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Egyptian Literary Compositions of the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period

Summaries of Middle Egyptian literary compositions not translated on Digital Egypt for Universities

The list is organised according to category of content: both (1) categories and (2) the assigning of each composition to a category should be questioned and tested continually against their contents.

Background information for Middle Kingdom compositions

1. Teachings

Teachings, part only preserved

Teaching for Kagemni

Preserved on a single late Middle Kingdom copy, Papyrus Prisse (famous for its version of the Teaching of Ptahhotep).

A vizier, not identified by name on the surviving part, gives his teaching to his son, Kagemni, advising him on good conduct. The last lines record that 'king Huni died,and the Presence of king Snefru rose as effective king in this entire land, and Kagemni was made overseer of the city and vizier'. The fragment seems similar in content to the Teaching of Ptahhotep; the setting in the reigns of Huni and Sneferu of the early Old Kingdom, some seven hundred years earlier than the Middle Egyptian language in which the teaching is written, is also a feature of the Tales of the court of king Khufu.


2. 'Discourses'

'Discourses', preserved from beginning to end:

Teaching for king Merykara the link takes you to an introduction


3. Laments

Laments, preserved from beginning to end:

Tale of Khuninpu

Preserved on four late Middle Kingdom papyrus manuscripts, which between them give a complete version: Papyri Berlin 3023, 3025, and 10499 (the latter from the Ramesseum Papyri), and Papyrus British Museum ESA 10274 (also known as Papyrus Butler, after an early modern owner of the manuscript).

The hero Khuninpu is an inhabitant of the desolate landscape of the Wadi Natrun, in the First Intermediate Period (perhaps one or two hundred years before the Tale was composed, though the date of composition remains debated). His Egyptian 'title' sxty is often translated 'peasant', and the tale is often called in Egyptology 'the Eloquent Peasant', but the people of the Wadi were the diametrical social opposite of the Egyptian peasant farmer, in a fierce social division between the settled and the nomadic or semi-nomadic; the division exists today between farmer and bedouin, in Egypt, or between settled people and gypsy or traveller, in Europe. The Tale opens with a narrative episode in which Khuninpu is robbed by the servant of a high official, on his way to trade goods at the market in the Nile Valley. He petitions the high official, Rensi, so beautifully that Rensi tells the king of his eloquence, and the king orders him to be detained to extract more petitions from him; in increasing desperation, unaware that his wife is not starving at home but being supplied by the state, Khuninpu delivers nine petitions, culminating in the suicidal denunciation of power and the declaration of three principles at the heart of mAat 'what is Right':

nn sf n wsf

nn xnms n sX mAat

nn hrw nfr n awn ib

There can be no yesterday for the do-nothing

There can be no friend for one deaf to Right

There can be no festivity for the greedy hearted

The high official Rensi then had the petitions read out to Khuninpu, and then to the king. The fragmented end of the Tale seems to record the dispossession of the corrupt servant, and the giving of all his goods along with the stolen goods to Khuninpu.

In this tale the 'good man' suffers both from the servant who steals his goods, and from the king who effectively forces the fine petitions out of him. This is one of the most direct ancient Egyptian attacks on corrupt power; perhaps its setting in a period of political disunity allowed greater room for criticism of the corruption possible in the state (compare the Teaching for king Merykara, set in the same period).


Laments, part only preserved:

Dialogue of a man with his soul

Preserved on a single late Middle Kingdom copy, Papyrus Berlin 3024; 155 short vertical lines are preserved, including the end, but an unknown proportion of the composition at the start is missing.

This is one of the most difficult and intriguing literary compositions surviving from Egypt: a man longing for death is in dialogue with his soul, in Egyptian ba, being the aspect of the person free to move to and from the body after death. The ba tries to persuade the man to enjoy life, and in the exchange the pair explore the meaning and value of life on this earth.


Lament of Ipuwer

Preserved on a single Ramesside copy, Papyrus Leiden I 344, incomplete at beginning and end; dated to the late Middle Kingdom by the Middle Egyptian language and by the vocabulary, including the name Ipuwer and reference to institutions such as the xnrt wr 'main enclosure' not attested in administration outside that period.

A man named Ipuwer laments the condition of Egypt, prey to social disorder and reversal of classes, and to uncontrolled incursions by foreigners; he is speaking to the Lord of All (a term used for the king and for the creator god). Early Egyptological commentators interpreted the composition as a direct reflection of events in the First Intermediate Period, but such literal political reading has generally since been replaced by greater appreciation of the literary effect and intent of the contrast between ideal order and lamented chaos. The relation between literature and political history is almost impossible to assess, in the absence of precise datings for literary compositions, and this is highlighted by the Lament of Ipuwer: large foreign population built up along the eastern Delta fringe in the early to mid Thirteenth Dynasty, and therefore the Lament would have quite different impact on a reader in the late Twelfth and a reader in the late Thirteenth Dynasty - unfortunately, this does not help directly to date the composition.


Tale of Neferpesdjet

The beginning of a literary composition preserved on a single late Middle Kingdom papyrus from Lahun, UC 32156A. Although only the first half dozen short lines are preserved, it is placed in this category because it has the same opening formula as the Tale of Khuninpu: s pw wn X rn.f 'there was a man called X'. It might, though, be a narrative tale without prominent speeches.


Tale of a fowler

Middle part of a literary composition preserved on one late Middle Kingdom papyrus (British Museum ESA 10274: the other side bears part of the Tale of Khuninpu). The surviving lines seem to record the words of a fowler; hunters would be almost as marginal to society as inhabitants of the Wadi Natrun like Khuninpu.


Lament of Sasobek

Fragmentary literary composition preserved on one late Middle Kingdom papyrus (one of the Ramesseum Papyri). An opening narrative episode introduces a dancer and a man named Sasobek, who is imprisoned in a dungeon, and gives voice to laments. A similar prison setting recurs over a thousand years later, in the demotic Teaching of Ankhsheshonqy; in that, the opening narrative episode records how Ankhsheshonqy is imprisoned at the border fortress Defenna, for not telling the king about a plot against his life by the chief physician.



4. Tales

Tales, preserved from beginning to end:

Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor

Preserved on a single late Middle Kingdom papyrus (Hermitage 1115); it is debated whether the first words preserved on the papyrus are the beginning of the composition. The tale is set within a tale. In the framing tale, an unnamed HATy-a 'Mayor' and Smsw 'Follower' arrive at the southern border of Egypt, on return from an expedition; the mayor is fearful following his failure, and the follower (not necessarily his follower - Middle Kingdom expedition inscriptions show that the two titles may be of equal social status) tells a tale of a previous expedition to reassure him. In the tale within this tale the Follower recalls how he was sole survivor of a shipwreck, washed up on an 'island of the ka' (the part of the person receiving sustenance; also the word for food to sustain the person) where a giant serpent ruled. The serpent tells the shipwrecked sailor how he was one of seventy-five serpents, but that a star fell and burnt the rest of his family: this further tale within a tale echoes in later religious writing, in the seventy-five addresses to the sun-god and his seventy-four forms (the Litany of Ra in tombs of New Kingdom kings). The shipwrecked sailor is rescued. The composition ends abruptly with the despairing reply of the mayor:

m ir iqr xnms.i

in-m rdit mw n Apd

HD-tA n sft.f dwAw

Do not be too excellent, my friend.

Who would give water to a bird

at daybreak of the morning it is slaughtered?


Tales, part only preserved:

Tale of King Neferkara and General Sasenet

Portions preserved on two Late Period copies (writing-board Oriental Institute Chicago 13539, and Papyrus Chassinat I, now in the Louvre, Paris, both dated about 700 BC), but in Middle Egyptian and so thought to have been composed in the Middle Kingdom: a petitioner of Memphis pursues his case at the court of a king Neferkara, and finds that the king leaves the palace at night to spend time with his general Sasenet, implying that the king and general are involved in illicit sexual activity.


Tale of the king and the spirit of Snefer

Part preserved on one Late Period copy (four fragments from one manuscript, Papyrus Chassinat II, now in the Louvre, Paris), but in Middle Egyptian and so thought to have been composed in the Middle Kingdom: the surviving lines include reference to the reigning king, a treasury official (xtmw 'sealer'), and the phrase DD.in Ax pn ink xnty-kA sA snfrw "then this spirit said, I am Khentyka son of Sneferu"


Tales at the court of king Khufu

Cycle of short tales preserved on one Second Intermediate Period manuscript (Papyrus Berlin 3033, also known as Papyrus Westcar, after an early modern owner of the manuscript): the beginning and end are lost. The composition is set in the reign of king Khufu, some six to seven hundred years earlier than the Middle Egyptian language in which it is written (compare the Teaching for Kagemni and the Teaching of Ptahhotep, and the Prophecy of Neferty). The surviving composition may be divided into three parts:

  1. Sons of the king present in turn a tale of a miracle-worker from the reigns of previous kings.
  2. Another son, Hordedef, brings a man called Djedi to the court to work miracles in front of his father; Khufu asks Djedi to reveal a sacred secret, but Djedi says he will hear it from one of the three future children of a priest of Ra of Sakhebu (a town in the Delta). Djedi slips in the unwelcome news that these three children are to be kings of Egypt, but softens the blow by saying that the son and grandson of Khufu will reign after him, before the three children become kings.
  3. The birth of the three children is assisted by deities sent by Ra: the description verges on caricature; it is the earliest account of the divine birth of the king


Tale of a herdsman

Part preserved on a single late Middle Kingdom manuscript, Papyrus Berlin 3024: the surviving 25 short lines describe a man, worrying about his herd at the Nile Flood, seeing a woman undressing, whom he calls a goddess.


5. Hymns

Hymns of praise, part only preserved:

In Praise of King Amenemhat II

Preserved on a single late Eighteenth Dynasty papyrus, now preserved in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow: only the upper third or quarter of the roll survives, in numerous fragments, lacking both start and end. Identification as a single composition is highly speculative, resting on the unity of theme of the physical prowess of the divine king, and comparison with remnants of a hieroglyphic inscription from the reign of king Amenemhat II, apparently recording the annals of his reign. In the first Egyptological edition, the writing surviving on the papyrus was divided into separate compositions given the titles of Sporting King, Fishing and Fowling, and a Mythological Story. If a single composition, it forms a hymn of praise to the king on a hunting party in the Fayum, with the participation of deities; the throne-name of Amenemhat II occurs in the name of a place or encampment, but it is possible that a later king may be the central protagonist.



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