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The Idea of Genre in Middle Egyptian Literature - IMPORTANCE., DISCOVERING ANCIENT GENRES., THE SAMPLE., TITLES AND GENRE., COMBINING LITERARY GENRES, NARRATIVES., TEACHING., OTHER TEXTS.

teachings modern readers example

Understanding Middle Egyptian genres is central to any understanding of ancient Egyptian literature. The literature created during the Middle Kingdom (2008–1630 B.C.E. ) in the Middle Egyptian dialect, the spoken language of this period, was the classical literature of ancient Egypt. Egyptians continued to read, study, and enjoy it through the New Kingdom into the Late Period—essentially the full extent of subsequent ancient Egyptian history. In modern times, a genre refers to a type of literature. Each genre has a formal pattern known to readers and authors and is related to the culture surrounding it. Egyptian authors and readers had no idea of modern literary genres like the novel, epic, tragedy, or comedy. These European literary genres derive from theories developed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E. ) who lived 1,500 years after authors composed in Middle Egyptian. The Egyptians did have their own categories of literature, however. It is important to remember that such systems of classification belong to a particular culture. There are no universal classification systems in literature, but the idea of genre does exist across cultures. Knowledge of genre is important because it influences judgments of quality. When modern readers try to appreciate ancient Egyptian literature, a particular work seems deficient because the rules and expectations held by the original readers and authors are not clear. For example, The Shipwrecked Sailor has been compared to a modern short story. Yet it lacks the clear motivations and characterizations that a modern reader might expect in this modern genre. Modern readers, thus, judge by rules unknown to the original readers and authors. It is thus important to define ancient Egyptian genres that the original readers from the culture would have recognized intuitively. If modern readers are to understand an ancient literature they must understand the expectations the original readers had when they read. Indeed, the author shaped narratives while writing to conform to the original reader’s expectations.

DISCOVERING ANCIENT GENRES.

Egyptologists have recognized certain patterns in Egyptian literary works and then grouped works by type to establish ancient genres. These patterns sometimes can be recognized in the contents. For example, Egyptologists group together narratives that tell a story, teachings that give advice, or poetry that describes emotions. They also group works by linguistic forms. These forms include formulae—exact wordings repeated from work to work—or patterns—such as the thought couplet where the same thought is expressed twice in different words. Another criterion for distinguishing genres is the social setting. Some works describe only royalty or commoners or priests. Scholars consider all of these factors when identifying genres.

THE SAMPLE.

It is very difficult to judge the representative nature of a sample of surviving ancient Egyptian literature. Often scholars cannot know if a work that has survived had a wide audience or whether ancient readers thought it represented the highest quality. When a work survives in many copies from different historical periods, it seems safe to assume that the Egyptians considered it important. But with works surviving in one copy near its time of composition, it is harder to judge.

TITLES AND GENRE.

The Egyptians used the first line of the text as its title. Some titles provide the name of the genre. For example, the genre name seboyet (“teaching”) often occurs in the phrase “Beginning of the teaching which [narrator’s name] made” that is the title of the text. The German Egyptologist Siegfried Schott made a catalog of ancient Egyptian book titles that provide some genre names. Unfortunately, many preserved texts do not preserve the beginning. Of 33 works from the Middle Kingdom, only fifteen are complete. The three most common genres are narratives, teachings, and discourses.

COMBINING LITERARY GENRES

INTRODUCTION : The Teachings of Amenemhet begins as a typical Middle Kingdom teaching, even using the genre name in its first line. Yet it includes among its subjects the traditional advice found in teachings, autobiographical information, and elements of the pessimistic literature. The text is also unusual because Amenemhet addresses his son from beyond the grave while most teachings are set in this world only. Yet this text provides a good sample of many types of ancient Egyptian literature.

SOURCE : R. B. Parkinson, Voices from Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Middle Kingdom Writings (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991): 49–52.

NARRATIVES.

No Egyptian word bears the same meaning as the English word “narrative,” but certain texts definitely tell a story. These narratives include the prose text The Shipwrecked Sailor and the verse epic The Story of Sinuhe . Each of these stories appears to the modern reader to have a moral. The Shipwrecked Sailor counsels against despair, while Sinuhe urges the reader to depend on the king’s mercy. All of the known Egyptian narratives lack titles. Some narratives begin with words best translated “There was once,” a formula similar to the modern English “Once upon a time.” But there is no reason to think that this could be the name of the genre or the name of the work.

TEACHING.

The genre called seboyet in Egyptian is best translated with the word “teaching.” Many Egyptologists formerly called these documents “Wisdom Texts,” creating an artificial parallel with the books of the Hebrew Bible that are classified in this way including Job, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. Egyptian teachings deal with the nature of the ideal life. Of the three broad genres that Egyptologists have identified, the teaching is the most coherent. It has an Egyptian name, assuring modern scholars that the Egyptians also recognized this form as a genre. The texts labeled as teachings also have a common form, theme, and style. Egyptologists divide the teachings into two subgroups: royal and private. For example, the advice given in The Teachings of Amenemhet or The Teachings for Merykare describe a king’s ideal life whereas the advice found in The Teachings of a Man for his Son centers on the life of a private person. Both types consist of descriptions of the proper response for very specific situations. For example, in many private teachings, the author includes the proper way to behave when a nobleman speaks or the right way to behave at the dinner table. Kings receive advice on specific matters of state or in handling underlings.

D ISCOURSE .

A second kind of wisdom is the discourse. A discourse includes meditations known in Egyptian as medjet (“pronouncement”) or tjesu (“utterance”). These discourses are often laments such as the Complaints of Khakheperre-sonb or the Prophecy of Neferty . In both texts the speaker contrasts an ideal past with the degraded present. In Neferty —the one complete example with an ending—there is also a future restoration of the ideal past attributed to King Amenemhet I. Another group of texts that considers similar content is the dialogue. In the Dialogue of a Man with His Ba , for example, two speakers debate the effectiveness of preparations for the afterlife.

OTHER TEXTS.

Some known texts fall outside of this scheme of genres. They include a description of the king performing athletic feats and an account of fishermen performing their tasks. Both are discourses, but are otherwise not well understood. Neither one seems pessimistic like the other laments in dialogue form. These positive dialogues might have been an important genre themselves. In addition, they are difficult to understand because they are very fragmentary and preserved in only one copy each. Thus it is difficult to predict the events described in them, and to classify them.

MIXTURES.

Some texts preserve a combination of genres. Sinuhe , for example, includes narrative, hymns, and a letter. The Eloquent Peasant includes discourse within a narrative frame. These mixtures suggest that the modern understanding of ancient genres is incomplete.

SOURCES

Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature . Vol. I (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973).

Richard B. Parkinson, “Types of Literature in the Middle Kingdom,” in Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Forms . Ed. Antonio Loprieno (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1996): 297–312.

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