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Ancient Egyptian Literature: problems of definition

From the late nineteenth century Egyptologists have regularly labelled certain compositions as 'literary', but the criteria for the definition have not always been made explicit. Criteria, implicit and explicit, vary. By way of introduction, consider the three areas outlined below - function, form and content.

With criteria of function, form and content, the modern reader/researcher may locate a composition on a spectrum from least to most self-conscious communication. An awareness of the relative place of communicated words lifts the issue of defining literature from a sterile debate to an act of engagement. The most important activity in receiving a work as literary, and in appreciating a literature, is to read as widely as possible both perceived literary and perceived non-literary writings. The reader is the defining agent in literature.


A recurrent definition uses the binary opposition functional versus non-functional: literary compositions are those with no functional application - letters and accounts, rituals for temple or festival rites, mathematical and medical treatises. By negative definition, the literary compositions comprise the material left once such functional communication has been excluded. However, even a composition written only to be read, with no functional daily application, has that communicative function of being read and constituting a readership. Therefore it might be better to recast the definition of literature as those compositions written with the primary function of being read. This defines the category 'literature' by usage, and change in use will either broaden or narrow the boundary of literature:

The role in teaching tends to undermine a rigidly functional definition of literature.


The compositions written with the primary function of being read share formal features, from material to transmission history; most are known from copies on papyrus rolls, often with a particularly calligraphic style of handwriting, and often with special framing features such as introductory or end phrases, or the red points added at rhythmic intervals above the line after the last word of a phrase ('verse points'). In transmission, many Middle Egyptian literary compositions are found first on Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BC) papyri, then, sometimes abundantly, on New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC) papyri, writing boards and ostraca, and then more rarely if at all on Late Period papyri writing boards.

The formal criteria have the advantage of including within a definition of literature some compositions that a modern reader might not privilege with the term - as in medieval literature, New Kingdom literary manuscripts can include hymns and prayers alongside didactic or lyrical passages.

Formal criteria have the disadvantage of insufficient information: both transmission history and the calligraphic writing style can be paralleled for compositions which had a primary function other than that of being read, as can the 'verse points' (found, for example, among New Kingdom incantations to be recited for good health) and the introductory phrase HAt-a m 'beginning of' (found in good health manuscripts) and final phrase iw.f pw 'this is its end' (first found in Twelfth Dynasty funerary literature). Though formal criteria may contribute to a definition of Ancient Egyptian literature, on their own they may not provide the definition.

Content and cross-reference

Defining Ancient Egyptian literature is part of a wider modern reception of ancient written communication. It depends on the breadth of reading by the modern receiver, and this depends in turn on the proportion of surviving writing. Despite the very small number of surviving compositions perceived as literary, content is the first criterion especially for implicit definitions of literature, and individual compositions can be grouped by content both within a general field of literary composition, and against an external field of non-literary composition.

Shared content can be used to delineate provisionally separated groups of compositions as Tales, Teachings, Lamentations, Hymns, Songs. As with form, content alone is not sufficient to define the literary terrain: narrative can be found in legal documents as well as in 'compositions with primary function to be read'. At a more localised level of language, semantic intensity may be used to identify content as literary on the principle that the more information is contained within each word, the more literary the composition. However, as much as with form and content, meaning is also an insufficient criterion: hymns are semantically concentrated poems, but with a purpose - they can also be more or less strongly tied to a liturgical or other non-reading purpose.

circulation | literacy | survival of literature | problems with the words 'text' and 'author' | authorship


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