Echoes of Memphis and Thebes

November 20, 1998

The Tale of Sinuhe: And Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, 1940-1640 BC Translated by R. B. Parkinson Oxford University Press 317pp. £45.00 ISBN 0 19 814963 8.

Ancient Egypt is famous for its monuments far more than for its writings. Many who are aware that the Egyptians used hieroglyphs are surprised to find that the script wrote a real language and that many literary works have survived.

Scholars now believe that imaginative literature was not written down in Egypt before the Middle Kingdom, around 1950 BC, In the third millennium BC, when the great pyramids were built, such works seem to have had exclusively oral form, whereas texts transmitted on papyrus were religious, learned, or encyclopaedic.

The Middle Kingdom saw the emergence of a new ruling group. The written language was reformed and standardised and new genres appeared. Middle Kingdom written culture was "classical" for later periods, exerting influence until the end of Egyptian civilisation. This literary tradition has been partially recovered over the past 150 years from finds of papyrus manuscripts and inscribed potsherds.

In contrast with Germany, where Thomas Mann drew upon Egyptian literature for Joseph and his Brothers and Bertolt Brecht used part of the Dialogue Of Ipuur in his Caucasian Chalk Circle, these texts have had little impact in the Anglophone world. Yet they offer much, from the subtle and complex narrative of alienation and rehabilitation of the Tale of Sinuhe to the casuistry of power and praise of the creator god in the Instruction for Merikare or the subjective tone and lyrical descriptions of despair, loss, and reconciliation of the Dialogue of a Man and His Soul.

R. B. Parkinson's The Tale of Sinuhe is the first book to gather all these works and address them specifically as literature.

Parkinson applies the results of recent scholarship, including his own, to all texts of which enough is preserved for continuous translation. He treats them as "poems", using the rules of Egyptian metre reconstructed by Gerhard Fecht. This presentation, which will be unfamiliar to many, encourages close study and enhances appreciation.

After a general survey, each text is introduced and translated, and annotated. The notes offer exegesis section by section as well as comments on specific points. Because they are placed after the translations, the reader can approach the text directly or consult them at each step. This treatment will suit both those who wish to enjoy the works without mediation and scholars, who will find many new ideas and insights in the introductions and notes. The translations are relatively plain but precise and sparely elegant. They have the essential quality of making sense, as is all too rare in the rendering of exotic texts.

The works are different in character from western literature. Until recently many of them were seen as unsophisticated or simply as tedious because their rhetorical values did not fit western predilections. Interpretations tended to use inappropriate methods and entertained wild hypotheses. In Parkinson's vision, the works address, in very compact forms, concerns that are comparable to those of other literary traditions. His interpretive sympathy encompasses all the texts, conveying convincingly how a work as seemingly alien as the Dialogue of Ipuur has something vital to say to modern readers. Parkinson is strongly aware of the social context of these elite works, which were addressed to the small literate group, although they were probably performed aloud. Along with a few later texts they are the most complex and nuanced witnesses to central Egyptian meanings and values. While they are serious works, much in them was intended for enjoyment: delectation was crucial in countering the Egyptians' basic pessimism.

Now that these texts are available in this excellent presentation for the specialist and non-specialist, one hopes that there will be more interest in ancient Egyptian literature. The main obstacle to this book's deserved success is its outrageous price; perhaps its small format shows that the publishers may produce a paperback.

John Baines is professor of Egyptology, University of Oxford.

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