Among ancient Egypt manuscripts, love songs survive from only one time and place: the Ramesside Period community of elite craftsmen working on the tomb of the king (Deir el-Medina, 13th-12th centuries BC). The contents of the songs have been taken to indicate an even more elite setting, the palace and court of the king: the centres of power of Ramesside Egypt were all in the north, at Per-Ramses, Memphis and the palace of the court women at Gurob. These may be the places where the songs were composed and sung originally. Although no manuscripts survive from the palace sites themselves, the songs seem to echo the figures of singing women on late Eighteenth Dynasty and Nineteenth Dynasty cosmetic equipment and vessels produced for the highest level of society.
There are three papyri with sets of long songs, and one fragmentary pottery jar covered in another set; in addition there are about twenty ostraca that bear compositions that have been identified as love songs (Mathieu 1996: 27, with list and reference to different opinions of modern commentators). The songs are written in the Late Egyptian phase of the Egyptian language, a formal version of the spoken language of New Kingdom Egypt. No Middle Egyptian equivalent survives, although parts of the Middle Egyptian composition now known as Kemyt seem to present a man justifying his absence to a griefstruck woman. There are no later manuscripts containing love songs, but other written sources indicate that the genre continued in use or was revived; the inscription on a stela of about 700 BC describes the owner, a woman named Mutirdis, in terms close to the Ramesside love songs (Mathieu 1996: 36 n.34, 87 n.276).
Perhaps the most elaborate series of songs is the cycle of seven stanze on the back of a papyrus roll now preserved in the Chester Beatty Library and Gallery, Dublin (Papyrus Chester Beatty I, verso, column 1 to column 5, line 2: other love songs follow the cycle). In alternate stanze, a young man and a young woman sing of their love in separation. As in many cultures, they call one another 'brother' and 'sister' (Mathieu 1996: 26):
In the original, each stanza is introduced by the word 'mansion' (like stanza, the Italian word for a chamber) and a number; the first or last words in each stanza play on the sound of the word for the number. In the transliteration and translation below, each line-end corresponds to a black dot marked above the line in the original ('verse-point').
To explore the effect of the songs on their hearers, listen to the readings of stanze 1 and 7 (male voice) and 2 and 6 (female voice); for the female voice, two different readers were recorded, as a reminder of the variable of different speakers. These recordings were arranged for this website by Kenneth John, Outreach Officer for the Petrie Museum: the voices are those of Merlyn Gaye, Natalie Wright and Kenneth John.
Song 1 - hear the translation: first half - second half
Song 2 - hear the translation: first half - second half; hear another reader: first half - second half
Song 6 - hear the translation: first half - second half; hear another reader: first half - second half
Song 7 - hear the translation: first half - second half
Title of the cycle, transliteration and translation
HAt-a m rw nw tA sxmxt-ib aAt
Beginning of the incantations of The Great Leisure
snt nn snw.s
ptri.s mi spdt xay
m HAt rnpt nfrt
Sspt iqrt wbxt inw
ant irty gmH
bnri spt.s mdwt
bn n.s xnw m HAw
qAt nHb wbxt qby
xsbd mAa Snw.s
gAb.s Hr iT nwb
Dbaw.s mi sSnw
bdS pHt.s mrw.t(i) Hr-ib
DA mnty.s nfrw.s
tw iwt xnd.s Hr tA
iT.s ib.i m Hpt.s
di.s st wn nHb TAy nb
msHn n mAA st
rSwt Hpty st nbt
sw mi tpy n mryw
ptr.ti pr.st r HA
mi tfyt wat
Sister without rival,
most beautiful of all,
she looks like the star-goddess, rising
at the start of the good New Year.
Perfect and bright, shining skin,
seductive in her eyes when she glances,
sweet in her lips when she speaks,
and never a word too many.
Slender neck, shining body,
her hair is true lapis,
her arm gathers gold,
her fingers are like lotus flowers,
ample behind, tight waist,
her thighs extend her beauty,
shapely in stride when she steps on the earth.
She has stolen my heart with her embrace,
She has made the neck of every man
turn round at the sight of her.
Whoever embraces her is happy,
he is like the head of lovers,
and she is seen going outside
like That Goddess, the One Goddess.
sn.i Hr stAH ib.i m xrw.f
di.f TAy n.i xAyt
sw m sAH-tA n pr n tAy.i mwt
nn rx.i Smt.n.f
nfrt mwt m Hn.i m nfy
i.xAa mAA st
mk ib.i HDn sxA.tw.f
iT wi mrwt.f
mk sw m iwty ib.f
iw swt iw.i mi qd.f
bw rx.f nAy.i Aby Hpt.f
mtw.f hAb n tAy.i mwt
sn hAy tw.i wD.kwi xr.k
in nwb Hmwt
mi n.i mAA nfrw.k
rSwt it mwt
nhm n.k rmT.i nbt m bw wa
nhm.sn n.k sn
My brother overwhelms my heart with his words,
he has made sickness seize hold of me.
Now he is near the house of my mother,
and I cannot even tell that he has been.
It is good of my mother to order me like this,
'Give it up out of your sights';
see how my heart is torn by the memory of him,
love of him has stolen me.
Look what a senseless man he is
- but I am just like him.
He does not realise how I wish to embrace him,
or he would write to my mother.
Brother, yes! I am destined to be yours,
by the Gold Goddess of women.
Come to me, let your beauty be seen,
let father and mother be glad.
Call all my people together in one place,
let them shout out for you, brother.
xmt ib.i r mAA nfrw.s
iw.i Hms.kwi m-Xnw.s
gm.i mHy Hr Htr Hr wAt
Hna nAy.f mryw
bw rx.i iT.i m-bAH.f
snny.i Hr.f m wstn
ptr itrw mi wAt
nn rx st rdwy.i
xm.t ib.i r iqr
wstn.k mHy Hr ix
mk ir snny.i m-bAH.f
iw.i Dd n.f pXrw.i
mk iw.i n.k kA.n.f
iw.f swhA m rn.i
iw.f Hr dni.i r tA kpy tpy
My heart thirsts to see her beauty,
as I am seated at home with her,
but I found Mehy on horseback on the road
with his men the seducers.
I do not know if I should hold myself in front of him;
or if I could pass him freely.
River and road looked alike:
I couldn't decide where to put my feet,
You my girl are blissfully unaware of my passion.
Why did you stroll in, Mehy?
Look, if I pass Mehy,
I'll tell him my circuits,
'So, I am yours', I would tell him,
and he would clamour at my name,
appointing me to that head inner palace,
the one with his followers.
ifd sw ib.i As
Dr sxA mrwt.k
bw dd.f Sm.i mi rmT
sw tfy mk.tw.f
bw dd.f TAy.i mssy
bw wnx.i pAy.i bhn
bw dd sDmw r irt.i
bw wrH wi m kfA
m ir aHa pH.t Xn
xr.f n.i r tnw sxA sw
m ir n.i pAy.i HAty wxAy
i.ir.k xAniw Hr ix
Hms qbH iw n.k snt
irt.i qnw m mitt
m rdit Dd nA rmT r.i
st tw hA tw m mry
smn.ti r tnw sxA.k sw
ib.i im.k ifdy
My heart bares itself instantly,
at the memory of your love.
It does not let me walk like a person,
it has strayed from its shelter.
It does not let me put on a dress,
I cannot even wrap my scarf,
No kohl can be put no my eye,
I am not anointed with oil.
'Don't stand there - go in to him'
it tells me at each memory of him.
Don't, my heart, be stupid at me:
why are you acting the fool?
Sit, be cool, the sister has come to you'
but my eye is just as troubled.
Don't make people say of me
'she is a woman fallen by love'
Be firm each time you remember him,
My heart, do not stray.
dwA.i nwb sSwA.i Hm.s
sqAy.i nbt pt
iry.i iAwt n HwtHr
Hknw n Hnwt
smi.i n.s sDm.s sprw.i
wD.s n.i Hnwt
sw iAy.ti Hr Ds.s r mAA.i
aAyt wsy xprw n.i
Haw.kwi xntS.kwi wr.kwi
Dr Dd yH mk sw
mk iAy.s mry m ksy
n aA mrwt.s
iry.i smAaw n tAy.i nTrt
di.s n.i snt m diy
hrw xmt r sf Dr sDm spr.i
Hr rnw.s pr.s m-a.i Hr hrw diw
I worship the Gold Goddess, I sing of her Presence,
I raise up the lady of heaven,
I give adoration to Hathor,
Praise to the Mistress.
I reported to her, and she heard my pleas,
she ordered a Mistress for me,
and she is come herself to see me.
What a great thing has happened to me!
(I felt) overjoyed, ecstatic, great
when told 'Hey, she is there,
look, she has come, the amorous are bowed,
so great is the love of her.
I send my prayers to my goddess,
she gave me the sister as a gift.
Three days to yesterday since my pleas
in her name; since she left me is day five.
swA.n.f m hAw n pr.f
gm.i aA.f wn
sn aHa r-gswy mwt.f
snw.f nb r-Hna.f
mrwt.f Hr iT ib n xnd nb Hr wAt
sfy iqr nn mitt.f
sn stp biAt
gmH.f r.i m-Dr snny.n.i
tw.i wa.kwi r nhmw
xntS wy ib.i m TAHw
sn Dr mAA.i
hAn mwt rx.ti ib.i
iw.s aq.ti n.s r nw
nwb hAy imi sw m ib.s
kA Hnw.i n sn
snny sw m-bAH nAy.f iryw
bw Tmw.i n rmT
rSwt.i n pAy.sn aAmw
r-Dd tw.k rx wi
iry.i Hbw n tAy.i nTrt
tf ib.i r pr
r rdit gmH.i sn m pA grH nfr
wsy m swA
I passed by the front of his house,
and found his door was open.
Brother was standing beside his mother,
all his brothers were with him.
Love of him steals the heart of any wayfarer,
perfect youth, none like him,
choicest brother, a miracle.
He looked at me when I passed by,
but I am too alone to cry out.
How my heart races for joy,
brother, when I can see.
If only the mother knew my desire,
if she would accept it at once.
Gold Goddess, yes, put it in her heart
so I may rush to the brother,
I would kiss him in front of his staff,
I would not cry tears for anyone,
I would be happy that they realised
that you are the one who knows me,
I would make festivals for my goddess,
my heart has escaped to go out
to let brother see me in the beautiful night,
fully, in passing by.
sfx r sf bw mAA.i snt
aq aq n.i xAyt im.i
xpr.kwi Haw.i wdn
smx Dt.i Ds.i
ir iw n.i nA wrw swnw
bw hr ib.i pXrt.sn
nA Xryw-Hb bn wAt im.sn
bw wDa tAy.i xAyt
pA Dd n.i mk sw pA nty sanx
rn.s pA nty Ts.i
pA aq pr n nAy.s wpwtyw
pA nty sanx ib.i
Ax n.i sn r pXrt nbt
wr sw n.i r tA dmdyt
pAy.i wDA pAy.s aq r-bnr
ptr.s kA snb
wn.s irt.s rnpy Haw.i
mdt.s kA rwd.i
iw.i Hpt.s sHr.s Dwt Hr.i
pr.s m-a.i Hr hrw sfx
Seven to yesterday that I haven't seen sister,
and sickness has entered deep into me,
I have grown heavy in my limbs,
my body has lost sense of itself.
When the chief physicians come to me,
my heart finds no relief in their remedies,
and the ritual-readers, there is no way through them,
my sickness cannot be uncovered.
Just telling me 'here she is' is my cure,
her name is what can raise me,
the coming and going of her messengers
is what can cure my heart.
Being a brother is better for me than any medicine:
it is more important to me than any prescription book,
My health-cure is her visit,
has she gazed, then I am well,
has she opened her eyes, then my body is young,
has she spoken, then I am strong.
When I embrace her, she has banished harm from me.
She left me now seven days.
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