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king dynasty tomb autobiographies

Egyptian noblemen recorded the earliest Egyptian literature in tomb inscriptions called autobiographies. They composed them in the first person and included some details of the author’s own life. The real purpose of these texts is to demonstrate that the author lived a moral life. Thus the texts illustrate Egyptian ideas of morality. These texts are also the first attempts at extended narrative. Previous to these autobiographies, Egyptians wrote only short inscriptions, usually captions to tomb scenes carved in relief describing the action or identifying the participants. The autobiographies include three topics: protection of the tomb, major events in the tomb owner’s life, and a moral self-portrait. These three areas correspond to ideas of self-esteem, interconnectedness with others, and recognition that the world is governed by an ideal of justice called maat . Maat is the ideal that each author demonstrates was the basis for his life. It is the most important concept in Egyptian thought embodying correct conduct in the world and in man’s relations with the king and with the gods.


Miriam Lichtheim, the American Egyptologist, traced the development of claims of self-worth among Egyptian noblemen as recorded in their tombs. She found a progression from self-esteem based on fulfilling filial responsibilities, to a reliance on the king’s regard as the source for self-worth, and finally to the development of an objective standard called “maat” to measure self-worth. The short statements carved in Fourth-dynasty mastaba-tombs mostly state that a son fulfilled his duty to his father and that the tomb owner never did anything wrong. For example, Ihy, a nobleman of the early Fourth Dynasty, informs visitors to his tomb in an inscription, “I made this for my father, when he had gone to the West [the land of the dead], upon the good way on which the honored ones go.” Another writer, the King’s Companion Sefetjwa wrote in his tomb inscription, “I never did an evil thing against anyone.” Lichtheim argued that such statements are the first literary works that make the claim for an individual’s moral identity. They record a sense of self based on filial duty and relationships with other people. By the end of the Fourth Dynasty in the reign of King Menkaure (2532–2510 B.C.E. ) the prime minister Ptahshepses carved in his tomb short inscriptions that described his life and its importance in terms of his relationship with the reigning king. In captions to separate reliefs, Ptahshepses lists the reasons why he was important. He specifically mentions that he attended school with King Menkaure’s children. Ptahshepses describes in the next caption that he reached adulthood in the reign of the next king, Shepseskaf (2508–2500 B.C.E. ). Ptahshepses’ marriage to a daughter of an unnamed king follows in the caption to the next adjacent relief scene. A fourth scene and inscription describe Ptahshepses’ claim that he worked as an administrator for King Userkaf (2500–2485 B.C.E. ). In the scene corresponding to the period when he worked for Neferirkare Kakai (2472–2462 B.C.E. ), Ptahshepses mentions that the king accorded him a special honor: Ptahshepses could kiss the king’s foot rather than the ground directly in front of the king’s foot when he greeted the king. These statements demonstrate that Ptahshepses’ self-worth was based on the king’s high regard for him. Ptahshepses worked for a total of seven kings, including Sahure (2485–2472 B.C.E. ), Shepseskare (2462–2455 B.C.E. ) and Reneferef (c. 2462–2455 B.C.E. ), before dying in the reign of Nyuserre (c. 2455–2425 B.C.E. ). He thus lived about sixty years. Another nobleman named Rawer who lived in the time of Neferirkare Kakai, and thus was a contemporary of Ptahshepses, also described an example of this king’s high regard for him. One day, according to the tomb inscription, Rawer stood next to the king on a boat sailing on the Nile. The king unintentionally struck Rawer with the royal scepter, probably due to the movement of the boat. The king apologized and ordered that his apology be described in Rawer’s tomb. Both the king and the nobleman regarded this apology as a special mark of favor. The king accorded a certain dignity to his official by apologizing. By the late Fifth Dynasty (about 2350 B.C.E. ) noblemen began to claim in their tomb inscriptions that the tomb owner followed maat , a quality that the king both liked and required. This is a subtle shift from the idea that all self-esteem comes from the king’s favor. Now man’s right behavior is the direct source of self-esteem. This view prevailed throughout subsequent Egyptian literature.


Fifth-dynasty nobles also began to express in their autobiographies the idea that goodness was innate. They used the expression “since birth” to make this claim. Thus Werhu, a priest of the cult of King Menkaure, could write in his tomb, “I never let anyone spend the night angry with me about a thing since my birth.” Likewise the Sixth-dynasty nobleman Metjetji could claim, “Never did I make anyone unhappy since my birth.” Such statements continued through the First Intermediate Period (Dynasty Seven through the first part of Dynasty Eleven, 2130–2008 B.C.E. ). By the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1759 B.C.E. ), when noblemen serving kings were again writing autobiographies to place on stelae (upright pieces of stone), they described knowledge and skills as innate since birth. But during the later Old Kingdom (Dynasties Five and Six), noblemen described only good qualities as innately part of a person’s character. Lichtheim observed that the same progression from qualities to skills and knowledge being innate was also true of the king, but such statements were first made in regard to nobles. Egyptians also believed that one could be evil at birth. The Twelfth-dynasty text attributed to the Old Kingdom prime minister Ptahhotep speaks of “one whose guilt was fated in the womb.” But the Egyptians also understood that instruction could bring out the best in people. Thus they recognized that both nature and nurture played a role in the way a person behaved. By the Nineteenth Dynasty (1292–1190 B.C.E. ), the wise man Any wrote that a person could choose between good and bad impulses that are both innate.


INTRODUCTION : From the Fourth Dynasty (2625–2500 B.C.E. ) to the Sixth Dynasty (2350–2170 B.C.E. ), the basis of autobiographies’ claims to the moral life depend on changing grounds. The earliest autobiographies speak only of fulfilling obligations to the immediate family, especially the father. Subsequently, obedience to the king becomes the highest moral value. Finally, in the Sixth Dynasty, men like Nefer-seshem-re claim a much broader understanding of social obligations that constitute the basis for moral action.

I have gone from my town,
I have descended from my nome,
Having done Maat for its lord,
Having contented him with what he loves.

I spoke truly [using the word ma’a ], I did right [using the related word ma’at ],
I spoke the good [using the word nefer ], I repeated the good [ nefer ],
I grasped what was best [using the phrase that literally means “I seized” and the form tep-nefer , the abstract idea of goodness],
for I wanted the good for people [using the phrase that literally means "I desired the good (nefer) for all people in general].

I judged two trial partners so as to content them,
I saved the weak from one stronger than he as best I could;
I gave bread to the hungry, clothes to the naked,
I landed one who was boatless.

I buried him who had no son [to do it for him],
I made a ferry for him who had none;
I respected my father,
I pleased my mother,
I brought up their children.

SOURCE : “Autobiography of Nefer-seshem-re,” in Moral Values in Ancient Egypt . Trans. Miriam Lichtheim (Fribourg, Switzerland: University Press, 1997): S IDING WITH G OOD .

As early as the Fourth Dynasty nobles declared in their autobiographies that they always sided with the good. The Sixth-dynasty architect Nekhebu makes this claim in its most developed form when he wrote, “I am one who speaks the good, and repeats the good. I never said an evil thing against anyone.” Nekhebu speaks here of avoiding speaking ill of others. But the Egyptians also assumed other definitions of the good by the Eleventh Dynasty (2008–1938 B.C.E. ). The good includes good character and kindness according to The Teachings for Merykare , The Teachings of Ptahhotep , and The Teachings of a Man for his Son . All of these texts remark that good character will be remembered in the future, while evil men are forgotten. Good character is even more important than good deeds. The stela of a man named Mentuhotep makes this point: “A man’s good character is better than doing a thousand deeds. People’s testimony is the saying on the lips of commoners. His goodness is a man’s monument. The evil-natured [one] is forgotten.”


The earliest autobiographies inscribed on tomb walls in the Old Kingdom and on stelae during the Middle Kingdom served scribes as the basis for composing both narratives and teachings during the Middle Kingdom. They represent Egyptian authors’ first experiments with defining justice and the good. In later narratives, authors both illustrated these moral traits and established with the instructional literature the best teachings to nurture both the good and the just within a young man’s character.


Tjetji’s autobiography reflects traditions of the late Old Kingdom and anticipates the best of Dynasty 11. It serves as an excellent example of the way autobiographies changed from the previous time period while still carrying the tradition forward. It is carved on a stela that is divided into three unequal fields. At the top is a fourteen-line, horizontal, autobiographical inscription reading right to left. The lower left portion depicts Tjetji facing right, in high raised relief, with two members of his staff; a small figure presents offerings before him. The lower right field is an elaborate, five-line, vertical offering prayer listing wishes for the afterlife. Tjetji’s autobiography revives an Old Kingdom literary tradition nearly 200 years after its disappearance. In Tjetji’s era, autobiographies typically praise provincial leaders’ efforts on behalf of their provinces. But Tjetji, a court official, returns to an Old Kingdom theme: the ideal of service to the king. He makes constant reference to his success at carrying out the king’s wishes. This ideal continued to dominate subsequent autobiographies written during the Middle Kingdom. Tjetji recounts his service as Overseer of the Seal Bearers of the King to Wahankh Intef II (2065–2016 B.C.E. ) and Nakht-neb-tep-nefer Intef III (2016–2008 B.C.E. ), establishing for historians the order of these kings. Tjetji also describes the borders of the Theban kingdom just before the reunification of Egypt under Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II (2008–1957 B.C.E. ). These borders stretch from Elephantine in the south to Abydos in the north. The text is limited in length by the size of the stela, unlike later, extended autobiographies carved on tomb walls. Yet Tjetji’s use of the Egyptian language is striking and eloquent. Ronald J. Leprohon, the Canadian Egyptologist, suggested that this elaborate language, structured in tight grammatical patterns, derives from the deceased’s own efforts to attain the ancient Egyptian ideal of “perfect speech.” Tjetji’s stela clearly demonstrates the high standards of language that had been established in Thebes before political unification with Lower Egypt. These standards and their connection to the previous period of political unity perhaps point toward the early Eleventh Dynasty’s conscious political plans for reunifying the country.


Jan Assmann, “Der literarische Aspekt des ägyptischen Grabes und sein Funktion im Rahmen des ‘monumentalen Diskurses,’” in Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Forms . Ed. Antonio Loprieno (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1996): 97–104.

Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Autobiographies Chiefly of the Middle Kingdom: A Study and an Anthology (Freiburg & Göttingen: Universitätsverlag, 1988): 39–45.

—, Moral Values in Ancient Egypt (Fribourg, Switzerland: University of Fribourg Press, 1997).

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