When you read the words “Ancient Egypt”, what images immediately come to mind? The richness of this vibrant culture is well known to most through the monumental tombs for pharaohs, the hieroglyphics, and the paintings that feature different aspects of life for gods and men alike. While all of those aspects of the culture are integral to learning about the Ancient Egyptians, the literary tradition has not received the same spotlight in the past. The literary tradition of ancient Egypt is one of the oldest ones in the world, and most of it has been lost to us due to the fragility of the papyrus some of it was written on and the lack of translations. Luckily the world has been graced with writings about several topics such as religion, adventure, and love from the point of view of those living in ancient Egypt.
Although these texts were written around five thousand years ago, the people of Ancient Egypt do not seem to be so far away when we read their poetry. Although there are differences between the delivery of modern and ancient Egyptian poetry, the themes are strikingly similar, and they highlight the similarities in human experience that have been explored by writers from thousands of different literary traditions. Instead of the way that we normally experience poetry today, Ancient Egyptian love poetry was often set to music and performed aloud like many other ancient texts. Oral storytelling is a beautiful way for those that could not read the written language to enjoy these historical, religious, and romantic texts. Here is an example of a classical musician performing an Egyptian love poem with an ancient instrument and language to display what these performances may have sounded like. Peter Pringle has studied many classical instrument, and the one he is using here is the djedjet which has been featured in ancient Egyptian artwork. While we may never know what these poems sounded like with exact certainty, it is fascinating to make connections between these poems and modern love songs. (Click on the video to watch)
When you take a look at the poetry of the Ancient Egyptians, the similarities between ancient and modern discussions of the ups and downs of love becomes apparent. A close examination shows you the depth and complexity of the feelings the pair has for each other. A stanza from [I wish I were her Nubian maid] reveals a man’s obsessive feelings towards the woman he loves, and [Am I not here with you?] discusses a woman’s desperation for her lover to treat her the way he used to.
[I wish I were her Nubian maid]
I wish I were the laundryman
Of my beloved’s clothes,
For even just a month!
I would be strengthened
By grasping the garments
That touch her body.
For I would be washing out the moringa oils
That are in her kerchief
Then I’d rub my body
With her castoff garments,
O how I would be in joy and delight, my body vigorous!
This poem illustrates the various ways that he would like to be involved in his lover’s life. Through his descriptions of service by being her maid, her laundryman, and the ring on her finger, he is trying to show that he wants to be a piece of every part of her day. The descriptions in this poem pour love from every word chosen, and the strength, joy, and delight that he gets from her presence is something that modern audiences can relate to.
[Am I not here with you?]
Am I not here with you?
Then why have you set your heart to leave?
Why don’t you embrace me?
Has my deed come back upon me?
If you seek to caress my thighs.
Is it because you are thinking of food
That you would go away?
Or because you are a slave to your belly?
is it because you are about clothes?
Well, I have a bedsheet!
Is it because you are hungry that you would leave?
Then take my breasts
That their gifts may flow forth to you.
Better a day in the embrace of my beloved
Than thousands on thousands anywhere else!
This poem is from the perspective of the woman this time, and the major difference between this poem and [I wish I were her Nubian Maid] is the desperation the woman has to cling to a love that she feels is slipping away. [Am I not here with you?] displays a woman trying to understand why her lover has been acting different around her lately. She wonders if he is more interested in food than her, or if his mind is somewhere else. Her confusion towards his changed feelings and her desperation to give him whatever she can think of to come back to her is a theme that can also be found in modern stories.
Although these poems were written thousands of years ago, the messages still ring true in the hearts of modern audiences. Ancient Egyptian culture is fascinating, and it is hard to approach their art with a sense of honor and reverence towards everything they had built. While there is value in this approach, it is also important to recognize the humanity of the Egyptians that were creating this art. Taking a closer look at literature from different cultures and periods of time than theirs forces the reader to recognize the similarities that exist between all people.
Poems and information on ancient Egyptian culture and literature:
Puchner, Martin. The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Volume A. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. Print.
Youtube video link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntnBuQAvFjA