middle-egyptian

“When you sleep, guard your heart yourself,
For there are no servants for a man on the day of anguish…”

- The Instruction of King Amenemhat, IIIa-b (transcription after Helck, 1969). [Hieroglyphs and transliteration written with JSesh, by Serge Rosmorduc.]

The Instruction of King Amenemhat is one of the most important works of the Middle Kingdom literary canon, not only to the Egyptians themselves but to modern Egyptology as well.

The text purports to be the work of the king, instructing his son, Senusret, in the arts of kingship and exhorting him to take control. Throughout the text it is strongly suggested, though never outright stated, that Amenemhat has been murdered and speaks from beyond the grave. Much of the Instruction is given over to pessimistic reflexion on human nature, and one the behaviour of “plotters” in Amenemhat’s palace.

This, together with the suggestion of a difficult succession from Amenemhat I to Senusret I in the Story of Sinuhe has been taken by some Egyptologists to mean that Amenemhat was murdered in an attempted palace coup, though the idea is still disputed in part due to a lack of evidence apart from these two literary texts. The question of a possible coup is further complicated by the significant evidence for a ten-year co-regency between Amenemhat I and Senusret I, but which is not presented in either the Instruction and Sinuhe.

The Instruction of King Amenemhat was probably composed during the reign of Senusret I, and a New Kingdom poem attributes it to a scribe called Khety, who might also be the author of the Satire of the Trades.

Most of the surviving copies of the Instruction, however, date to the New Kingdom; the earliest, the now-lost Papyrus Millingen, from the 18th Dynasty, but other copies on papyrus, such as Pap. Sallier II date from the 19th Dynasty, and copies of the text survive from as late as the 4th century BC. The Instruction was also quoted in the ‘Victory Stela’ of the Nubian, 25th dynasty king Piye (c. 752-721 BC): the local ruler of Heracleopolis, Peftjaubast, begs the king for mercy, saying “I did not find a servant on the day of anguish”, clearly paraphrasing the section quoted above.

Hundreds of excerpts from the Instruction have been found on limestone sherds, called 'ostraca’, dating from the New Kingdom. These principally come from the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina, where it seems to have been used as a school text to teach reading and writing in Middle Egyptian.

The large number of copies of the text from Deir el-Medina and elsewhere, and the long period over which it was read, demonstrate that Instruction, like Sinuhe, was regarded as an important classic of the literary canon.

The Instruction has remained important in modern Egyptology, too, and has the distinction of being the first text from ancient Egypt to be identified as literary: Champollion, the man who discovered how to read hieroglyphs, examined the Millingen papyrus, and described it as being literary and philosophical in nature.

The text’s central theme of the murder, or at least attempted murder, of a king, has provoked much modern commentary. Since the king was the divinely ordained ruler, whose duty it was to enforce Ma’at, his murder would not only be blasphemous but had potentially far-reaching consequences. The text has therefore been suggested alternately to be a piece of propaganda - eulogising Amenemhat as a great king, cut down in his prime - or else a politically subversive work undermining the king.

However, as each new king took on the role of the god Horus, and each dead king united himself with the god Osiris, the king’s murder might have a symbolic meaning, linking the still relatively new 12th Dynasty with the time of the gods.

Ultimately, the text cannot be easily reduced to either propaganda or subversion, but stands as a complex and somewhat ambivalent testament of Egypt’s self-conception.

On the Egyptian Language

The Egyptian language is first dated by inscription to circa 3400 BCE and is one of the oldest recorded languages among humans. It is classified as an Afroasiatic language (Hamito-Semitic in older sources) and shares features with related ancient languages such as Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew, and with contemporary languages such as Arabic, Amharic and Hebrew. The liturgical language of Coptic Christianity, Coptic, is a direct descendent of Egyptian.

As with any language with such a long duration of use Egyptian underwent a number of changes over time.  When the rule changes appear to take on clear features Egyptian linguists make distinctions within the language.  For Egyptian there are the following divisions:

  • Archaic Egyptian (Pre- to Early Dynastic Period),
  • Ancient Egyptian (Old Kingdom),
  • Middle Egyptian (Middle Kingdom),
  • Late Egyptian (The Third Intermediate Period),
  • Demotic (Late Period through Roman occupation)
  • Coptic (Roman time to the present)

 Like most Afroasiatic languages Egyptian is built around “verb roots.” In most cases verb roots are made up of three consonants that can be modified by shifting vowel sounds in speaking and specialized characters in hieroglyphic writing. There is a fairly complex system for categorizing verb roots, with James P. Allen’s Middle Egyptian (2010) being one of the best learning sources for those interested in a detailed discussion.

The Eternal Word of Set, Xeper, comes from the verb root xpr or hpr.[1] The verb root hpr means most essentially “to evolve, to develop, to roll out of.” The aspect of “roll out” is likely to be how the verb root became connected with its hieroglyphic counterpart representing the Scarab Beetle.

This glyph was based upon the animal Scarabaeus sacer that is indigenous to Egypt.

 

Like most other scarab beetles S. sacer is a cophrophagic beetle that collects dung and rolls it off to be buried and used as a food source for itself and for its offspring. You can find a brief video introduction to dung beetle behavior here. For those interested in really diving deep into this topic Evolutionary Biology and Conservation of Dung Beetles by Clarke H. Scholtz et al. (2009) is excellent.


[1] Both the “x” and the “h” in this case signify a phoneme similar to the Scottish “-ch” in loch or the German “-ch” in Ich. Early Egyptological Linguists, such as those working in the 19th Century, tended to favor “x” while contemporary Egyptologists favor “h.”

Papyrus Chester Beatty 3

Qenherkhepshef’s handwriting (P. Chester Beatty III; sheet 3): the recto contains a copy of a manual for interpreting dreams written in Middle Egyptian, in a fine literary hand of an unknown scribe (this section is columns 8-11). Qenherkhepshef’s instantly recognizable, bold and highly cursive handwriting is apparent on the verso of this papyrus, where he copied part of a recently composed poem. He also added a copy of a letter he had written to the vizier. The papyrus was later owned by his young wife’s second husband Khaemnun, and then his son Amennakht, both of whom added their names to the recto in handwriting that is less neat than that of the original copyist of the Dream book, but much less cursive than Qenherkhepshef’s (under column 10).

1220 BC 

New Kingdom

(Source: The British Museum)

That is a really powerful tweet.

Egyptian vocabulary list

And now, just for fun, here are a few of my favorite middle Egyptian words and phrases of interest. None of these were constructed by me, so you can feel safe about them being legitimate. :) All are written in phonetic language, because my keyboard doesn’t have an aleph option.

Heka – Holy magic. Typically wielded by the pharaoh.

Hekka khasut – “Rulers of foreign lands.” From which we derive the term “Hyksos.”

Hem-netjer – “God’s servant.” Term for a priest, typically the priests of Amun.

Hu – The word of the gods. Usually translated as “divine utterance.”

Imy-khent – Chamberlain.

Isfet – Chaos. 

Kap – Royal nursery. 

Kenbet – Court of law.

Maat – Order, control, justice. Sometimes written ma'at. The pharaoh was considered an avatar of maat on Earth, and it was his job to preserve the kingdom against the forces of isfet.

Netjer – God

Netjer aa –Great god. A legit god, like Osiris or Isis.

Netjer nefer – Good god. Also can be interpreted as ‘lesser god.’ Normally used to refer to the pharaoh.

Sebayet – “Teachings.” Also called wisdom texts. Basically the encyclopedias of the day.

Sem – Having to do with funerals. A funerary priest was a sem priest. A funerary priest was not, however, “sem hem-netjer.”

Sia – Divine knowledge.

Sobekneferu – “The beauty of Sobek.” Used as a name, not a phrase, though you could probably get away with it at a pinch. Sobek was the crocodile god–alluded to in another famous creation, Ammet, who was both a lady and had the head of a crocodile.

Tawy – “The two lands,” IE Upper and Lower Egypt. Typically appears in descriptive constructions, as in itj-tawy (“seizes possession of the two lands,” the rather boastful name of the city of Amenemhat I) and ankh-tawy (“life of the two lands,” self-explanatory).