Reading Challenge #14: The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems

Although I live about two blocks from the largest museum of Egyptian antiquities on the West Coast, I know little to nothing about ancient Egypt. I picked up this anthology of Middle Kingdom literature to remedy that defect. Parkinson, a scholar in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum, translates and provides commentary on these 13 short works of literature, with genres ranging from moral tales, dialogues exploring various moral and spiritual crises, and teachings of wisdom that remind me of biblical proverbs. Unlike many edited anthologies, his commentary was just as vivid and interesting as the texts themselves.

sinuheParkinson explains that the literature in this book comes from a time of cultural unease:

The Middle Kingdom was preceded by a period of less centralized power, when the country was divided, and its literature remained very aware of the dangers of civil unrest and the chaos of the interregnum. (5)

That being true, the literature in this book also attempts to uphold the cultural beliefs and structures of an early Egypt, such as the divinity of the king and the moral order of the cosmos.

Its literature is, in modern terms … didactic. The poems are generally unromantic in all senses of the word, but they are not impersonal or abstract; they have an intimate mode of address and deal with personal themes, being concerned with the human heart. Man’s ethical life is their central concern, and not the cultivation of subjectivity, or personal emotions such as romantic life. (9)

But there is always an edge. For example, “The Teaching of King Amenemhat” is a Hamlet-like text, in which an assassinated king visits his son in a vision and advises him not to trust his advisors as he did. While this text firmly holds to the divinity of the Egyptian king, it also alludes to the anomie of regicide. Another text, “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant,” is narrated by a peasant who was robbed and left destitute by an official until the king himself rights the situation. Yes, justice is served in the end; but in the meantime, life is unfair, and the powerful abuse their privileges. These texts are emblematic of many others in this anthology that walk a fine line between skepticism and chaos on the one hand, and upholding the divinely sanctioned social order on the other.

I would recommend this anthology to someone unexposed to Egyptian literature. Parkinson includes a chronology and detailed bibliography for anyone wishing to go further. (Too bad most of the works in the bibliography are in German and French!) For me the fun was in seeing parallels with biblical literature, even particular idioms that sound familiar from the Hebrew Bible. Parkinson continually laments that we know so little about each text and so many of them are only partially extant, but the fact we have anything this old at all amazes me.

Tomorrow I have my first class of graduate school: day one of “Dead Sea Scrolls and Scriptures.”  So I will set aside this reading challenge for the time being.  For everyone else beginning school, let us pray for wisdom and discernment to not only acquire knowledge but know how to use it.

Onward and upward!

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