Ah, Ancient Egypt. A place full of architectural advancement, scientific prowess, and… steamy love poetry? That’s right, nestled up next to the Nile, ancient Egyptian poets started getting a little saucy.
Measuring the circumference of the Earth? Check.
Now, when you think of love poetry, you’re the first inclination is probably to picture some recluse white dude pining over his unrequited love from a distance, and harbouring his poems as a secret expression of his yearning. Ancient Egyptian love poetry, on the other hand, was starkly different. It was more than likely performed live in front of royalty with talented dancer-actors. The content of these poems was full of imagery that ranged anywhere on the spectrum from pure emotional appeals from separated lovers such as in “I passed close by his house”:
I passed close by his house,
and found his door ajar.
My beloved was standing beside his mother,
and with him all his brothers and sisters….
…He gazed at me when I passed by,
but I must exult alone.
to sexual inuendos that are often intricately laced into the poem, or other times extremely easy to understand such as in “I wish I were her Nubian Maid”:
I would be strengthened
by grasping the garments
that touch her body….
…Then I’d rub my body
with her castoff garments,
Oh how I would be in joy and delight,
my body vigorous!
Yikes. Someone turn on the AC, its a little warm in here. “I wish I were her Nubian Maid” in particular, has some very interesting concepts that are worth diving deeper into. Throughout the poem, there is a definite shift in the narrator associating with both typically male and female roles. The poems title and first stanza include the phrase “I wish I were her Nubian Maid”, a female position. Then, in the second stanza, he states that he wishes he were her laundryman. He starts with associating with a feminine role, then switches to a masculine one. While these two stanza’s are different in that way, what they have in common with the third stanza:
I wish I were her little signet ring,
the keeper of her finger!
I would see her love
each and every day,
And I would steal her heart.
Is the apparent desire of the narrator to place himself in positions that would let him be close to his beloved. What this entails though, is that he is willing to an extent, to sacrifice his social status if it means being close to her. We are never told explicitly what his social status is, but if it does happen to be that of someone above a maid or a laundryman in the hierarchy of society, he is willing to stoop to those positions just to be close to her.
While it is true that all of these positions he wishes to be in are of subservient nature to his beloved, who is obviously on the higher end of the social spectrum given the fact that she has maids and laundrymen, we see a pattern of descending respect for his own position in relation to his beloved’s throughout the poem. In the first stanza, he wishes to be her maid, and while this is indeed still subservient to her, it is undoubtedly a more highly respected position than what he wishes to be in the second stanza, a laundryman. With this being said, we see him disregarding his own agency altogether as he states that he would be willing to be an inanimate object, a signet ring just so he could have the opportunity of being close to his beloved. This could allow us to determine that he is inherent of lower social status than the woman he pines for from the get-go, but we can’t be certain.
One thing is for sure though, he’s one horny guy. I don’t know about you, but if I were a woman and found this poem I would want him and his clothes rubbing self far away from me. But, that actually brings up an important point, while we in a modern western viewpoint might see such a bold appeal to his beloved as rubbing himself with her clothes as creepy and unnecessary, we need to remember that these poems were performed live. With that being said, they must have have been at least somewhat agreeable to the general Egyptian audience for which they were performed. To be both performed live and copied down on papyrus, It seems unlikely that a poem that seems so abrasive to us today would have been a flop during the time in which it was written, otherwise, it would undoubtedly have been lost to us today.
Thanks for taking a journey with me back to the time of Ancient Egypt, and exploring the variety of love poetry they had. Part of me wishes that we had live poetry actings in our society today. I would love to watch someone try and outswim a crocodile in real life to try and impress his bae.
The Norton Anthology World Literature Volume A:
Fox, Michael V. “Ancient Egyptian Love Poetry.” The Norton Anthology World Literature, 4th ed., A, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 70–74.