Ancient Egyptian Literature of the Old Kingdom

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

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

This lesson explores two works of ancient Egyptian literature from the Old Kingdom: the ''Westcar Papyrus'' and the ''Instructions of Ptahhotep.'' We will learn about kingdoms and dynasties, and hieroglyphics and papyrus through these magical tales.

Tales of Magic and Wonder

Along with the magnificent tales about gods and myths of creation, the ancient Egyptians also handed down literature about magicians, warriors, kings, and peasants. Yep - superhuman heroes and gods existed way back when.

Even modern depictions like in X-Men: Apocalypse, 2016's big summer blockbuster, grounds the mutant's superhuman powers in ancient Egyptian lore. On closer examination, popular contemporary science fiction and ancient Egyptian literature have a lot in common!

By opening up a window into the ancient Egyptian literature of the Old Kingdom, we will learn about what two spectacular tales have to say about their civilization's beliefs in the supernatural, the power of gods, and the right way for kings to rule.

The Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt

Egyptologists make sense of ancient Egypt by demarcating its history according to Kingdoms and dynasties. Ancient Egyptian civilization first showed signs of greatness in the period historians call the Old Kingdom. It was followed by the Middle and New Kingdoms. Each period is made up by a series of dynasties, the time in which different ruling families were in power.

  • The Old Kingdom (2705-2213 BC, Dynasties 3-8)
  • The Middle Kingdom (1991-1668 BC, Dynasties 12-13)
  • The New Kingdom (1570-1070 BC, Dynasties 18-20)

Papyrus, More Than Just a Font

There are two seminal manuscripts from ancient Egypt's Old Kingdom: the Westcar Papyrus and the Instructions of Ptahhotep.

Ancient peoples didn't write on the kind of paper we use today, which is made out of cotton and plant fibers. The few literate people of that time set down their thoughts on papyrus, a thick paper made from the stalks of Nile river grass. The name is used to describe the material of the paper as well as the documents themselves.

The Westcar Papyrus and the Instructions of Ptahhotep are both written in hieratic text, a cursive script that evolved from the older hieroglyphs.

Fragment of the Instructions of Ptahhotep
hieratic text

Westcar Papyrus

The Westcar Papyrus, named after 19th century explorer Henry Westcar who discovered the scrolls, actually tells a story called Three Tales of Wonder from the Court of King Khufu, AKA Khufu and the Magicians.

The story tells of King Khufu's sons who entertain him by telling tales about extraordinary feats of magic. The stories take place in the fourth dynasty of the Old Kingdom, but are thought to have been written toward the end of the Middle Kingdom. Let's look into some of the details.

Joseph explaining Pharaohs dreams, by Jean Adrien Guignet (1816-1854)
palace

The Wax Crocodile

Prince Khafra tells the story of a magician who discovers his wife's infidelity. The magician crafts a crocodile out of wax, and throws it into the lake where he knows his wife's lover will be swimming. The crocodile magically comes to life and drowns the young man.

The Story of the Green Jewel

In Prince Baufra's tale, Pharaoh Sneferu and his harem are out rowing in the palace lake. When one woman loses her turquoise pendant in the water, the pharaoh summons his magician. The magician parts the waters and recovers the pendant from the lake bed.

The Prophecy of Djed-djedi

Prince Hordedef summons a 110-year-old magician named Djed-djedi who demonstrates his abilities to reattach severed heads, tame lions, and navigate the secret chambers of Thoth's temple. The magician prophecies that the sacred map of the temple can only be discovered by the eldest of three sons yet to be born of Raddjedet, wife of a priest of Ra. Her sons, says Djed-djedi, will rule Egypt after Khufu dies.

Royal Births

That winter, four goddesses, Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, and Heqet, along with Khnum, the creator god, arrive to witness the birth of the future kings. The story comes to an end by recounting the rise to power of Raddjedet's three sons, marking the end of the fourth dynasty (Khufu) and the beginning of the fifth.

Egyptologist Caroline Seawright speculates that the Westcar Papyrus was written to legitimate the rule of the fifth dynasty pharaohs, which overthrew Khufu.

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