18 May 2009

Literature & Education: Egyptian Literature

By Jean Adams

Ancient Egyptian literature grew out of religious beliefs, but quickly evolved to deal with man's day-to-day life. Literary works occupied a distinguished position in ancient Egyptian civilization. The Egyptians viewed literature as a source of spiritual nourishment and a unique way to elevate style of expression. Refined literary style was a source of pride for the writer and appreciation and enjoyment for the reader.

Egyptians wrote plays, dramatic poetry, songs, religious hymns and love poetry, in addition to description of nature, poems to glorify their kings and their battles, and songs for workers and farmers and others to be sung in parties.

Ancient Egyptian literature can be dated back to the Middle Kingdom (2022 BC-1850 BC). This era witnessed a great number of writers and thinkers who left behind works of art reflecting the elevated status of thinking and culture.

One story is titled "The Sailor and the Wonder Island" (The Shipwrecked Sailor). It narrates the story of an Egyptian sailor whose ship is wrecked with all others on board, drowned. As the only survivor, he lives on an isolated island, finds a treasure, and returns home. The original“Treasure Island perhaps?

Scholars and critics of comparative literature are at loggerheads on the extent of the influence of the "Message of Forgiveness," written by the Arabic poet abul-Ala'al- Ma'arri (973-1057 AD), on Dante Aligieri's Divine Comedy. The central theme of both works is the description of heaven and hell in the hereafter.

Some scholars believe this theme has clear roots in ancient Egyptian literature, which tackled this theme in many works. It was evident in The Book of the Dead, The Book of the Gates, and in the story Isis, Osiris and the World of Dead.

Ancient Egyptian writers expressed their imaginative vision of the journey of the soul after leaving the body to the sky until it reaches the court where the deceased's heart is weighed against "Ma'at's feather" that symbolizes justice, truthfulness, rightness and bounty. Then, the deceased is sentenced to eternal paradise or hell.

The ancient Egyptians also excelled at novel writing. This is reflected in the great number of stories left behind. In some of these stories, a well-traveled hero tells us about his adventures such as the story of the sailor and the dangers he witnessed on the mythical island of snakes.

Another example is "Snohi" (Sinuhe), a story that was famous for many centuries. It describes Snohi's escape from Egypt after a perceived wrongdoing and his stay in Syria for many years where he won the favor of the king. He became so close to the leader,who allowed him to marry his elder daughter, and gave him a plot of land. When Snohi grows old, he also grows homesick. He appeals to the king for permission to return to Egypt to see, as he says, "the place that his heart is longing to see because the greatest thing in the world for a man is to be buried in the place of his birth." His hope is fulfilled and he returns to Egypt.

The ancient Egyptians excelled in writing romantic love poetry. In addition to eulogies to Nile River and its merits, there were many love poems that expressed not only passion surging the heart of a lover, but also delicate emotions. Sentiments of love were couched in beautiful similes derived from aspects of the Egyptian environment. For example, a lover says to his beloved, "My beloved is like a garden, full of beautiful papyrus blossoms and I am like a wild goose attracted by the taste of love."

Another lover says, "My beloved is there on the other bank. We are separated by the floodwater. On the bankside, there is a crocodile lying in wait. But I am not afraid of it. I will swim through the water until I reach her and be delighted."

In another love song, two lovers exchange refined expressions of love. The loving woman says, "I will never leave you my darling. My only wish is to stay in your house and at your service. We will always be hand in hand, come and go to gather everywhere. You are my health; my life."

In many of the love poems of Egypt, the man calls his beloved "sister" and the woman calls her lover "brother" in order to show how each one of them highly appreciates the other.

Finally, can you guess this story?

Rhodophis, a young slave girl, who could dance beautifully, so delighted her old master that he bought her a pair of golden sandals. The other servants were jealous, so when Pharaoh decided he wanted to take a wife, and summoned all the women of the kingdom to a great feast, they didn't tell Rhodophis and left her behind. But the gods intervened and sent Horus, in the shape of a falcon, to steal one of her sandals. He dropped it at the feet of Pharaoh, who declared the sandal was so dainty that we would marry the wearer. Many tried it on but it fit none of them so he sent out his chariots to find her. They found Rhodophis cowering behind a bush and sent for Pharaoh. He took her by the hand and declared his undying love for her.

Cinderella's story with the same central themes appears in abundance in the folkloric and literary works of many nations all over world, the most famous being the Brothers Grimm.

The first reference of this story dates back to the era of the fourth Dynasty in the 26th Century BC.