of finely-powdered charcoal mixed with water, to which a very small quantity of gum was probably added. Red and yellow paint were made from mineral earths or ochres, blue paint was made from lapis-lazuli powder, green paint from sulphate of copper, and white paint from lime-white. Sometimes the ink was placed in small wide-mouthed pots made of Egyptian porcelain or alabaster. The scribe rubbed down his colours on a stone slab with a small stone muller. The writing reed, which served as a pen, was from 8 to 10 inches long, and from one-sixteenth to one-eighth of an inch in diameter; the end used in writing was bruised and not cut. In late times a very much thicker reed was used, and then the end was cut like a quill or steel pen. Writing reeds of this kind were carried in boxes of wood and metal specially made for the purpose. Many specimens of all kinds of Egyptian writing materials are to be seen in the Egyptian Rooms of the British Museum.

As papyrus was expensive the pupils in the schools attached to the great temples of Egypt wrote their exercises and copies of standard literary compositions on slices of white limestone of fine texture, or upon boards, in the shape of modern slates used in schools, whitened with lime. The "copies" from which they worked were written by the teacher on limestone slabs of somewhat larger size. Copies of the texts that masons cut upon the walls of temples and other monuments were also written on slabs of this kind, and when figures of kings or gods were to be sculptured on the walls their proportions were indicated by perpendicular and horizontal lines drawn to scale. Portions of broken earthenware pots were also used for practising writing upon, and in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods lists of goods, and business letters, and the receipts given by the tax-gatherers, were written upon potsherds. In still later times, when skin or parchment was as expensive as papyrus, the Copts, or Egyptian Christians, used slices of limestone and potsherds for drafts of portions of the Scriptures and letters in much the same way as did their ancestors.

A roll of papyrus when not in use was kept in shape by a string or piece of papyrus cord, which was tied in a bow; sometimes, especially in the case of legal documents, a clay seal bearing the owner's name was stamped on the cord. Valuable rolls were kept in wooden cases or "book boxes," which were deposited in a chamber or "house" set apart for the purpose, which was commonly called the "house of books," i.e. the library. Having now described the principal writing materials used by the ancient Egyptians, we may pass on to consider briefly the various classes of Egyptian Literature that have come down to us.



"PYRAMID Texts" is the name now commonly given to the long hieroglyphic inscriptions that are cut upon the walls of the chambers and corridors of five pyramids at Sakkarah. The oldest of them was built for Unas, a king of the fifth dynasty, and the four others were built for Teta, Pepi I, Merenra, and Pepi II, kings of the sixth dynasty. According to the calculation of Dr. Brugsch, they were all built between 3300 and 3150 B.C., but more recent theories assign them to a period about 700 years later. These Texts represent the oldest religious literature known to us, for they contain beliefs, dogmas, and ideas that must be thousands of years older than the period of the sixth dynasty when the bulk of them was drafted for the use of the masons who cut them inside the pyramids. It is probable that certain sections of them were composed by the priests for the benefit of the dead in very primitive times in Egypt, when the art of writing was unknown, and that they were repeated each time a king died. They were first learned by heart by the funerary priests, and then handed on from mouth to mouth, generation after generation, and at length after the Egyptians had learned to write, and there was danger of their being forgotten, they were committed to writing. And just as these certain sections were absorbed into the great body of Pyramid Texts of the sixth dynasty, so portions of the Texts of the sixth dynasty were incorporated into the great Theban Book of the Dead, and they appear in papyri that were written more than 2000 years later. The Pyramid Texts supply us with much information concerning the religious beliefs of the primitive Egyptians, and also with many isolated facts of history that are to be found nowhere else, but of the meaning of a very large number of passages we must always remain ignorant, because they describe states of civilisation, and conditions of life and climate, of which no modern person can form any true conception. Besides this the meanings of many words are unknown, the spelling is strange and often inexplicable, the construction of the sentence is frequently unlike anything known in later texts, and the ideas that they express are wholly foreign to the minds of students of to-day, who are in every way aliens to the primitive Egyptian African whose beliefs these words represent. The pyramids at Sakkarah in which the Pyramid Texts are found were discovered by the Frenchman, Mariette, in 1880. Paper casts of the inscriptions, which are deeply cut in the walls and painted green, were made for Professor Maspero, the Director of the Service of Antiquities in Egypt, and from these he printed an edition in hieroglyphic type of all five texts, and added a French translation of the greater part of them. Professor Maspero correctly recognised the true character of these old-world documents, and his translation displayed an unrivalled insight into the true meaning of many sections of them. The discovery and study of other texts and the labours of recent workers have cleared up passages that offered difficulties to him, but his work will remain for a very long time the base of all investigations.

The Pyramid Texts, and the older texts quoted or embodied in them, were written, like every religious funerary work in Egypt, for the benefit of the king, that is to say, to effect his glorious resurrection and to secure for him happiness in the Other World, and life everlasting. They were intended to make him become a king in the Other World as he had been a king upon earth; in other words, he was to reign over the gods, and to have control of all the powers of heaven, and to have the power to command the spirits and souls of the righteous, as his ancestors the kings of Egypt had ruled their bodies when they lived on earth. The Egyptians found that their king, who was an incarnation of the "Great God," died like other men, and they feared that, even if they succeeded in effecting his resurrection by means of the Pyramid Texts, he might die a second time in the Other World. They spared no effort and left no means untried to make him not only a "living soul" in the Tuat, or Other World, but to keep him alive there. The object of every prayer, every spell, every hymn, and every incantation contained in these Texts, was to preserve the king's life. This might be done in many ways. In the first place it was necessary to provide a daily supply of offerings, which were offered up in the funerary temple that was attached to every pyramid. The carefully selected and duly appointed priest offered these one by one, and as he presented each to the spirit of the king he uttered a formula that was believed to convert the material food into a substance possessing a spiritual character and fit to form the food of the ka, or "double," or "vital power," of the dead king. The offerings assisted in renewing his life, and any failure to perform this service was counted a sin against the dead king's spirit. It was also necessary to perform another set of ceremonies, the object of which was to "open the mouth" of the dead king, i.e. to restore to him the power to breathe, think, speak, taste, smell, and walk. At the performance of these ceremonies it was all-important to present articles of food, wearing apparel, scents and unguents, and, in short, every object that the king was likely to require in the Other World. The spirits of all these objects passed into the Other World ready for use by the spirit of the king. It follows as a matter of course that the king in the Other World needed a retinue, and a bodyguard, and a host of servants, just as he needed slaves upon earth. In primitive times a large number of slaves, both male and female, were slain when a king died, and their bodies were buried in his tomb, whilst their spirits passed into the Other World to serve the spirit of the king, just as their bodies had served his body upon earth. As the king had enemies in this world, so it was thought he would have enemies in the Other World, and men feared that he would be attacked or molested by evilly-disposed gods and spirits, and by deadly animals and serpents, and other noxious reptiles. To ward off the attacks of these from his tomb, and his mummified body, and his spirit, the priest composed spells of various kinds, and the utterance of such, in a proper manner, was believed to render him immune from the attacks of foes of all kinds. Very often such spells took the form of prayers. Many of the spells were exceedingly ancient, even in the Pyramid Period; they were, in fact, so old that they were unintelligible to the scribes of the day. They date from the time when the Egyptians believed more in magic than religion; it is possible that when they were composed, religion, in our sense of the word, was still undeveloped among the Egyptians.


Excerpted from An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Literature by E. A. Wallis Budge. Copyright © 1997 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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