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Though Egyptologists generally agree that some Egyptian texts were dramatic, there is little agreement on which texts fall into this category. The most commonly identified drama is the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus, but there are other texts thought by some Egyptologists to constitute dramas, including the Shabaka Stone , parts of the Coffin Texts , parts of the Book of the Dead , the Metternich Stele , the Papyrus Bremner-Rhind , the Louvre Papyrus 3129 , and the Horus Myth carved on the walls of the Edfu temple. The lack of agreement on which texts constitute drama leads to difficulties in studying drama as a distinct class of text. The following reviews the evidence that these texts represent dialogue and stage directions for dramatic presentations.


The Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus received its name from its first editor, Kurt Sethe, the distinguished German Egyptologist who worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The English archaeologist James Edward Quibell discovered the papyrus in a tomb near a temple built by Ramesses II, called the Ramesseum, in 1896. The text most probably dates to the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1759 B.C.E. ). The text describes the coronation of Senwosret I, the second king of the Twelfth Dynasty (1919–1875 B.C.E. ). The ceremony portrayed in the text is probably even older than Senwosret I’s reign. The funeral ceremony for Senwosret’s father, Amenemhet I, begins the text. The culmination of the funeral is Senwosret’s coronation.


The structure of any Egyptian text must be interpreted by the modern reader. The Egyptians used no punctuation. Thus sentence and paragraph division is sometimes a matter of opinion, though usually no Egyptologist disputes the order in which the lines are read. Sethe believed that the author of the Ramesseum Papyrus had divided it into scenes. Each scene included stage directions, provided as a narrative. The actor’s dialogue followed the narrative. The narrative, according to Sethe, describes the actions that the actors perform. It begins with the phrase “what happened was …,” but often the second sentence in the narrative is a comment on the religious meaning of the action in the previous sentence. Thus such stage directions would also include religious interpretation. The dialogue always begins with the Egyptian formula, “Words spoken by …,” found often at the beginning of Egyptian prayers and magic spells. Sethe called the third section of each scene “scenic marks.” The scribe wrote these marks horizontally, in contrast to the vertical columns of the dialogue. The first scenic mark included either the name of a god, the name of a ritual object, a ritual theme, or a ritual action. The second scenic mark gave an earthly equivalent of the divine antecedent in the first mark. The third scenic mark was the name of a place, an action, or a person. The scenic marks seem also to interpret the preceding action and dialogue.


“Vignette” is the name Egyptologists give to the illustrations found in a papyrus manuscript. Sethe noted that the vignettes included in the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus do not relate directly to the texts. Sometimes the vignette combined more than one scene. At other times, the vignette bears no clear relationship to the words found near it in the papyrus. Hence, Sethe concluded that the vignettes were used only for reading the text, not for performing it. This situation is similar to that found in illustrated examples of the Book of the Dead .


INTRODUCTION : The German Egyptologist Kurt Sethe believed that the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus consisted of scenes composed in a regular pattern. The scenes began with stage directions. These directions began with the phrase, “It happened that …” The following sentence was an interpretation of the religious meaning of the stage directions. Then the formula “words spoken by …” followed with the dialogue. Finally, the scenic marks included the names of gods, actions, or places. The following scene, which Sethe numbered three follows this pattern.

It happened that the royal bull burnt-offering was made. Horus is the one who is angry and his eye takes when the (falcon) with the great breast of Thoth comes and when the one who empties the eye during the making of the burnt-offering of all sacrificial cattle. Words spoken by Isis to Thoth: “Your lips are those which have done it.” Thoth. Making the burnt-offering and chaining the sacrificial cattle for the first time. Words spoken by Isis to Thoth. “Open your mouth again.” Thoth. Slaughtering of the sacrificial cattle.

Translated by Edward Bleiberg .


Sethe was not the final word on the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus. Two Egyptologists working in Germany during the 1960s and 1970s believed that the currently known copy of the Ramesseum Papyrus included both the original script as well as comments made after the composition of the script. According to these scholars, the comments are part of the interpretive comments found in the second sentence of Sethe’s narrative stage directions and in the scenic marks. They believed this commentary to be religious in nature and evidence that the Ramesseum Papyrus was a religious ritual. Even Sethe implied such a conclusion because he referred to it as a festival play and emphasized its ceremonial character. Other Egyptologists have debated the proper order of the scenes. Egyptian writing on papyrus is most often arranged right to left. Indeed the individual lines of the Ramesseum Papyrus are arranged in this typical fashion. Some Egyptologists, however, have attempted to arrange the scenes from left to right, while reading the individual lines from right to left. This sort of arrangement is not otherwise known in Egyptian texts. The motivationfor rearranging the scenes was to make their order more closely resemble the order of some relief sculptures carved in the Tomb of Kheruef, an official of King Amenhotep III (1390–1352 B.C.E. ), nearly 550 years after the date of the papyrus. Though the scenes in Kheruef’s tomb contain some of the same subject matter as the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus , no scholar has been able to convincingly argue that the order of the scenes in the papyrus should be read in the same order as the relief scenes.


Sethe’s second example of an Egyptian drama was the Shabaka Stone. Egyptologists named this inscribed black slab of slate after King Shabaka (716–702 B.C.E. ) who ordered that it be carved. The inscription begins with the note that it is a copy of a papyrus that was written “in the time of the ancestors.” Some problems in understanding the text stem from the fact that millers used the Shabaka Stone as part of a millstone at some time. Many parts of the center of the inscription are so worn away that they are illegible. Furthermore, Egyptologists continue to question the true date of this text. The first commentators thought it was a Fifth-or Sixth-dynasty text which would date it to approximately 2500–2170 B.C.E. These scholars saw similarities between the language used in the Shabaka Stone and the Pyramid Texts , known to be written at that time. Others believe that scribes in the time of Shabaka purposely created a text that sounded old to validate current theological ideas and imply these ideas had an ancient pedigree.


When Sethe studied the text of the Shabaka Stone, he concluded it was a drama, expanding on the ideas of his teacher, Adolf Erman. Hecame to this conclusion based on the existence of dialogues through which the gods give speeches and others reply. Again he used the formula “words spoken by …” to recognize the dialogue. The text also contains some free spaces and squares that Sethe believed divided the text. Other commentary on the Shabaka Stone, however, has suggested that the gods’ dialogue only reinforces ideas in a philosophical treatise. The major themes of the text concern the gods Horus and Seth quarreling over which is the rightful heir to Osiris, the first Egyptian king. Horus, son of Osiris, and Seth, brother of Osiris, each claim to be the next legitimate king. The god Geb judges between them, first giving Horus the north and Seth the south, then finally proclaiming the whole inheritance belongs to Horus. Much of this plot is also known from the Ramesside story, the Contendings of Horus and Seth . But in the Shabaka Stone the story then places the god Ptah as the chief of the gods. The author describes Ptah as the ultimate creator god who created the world from speech. Memphis, Ptah’s home city, is further declared the proper capital of all Egypt. Hence, many commentators regard these themes as strictly political and religious and do not regard it as a ritual drama.


INTRODUCTION : The French Egyptologist Emile Drioton sought Egyptian drama in the rituals of the Book of the Dead . Though Chapter 39 has speeches that appear to be dramatic, it is more likely that they were recited in rituals that ensured that the deceased was admitted into the next world.

SOURCE : “Chapter for Repelling a Rerek-snake in the God’s Domain,” in The Egyptian Book of the Dead . Trans. Raymond O. Faulkner (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994): 104.


Scribes wrote the Coffin Texts on the inside of coffins, beginning in the First Intermediate Period and throughout the Middle Kingdom (2130–1630 B.C.E. ). There are many different spells, mostly concerned with the deceased gaining admittance to the next world. The French Egyptologist Emile Drioton believed that spells 148, 162, and 312 represented extracts from dramas. Though few Egyptologists today accept this view, these spells represent dramatic dialogues and monologues that offer a view of the drama inherent in certain religious rituals for the Egyptians.


Much of Drioton’s conjecture comes from the dialogue between the deities Isis, Atum, and Horus in Coffin Text 148 . According to Drioton, the text begins with a title and the stage directions that Isis awakes, pregnant. She then speaks, describing in outline the conflict between Osiris, her husband, and Seth, his brother. She proclaims that the child within her womb, Horus, will become the next king. Atum first questions her knowledge, but then agrees to protect her after she insists that this child belongs to Osiris. Isis repeats Atum’s assurances and describes Horus. Horus himself then gives a speech to the gods, claiming his right to the throne. The action thus is magical and not clearly logical. The inherent drama from this text comes from the audience already knowing the story and making other connections to mythological tales while hearing this recitation. The speeches thus belong to the realm of ritual and could possibly have been acted out by priests during the ritual.


The Book of the Dead contains spells designed to enable the owner to enter the afterlife. They replaced coffin texts during the New Kingdom and through the end of pagan Egyptian religion (1539 B.C.E. to the second century C.E. ). Some of these spells, such as the one contained in Chapter 39, also resembled drama to Drioton. Chapter 39 bears the title “Repelling a Rerek-snake in the God’s Domain,” and it contains long speeches made by the god Re and an unnamed speaker, and short speeches made by the deities Geb, Hathor, and Nut. Again the situation is heavily dialogue-based. It concerns saving the god Re from the attacks of a snake. Again the text resembles a typical Egyptian ritual, but unlike the Coffin Texts , there is no clear evidence of stage directions or the intention to stage the recitation of these speeches.


The Metternich Stele received its modern name because it was once in the collection of the early nineteenth-century Austrian prince Klemens von Metternich. An artist carved the stele (a slab with an inscribed or sculpted surface) in the reign of Nectanebo I (381–362 B.C.E. ) during the final native Egyptian dynasty. Most Egyptologists today consider the stele a cippus , a magical device used to protect the owner from snake bites and scorpion stings. Drioton, however, regarded the story carved on the stele as a drama. The text describes the rescue by the goddess Isis of a rich woman’s son from a scorpion bite, and her subsequent curing of her own son, Horus, with the help of the gods when he is poisoned. Though Drioton understood the narrative as stage directions and the magic spells as dialogue, no other Egyptologist accepts this interpretation.


INTRODUCTION : Emile Drioton’s desire to discover ancient Egyptian drama in some texts also led him to search among Egyptian texts for people who had been actors. Drioton translated the Biography of Emhab in a way that implied that Emhab had been an itinerant actor, rather than a drummer in the Egyptian military. Drioton translated a word that means “followed” as “tour” and a word that means “utterance” to mean “declaim” and thus could interpret the text to mean that Emhab was an actor. Jaroslav Cerny, the Czech Egyptologist, retranslated the Biography of Emhab according to standardized meanings of the words and discovered that Emhab was a military drummer.

A boon which the king gives (to) Osiris, lord of Busiris, the great god, lord of Abydos, that he may give invocation-offerings consisting of bread and beer, oxen and fowl, to the spirit of the hereditary noble and favoured count Emhab, called Tamereru, repeating life. He says: I am one who followed his lord in his movements and one who did not fail in (any) utterance which he said. I put all strength and suppleness in (my) two hands. It was said to Hetinet: “Come! He will fight with you in endurance.” I beat him with fingers seven thousand (times) in endurance. (I) spent year 3 beating drum every day. I gave satisfaction to my lord in all his affairs, (for) he is now a god, while I am (only) a ruler. He killed and I let live. I reached Miu without counting all foreign countries, while I followed him day and night, and I reached Auaris. My lord acquired Gemishena for Lower Egyptian barley and one pot full of choice oil …

SOURCE : Jaroslav Cerny, “The Stela of Emhab from Tell Edfu,” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Kairo 24 (1969): 89.


Drioton draws the drama The Return of Seth from the Louvre Papyrus 3129 and the British Museum Papyrus 10252. The Louvre papyrus dates to the Ptolemaic period (332–30 B.C.E. ) while the British Museum papyrus dates to the reign of Nectanebo I (381–362 B.C.E. ). These texts describe the god Seth’s return from banishment after losing his battles with the god Horus. These battles resume upon his return. This story relates to the narrative in the Shabaka Stone and, like the Shabaka Stone , it has a mix of dialogue and narrative. Yet no other Egyptologist recognizes these texts as drama.


Drioton also recognized a drama in Papyrus Bremner-Rhind . A scribe wrote this papyrus during the Ptolemaic period (332–30 B.C.E. ). The story concerns a battle between the god Thoth and the demon-snake Apophis. The papyrus contains neither stage directions nor the formula that introduces speech, the criteria Drioton used to identify drama in other texts. Hence the Papyrus Bremner-Rhind is the least convincing of Drioton’s examples.


The English Egypotolgist H. W. Fairman believed that the best evidence for drama in ancient Egypt came from the texts and relief sculptures carved on the walls of the temple at Edfu. These texts and reliefs date to the Ptolemaic period (332–30 B.C.E. ) and concern the conflict between Horus and Seth. At Edfu, Seth takes the form of a hippopotamus, a theme found also in the Ramesside story that considers the same topic. Fairman advanced the discussion of drama in Egypt by showing concrete proof that drama was most likely connected to a festival. From the reliefs he identified musical instruments included in the performance as well as a chorus of singers and dancers. Fairman also believed that the king participated in the performance from the evidence of the reliefs. Most Egyptologists accepted Fairman’s analysis of the scenes as accurate. The question still remains as to whether it represents only a festival ritual or whether that ritual can be identified as a drama.


Hartwig Altenmüller, “Zur Lesung und Deutung des dramatischen Ramesseum Papyrus,” in Jaarbericht van Het Vooraziatsich-Egyptisch Genootschap Ex Oriente Lux VI (1967): 421–442.

Emile Drioton, “Le théâter dans l’ancienne Égypte,” in Revue de la Société d’Histoire du Théâtre VI (1954): 7–45.

H. W. Fairman, The Triumph of Horus (London: Batsford, 1974).

Kurt Sethe, Dramatische Texte zu altägyptische Mysterienspiel (Leipzig, Germany: J. C. Heinrichs Verlag, 1928).

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