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Ancient Egyptian Literature

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First published in 1973, this anthology has assumed classic status in the field of Egyptology and portrays the remarkable evolution of the literary forms of one of the world’s earliest civilizations. Beginning with the early and gradual evolution of Egyptian genres, it includes biographical and historical inscriptions carved on stone, the various classes of works written with pen on papyrus, and the mortuary literature that focuses on life after death. It then shows the culmination of these literary genres within the single period known as the New Kingdom (1550–1080 B.C.) and ends in the last millennium of Pharaonic civilization, from the tenth century B.C. to the beginning of the Christian era. An introduction written in three parts by Antonio Loprieno, Hans-W. Fischer-Elfert, and Joseph G. Manning completes this classic anthology.

ISBN-13: 9780520305847

Media Type: Paperback(First Edition)

Publisher: University of California Press

Publication Date: 05-07-2019

Pages: 872

Product Dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 2.40(d)

Series: World Literature in Translation

For thirty years Miriam Lichtheim (1914–2004) was Near East Bibliographer and Lecturer at University of California, Los Angeles. She retired in 1974 to devote herself to Egyptological research and later moved to Jerusalem where she taught at Hebrew University.

Read an Excerpt


Monumental Inscriptions from Private Tombs

The six texts in this section illustrate the principal themes in the repertoire of tomb inscriptions.

The texts in the mastaba of princess Ni-sedjer-kai are limited to prayers for offerings and for a good reception in the West, the land of the dead. The official Hetep-her-akhet sounds the theme that in building his tomb he chose an empty spot and did not damage another man's tomb. He also addresses a warning to future generations of visitors not to enter the tomb with evil intentions.

Moving into the time of the Sixth Dynasty, we sample the declaration of innocence of Nefer-seshem-re, which embodies the principal elements in the catalogue of virtues which was being elaborated in this period. Nihebsed-Pepi has summarized his prayers for offerings and for a good reception in the West in the capsuled, self-contained form of the stela which, now still a part of the tomb, was destined to become an independent monument. Lastly, the two long inscriptions of Weni and Harkhuf are the two most important autobiographical inscriptions of Old Kingdom officials and show the growth of the autobiography into a major literary genre.


In her Mastaba at Giza Early Fifth Dynasty

The inscriptions in this fine, large tomb consist entirely of funerary prayers and of the names and titles of the princess and her father. They are carved on two architraves, two false-doors, and on the two pillars of the pillared hall. The relief figure of the princess, shown standing or seated at the offering table, concludes the texts. The two principal inscriptions are on the two architraves.

Tomb publication: Junker, Gîza, II, 97–121.

The two inscriptions: Ibid., p. 115.

On the architrave aver the entrance to the pillared hall (Two horizontal lines:)

(1) An offering which the king gives and Anubis, lord of the necropolis, first of the god's hall: May she be buried in the western necropolis in great old age. May she travel on the good ways on which a revered one travels well.

(2) May offerings be given her on the New Year's feast, the Thoth feast, the First-of-the-Year feast, the wag-feast, the Sokar feast, the Great Flame feast, the Brazier feast, the Procession-of-Min feast, the monthly sadj-feast, the Beginning-of-the-Month feast, the Beginning-of-the-Half-Month feast, every feast, every day, to the royal daughter, the royal ornament, Ni-sedjer-kai.

On the architrave over the entrance to the inner chamber (Four lines:)

(1) An offering which the king gives and Anubis, first of the god's hall: May she be buried in the western necropolis in great old age before the great god.

(2) May offerings be given her on the New Year's feast, the Thoth feast, the First-of-the-Year feast, the wag-feast, and every feast: to the royal daughter, the royal ornament, Ni-sedjer-kai.

(3) The royal daughter, royal ornament, priestess of Hathor,

(4) priestess of King Khufu, Ni-sedjer-kai.


Leiden Museum Fifth Dynasty

This is one of two inscriptions carved in vertical columns on the two sides of the entrance leading into the tomb-chapel. Behind the text columns is the standing relief figure of the tomb-owner.

Publication: Mariette, Mastabas, p. 342. HolwerdaBoeser, Beschreibung, I, pl. v. Sethe, Urkunden, I, 50–51. H.T. Mohr, The Mastaba of Hetep-her-akhti. Mededeelingen en Verhandelingen van het Vooraziatisch-Egyptisch Gezelschap "Ex Oriente Lux," no. 5 (Leiden, 1943), p. 35.

Translation: BAR, I, § 253.

Right side of entrance (Four columns:)

(1) The elder Judge of the Hall, Hetep-her-akhet, says: I made this tomb on the west side in a pure place, in which there was no (2) tomb of anyone, in order to protect the possession of one who has gone to his ka. As for any people who would enter (3) this tomb unclean and do something evil to it, there will be judgment against them (4) by the great god. I made this tomb because I was honored by the king, who brought me a sarcophagus.


On the False-Door of his Tomb at Saqqara Sixth Dynasty As the focal point of the tomb, the false-door carried the offering-table scene and the name and titles of the tomb-owner. In addition, it came to be used for brief autobiographical statements, especially those which affirmed the deceased's moral worth. These affirmations became increasingly formulaic, and the limited space of the false-door lent itself to capsuled formulations. The stylization of these catalogs of virtues also meant that they were not told in the prose of the narrative autobiography, but were recited in the symmetrically patterned phrases of the orational style.

Publication: Capart, Rue de Tombeaux, pl. 11 (photograph). Sethe, Urkunden, I, 198–200.

The text is written twice, in three columns on each side of the door, and ends with a short horizontal line containing the deceased's name whose relief figure stands below it:

(1) I have come from my town,
I have descended from my nome,
I have done justice for its lord,
I have satisfied him with what he loves.
I spoke truly, I did right,
I spoke fairly, I repeated fairly,
I seized the right moment,
So as to stand well with people.
(2) I judged between two so as to content them,
I rescued the weak from one stronger than he As much as was in my power.
I gave bread to the hungry, clothes ,
I brought the boatless to land.
I buried him who had no son,
I made a boat for him who lacked one.
I respected my father, I pleased my mother,
I raised their children.
So says he (4) whose nickname is Sheshi.


Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna Sixth Dynasty

A painted slab stela ca. 34 × 61 cm. On the left, facing right, are the standing figures of the deceased and his wife. The inscription consists of seven horizontal lines which fill the right side and one short vertical column in front of the man's legs.

Publication: Fischer, Inscriptions, no. 5, pp. 24–26 and pl. viii.

(1) An offering which the king gives and Anubis, who is upon his mountain and in the place of embalming, the lord of the necropolis. Buried be the Royal Seal-bearer, Sole Companion, Chief Scribe of boat crews, (3) Judge, Chief Scribe, Ni-hebsed-Pepi in his tomb which is in the good Western Desert. (5) She has taken his hand, he has joined land, he has crossed the firmament. May the Western Desert give her hands to him in peace, in peace before the great god. (7) An offering which the king gives and Anubis, so that funerary offerings be given to the Royal Seal-bearer, Sole Companion, honored by Osiris, Ni-hebsedPepi. Above the woman's head: His wife, his beloved, the Royal Ornament, Priestess of Hathor, Sepi.


From Abydos Cairo Museum No. 1435 Sixth Dynasty

The inscription is carved on a monolithic slab of limestone which formed one wall of the single-room tomb-chapel. The structure may have been a cenotaph rather than a tomb. The text consists of fifty-one vertical columns of finely carved hieroglyphs, preceded by one horizontal line which contains a prayer for offerings. Since some scholars include the first line in their numbering while others omit it, I have given double numbers. The stone has suffered considerable damage, resulting in a number of lacunae.

Weni's exceptionally long career spanned the reigns of Teti, Pepi I, and Mernere.

Publication: Mariette, Abydos, II, pls. 44–45. P. Tresson, L'inscription d'Ouni, Bibliothèque d'étude, 8 (Cairo, 1919). Borchardt, Denkmäler, I, 118 ff. and pls. 29–30. Sethe, Urkunden, I, 98–110.

Translation: BAR, I, §§ 292–294, 306–315, 319–324. M. Stracmans, Bruxelles Annuaire, III (1935), 509–544. J.A. Wilson in ANET, pp. 227–228 (excerpts).

Additional references may be found in the works of Tresson and Borchardt.

(1/2) [The Count, Governor of Upper Egypt, Chamberlain], Warden of Nekhen, Mayor of Nekheb, Sole Companion, honored by Osiris Foremost-of-the-Westerners, Weni [says]: [I was] a fillet-wearing [youth] under the majesty of King Teti, my office being that of custodian of the storehouse, when I became inspector of [tenants] of the palace ––––––. [When I had become] overseer of the robing-room under the majesty of King Pepi, his majesty gave me the rank of companion and inspector of priests of his pyramidtown.

While my office was that of ––– his majesty made me senior warden of Nekhen, his heart being filled with me beyond any other servant of his. I heard cases alone with the chief judge and vizier, concerning all kinds of secrets. [I acted] in the name of the king for the royal harem and for the six great houses, because his majesty's heart was filled with me beyond any official of his, any noble of his, any servant of his.

(5/6) When I begged of the majesty of my lord that there be brought for me a sarcophagus of white stone from Tura, his majesty had a royal seal-bearer cross over with a company of sailors under his command, to bring me this sarcophagus from Tura. It came with him in a great barge of the court, together with its lid, a doorway, lintel, two doorjambs and a libation-table. Never before had the like been done for any servant — but I was excellent in his majesty's heart; I was rooted in his majesty's heart; his majesty's heart was filled with me.

While I was senior warden of Nekhen, his majesty made me a sole companion and overseer of the royal tenants. I replaced four overseers ofroyal tenants who were there. I acted for his majesty's praise in guarding, escorting the king, and attending. I acted throughout (10/11) so that his majesty praised me for it exceedingly.

When there was a secret charge in the royal harem against Queen Weret-yamtes, his majesty made me go in to hear (it) alone. No chief judge and vizier, no official was there, only I alone; because I was worthy, because I was rooted in his majesty's heart; because his majesty had filled his heart with me. Only I put (it) in writing together with one other senior warden of Nekhen, while my rank was (only) that of overseer of royal tenants. Never before had one like me heard a secret of the king's harem; but his majesty made me hear it, because I was worthy in his majesty's heart beyond any official of his, beyond any noble of his, beyond any servant of his.

When his majesty took action against the Asiatic Sand-dwellers, his majesty made an army of many tens of thousands from all of Upper Egypt: from Yebu in the south to Medenyt in the north; from Lower Egypt: from all of the Two-Sides-of-the-House (15/16) and from Sedjer and Khen-sedjru; and from Irtjet-Nubians, Medja-Nubians, YamNubians, Wawat-Nubians, Kaau-Nubians; and from Tjemeh-land.

His majesty sent me at the head of this army, there being counts, royal seal-bearers, sole companions of the palace, chieftains and mayors of towns of Upper and Lower Egypt, companions, scout-leaders, chief priests of Upper and Lower Egypt, and chief district officials at the head of the troops of Upper and Lower Egypt, from the villages and towns that they governed and from the Nubians of those foreign lands. I was the one who commanded them — while my rank was that of overseer of royal tenants — because of my rectitude, so that no one attacked his fellow, (20/21) so that no one seized a loaf or sandals from a traveler, so that no one took a cloth from any town, so that no one took a goat from anyone.

I led them from Northern Isle and Gate of Iyhotep in the district of Horus-lord-of-truth while being in this rank. ––––––. I determined the number of these troops. It had never been determined by any servant.

This army returned in safety,
It had ravaged the Sand-dwellers' land.
This army returned in safety,
It had flattened the sand-dwellers' land.
This army returned in safety,
It had sacked its strongholds.
This army returned in safety,
It had cut down its figs, its vines.
This army returned in safety,
It had thrown fire in all its [mansions].
This army returned in safety,
It had slain its troops by many ten-thousands.
This army returned in safety,
[It had carried] off many [troops] as captives.

His majesty praised me for it beyond anything. His majesty sent me to lead this army five times, to attack the land of the Sand-dwellers as often as they rebelled, with these troops. I acted so that his majesty praised me [for it beyond anything].

Told there were marauders among these foreigners at the nose of Gazelle's-head, I crossed (30/31) in ships with these troops. I made a landing in the back of the height of the mountain range, to the north of the land of the Sand-dwellers, while half of this army was on the road. I came and caught them all and slew every marauder among them.

Weni Becomes Governor of Upper Egypt

When I was chamberlain of the palace and sandal-bearer, King Mernere, my lord who lives forever, made me Count and Governor of Upper Egypt, from Yebu in the south to Medenyt in the north, because I was worthy in his majesty's heart, because I was rooted in his majesty's heart, because his majesty's heart was filled with me. When I was chamberlain and sandal-bearer, his majesty praised me for the watch and guard duty which I did at court, more than any official of his, more than any noble of his, (35/36) more than any servant of his. Never before had this office been held by any servant.

I governed Upper Egypt for him in peace, so that no one attacked his fellow. I did every task. I counted everything that is countable for the residence in this Upper Egypt two times, and every service that is countable for the residence in this Upper Egypt two times. I did a perfect job in this Upper Egypt. Never before had the like been done in this Upper Egypt. I acted throughout so that his majesty praised me for it.

His majesty sent me to Ibhat to bring the sarcophagus "chest of the living" together with its lid, and the costly august pyramidion for the pyramid "Mernere-appears-in-splendor," my mistress. His majesty sent me to Ibhat to bring a granite false-door and its libation stone and granite lintels, (40/41) and to bring granite portals and libation stones for the upper chamber of the pyramid "Mernere-appears-in-splendor," my mistress. I traveled north with (them) to the pyramid "Mernere-appears-in-splendor" in six barges and three tow-boats of eight ribs in a single expedition. Never had Yebu and Ibhat been done in a single expedition under any king. Thus everything his majesty commanded was done entirely as his majesty commanded.

His majesty sent me to Hatnub to bring a great altar of alabaster' of Hatnub. I brought this altar down for him in seventeen days. After it was quarried at Hatnub, I had it go downstream in this barge I had built for it, a barge of acacia wood of sixty cubits in length and thirty cubits in width. Assembled in seventeen days, in the third month of summer, when there was no (45/46) water on the sandbanks, it landed at the pyramid "Mernere-appears-in-splendor" in safety. It came about through me entirely in accordance with the ordinance commanded by my lord.

His majesty sent me to dig five canals in Upper Egypt, and to build three barges and four tow-boats of acacia wood of Wawat. Then the foreign chiefs of Irtjet, Wawat, Yam, and Medja cut the timber for them. I did it all in one year. Floated, they were loaded with very large granite blocks for the pyramid "Mernere-appears-in-splendor." Indeed I made a saving for the palace with all these five canals. As King Mernere who lives forever is august, exalted, and mighty more than any god, so everything came about in accordance with the ordinance commanded by his ka.

I was one beloved of his father, praised by his mother, (50/51) gracious to his brothers. The count, true governor of Upper Egypt, honored by Osiris, Weni.


Assuan Sixth Dynasty

This most famous of the autobiographies of Old Kingdom officials is carved in fifty-eight lines on the facade of the tomb. Cut in a soft, flaking stone, the inscription is now in very poor condition. Harkhuf served kings Mernere and Pepi II and, like Weni before him, he became governor of Upper Egypt. In this capacity he led four expeditions to Nubia. His account of these expeditions is the most important source for Egypt's relations with Nubia at this time. To the account of his expeditions Harkhuf added the text of a letter he received from the boy-king Neferkare Pepi II in which the latter vividly and touchingly expresses his eagerness to see the dancing pygmy whom Harkhuf was bringing back with him.

The narration of his career is preceded by the standardized elements of tomb-autobiography — the prayers for offerings and for a good burial, and the catalog of virtues.


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Table of Contents

Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms
Abbreviations and Symbols
Foreword by Antonio Loprieno

Literary Genres and Literary Styles

Part One. The Old Kingdom

1. Monumental Inscriptions from Private Tombs
Inscriptions of Princess Ni-sedjer-kai
Inscription of Hetep-her-akhet
Inscription of Nefer-seshem-re called Sheshi
Stela of Ni-hebsed-Pepi from Naqada
The Autobiography of Weni
The Autobiography of Harkhuf

2. A Royal Decree
Charter of King Pepi I for the Chapel of his mother

3. From the Pyramid Texts
Unas Pyramid Texts: Utterances
Teti Pyramid Texts: Utterances
Pepi I Pyramid Texts: Utterances

4. A Theological Treatise
“The Memphite Theology”

5. Didactic Literature
The Instruction of Prince Hardjedef
The Instruction Addressed to Kagemni
The Instruction of Ptahhotep

Part Two. The Transition to the Middle Kingdom

1. Monumental Inscriptions from Private Tombs
Stela of Count Indi of This
The First Part of the Autobiography of Ankhtifi
Stela of the Butler Merer of Edfu
Stela of the Treasurer Iti of Imyotru
Stela of the Steward Seneni of Coptus
Stela of the Soldier Qedes from Gebelein
Stela of the Treasurer Tjetji

2. The Prayers of a Theban King
A Stela of King Wahankh Intef II

3. The Testament of a Heracleopolitan King
The Instruction Addressed to King Merikare

Part Three: The Middle Kingdom

1. Monumental Inscriptions
Rock Stela of Mentuhotep I
Building Inscription of Sesostris I
Boundary Stela of Sesostris III
Stela of Intef Son of Sent
Stela of Ikhernofret
Stela of Sehetep-ib-re
Stela of Horemkhauf

2. A Spell from the Coffin Texts
CT 1130 and 1031

3. Didactic Literature
The Instruction of King Amenemhet I for His Son Sesostris I
The Prophecies of Neferti
The Complaints of Khakheperre-sonb
The Admonitions of Ipuwer
The Dispute between a Man and His Ba
The Eloquent Peasant
The Satire of the Trades

4. Songs and Hymns
Three Harpers’ Songs
A Cycle of Hymns to King Sesostris III
A Hymn to the Red Crown
A Hymn to Osiris and a Hymn to Min
The Hymn to Hapy

5. Prose Tales
The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor
Three Tales of Wonder
The Story of Sinuhe

Volume II: The New Kingdom

Abbreviations and Symbols
Foreword by Hans-W. Fischer-Elfert
Continuity and Change

Part One: Monumental Inscriptions

1. Inscriptions from Private Tombs
The Autobiography of Ahmose Son of Abana
The Prayers of Paheri
The Installation of the Vizier Rekhmire

2. Inscriptions from Royal Monuments
Obelisk Inscriptions of Queen Hatshepsut
From the Annals of Thutmose III
The Poetical Stela of Thutmose III
The Great Sphinx Stela of Amenhotep II at Giza
Stela of Amenhotep III
The Later Boundary Stelae of Amenhotep IV Akhenaten
Dedication Inscriptions of Seti I
The Kadesh Battle Inscriptions of Ramses II
The Poetical Stela of Merneptah (Israel Stela)

Part Two: Hymns, Prayers, and a Harper’s Song

The Great Hymn to Osiris

Two Hymns to the Sun-God

Hymns and Prayers from El-Amarna
The Short Hymn to the Aten
Two Hymns and a Prayer in the Tomb of Ay
The Great Hymn to the Aten

A Prayer and a Hymn of General Haremhab

Three Penitential Hymns from Deir el-Medina
Votive Stela of Nebre with Hymn to Amen-Re
Votive Stela of Neferabu with Hymn to Mertseger
Votive Stela of Neferabu with Hymn to Ptah

Prayers Used as School Texts
Praise of Amen-Re
Prayer to Amun
Prayer to Amun
Prayer to Thoth
Prayer to Thoth

A Harper’s Song from the Tomb of Neferhotep

Part Three: From the Book of the Dead

Part Four: Instructions
The Instruction of Any
The Instruction of Amenemope

Part Five: Be a Scribe
Papyrus Lansing: A Schoolbook
The Immortality of Writers

Part Six: Love Poems
From Papyrus Chester Beatty I
From Papyrus Harris
From the Cairo Vase 1266 + 25218

Part Seven: Tales
The Destruction of Mankind
The Doomed Prince
The Two Brothers
Truth and Falsehood
Horus and Seth
The Report of Wenamun

Volume III: The Late Period

Abbreviations and Symbols
Foreword by Joseph G. Manning
The Uses of the Past

Part One: Texts in the Classical Language

1. Biographical Inscriptions
Statue Inscription of Djedkhonsefankh
Statue Inscription of Nebneteru
Statue Inscription of Harwa
Two Statue Inscriptions of Montemhet
Cairo Museum 42237
Berlin Museum 17271
Statue Inscription of Peftuaneith
Statue Inscription of Udjahorresne
Stela of Somtutefnakht
Four Inscriptions in the Tomb of Petosiris
The Long Biographical Inscription of Petosiris
Two Speeches of Sishu Father of Petosiris
Speech of Thothrekh Son of Petosiris
Sarcophagus-lid Inscription of Wennofer
Stela of Isenkhebe
Stela of Taimhotep

2. Royal Inscriptions
The Victory Stela of King Piye
A Victory Stela of King Psamtik II
The Naucratis Stela of King Nectanebo I

3. Two Pseudepigrapha
The Bentresh Stela
The Famine Stela

4. Hymns and Lamentations
A Hymn to Imhotep at Karnak
Hymns to Hathor in the Temple of Dendera
Two Hymns to Khnum in the Temple of Esna
A Morning Hymn to Khnum
The Great Hymn to Khnum
The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys

Part Two: Demotic Literature
The Stories of Setne Khamwas
Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah (Setne I)
Setne Khamwas and Si-Osire (Setne II)
Prince Pedikhons and Queen Serpot
The Lion in Search of Man
The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq
The Instruction of Papyrus Insinger

I. Divinities
II. Kings and Queens
III. Personal Names
IV. Geographical and Ethnical Terms
V. Egyptian Words
VI. Some Major Concepts