Writing and literature is a significant part in the development of all cultures and civilisations, Ancient Egypt is no exception. Writing in ancient Egypt has a history of near three thousand years and in the study of this topic one sees that it can be broken down into a large amount of detail, documents and texts can be categorised based on diverse criteria. In order to gain a basic understanding of literature in Ancient Egypt it is important to focus on the process of development and in doing so look at the foundations of the topic.
Writing in ancient Egypt in the very beginning seems confined to a small group of the elite. Literacy was generally a trait of the educated class and the upper-levels of the government, their audience being largely educated individuals like themselves. Writing had a sacred quality for the ancient Egyptians and they were careful about what was written down as they believed that once something was written down it could became true.
The term ‘Egyptian literature’ generally refers to the entire surviving body of texts from the Pre-Ptolemaic periods, including texts of religious and funerary purpose, fictional or narrative texts and non-practical texts, but appears to have excludes the likes of practical texts such as letters and administrative works. Particular periods of Egyptian history highlight different genres of texts and the introduction of different scripts.
The most revered of the Ancient Egyptian scripts is hieroglyphs; first attested to around the period of Naqada III, with the discovery of inscribed labels in the excavation of Tomb U-j at Abydos. Hieroglyphs were used primarily for ornamental and monumental inscriptions and cursive hieroglyphs for religious texts. Terms for scripts in ancient Egypt relate the different functions and institutional contexts of the scripts. Hieroglyphs were known as ‘mdw ntr’ meaning ‘god’s words’, illustrating the sacred function of this script. Cursive hieroglyphs are first attested in the first Dynasty and were used by scribes to write more easily in ink.
Aesthetic considerations were a determining factor in the layout of hieroglyphic inscriptions. Although the hieroglyphic script is made up of pictorial symbols, the script was primarily phonetic rather than pictorial with signs mostly having phonetic values.
Hieratic is first encountered from the end of the first dynastic period as a development as the cursive form of hieroglyphs used for everyday purposes. However, finds of such hieratic documents are very rare before Dynasty 5. The script sees a reduction of the pictorial aspect with a tendency to write words out more fully with a greater use of phonetic complements. From the middle kingdom different forms of the hieratic script emerge, including formal and administrative. New kingdom hieratic appears more calligraphic but there was a reform to reintroduce the pictorial aspect of the signs. Cursive hieroglyphs died out in the first millennium BCE, where as hieratic was used to the end for some religious and learned texts.
In terms of literature:
The old kingdom was dominated by religious texts including funerary and pyramid texts. Pyramid texts were found in royal pyramids in dynasties 5 and 6 such as those found in the pyramid of Unas. The Pyramid Texts were funerary inscriptions that were written on the walls of the early Ancient Egyptian pyramids at Sakkara. However, the first Pyramid Text that were actually discovered were from the Pyramid of Pepi I. The pyramid texts eventually evolved into the Book of the Dead.
There is also evidence of medical texts but excavations have not yet recovered any from the old kingdom and no narrative literature is attested. The evidence of writing is at first fragmentary in the first dynasty, and full sentences only appear from the end of the second dynasty, when writing is more extensively used on monuments and in administration.
The middle kingdom saw the introduction of fictional literature including works such as the eloquent peasant, the tale of wonder and the tale of Sinuhe.
The eloquent peasant – Dyn 9/10, popular during the middle kingdom, illustrated a form of writing which appealed to the educated Egyptian. This tale tells of the eloquence of a peasant trader who is held wrongfully by the king so he can hear more of his eloquence.
The tale of Sinuhe – around the 12th dynasty, popularity shown by many copies that have survived; including a Limestone Ostracon with the concluding stanzas of The Tale of Sinuhe written in hieratic on one side.
Such stories also give us some understanding of Egyptian life. The tale of Sinuhe describes the return of an Egyptian courtier from exile which could be used as evidence of court life. These texts purport to be historical but details in the plots indicate fantasies to entertain and they provided a good counterpoint to official texts.
The middle kingdom also saw the inclusion of the coffin texts. The Coffin Texts superseded the Pyramid Texts as magical funerary spells at the end of the Old Kingdom. Although they are mainly seen in the Middle Kingdom there are also examples dating from the Late Old Kingdom. The coffin texts illustrate the spread of afterlife ideas from the nobility classes to whole of the population and eliminated the exclusivity of the Pyramid texts.
A number of popular religious and philosophical texts are also attributed to the middle kingdom, such as the hymn to Hapy and the Dialogue between a Man Tired of life and his Ba. These pieces and expanding genres of literature is an indication of Egypt’s increasing cultural achievements in the Middle kingdom as many different forms of literature flourished giving us a more widespread picture of the culture.
The new kingdom witnessed an expansion of existing genres and added categories including offering texts, hymns and funerary texts such as the book of the dead. And further texts were added to the list of fictional texts including the tale of the predestined prince and the tale of the capture of Joppai.
Such fictional texts of this period include the ‘the tale of two brothers’, which is considered as a historical allegory and a political satire. The text is meant to entertain but also shows a sense of sophistication telling of two semi-divine protagonists and their adventures. The text is dated to around the 19th Dynasty and comes fromMemphis around the time when Seti II was still crown prince.
The book of the dead or ‘the book of coming forth by day’ is a collection of magical spells derived mainly from earlier coffin and pyramid texts. It was intended to guide the deceased through the various trials they would encounter before reaching the underworld. Knowledge of the appropriate spells was considered essential in surviving and being happy in the afterlife.
Other examples of New Kingdom funerary texts include the ‘book of the gates’ which made its appearance in the 18th dynasty and referred to the 12 gates as barriers in reference to the hours of the night.
The Amduat or ‘the book of the secret chamber’ is another example of such funerary books which is aspired to be the oldest of the royal funerary books and appears in tombs such as that of Ramesses VI. The Amduat documents the sun god’s journey through the 12 divisions of the underworld, beginning on the western horizon and reappearing as Khepri, the newborn sun in the East. They correspond to the 12 hours of the night.
The late period saw the introduction of the demotic text. Which was initially used for commercial and administrative texts. The demotic text was also used for literary purposes from at least the early Ptolemaic period onwards. Demotion narrative fiction included exploits of heroic individuals such as the tale of Setne/khaemwaset and the cycle of inaros/pedubastis. This appearance and increase in popularity of the heroic exploits in Egyptian Literature suggests influence of Greek heroic texts.
Demotic was known as the popular script and was cursive, known to the Egyptians sekh shat (writing for documents), gradually replacing hieratic except with religious and funerary matters from the 26th Dynasty onwards. Demotic has been regarded as the primary cursive script of the north as early as 700BC and of all of Egypt by 550BC.. It’s survival was ensured by features such as in administration as the provision between greek and Egyptian law courts. It was used for business, literature, some religious texts and occasional stone inscriptions, such as seen on the Rosetta stone where it appears in stone along with hieroglyphs and Greek. Three phases can be distinguished in the development of the demotic script, early, Ptolemaic and roman.
Coptic which gradually developed from greek influence and then later gave way to arabic is debated about in regards to whether it can be counted as part of the ancient egyptian culture or a more modern cultural age. Either way I will leave it for later posts.
If you are interested in a detailed study of Egyptian scripts and how to learn them, have a look at THESE RESOURCES.
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The problem with being a fast reader is that this happens: Reviewing several books at once…But fortunately Andy McDermott’s series, starting with ‘The Hunt for Atlantis’, allows one to do that because each book runs nicely on from the previous while having self-contained plots that are easy to read and very entertaining. Historians and archaeologists tend to look at fiction concerning their general area and pick out all that is wrong with it. Hence why its difficult to watch 300 with out wanting to rip apart the cinema screen. However, McDermott manages to allow one to look past the historical inaccuracies and enjoy the story itself by choosing subjects that we would dream of finding in archaeology but already know they likely don’t exist. By doing this he isn’t stepping on anyone’s toes.
McDermott’s first book ‘The Hunt for Atlantis’ tells the tale of the intelligent and obsessive Nina Wilde, doctor of archaeology, and her body-guard, former SAS agent Eddie Chase, as they search for the legendary lost city while being thwarted at every turn by an evil villain set to destroy every trace of the Atlantean culture (this particularly made one angry and rooting for the good guys, the horrors of vandalising archaeology!). With a topic such as Atlantis, straightaway even the historically obsessed such as myself can accept that this is just fiction and enjoy it as such without picking at its faults.
The best book in the series so far, McDermott allows us to identify with the characters and doesn’t fall into the trap many writers do in making the characters larger than life. Nina Wilde is no Lara Croft, she is simply as academic with an idea, drive and determination, and that’s what makes one like her. Eddie Chase is no James Bond, he is a mid-thirties Yorkshireman, slightly balding, who likes action movies and scuba diving in addition to beating the **** out of bad guys. Crude, simple, effective.
Eddie Izzard once said that he would read more books if they were a bit more like action movies and had acceptable car chases. Well here is one! I was rather impressed by the successful writing of a car chase into a book and the mix of Indiana Jones like action without it seeming corny or unrealistic.
The only problem with this book is that you can’t stop reading it and then you have to go on and read the next book, and the next book, and here I am finishing book four after starting the first less than a week ago!
While book one sucks you in and doesn’t let go, book two ‘The Tomb of Hercules’ had its faults which did
contrast to the exceptionally well written first book. The background story is altogether well written though with Nina and Eddie heading up the first major exploration of the newly devised organisation to safeguard the ancient mythical places
that turn out to be reality as well as archaeological remains around the world. The hunt for the tomb of Hercules is interesting and entertaining but its merits are unfortunately overshadowed by the air contributed by the characters. Its like one is witnessing a domestic. The bickering and all sometimes all out bitch fights between characters in the first twenty odd chapters becomes slightly unbearable though the wish to find out about the tomb of Hercules, the villains and Eddie’s strange ex-wife does spur you on to finish the book.
The ending does make up for the beginning though with wonderful fight scenes, nuclear warheads and crazy chases across the world which appeals to ones love of the unexpected. So you get to the final chapter and all is good, you are relieved by the outcome of the characters and plot, especially since the end of the domestics can’t really continue into the following books so you can read them…and then all goes a little screwed up again with appearances of former characters. Oh well, this book was not the best by any means, I can only vindicate McDermott because I have read the next two books which are worth reading. So advice here is read and move on.
McDermott’s third book ‘The Secret of Excalibur’ brings back the charm of the series as Nina and Eddie explore the legend of King Arthur to find the legendary sword Excalibur and the lost tomb of Arthur and Guinevere themselves. Unlike the first two books I am pleased to announce that no archaeological ‘formerly mythological’ sites were destroyed in the making of these book. The character relationships are back on track which is relieving and it takes a while to work out who are the true baddies which is nice because you can’t really guess the end at the beginning.
McDermott did well by changing the character dynamics to parallel those in the first book a bit more closely. The secret of Excalibur includes more well written fight scenes and secondary characters who parallel archaeologists in reality; slightly mad, often at the pub. I was also fond of the Monty Python references but they should have stopped after a while or been spaced out more because in the end there were a few too many. This book wasn’t as memorable as the first or the second because the first was brilliant and the second is mostly memorable for the wrong reasons, but having down played from the second book it was a pleasure to read with a happy and successful ending.
Now quickly we come to book four ‘The Covenant of Genesis’. This was my second favourite book after the first for several reasons: You don’t actually know what they are looking for until half way through the book because they aren’t even sure so it’s different from the previous and keeps you guessing, it gets your emotions up as you are annoyed by the destructive nature of the human race, the artefacts and ideas are new and unique, dealing with ancients beyond ancients, lost knowledge that all archaeologists wished then had and hope exists buried somewhere in the world for them to some day dig up, and lastly you really don’t expect it when McDermott does explain the secret of the covenant of Genesis.
I don’t think it was necessary though to bring back certain characters from the second book but book four did suck you in more with the hope that for once everything goes to plan for the main characters. Unfortunately though the plot is great in general the character interactions again become a bit much at times and you really start to think that it would be better for the ancient world and its artefacts if Nina and Eddie just stayed at home and watched television instead of accidently leading horrible religiously based covenants of destruction to sites real archaeologists would likely die to protect. Crossed fingers for the survival of all sites mentioned in these and future books. McDermott stop killing them!!! But I love the Top Gear references…
Oh well, over all despite the ups and downs you can’t stop reading these books. Trust me, I just got book 5 on kindle…
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