The immortality of the writer
A Ramesside view (1200 BC)
One of a group of Ramesside manuscripts from Deir el-Medina bears the longest surviving ancient Egyptian passage in praise of writing and writers as the safest means of ensuring immortality. It occurs within a longer composition urging an apprentice to persevere with writing, in the tradition of the Satire of Trades. According to this passage, whereas offering-chapels and families may not survive a thousand years, a writer is kept alive by his writings. This is not exactly the same as bodyless immortality of the name, where immortal existence consists of the memory of a person among others. The ancient Egyptian belief in immortality included the belief that the dead needed food and drink, and this was provided by the recital of the 'offering formula': the passage below reveals the concern that monuments might be destroyed, and families and friends might not be present in future generations, and that therefore individuals required a wider audience to pronounce the offering formula for their names.
In Egyptology the passage is celebrated in particular for its list of famous names from the past, associated with writings (Paragraph 7 below). Of eight names, five are known from surviving compositions (Teachings of Hordedef and Ptahhotep; Khety possibly identified from the Satire of Trades; Khakheperraseneb from excerpts on one source; Prophecy of Neferty).
Papyrus Chester Beatty IV (British Museum ESA 10684), verso, column 2, line 5 to column 3, line 11
Transliteration and translation
The divisions into paragraphs follow the stanza-lengths indicated by rubric in the original (= words written in red: these are also shown red on this web-page).
Square brackets [ ] indicate an area destroyed on the original, slightly damaged papyrus
iw swt ir irr.k nn iw.k SsA.ti n sSw
ir nA n sSw rxyt Dr rk xprt Hr-sA nTrw
nA n sry i.iyt.s
xpr rn.sn mn r nHH
st Smt skm.sn aHa.sn
smxm hAw.sn nb
If you would only accomplish this, becoming expert
Those writers of knowledge from the time of events after the gods,
those who foretold the future,
their names have become fixed for eternity,
though they are gone, they have completed their lifespan,
and all their kin are forgotten.
bw ir.n.sn mrw m Hmty
wD iry m biA n pt
bw rx.sn wAH iwat
m Xrdw[.sn] Hr dmw rn.sn
ir n.sn iwat m sSw
m sbAyt irw
They did not make for themselves a chapel of copper,
or a stela for it of iron from the sky.
They did not manage to leave heirs,
from their children, to pronounce their names,
but they have achieved heirs out of writings,
out of the teachings in those.
di n.sn [mDAt] m Xry-Hbt
aanw m sA-mr.f
sbAyt nAy.sn mr
pA ar pAy.sn Sri
sA inr n st Hmt
m SAa m wr r kty dit r msw.f
r sS ntf pAy.sn tpy
They are given the book as ritual-priest,
The writing-board as loving-son.
Teachings are their chapels,
the writing-rush their child,
and the block of stone the wife.
From great to small, (all) are given as his children,
for the writer, he is their leader.
iry.tw n aA Hwt st fx
Hmw-kA.sn m iwt
iw nAy.sn wD HsAw m iwtn
dm.tw rn.sn Hr nAy.sn Sfdw
irw Dr wnn.sn nfrw
sxA.f irt st n Hnty r nHH
The doors of their chapels are undone,
Their ka-priests have gone.
Their tombstones are smeared with mud,
their tombs are forgotten,
but their names are read out on their scrolls,
written when they were young.
Being remembered makes them, to the limits of eternity.
irt sS imi sw m ib.k
xpr rn.k m mitt
Ax Sfdw r wD
m qd r inhAt smn.ti
irt nn Hwt.w mrw
n ib n dm rn.sn
smwn r.f Ax m Xrt-nTr
rn m r n rmt
Be a writer - put it in your heart,
and your name is created by the same.
Scrolls are more useful than tombstones,
than building a solid enclosure.
They act as chapels and chambers,
by the desire of the one pronouncing their name.
For sure there is most use in the cemetery
for a name in the mouths of men.
s Aq XAr.f m iwtn
hAw.f nb ms n tA
in sS r dd sxA.tw.f
m r n dd n r
Ax Sfdw r pr qd
r Hwt Hr imntt
nfr st r bxnw
grg r wD m Hwt-nTr
A man is dead, his corpse is in the ground:
when all his family are laid in the earth,
It is writing that lets him be remembered,
in the mouth of the reciter of the formula.
Scrolls are more useful than a built house,
than chapels on the west,
they are more perfect than palace towers,
longer-lasting than a monument in a temple.
in iw wn dy mi Hr-dd.f
in iw ky mi ii-m-Htp
bw xpr hAw n.n mi nfrti
Xty pAy.sn tpy
di.i rx.k rn n ptH-m-DHwty
in iw ky mi ptH-Htp
kA-ir.s m mitt
Is there anyone here like Hordedef?
Is there another like Imhotep?
There is no family born for us like Neferty,
and Khety their leader.
Let me remind you of the name of Ptahemdjehuty
Is there another like Ptahhotep?
nA n xryt srt iy
pr m r.sn xpr
gm.tw m Tsw
di n.sn msw n ktw
r iwat mi Xrdw.sn
imn.st HkAw.sn r tA-tmm
Sd m sbAyt
st Smt smx rn.sn
m sS r dd.tw sxA.tw.w
Those who knew how to foretell the future,
What came from their mouths took place,
and may be found in (their) phrasing.
They are given the offspring of others
as heirs as if their (own) children.
They hid their powers from the whole land,
to be read in (their) teachings.
They are gone, their names might be forgotten,
but writing lets them be remembered.
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