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Gender: women in literary compositions from Lahun

The surviving fragments of Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BC) literary papyri from Lahun do not belong to compositions known from other sources. Only two manuscripts preserve more than ten lines of writing: one is known in Egyptology as the Tale of Hay, the other as the Tale of Horus and Seth. In addition there are several fragments from other manuscripts. Women and goddesses appear in these varied compositions in the following contexts:

Tale of Horus and Seth: the two gods are in competition, and the anarchic Seth makes sexual advances on the good Horus. Horus tells his mother Isis, and she warns him to trick Seth into depositing his semen on his fingers. She instructs him to do this without letting the sun-god and creator Ra see it. In a later version of this tale, Isis places the seed on Seth's favourite vegetable, the milky Cos lettuce; Seth imagines that his semen is in Horus, but when he summons it to emerge before the gods, to humiliate Horus, it comes from his own head. Isis has thus played the role of trickster on the trickster, in an extension of her role as the wise woman and healer among the Egyptian gods.

Tale of Hay and fragments from a composition involving a man named Khenemsu: in these narrative compositions, the protagonists are men, conforming to better preserved examples of Egyptian literature in which men take central position, leaving women as marginalised presences by common androcentric typecasting - undifferentiated as in the good wife/mother, or negative as in the temptress.

On ancient Egyptian literature as it survives, see Quirke 1996, and for the narrative compositions, see Quirke 1996a.


Women in religious compositions from Lahun

The Lahun papyri preserve one major religious composition, the Hymns to King Senusret III (UC 32157), and a number of small fragments from other compositions. The Hymns to King Senusret III celebrate the preeminence of the divine king, placed by his titulary in the role of Ra (sun-god) and Horus (god of kingship) on earth. However, the female aspect of the Egyptian pantheon is also embedded in his titulary, in the form of the Two Ladies, the goddesses Wadjyt and Nekhbet, defending the king at, respectively, the northern and southern ends of the kingdom. Within the cycle of Hymns, the king appears as hero of war and peace in androcentric terms, but at the same time as an incarnation of both gods and goddesses. In one line he is acclaimed as the goddess Sekhmet. The transgendering identities echo the way in which the Egyptian healer, though apparently male, identified 'himself' as Isis in ritual incantations for health (link).

Source book: Alison Roberts, Hathor Rising


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