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text authors egyptian literature

Nearly all Egyptian works of literature are anonymous. Even in works of wisdom or teaching attributed to famous sages of the past, it is never clear to modern readers whether or not the “I” of a first person text is the actual author or whether the attribution to a famous sage is a literary device that adds value to the advice given in the text. Though authors are difficult to name, it is still possible to detect the voice of a real author behind many kinds of stories and texts. The best method for finding the voice of an author, suggested by the French Egyptologist Phillipe Derchain, is to compare two or more texts that relate similar information. Yet even when there is only one version of a text, it is possible to appreciate the author’s voice.


Literary critics distinguish between the “I” of a first-person narrative, called the narrator, and the author of the text. In Egyptian literature, modern scholars have often supposed that the author was either the person named as the “I” in the text or that the author was the scribe who wrote down an oral tradition. For example, Egyptologists once identified the author of the text called The Teachings of Ptahhotep with a vizier who lived during the reign of King Djedkare Isesy (2415–2371 B.C.E. ) during the Old Kingdom, approximately 400 years before the text was composed in the Twelfth Dynasty. This attribution, in Egyptian thought, made the text more important. Modern culture attaches such importance to knowing the author that it seems unimaginable that the person who composed the text would attribute it to the long-dead vizier. Sometimes Egyptologists have thought that the author of the text was the scribe who wrote it down or who owned it. Such is the case with the poem composed about the Nineteenth-dynasty Battle of Qadesh. Older Egyptologists thought that Pentawer, the scribe who wrote it down and possibly owned the papyrus, was the author. Derchain suggested that even the Egyptians became confused about this practice in the New Kingdom. In the Ramesside text known as Papyrus Chester Beatty , eight famous authors of the past are praised. Among them is Ptahhotep, who almost certainly did not write the text that Ramesside readers had available. In the end, the anonymity of the majority of Egyptian authors is similar to the anonymity of almost all Egyptian artists.


One way to assess the author’s role, suggested by Derchain, is to compare the way that different writers described similar experiences. Derchain analyzed three Middle Kingdom stelae (upright slabs of stone with inscriptions), that each commemorate a different writer’s pilgrimage to Abydos, the city sacred to the god Osiris. The three authors are Sehetepibre, Iyhernefert, and Mentuhotep. All three came from families wealthy enough to ensure that they were literate. They also had access to libraries and archives and were familiar with Egyptian literature. As authors, they each chose different aspects of the pilgrimage to emphasize in their accounts. Sehetepibre emphasized his loyalty to the king and the way that the pilgrimage demonstrated that loyalty. Iyhernefert wrote about the ritual of Osiris that he observed and attended when he went to Abydos. Mentuhotep’s account supplements Iyhernefert’s account of the ritual, but he also included information on his own earlier career and more epithets about himself. His account is the most literary of the three. Its style is the most sophisticated, and he makes more references to other Egyptian literature in his account. This higher style confirms his contention that he worked in the library of a temple and might be considered more of an intellectual than the other two authors. Sehetepibre and Iyhernefert write more like the bureaucrats they were. But beyond style, each author chose to include different details of the pilgrimage. When combined with stylistic decisions, these choices are what distinguish them as authors.


Another example of a story whose author had a distinctive voice was the anonymous writer of The Contendings of Horus and Seth . Alan Gardiner, the English Egyptologist, suggested in the early twentieth century that this story was a tale, written down from an oral storyteller’s recitation. Derchain and others have realized that the story is too sophisticated, especially in its literary allusions, to be merely a popular story. In fact, it probably contains veiled references to the struggle for power which followed the death of Ramesses III (1156 B.C.E. ) and continued in the reign of Ramesses IV (c. 1156–1150 B.C.E. ). Some scholars have suggested that the story celebrates the accession of Ramesses IV in the same way European kings used to commission operas for their coronations. The story has a definite point of view and that in itself suggests that there was a real author, though his name is not known.


Another case study for an examination of authors’ voices concerns two works of literature on the wars of Thutmose III (1479–1425 B.C.E. ). The differences between the two accounts of his wars— The Annals and The Gebel Barkal Stele (named after the place where it was found)—illustrate how two different authors approached similar subject matter. Scribes carved The Annals on the walls of the Karnak Temple, just north of modern Luxor, in an inner court. The author remarks in the text that he based it on extracts from the journal that military scribes kept while the campaigns were in progress. In addition to lists of places that the army subdued, the most remarkable segment is the description of the council of war preceding the Battle of Megiddo (1458 B.C.E. ). The


INTRODUCTION : The majority of Egyptian authors were anonymous. Yet certain authors of teachings and of the pessimistic literature who wrote in the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1759 B.C.E. ) were acclaimed by an anonymous author of the Ramesside period (1292–1070 B.C.E. ), six or seven hundred years later. This Ramesside author asserted that literary fame was more important, and even more reliable, than the immortality granted through building a tomb. Indeed, this later author seems unaware that at least one of his heroes, Ptahhotep, did not even write the work attributed to him. Instead, a Twelfth-dynasty author attributed a work to Ptahhotep, who lived in the Fifth Dynasty, in order to make the work more important. A scribe copied this text onto columns two and three of a papyrus now known as Papyrus Chester Beatty IV .

If you but do this, you are versed in writings.
As to those learned scribes,
Of the time that came after the gods,
They who foretold the future,
Their names have become everlasting,
While they departed, having finished their lives,
And all their kin are forgotten.

They did not make for themselves tombs of copper,
With stelae of metal from heaven.
They knew not how to leave heirs,
Children [of theirs] to pronounce their names;
They made heirs for themselves of books,
Of Instructions they had composed.

They gave themselves [the scroll as lector]-priest,
The writing-board as loving-son.
Instructions are their tombs,
The reed pen is their child,
The stone-surface their wife.
People great and small
Are given them as children,
For the scribe, he is their leader.

Their portals and mansions have crumbled,
Their ka -servants are [gone];
Their tombstones are covered with soil,
Their graves are forgotten.
Their name is pronounced over their books,
Which they made while they had being;
Good is the memory of their makers,
It is for ever and all time!

Be a scribe, take it to heart,
That your name become as theirs.
Better is a book than a graven stela,
Than a solid [tomb-enclosure].
They act as chapels and tombs
In the heart of him who speaks their name;
Surely useful in the graveyard
Is a name in people’s mouth!

Man decays, his corpse is dust,
All his kin have perished;
But a book makes him remembered
Through the mouth of its reciter.
Better is a book than a well-built house,
Than tomb-chapels in the west;
Better than a solid mansion,
Than a stela in the temple!

Is there one here like Hardedef?
Is there another like Imhotep?
None of our kin is like Neferti,
Or Khety, the foremost among them.
I give you the name of Ptah-emdjehuty,
Of Khakheperre-sonb.
Is there another like Ptahhotep,
Or the equal of Kaires?
Those sages who foretold the future,
What came from their mouth occurred;
It is found as [their] pronouncement,
It is written in their books.
The children of others are given to them
To be heirs as their own children.
They hid their magic from the masses,
It is read in their Instructions.
Death made their names forgotten
But books made them remembered!

SOURCE : “The Immortality of Writers,” in The New Kingdom . Vol. 2 of Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Trans. Miriam Lichtheim (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976): 176–177.

scene is common to a genre that Egyptologists call the Königsnovelle , or the “King’s Story,” in which the king’s bravery, cunning, and wisdom are emphasized. In this instance, the officers advise the king against proceeding to the battle along a narrow path, fearing an ambush. In imploring the king to take the army along a longer, safer route, they speak to the king in a way that would be impossible for mere officers in actuality, suggesting that the author took some liberties in describing the event in order to underline the king’s valor. Derchain recognizes this liberty as a mark of a particular author. This material, however, is completely omitted from The Gebel Barkal Stele , a text that another scribe wrote based on the same sources. The stele also recounts the highlights of the reign. Though the author includes the Battle of Megiddo, he fails to mention the council of war. The author narrates the stele in the first person, using the king as narrator. The language is hyperbolic and triumphant. The profits of the war are its first concern. Unlike the more factual presentation of The Annals , the king is presented as an orator and a man of destiny who stands above the crowd, indicating the purely political intentions of the text. Perhaps the author of The Gebel Barkal Stele wrote for a different audience from the one envisioned by the author of The Annals . Based on the differing depictions of the same historical event, scholars can conclude that the author of The Annals was an historian, while the author of the Gebel Barkal Stele was a rhetorician and poet. These two texts reveal how authors shaped the material, even though they were anonymous. All Egyptian authors left some mark on the texts that they composed. Even when a work is a compilation of stereotyped claims, the author’s importance is clear in the way he chooses, combines, and emphasizes the information he conveys.


Phillipe Derchain, “Auteur et société,” in Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Forms . Ed. Antonio Loprieno (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1996): 83–96.

Georges Posener, L’enseignement loyaliste: sagesse égyptienne du Moyen Empire (Geneva: Droz, 1976).

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