Ancient Egyptian literature

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The Egyptian literature is the literature in ancient Egypt from about 2800 BC. Chr. To 300 AD. It has been handed down in ancient , middle , new Egyptian and demotic languages and contains numerous wisdom teachings and autobiographical texts.

Conservation conditions

Unlike large parts of classical Greco-Roman literature, Egyptian literature was not passed on by repeated copying in the Middle Ages . With the fall of ancient Egyptian culture, interest in its literature also died out, so that Coptic literature also preserved little of ancient Egyptian literature. Our knowledge is therefore based almost exclusively on archaeological finds. Some of the texts were found on temple walls or as grave inscriptions carved in stone. These texts are mostly of religious content; more rarely there are biographies or reports of deeds of pharaohs .

Literature was certainly mostly written on papyrus and the conservation conditions for papyrus are only good under special conditions. In Egypt, these are mainly protected tombs, temples and, more rarely, settlements that were in the desert. A large part of the literary works comes from the tombs (and there also written in stone or on wood). For this reason and also because of the precautionary thought of the ancient Egyptians and their conception of the hereafter, much religious literature has been preserved.

Literature from settlement excavations is often very fragmentary . Numerous fragments of such works come from El-Lahun . With the exception of part of the history of Sinuhe , all of the remains found there are from otherwise unknown works. This clearly shows that much of the literature is arguably lost forever. Student texts, including many wisdom teachings, also come from settlements and their surroundings . Usually, however, the site is Thebes .

The existence of private libraries can not be ruled out following a discovery of literary papyri in Deir el-Medine .


The best known in the public consciousness are certainly the religious texts, above all the books of the afterlife. However, Egyptian literature is more diverse than you might think. The delimitation of the genres is complicated and still a matter of dispute in research circles and is probably also a modern problem. This is made more difficult because Egyptians made no separation between religion , magic and medicine . The classification made here is only very rough in order to provide an overview. It does not correspond (as far as it is not noted) to the classifications of the ancient Egyptians or the Egyptologists. For more detailed information on class limits see Literature appendix.

Religious texts

  1. The pyramid texts offer the earliest evidence . They are first attested in the pyramids of the Old Kingdom . In the Middle Kingdom , these or related texts are placed on coffins ( coffin texts ). They offer protection and guidance for the deceased.
  2. Hymns are also recorded on grave walls, but also on papyri enclosed in the grave. They were probably read or sung on specific occasions; this is made clear by small "stage directions", such as B. Kneel down. Of course, they are also attached to temple walls.
  3. Magic texts are also religious texts, but they can also be medicinal in nature. Some medicinal spells are not written in Egyptian but in foreign languages.
  4. Rituals
  5. Prophecies
  6. Afterlife books ; including the Book of the Dead , the Book of the Gates , the Book of the Celestial Cow , the Book of Caves and others.
  7. Mythological texts . This could include the traditions of Horus and Seth , which do not relate directly to the deceased. This is just an artificial classification for representation in the encyclopedia ; neither the ancient Egyptians nor Egyptologists delimit the genus in this way.

Profane texts

  1. Autobiographies can, to a limited extent, be classified under secular texts; Depending on the time, an autobiography belongs to the decoration of the grave. Since the text is not primarily religious, but is only used in a religious context, it is divided here.
  2. Letters
  3. love songs
  4. Harp songs

Wisdom texts

The wisdom texts, also called life teachings or wisdom teachings, are a special genre. They contain instructions for a son or student. Wisdom texts were often used as school material to teach the complicated script while imparting moral values ​​to the children. The wisdom texts also offer important indications for the understanding of the Maat , which unfortunately has not been presented anywhere. This genus is also known in research.
see also: Teaching for Kagemni

Dispute literature

Some texts that were dated to the First Intermediate Period or the Middle Kingdom were at times referred to in Egyptology as "dispute literature". What these texts have in common is that they painted a more or less drastic picture of an Egypt ravaged by catastrophic and chaotic conditions after the end of the Old Kingdom . These images were interpreted as depictions of a historical reality that was processed in this way, or at least as inspired by it. The political and social changes in the transition from the Old to the Middle Kingdom were also expressed in general and specific doubts about the values ​​that were taken up and, to a certain extent, discussed in this literature. Texts such as the lamentations of Ipuwer , the lamentations of Chacheperreseneb , the conversation of a weary man with his ba or the prophecy of Neferti were counted among the literature on the dispute . The eloquent farmer or the apprenticeship for merikare and other texts were also partially placed in this context. However, the thesis of the dispute literature is now considered outdated. The First Intermediate Period is no longer seen as an epoch of crisis, chaos and catastrophe. The idea that the transition from a united, centrally ruled Egypt to different domains triggered a spiritual crisis is also rejected today. For these two reasons, the thesis that literature has dealt with a chaotic time of crisis or a mental malaise is no longer tenable. Another problem was that the texts mentioned were brought into connection with the First Intermediate Period because of their pessimistic content and, because of this constructed connection, were then used again as a source for the First Intermediate Period, which was ultimately confirmed as a time of crisis.

The term "dispute literature" goes back to Eberhard Otto . The thesis that historical events of the First Intermediate Period were processed in the literature, was put forward before. Other researchers speak of "pessimistic literature" or "problem literature".

Fairytale stories

In research, this includes narratives that are neither mythological or religious in nature nor represent reports of experiences. The purpose and addressee are disputed, as is the assignment to the genre. For example, the story of Sinuhe is seen partly as a fairy tale and partly as an experience report. The undisputed representative of this genre and the most prominent example is the story of the shipwrecked .

Medical texts

They contain both observations and specific indications for medical treatments as well as incantations. The Egyptians did not separate magic and medicine.


Old empire

The literature of the Old Kingdom is not as rich as that of subsequent times. The most extensive text types of the Old Kingdom are the religious texts in the pyramids of the deceased kings, the pyramid texts. The first known wisdom that Imhotep , who lived under King Djoser , gave as the author has been completely lost, and it cannot be said whether this work is really from him, Imhotep. The autobiographies carved in the graves of prominent people have survived to a greater extent. The oldest of them, that of Metjen , dates from the time of Snofru ; B. that of the Gaufürsten Harchuf . On the other hand, no scientific works have survived from the Old Kingdom, although their existence is assumed.

First split

The chaos of the First Intermediate Period may have been reflected in several literary works (the so-called dispute literature ). In this context, the "Lamentations of Ipuwer" are repeatedly mentioned as an important work, which has come down to us in a single, heavily damaged manuscript from the 19th dynasty ( Papyrus Leiden I 344 ). The text describes Egypt as a community stricken by natural disasters and collapsed. Previous research viewed it as historical poetry about the fall of the Old Kingdom. However, like others, it was written in the late Middle Kingdom. Apart from the biographies and funerary texts handed down in the grave, there are no noteworthy traditions from the first interim period. They were either destroyed or there were no texts.

Middle realm

The heyday of Egyptian literature was in the Middle Kingdom, as the texts of this epoch were still read and copied in schools centuries later. This is certainly also due to the form of the language, as Middle Egyptian was still considered classic for a long time. Even in the Ramesside period , Cheti , who wrote two doctrines and probably also a Nile hymn, was considered the greatest Egyptian poet.
In the Middle Kingdom, new genres emerged: wisdom teachings such as the
teaching of a man for his son and narrative texts such as the story of the shipwrecked man, the story of Sinuhe and the fragmentary pastoral story . Preserved scenic instructions for a cultic play point to the existence of dramatic texts . Another new type of text from the Middle Kingdom is the so-called King's Novella , which records conversations between the king and his subordinates, for example in a throne meeting or during war preparations. In the tradition of the ancient Egyptian pyramid texts the noble people in the graves are written down, however Beyond texts .

There are also some important scientific works from the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period , such as the Ebers medical papyrus .

New kingdom

The New Kingdom also produced a multitude of works. As the wisdom doctrines lost importance, fairytale tales gained in number. An important narrative text is Wenamun's travelogue , who portrayed the dwindling power of Egypt in Palestine around 1180 BC. Describes. For the first time, brief war diaries have been preserved, on which comprehensive battle descriptions are based on temple walls. A satirical letter that also relates to Palestine, the Papyrus Anastasi I, dates from the same period . The underworld books, which refer to the time after death, form a new class of text.

Late Period and Greco-Roman Period

The demotic literature of the late period is characterized by fairy tales and childishly simple animal fables, epic, historical and prophetic stories such as the prophecies of a lamb and collections of sayings. In addition, there are the exclusively religious temple inscriptions of the Greco-Roman times, which are still written in hieroglyphic script . The number of hieroglyphs increases to about 7000 during this time; they become a kind of secret language and can only be understood by priests.

In the formal tradition of the ancient wisdom teachings and collections of sayings are the teachings of the Insinger papyrus from the Ptolemies - or perhaps Persian times (written down from the 2nd or 1st century BC) and the teachings of Chascheschonqi (around 600 - 500 BC BC, also handed down as papyrus from the 2nd or 1st century BC). In a time of oppression and foreign rule, the moralists usually only develop pessimistic and cynical advice and peasant rules for the rural petty bourgeoisie about how to avoid the worst and achieve more material prosperity (Papyrus Insinger: "Borrow money and celebrate your birthday!" or Papyrus Louvre 2424: "Do not make it known that your wife has annoyed you. Beat her and let her take her belongings away.")

In addition to the traditional Egyptian forms, demotic literature has taken up Greek elements, which are particularly evident in the story about the heroic deeds of the magician Chaemwaset , son of Ramses II : The magician has appropriated an old magic book that he has to return because magic only brings disaster on him. The revival of magical traditions is characteristic of a period of collapse and oppression, when the rational thinking of the Macedonian-Greek occupiers was not accepted and xenophobia arose. Magic remains the only possibility for the individual to influence his fate.

The legends about the kings Petubastis III. and Inaros I and their struggle against Assyrians and Persians ( The battle for Inaros 'armor ), however, reveals influences of the Iliad , according to whose compositional scheme the battles develop and Inaros' weapons and clothes are described. There are also echoes of the mythical journey to the Amazons in a demotic story. But the Egyptian authors lack the Greek sense of the tragic; the story ends with a reconciliation between nations.

In the Hellenistic period, paradoxically, the Egyptians had to use the Greek language to represent their own religious ideas, as they hardly succeeded in finding words for abstract-theoretical connections such as "God", "Becoming" or "Transfiguration" and they only found these were able to formulate in concrete-mythological contexts.

Jewish influences on demotic literature are particularly evident in Roman times: The story of Si-Osire , a magician from the time of Thutmose III, is reminiscent of this . , of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon ( 1 Kings 10: 1). Some authors recognize Jesus in the young, wisdom-filled Si-Osire ( Luke 16, 19–31).

Stylistic devices and special features

The ancient Egyptians used style elements such as the otherwise-now scheme or those that are common in the occidental world, such as B. Repetitions . Here, however, the reinforcing element is not expressed threefold, but only twofold, which is possibly due to the affinity to duality ( the two countries etc.). The different genres also have different stylistic devices. Fairytale-like stories are characterized by the introduction of the sentences with the particles jw (translation: for truth, verily, it is the case ) or ˁḥˁ.n ("achan") ( and then ), which can be translated in different ways. However, jw is also often ignored in translations. However, these particles also occur in other genera; on the other hand, a story without ˁḥˁ.n or jw is inconceivable. They also had a penchant for word games.

In ancient Egypt, writing had a strong magical aspect. The Egyptians believed that written things affect reality . Because of this, they avoided negative things. For example, there is no word for day of death, but rather a word for day of misfortune . Based on the same belief, in the pyramid texts, signs representing dangerous animals were partially destroyed (i.e. cut in the middle) or cut through by a knife, also shown. This is often found with the horned viper that forms the character f :

All historically influenced reports are to be read with caution, as well as autobiographical representations in graves. Critical analysis is also required with temple walls , because many things are canonical , e.g. B. defeating enemies or (towards the end of the Old Kingdom) sending out expeditions . An expedition is described on the temple of Pepi I , which - as it turned out later - was undertaken by Pharaoh Sahure . The pictorial scenery (with accompanying text) was copied. Lists of allegedly defeated peoples and cities were copied particularly frequently. Some mythological texts, such as B. the fight against Apophis , take historical connections. Jan Assmann calls this cultural memory and tries to bring these stories back to their core and to link them to historical events.

See also


(sorted chronologically)

  • Günther Roeder : Ancient Egyptian stories and fairy tales. Diederichs, Jena 1927.
  • Miriam Lichtheim : Ancient Egyptian Literature. 2 vol., Berkeley / Los Angeles / London, 1973–1976.
  • William K. Simpson: The Literature of Ancient Egypt. New Haven, London 1977.
  • Hellmut Brunner : Basic features of a history of ancient Egyptian literature (= basic features. Vol. 8). 4th edition, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1986, ISBN 3-534-04100-3 .
  • Jan Assmann : Egyptian hymns and prayers (= Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis. ). University Press Freiburg Switzerland, 1999, ISBN 3-7278-1230-3 ; Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, ISBN 3-525-53649-6 .
  • Jan Assmann: The cultural memory. Scripture, Memory and Political Identity in Early High Cultures. 4th edition, Munich 2002.
  • Wolfgang Kosack : Berlin booklets on Egyptian literature 1 - 12 .: Part I. 1 - 6 / Part II. 7 - 12 (2 volumes). Parallel texts in hieroglyphics with introductions and translation. Christoph Brunner, Basel 2015, ISBN 978-3-906206-11-0 .
  • Wolfgang Kosack: The ancient Egyptian pyramid texts. In a new German translation; completely edited and edited by Wolfgang Kosack. Christoph Brunner, Berlin 2012, ISBN 978-3-9524018-1-1 .
  • Karlheinz Schüssler: Pharaoh Cheops and the magician. Ancient Egyptian fairy tales and stories (= Manesse Library of World Literature ). Manesse, Zurich 2003, ISBN 3-7175-2022-9 .
  • Günter Burkard , Heinz J. Thissen: Introduction to the ancient Egyptian literary history I: Old and Middle Kingdom. (= Introductions and source texts on Egyptology. Vol. 1), 3rd edition, LIT, Münster 2008, ISBN 3-8258-6132-5 .
  • Günter Burkard, Heinz J. Thissen: Introduction to ancient Egyptian literary history 2: New Kingdom (= introductions and source texts for Egyptology. Vol. 6). LIT, Münster 2008, ISBN 3-8258-0987-0 .
  • Joachim Friedrich Quack : Introduction to ancient Egyptian literary history 3: The demotic and Graeco-Egyptian literature (= introductions and source texts on Egyptology. Vol. 3). 2nd edition, LIT, Münster 2009, ISBN 3-8258-8222-5 .
  • Constanze Holler (ed.): The crocodile and the pharaoh, an anthology of ancient Egyptian literature. von Zabern, Mainz / Darmstadt 2012, ISBN 978-3-8053-4535-4 .

Web links

  • The page of the Thesaurus linguae Aegyptiae contains good translations on the web (only after registration; cumbersome page guidance, but from all possible areas)

Individual evidence

  1. z. B. Erik Hornung : Songs from the Nile. Zurich / Munich 1990, p. 179; Elke Blumenthal : The literary processing of the transition period between the Old and Middle Kingdom. In: Antonio Loprieno (ed.): Ancient Egyptian Literature. History and Forms. Problems of Egyptology Vol. 10, Leiden / New York / Cologne 1996, pp. 105–135, here p. 106; Hermann A. Schlögl : Ancient Egypt. Munich 2003, p. 44.
  2. z. B. Winfried Barta: The first interim period in the mirror of pessimistic literature. In: Jaarbericht van het Vooraziatisch-Egyptisch Genootschap Ex Oriente Lux No. 24 (1975/76), p. 52; Hellmut Brunner : Basic features of a history of ancient Egyptian literature. Grundzüge Vol. 8, 4th edition, Darmstadt 1986 (first published in 1966), p. 27; Elke Blumenthal: The literary processing of the transition period between the Old and Middle Kingdom. In: Antonio Loprieno (ed.): Ancient Egyptian Literature. History and Forms. Problems of Egyptology Vol. 10, Leiden / New York / Cologne 1996, pp. 105–135, here p. 106.
  3. ^ Stephan Seidlmayer : Economic and social development in the transition from the old to the middle realm. A contribution to the archeology of the burial grounds of the Qau-Matmar region in the First Intermediate Period. In: Jan Assmann / Günter Burkard / Vivian Davies: Problems and Priorities in Egyptian Archeology. London / New York 1987, pp. 175-217; Stephan Seidlmayer: Grave fields from the transition from the Old to the Middle Kingdom. Studies on the Archeology of the First Intermediate Period (= Studies on the Archeology and History of Ancient Egypt, Vol. 1). Heidelberg 1990; Stephan Seidlmayer: The First Intermediate Period (c.2160-2055 BC). In: Ian Shaw (Ed.): The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford 2000, pp. 118-147.
  4. So z. B. Eberhard Otto: The reproach to God. On the emergence of the Egyptian dispute literature. Lectures at the oriental conference in Marburg 1950, Section Egyptology, Hildesheim 1951, p. 3; Walther Wolf : Cultural history of ancient Egypt. Stuttgart 1962, pp. 199-200; Jan Assmann, Jan: Stone and Time. Man and Society in Ancient Egypt. Munich 1991, p. 190.
  5. Günter Burkard, Heinz J. Thissen : Introduction to ancient Egyptian literary history I: Old and Middle Kingdom (= introductions and source texts on Egyptology. Vol. 1). 4th edition, Berlin / Münster 2012, pp. 144-145.
  6. ^ Hannes Buchberger: Transformation and Transformat. Coffin text studies I (= Egyptological treatises . Vol. 52). Wiesbaden 1993, p. 300.
  7. Günter Burkard, Heinz J. Thissen: Introduction to ancient Egyptian literary history I: Old and Middle Kingdom (= introductions and source texts on Egyptology. Vol. 1). 4th edition, Berlin / Münster 2012, p. 135; Eberhard Otto: The reproach to God. On the emergence of the Egyptian dispute literature. Lectures at the oriental conference in Marburg 1950, Egyptology specialist group, Hildesheim 1951.
  8. z. B. Alan H. Gardiner : The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage from a Hieratic Papyrus in Leiden (Pap. Leiden 344 recto). Hildesheim 1969 (reprint of the first edition from 1909 [Leipzig]).
  9. Winfried Barta: The first intermediate time in the mirror of pessimistic literature. In: Jaarbericht van het Vooraziatisch-Egyptisch Genootschap Ex Oriente Lux No. 24 (1975/76).
  10. Elke Blumenthal : The literary processing of the transition period between the Old and Middle Kingdom. In: Antonio Loprieno (ed.): Ancient Egyptian Literature. History and Forms. Problems of Egyptology Vol. 10, Leiden / New York / Cologne 1996, pp. 105–135.
  11. Pierre Grimal (ed.): The Hellenism and the rise of Rome. (= Fischer Weltgeschichte vol. 6.) Frankfurt 1965, p. 224.
  12. Grimal 1965, p. 225 ff.
  13. Grimal 1965, p. 227.