Online talk: Literature in Ancient Egyptian Society (Oriental Institute)

You can watch a public talk I recorded for the Oriental Institute called “Literature in Ancient Egyptian Society.” This one kicks off a new online lecture series for the OI about ancient Middle Eastern literature. There will be a followup in a few weeks, so stay tuned!

Ostracon with the first part of Amenemope from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (

I try to do two things in this 35 min. talk: introduce Ancient Egyptian literature by looking closely at one specific work, the Teaching of Amenemope, and by prefacing a look at it with some general reflections on what we mean by “literature” and what it means to look for literature in an ancient society.

I wrote up a brief twitter thread with some links for more info on Amenemope.

Here’s what I say in the beginning of the talk:

  1. “Literature” often really means “great literature.” We treat Shakespeare, Tolstoy as if there is something inherent in them that does not necessarily need full historical context: they can be just read, with profit, because they expressing profound ideas about what it means to be human. Literature as “great literature” is a collection that is decided on by a culture, explicitly or not; a group of works that is ascribed a certain value that goes beyond genre, what we would call a “canon.”
  2. Another aspect to the word “literature” is the one that, I think, underlies academically- or historically-minded perspectives on the ancient world. Similar to the French phrase “belles lettres,” it refers to any kind of verbal art where there is, to varying degrees, a distinct pleasurable or aesthetic interest in the words themselves, in their communicative aspect and effect. Looking at ancient literature through this lens means casting our net more widely and noticing texts with literary characteristics that go beyond the first, more limited category of “great literature,” such as religious or magical texts and monumental inscriptions. Speaking in particular about ancient Middle Eastern literature, we notice that many non-mundane types of writing feature a careful use of patterned language which we call parallelism, where two or more sentences or utterances—what we might call poetic lines—share similar ideas or phraseology, repeating them with some variation, or drawing up an explicit contrast. Parallelism seems to feature prominently in languages that do not employ meter like we are used to in English poetry, or like we have in Classical Greek and Latin.
  3. For us, literature is closely associated with schooling and education, especially the “great literature” aspect discussed earlier. It won’t be surprising to hear that literature was important for Ancient Egyptian education. There are numerous parallels as well as intriguing differences. Learning how to read and write, for example, comes at the beginning of our education. For the Ancient Egyptians, this would have been true too, but true mastery of the difficult hieroglyphic script, in all its forms, would have taken longer, with full mastery probably limited to a select few. Today, we associate memorizing and performing poems, like Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology or Robert Frost, as a separate endeavor from learning how to read and write, something we might do in Middle or High School to learn about how to read closely, to think about perspective and rhetoric. For the Egyptians, not only learning and even memorizing works of literature, but copying them out too, either by memory or by dictation, was a constant feature of education. This had a practical goal, not only practicing how to write, but learning by heart important phrases and sentence types, or specialized vocabulary. Copying and memorizing literature was also a kind of inculturation, a topic we will address in more detail later.
  4. A fourth use of the word “literature” broaches a crucial topic: we often use the word to mean just a bunch of reading material, like brochures, or to refer to all of the writing associated with a topic: a thesis or research paper will have a “literature review.” This reminds us that, for us today, literature is a matter of writing, of written language. This is not true for all literature, however. A famous example is the folktale: when a collector writes them down, they are transcribing something that, in its natural element, is performed out loud through improvisation, using a wide-ranging technique based on traditional phraseology and approaches to building scenes and characters around well-known storylines. It might be a bit nonsensical to call oral storytelling “literature,” since that word literally evokes the concept of the letter of writing.

I am focusing pretty much exclusively on the written evidence of Egyptian literature, on a work that was composed for the first time as literature in writing that could be read from a book, but it is important to remember that oral literature, like the folktale, was an important part of all ancient societies, Ancient Egypt included, and a rich line of inquiry is the interaction between oral and written literature, and the nature of Egyptian folklore. It is also important not to fall into the trap of thinking that oral equals “primitive,” and written equals “advanced” or “civilized.” Few today would use these terms outright, but something of this distinction of value can even be implied unknowingly when we think about oral literature as existing before writing was invented or became widespread…that oral literature is more simple, while written literature is more complex; or that oral literature belonged mostly to lower classes of society, while only the upper crust composed and enjoyed literature in writing. This is simply not true. Every work of written literature from the ancient world is the proverbial tip of the iceberg of an entire world of verbal art, artistry, and artists that included the art of writing in its orbit.

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