Saturday, November 19, 2022

R. B. Parkinson, The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, 1940-1640 BC


Opening Passage: From The Tale of Sinuhe:

The Patrician and Count,
Governor of the Sovereign's Domains in the Syrian lands,
the True Acquaintance of the King, whom he loves,
the Follower, Sinuhe says,
'I was a Follower who followed his lord,
a servant of the Royal Chambers
and of the Patrician Lady, the greatly praised,
the Queen of Senwosret in Khnemsut,
the Princess of Amenemhat in Qanefru,
Nefru, the blessed lady.... (p. 27)

Summary: The Tale of Sinuhe has a reputation for being the greatest surviving literary work of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, and it deserves it. Sinuhe is a courtier in the court of Pharaoh Amenemhat I. As part of his duties, he accompanies the king's son, Senwosret I, on a military mission to Libya. As they are returning, they meet messengers from the palace bearing terrible news: the king is dead. As Sinuhe's whole life had been centered on service to the king, it is as if his whole life comes crashing down, and he runs away. It is made very, very clear in the tale that he is not doing so out of any fear of Senwosret; not long after, he lauds the former prince in the very highest of terms. He is not afraid of any reprisal or anything specific at all. He does not in fact know why he runs away; it is like panic, but he himself cannot identify anything to cause panic, except this, that Amenemhat is dead. When he tries to explain himself later, he attributes his action to some god imposing it on him. In any case, he ends up in Upper Retjenu, that is probably somewhere in the hills and mountains of Lebanon or Syria, a place that the locals call Iaa. There he meets and becomes good friends with another king, Amunenshi. Iaa is a splendid place, "a good land" (p. 31) that has figs and wine and cattle in abundance. Sinuhe becomes a major figure among the tribes there and has a family, the children of which each become great leaders among the people. He becomes the primary commander of the king and he is never defeated.

It is fascinating that fleeing the good land of Egypt, Sinuhe comes not to a miserable land, but a land in some ways even more paradisial; in fleeing the honors of the Egyptian court, he becomes in some sense an even more important figure in another nation. But the thing of it is, Iaa is not Egypt. It is in a sense a false Egypt; for Sinuhe, it is in a sense a fall. He has done well, but he has done well in a land far from God. Because, of course, as an Egyptian, Sinuhe believes that the pharaoh is a living god. He has fled his god, for reasons he cannot even himself explain, and he has shut himself off from that divine source. And one of the divine powers is the Egyptian king is the latter's pull in the afterlife. Sinuhe is living in a paradise. But it is a barbarian paradise; he will die in barbarian lands. And he will not be buried with the splendors of an honorable Egyptian burial, providing him wealth and influence and power in the realm of death in the West; he will not be in the pharaoh's retinue or share in the pharaoh's glory, even as a distant servant. This is brought home when he is challenged in a duel to the death by a peerless champion from among the tribesmen. Sinuhe wins, and is showered with wealth and power and fame because of it. But here we find in the tale a long prayer in which he gives thanks to the mercy of whatever god had led him astray for saving him, a thanksgiving of victory that turns smoothly into a lament over how he will be buried so far from home. 

That god, whoever it was, perhaps has heard his prayer, because his fame has now grown so great that Pharaoh Senwosret hears about him and his story, and sends him a letter asking him to return, precisely so that he will no longer be a roaming stranger in the world but can be honored in Egypt and buried unto blessedness as can only be done in Egypt. Happily, Sinuhe returns home and is brought into the presence of the king. He is somewhat overwhelmed, but both the king and the king's family meet him with abundant good will and gladness, and he is given his proper life as a courtier. And he is given his proper death. The tale had begun as if it were a tomb inscription, giving his titles, and then, when Sinuhe wandered, it had wandered into another genre along with him; but now that he is returned, it too returns and becomes the kind of eulogy found on tomb inscriptions. Sinuhe has truly come home.

The Tale of Sinuhe is not long, but it manages to be immensely rich. It is a tale of redemption, the tale of a man living a divine life who wandered out of it. Though his life is still extraordinary -- one suspects that his service in the courts of Egypt had given him a wide variety of skills that could not but do well elsewhere -- it is no longer a divine life; it is not his life, it is not the life appropriate to him. It is a life that is ruled by death. But by divine grace, he is allowed to return and is even more blessed than before, in a life that is now blessed with immortality. I was expecting it to be interesting, but it was truly enjoyable to read it, and I think it absolutely deserves a place among the great literary works of human history.

In The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, a merchant commoner, Khunanup, is attempting to get justice done; his goods have been stolen and he is trying to get the High Steward Rensi to punish the offender. However, unbeknownst to Khananup, Rensi has told the king about how eloquent he was, and the king has instructed Rensi to be silent about the case and record the peasant's words. Again and again Khananup comes and tries to get justice, his eloquence continuing but becoming more bitter as time passes. What he doesn't really understand, because he can't see, is that his repeated pleadings are in fact heard, and are being heard by a higher authority than the High Steward, and it is because of his pleadings, which seem fruitless to him, that he will succeed. He is, without really recognizing, praying to a god, after all; pharaoh is listening. In The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, the narrator is trying to comfort a passenger on the ship; they are apparently sailing back home to court, and for reasons that are not favorable to the passenger. In consolation, the narrator tells a story of shipwreck on a paradisial island, where a great serpent taught him how to endure death. The symbolism is generally thought to refer back to Egyptian myths of the creation of the world; the serpent's lesson is the lesson of history itself, because the problem of unexpected destruction is the problem of there being a world at all. But the passenger is unconvinced. What good does it do to hope for help when you are doomed? And if there is a further answer to this question, the tale does not give it to us.

The above three tales all get into deep metaphysical waters, and in a way that is very concise and concentrated. The Tale of King Cheops' Court (sometimes elsewhere called King Cheops and the Magicians) takes a different route. It has a more rambling, jokey quality to it, stringing together several tales. They are not random tales, however. The picture that emerges, indirectly, is of the infallibility of destiny but the fallibility of kings, and the consequent and crucial need to distinguish the false from the true, the merely apparent from the real.

The anthology then includes a number of monologues and dialogues: The Words of Neferti, The Words of Khakeperreseneb, The Dialogue of a Man and his Soul, and The Dialogue of Ipuur and the Lord of All. These are all various kinds of reflections on how far the world is from the way it should be. They might be thought of as diagnoses of social illness. The world is wrong, and filled with doers of wrong. On every side there is woe. The wise are given no place. Here and there are signs of something like hope; The Words of Neferti looks to a possible king to make things right, The Dialogue of a Man and his Soul looks to the afterlife. But even that is hope in a great darkness.

This contrasts with the last section of the anthology, on the Teachings, which are proverbial and aphoristic works about how we ourselves should act. Like the Discourses, they are concerned above all with doing Truth (ma'at), the fundamental principle of Egyptian ethics, but while the Discourses describe this negatively (by accounting how people fail to do Truth), the Teachings describe it positively, giving advice for how it can be done, usually in the context of fulfilling one's proper role in Egyptian society. The Teaching of King Amenemhat and The Teaching for King Merikare do it for the role of king; The 'Loyalist' Teaching seems to have in view courtiers and servants of the king, whose form of doing Truth consists in great measure of loyalty to the king, and this is true as well of the most famous of the Teachings, The Teaching of the Vizier PtahhotepThe Teaching of Khety was one of the most commonly transcribed works of the Middle Kingdom, and perhaps unsurprisingly because it is all about the extraordinary awesomeness of being a scribe, which of course is a position that in Ancient Egypt was at the overlap of the royal and priestly aspects of Egyptian life, being an immensely important office for purposes of government, involved in the semi-divine act of writing.

All of these works are old, and they come to us from old remains. Parkinson, who put together this anthology, included all the extant works of the Middle Kingdom that we have in sufficient form to understand what is going on. Nonetheless even the best preserved of them have obscurities, and several of them have significant chunks that have not survived to come down to us. So Parkinson also includes an appendix that looks at some of the tiny scattered fragments of other works. They are not enough to determine much about those works themselves. However, they do have value in giving us some sense of the literary production of the Middle Kingdom; in particular, they make clear that the works that have come down to us are far from being the only genres that were produced. When I did Craig Williamson's The Complete Old English Poems for the fortnightly book, I noted that what has survived is in fact a tiny sample of what we know to have been a vast literary treasury; the Anglo-Saxons took poetry extremely seriously, but time has eaten most of it. I suppose, though, one could say that the Anglo-Saxons produced so much poetry that even time has not yet been able to devour all of it. This is, if anything, more true of Ancient Egypt. The Middle Kingdom produced a vast cultural treasury. Time has eaten away most of it. But so much of a powerhouse was it, not even time has been able to eat it all. As the Great Pyramid of Khufu still stands, not yet consumed by the years, so too still stand some of its great writings.

Favorite Passages: From The Tale of Sinuhe:

...I found his Majesty on the great throne
in the portal of electrum.
Then I was stretched out prostrate,
unconscious of myself in front of him,
while this God was addressing me amicably.
I was like a man seized in the dusk,
my soul had perished, my limbs failed,
my heart was not in my body.
I did not know life from death.

And his Majesty said to one of these Friends,
"Raise him up, let him speak to me!" (p. 40)

From The 'Loyalist' Teaching ('l.p.h.' is an abbreviation for 'May he live, be prosperous, and healthy'; Atum and Khnum are maker-gods who make the bodies of men; Bastet is the cat-headed goddess who protects the land; Sekhmet is the lion-headed goddess who inflicts divine punishment):

The king is Sustenance; his speech is Plenty.
The man he makes is someone who will always exist.
He is the heir of every god,
the protector of his creators.
They strike his opponents for him.
Now, his Majesty is in his palace (l.p.h.!)--
he is an Atum of joining necks:
his protective might is behind the man who promotes his paower.
He is a Khnum of every limb,
the begetter and creator of the folk.
He is a Bastet who protects the Two LAnds:
the man who praises him will be sheltered by his arm.
He is a Sekhmet against the man who transgresses his command:
the man he disfavours will sink to distress. (p. 239)

From The Teaching of the Vizier Ptahhotep:

'Do not be proud because you are wise!
Consult with the ignorant as well as the wise!
The limits of art are unattainable;
no artist is fully equipped with his mastery.
Perfect speech is more hidden than malachite,
yet it is found with the maidservants at the millstones....' (p. 251)

Recommendation: The anthology as a whole is Recommended. The Tale of Sinuhe and The Teachings of Grand Vizier Ptahhotep are major works of world literature, and are Highly Recommended.


R. B. Parkinson, ed. and tr., The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, 1940-1640 BC, Oxford University Press (New York: 2009).