Ancient Egyptian Literature of the New Kingdom

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we will explore examples of literature from ancient Egypt's New Kingdom. We'll learn about key works representative of two types of literature that matured during this period: educational texts and tales for entertainment.

The Last Great Pharaohs of Egypt

What were the ancient Egyptians like? How can we learn anything about civilizations that rose and fell millennia before the invention of the printing press? Art historians make sense of early Egypt through their art and mythology, which speak to their rich intellectual and religious life. But to learn about their everyday life, Egyptologists and literary historians decode ancient manuscripts.

Along with the well-known myths about the Gods of creation, Ancient Egyptian literature also hands down knowledge about court life and peasant culture. Of all the literature written during the ancient Egyptian civilization, those produced during the New Kingdom (1570-1090 B.C.) represent the most skillful and mature. This period marked the culmination of authentic Egyptian culture, before the widespread intrusion of Greek and Roman influence in the last century of the epoch. The era in which each pharaoh rules is known as a dynasty. The last great pharaohs of Egypt ruled during the New Kingdom, which encompasses the 18th-20th dynasties: Akhenaten and Tutankhamun during the 18th dynasty, Seti during the 19th and Rameses III, considered to be the last great pharaoh, during the 20th.

A Priest's Travelogue

Its unprecedented combination of unique voice and a mature literary style makes The Report of Wenamun the greatest work of literature produced during the ancient Egyptian civilization. Scholar Miriam Lightman calls The Report of Wenamun ' a literary culmination' of the New Kingdom.

The report is a travelogue. Wenamun, a priest from Thebes, tells of his journey across the Mediterranean to the ancient city of Gebal (now Byblos, Lebanon), carrying a great fortune with him on the ship. Historians prize the report because it provides a wealth of information about trade, the value of goods, and intercultural exchange. The Report also documents the efforts of Rameses XI to defend his kingdom from invading armies. After his reign, Egypt fell into disorder.

The map shows the route of the journey of Wenamun, from Thebes to Gebal
Wenamun journey

Wisdom Literature

Today we would think of these kinds of texts as educational textbooks or manuals. But in ancient Egypt, they made up a special genre of literature called sebayt, meaning teaching or instruction. These texts offered advice about work, law, religion and spirituality, and how to live a moral and virtuous life.

By the time the New Kingdom rolled around, wisdom literature matured into a true literary form, as demonstrated in The Instructions of Ani (18th dynasty). Distinct from the earlier works in this genre, such as The Maxims of Ptahhotep (Old Kingdom), or The Instructions of Kagemni (Middle Kingdom), scholars set Ani apart because he wrote for the common people rather than for the aristocracy.

In The Instructions of Ani, for example, a scribe in the court of Nefertari (queen of Thutmose IV, 1398-1388 B.C.), writes out advice for his son. Ani aims to inform his readers about how to live a good, honest life. They cover all sorts of topics, from moral conduct to good manners, courtship rituals, and how to make just decisions. The opening lines convey his sage advice about love and marriage:

'Take a wife while you're young,
That she make a son for you;
She should bear for you while you're youthful,
It is proper to make people.'

Painting of the burial chamber of Nefertari

Household Tales

You may be familiar with the Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, and old folk tales like Cinderella and Snow White that circulated around Europe in the Middle Ages. These timeless fairy tales evolved from oral storytelling traditions. Well, the ancient Egyptians also set down the tales of the peasantry. They feature both demi-gods and humans who perform feats of magic, go out on adventures and fall in love.

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