When trying to describe the ancient Egyptian lifestyle, most people tend to look towards the physical artifacts: tombs, mummies, pyramids, etc. However, the easiest method to discover the ways in which life ensued is by examining Egypt’s earliest forms of literature. Through inscriptions, narratives, hymns, letters, and poetry, the ancient Egyptian people placed value on the preservation of emotional expression through writing. Even some of the famous physical artifacts contained markings that detailed the reasons for why they existed. The original script used to create these well-known pieces are called hieroglyphics, or sacred carvings that are applied to papyrus as well as ceramics (depicted in the photo below). This method of writing consists entirely of symbols that represent sounds, words, and phrases. Unfortunately, hieroglyphics were tedious. This led to the formation of the hieratic script, which relied on the same process, but was less strict. Although the majority of literary pieces were designed in the pursuit of pleasure, not all forms of writing are considered “literature.” Many scholars believe that the first Egyptian writing consisted of record keeping, such as for sales and crop production. Nevertheless, whether it is deemed to be literary or not, these hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts are crucial components in understanding ancient Egyptian culture.
Egyptian Love Poetry
According to Britannica.com, the definition of poetry is “literature the evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm.” In other words, poetry gives an intimate view into the human condition, which includes everything from major achievements to imperfections. One of the most notable forms of poetry revolves around human passion and desire. This is especially true when discussing the Egyptian love poems. Many of these love poems have been excavated from tombs, which suggest that the people cared very deeply about embracing emotional feelings, even in the afterlife. The ancient Egyptian people were not only generous in their feelings towards love, but they were also liberal in their views on sexuality. Symbols such as fruits and animals were used as symbolic euphemisms to describe both the sweet and animalistic nature of human pleasure. Because of certain word phrasings and structures, these love poems were most likely constructed to have been performed with lots of music and dancing.
The photo above is of a painting found within a tomb in Saqqara, Egypt. Depicted in the artwork is the priestess Meretites embracing her husband, Kahai (a famous singer believed to have performed in front of the Pharaoh). This relates to Egyptian love poetry because it illustrates the connection between two spouses. The Egyptian people were passionate when it came to love and sexual desire. Plenty of their art and literary works, whether it be through words or colors, portrayed stories of intimacy in all of the imaginable forms. Ancient art (paintings, carvings, poetry, narratives, etc.) are considered the most realistic, as well as personal, view into the minds, and hearts, of the Egyptian people.
The Beginning of the Song That Diverts the Heart
The contents of this poem coincide well with title as the words shift from loving admiration to intense sexual desire. The beginning of the poem uses phrases such as “long for your love” to implicate that the premise is directed towards a lost lover. Other words such as “beautiful,” “beloved,” and “darling” further this claim by suggesting that the relationship is sweet in nature. On the other hand, when centering the piece around the conclusion stanzas, it becomes clear that the narrator is yearning for a sexual partner. The line “the first to come takes my bait” is drastically different from the previous insinuation that the narrator was searching for a specific person. The reference to a bird trapped in a cage could be interpreted to symbolize either love or sex. If one were to focus solely on the beginning, the bird may perhaps be a desire for the narrator’s partner to claim her metaphorically trapped heart. However, when basing the plot around the end, the bird might be a euphemism for lingering sexual desire yet to be released.
My god, my Lotus…
Environmental imagery is a major component within this piece. In many cultures, nature, such as flowers, dirt, and water are regarded as sacred. The various natural elements used within this poem correlate with the sacrality of the two narrators love/desire for one another. Several phrases throughout this poem compare beauty to that of flowers. One interesting correlation between humans and flowers could be the factor of water. Some of the phrases in this poem specify that both partners are bathing in the river. This may be hinting that the water is necessary in the process of intensifying love just as water is essential for flowers to grow. Each of the animals used in this piece could have a few different meanings. The red fish may possibly be a euphemism for male genitalia since a common theme for beauty within this poem is admiring the naked body. The statement depicting a crocodile turning into a mouse could be interpreted as a demonstration for how love makes the challenges of life much easier to bear.
I wish I were her Nubian maid
The main premise to this poem contemplates the idea of love as obsession. Throughout the entirety of the piece, the narrator is discussing the intensity of passion he has for his muse. Not only does the poem implicate that he consistently watches her, but he also goes so far as to say that he would like to wash her clothes in hopes of feeling something that has touched her skin. Phrases such as “she would grant me the hue of her whole body” suggest that the narrator is combining his sexual desires with that of his admiration for her appearance. This concept of yearning to become any piece of importance for a lover may be comparable to the idea that people would do anything to satisfy their partner. These lines could be interpreted as a response to those feelings people get during the initial stages of a relationship. Even though the narrator’s actions are out of proportion, obsession is a common problem for new love.
I passed close by his house
The theme from this poem delves into the topic of beauty within the eyes of the beholder. Because the category specifies that this is a love poem, one can determine that it is about an admirer. However, the lines illustrate a tone that could interpret admiration with two different definitions: from terms of infatuation or endearment. Phrases like “kiss him in front of everyone, and not be ashamed because of anyone” suggests that it is an infatuation of the narrator longing to be with her lover, either for intimacy or sex. On the other hand, the line “love of him captures the heart of all who walk along the way” depicts admiration in regard to an appreciation for the person’s soul. This poem could be a combination of both definitions in the sense that the narrator is infatuated with the very idea of the person’s entire being.
Seven whole days
The obsessive nature of new love can be construed as incredibly toxic to an individual’s personal identity. This poem invites the audience to feel how falling in love could result in a co-dependent belief that one cannot possibly survive without the other. Words such as “illness,” invaded,” and “heavy” indicate a correlation between actual physical pain and heartache due to the separation of two partners. Because there is a disconnect amid the concept that heartbreak is not a life-threatening affliction, the poem dives into the realm of possession. Lines that are similar to “If I see her, I’ll become healthy” illustrate the thought that loving someone is approximate to owning them. This could be comparable to the idea of obtaining someone’s heart within the relationship or catching someone’s eye as a result of appearance.
Am I not here with you?
As mentioned in the previous analysis of the poem starting with “seven whole days,” obsessive love can create some extremely unhealthy habits. This poem examines the concept of self-worth as it relates to the purpose of a relationship, specifically in terms of insecurities. It is common within any relationship to feel self-conscious about how much a partner actually cares. However, this poem illuminates self-doubt over things that may not even be a part of reality. The overall tone of this piece suggests that the lover may have either gone away or is losing interest in the narrator. Lines similar to “is it because you are thinking of food that you would go away” demonstrates an attempt to rationalize with the believed to be end. The poem also takes this concept to the extreme with the line “then take my breasts that their gift may flow forth to you.” By offering up the narrator’s body, alongside with her possessions, this poem implies that in order to keep a relationship from failing, people will do anything it takes, including giving up things that are supposed to be sacred.
“Egyptian Love Poems.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Edited by Martin Puchner et al., 4th ed., vol. A, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 70-75.