Literature in Ancient Egypt

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Literature in Ancient Egypt: A Prominent Component of Civilization By: the Egyptian Government   :

Literature in Ancient Egypt: A Prominent Component of Civilization By: the Egyptian Government Of all the fields, of civilization literature figured high. Ancient Egypt was the source of great works written on papyrus or on the walls of temples, tombs, pyramids, obelisks, portraits and monuments. These works of art succeeded for many centuries. Over time many changes took place; many governments and civilizations, vanished and others appeared, but the ideals of the ancient Egyptian literature persisted even in our age. Picture above: The Hall judgment after death, where the deceased is sentenced to eternal destiny in Paradise or hell.

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Besides, ancient Egyptian literature formed central elements in folkloric works of many nations. This shows how elevated ancient Egyptians moral and literary perceptions were, even before divine religions were revealed or even before the world knew great literary masterpieces.

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Ancient Egyptian literature rose and grew in the bosom of religious beliefs, but it quickly evolved to deal with man’s ordinary day-to- day life. Literary works occupied a distinguished position in the ancient Egyptian thought and civilization. The ancient Egyptians viewed literature as a source of spiritual nourishment and a unique way to elevate style of  expression. Refined literary style was a source of pride for the writer and appreciation and enjoyment for the reader.

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Ancient Egyptian literature tackled almost all aspects of life. Literary works were classified by subjects into various “genres” such as novels, short stories, poetry, folkloric tales, proverbs, wise-sayings, moral teachings, philosophical meditations and literary messages. The latter were divided into title, introduction, body and conclusion.

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Literary debates involved opposite parties rendering them arguments and counter arguments. Besides, ancient Egyptians wrote plays, dramatic poetry, songs, religious hymns and love poetry, in addition to description of nature, panegyrical poems to glorify their kings and their glorious battles, and songs for workers and farmers and others to be sung in parties.

Influence on world literature :

Influence on world literature In ancient Egyptian literature, there is a story dating back to the Middle Kingdom (2022 BC-1850 BC). This era witnessed a great number of writers and thinkers who left behind a number of works of art reflecting the elevated status of thinking and culture in ancient Egypt. The story is entitled “The Sailor and the Wonder Island”. It narrates the story of an ancient Egyptian sailor whose ship was wrecked with all on board drowned. As the only survivor, he lives on an isolated island, finds a treasure, returns home and the mysterious island sinks deep into the sea immediately after his departure.

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Scholars of comparative literature maintain that the structure, plot and general theme of the source was inspired by many of the greatest and most famous novelists all over the world. The story had influenced many famous classical and romantic novels invoking adventures in search of valuable treasures and heroes who lived in isolated islands.

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” is a good example. This novel narrates the adventures of the hero “Jim Hawkens” who found a map of a treasure buried in an isolated island. Another example is the French writer “Alexandre Dumas’s “Conte De Monte Cristo”. This novel tells the story of “Edmound Dante” who suffers much and goes through a series of exciting adventures to find a buried treasure in the isolated island of Monte Cristo. At the end, he gets the treasure and returns home safe. Surprisingly enough, ship the hero's ship was named “Pharaoh”.

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Critics of comparative literature state that the ancient Egyptian story of “The Sailor and the Wonder Island” had influenced “Hay Ibn Yaqthan”, a story written in the 12th century by the Arab Andalusian philosopher “Abo Bakre Ibn Tafayl”. “Hay Ibn Yaqthan” a philosophical story of a man who lives since his childhood on an isolated island. Through reasoning, he reaches philosophical conclusions proving the existence of Allah. This story had a wide influence on world philosophers and creative writers after being translated into many languages such as Latin, French, English, German and Dutch.

Divine Comedy versus Message of Forgiveness :

Divine Comedy versus Message of Forgiveness Scholars and critics of comparative literature are at logger head on the extent of the influence of the “Message of Forgiveness” written by the great Arabic poet abul-Ala’al- Ma’arri (973-1057 AD) on Dante Aligieri’s Divine Comedy”. The central theme of both works is the description of heaven and hell in the hereafter.

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A number of Impartial scholars believe that this theme has clear roots in ancient Egyptian literature which tackled this theme in many works. It was evident in “The Book of the Dead”, “The Book of the Gates”, and in the story “Isis, Osiris and the World of Dead “.

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Ancient Egyptian writers expressed their imaginative vision of the journey of  the soul after leaving the body to the sky until it reaches the court where the deceased’s heart is weighed against “Ma’et’s feather” that symbolizes justice, truthfulness, rightness and bounty. Then, the deceased is sentenced to eternal paradise or hell.

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In heaven, called “Iyarow’s fields”, the deceased enjoys eternal youth without sickness, senility, or death. He is dressed in magnificent clothes that never wear out or get dirty, eats and drinks the most delicious food, fruits and fresh water. Besides, he enjoys eternal peace of mind, safety, and peace as there is no evil souls, snakes, beasts or insects.

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In hell, the bad people are thrown, where they undergo eternal punishment in certain lakes full of water like fire flames, voracious crocodiles, snakes, and vipers. Besides, the guardians of these lakes are voracious beasts that inflict all sorts of torture on wicked hell residents.

Cinderella in ancient Egyptian literature :

Cinderella in ancient Egyptian literature Cinderella's story with the same central themes appears in abundance in the folkloric and literary works of many nations all over world. The most famous writers who tackled the story were the German Grim brothers. Cinderella's story with the same central themes can be traced in some literary works appearing on the ancient Egyptian papyri in different names and styles.

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The first reference of this story dates back to the era of the fourth Dynasty in the 26th Century BC. Then, a copy of this story, dating back to the Modern Kingdom between 16th and12th centuries BC., was found. This copy contains a detailed description of the humiliation and torture inflicted on Cinderella by her step- mother. Another papyrus dating back to the Sixth Century BC. showed the same story.

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Novel The ancient Egyptians excelled in novel writing. This is reflected in the great number of stories left behind. In some of these stories, a well-traveled hero tells us about his adventures such as the story of the drowned sailor and the dangers he witnessed on the mythical island of snakes.

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Another example is “Snohi”; story that became very famous for many centuries. It describes Snohi’s escape from Egypt, his stay in Syria for dozens of years , where he won the favor of the king. He become so close to the leader that he allowed him to marry of his elder daughter and gave him a plot of land. When Snohi grows old, he also grows homesick. He appeals to the king for permission to return to Egypt to see, as he says, “the place that his heart is longing to see because the greatest thing in the world for a man is to be buried in the place of his birth”. His hope was fulfilled and he honorably comes back to Egypt.

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Another example of the marvelous stories is “The Eloquent Farmer”. It tells the story of an Egyptian farmer who was robbed and treated unjustly, so he submits eloquent complaint to the Pharaoh saying: Look, you are the chief that hold the scales, Do not let it lose balance. Your tongue represents that of the scales, Your lips the hub. If you shut your eyes to the oppressor, Who else can rebuff. It is you that make justice.

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You do all good and destroy all evil. You bring satisfaction; as you come, hunger-vanishes, You come like a calm sky after a wild storm. You give warmth to those stricken with cold. Your are like fresh water that quenches thirst. Proverbs of Ptah Hutep The oldest text in the ancient literature which expresses, in excellent literary style, the rules of good conduct is “The Proverbs of Ptah Hutep”. Ptah Hutep was an ancient Egyptian minister under King Asisi of the Fifth Dynasty (2670 BC) When he felt that he is getting older, he wanted to teach his son wisdom. So, he wrote a papyrus containing his directives and proverbs.

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The preface of this 5000 years old- papyrus says that “Here begin the wise sayings said by the prince, sacred father, God’s favorite, the true son of the king, ruler of the city; minister Ptah Hutep. He wrote it to educate the ignorant and to teach him styles of wisdom and wise sayings. Glory be to those who follow these teachings and shame be on those who neglect them.”

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