Made Himself into Millions: Robert K. Ritner (1953-2021)

Robert Ritner

Robert Ritner has passed away. This is a devastating loss. I wanted to put some of my thoughts down here as I’m in the early stages of grapping with what this means. I do not really feel worthy to reflect in any kind of authoritative way on him, but can only offer humbly my own experiences and feelings.

My scholarly life—such as it is—exists in an uneasy balance between two disciplines, Egyptology and Hebrew Bible, which I am navigating in my dissertation, haltingly, and it is because of Robert Ritner’s encouragement and confidence in me that I transitioned to the “and.” He made it happen. I feel like I expressed my gratitude enough to him, but I will always have regrets: he won’t be able to see the first fruit of my scholarship, and I won’t be able to repay his confidence and kindness, and offer the sincerest expression of gratitude from a vantage point of having completed something.

What will last is his scholarship, and, for me, his strongly voiced, at times imposing, technical but never dry, yet clear, even stark, and eminently understandable writing. The sentences give voice (and will keep giving voice to them, and to him) to a certain kind of insight and understanding that I want to reflect on a moment, because it is hard for me to explain exactly what it is. Ideas that take significant discipline and work to work up to and articulate, which are simple but far-reaching (even Copernican) in their implications, gather into their ambit something of considerable extent and import but connect to readings, re-readings (and criticisms), in all the right places for maximum rhetorical and argumentative impact. I think his best work was like this. His teaching style, whether in the museum gallery, in front of a primary source, or in the glow of a brilliantly assembled slideshow (“I have 97 images for a 45 minute talk, cut back from over 200”), was firmly grounded in material. He stands alongside what he teaches: like the picture of him that seemed to always accompany his faculty page (reproduced above)…may he always stand next to what he is teaching us about.

Back to his writing. There are probably better examples than what follows, but the way that he concludes The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice will always loom large for me…the experience that I had reading this after working patiently (but not laboriously!) through the book is indelible. I remember where I was when I read it (in a park in Chicago, pushing a stroller, somehow balancing the rather clumsily large paperback copy of the book on the handle….facing comprehensive exams in a matter of months….if I kept moving, the baby would keep sleeping….it was late Fall, so the park and city were beautiful, crisp, and indelible image):

R. K. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice (1993), 247.

Look at those footnote numbers, by the way! This is a new way to think about creation. The Egyptians’ idea, yes, but accurately (it seems) recaptured by the scholar, brought up from the past and made present in a convincing way. But the key is recaptured. George Steiner spoke about the tragedy of translation grotesquely disfiguring the precious flower that it drew up from the depths of the sea. While it is the nature of scholarly work that ideas are refined, corrected, overturned, and Ritner’s work is there, for us now, able to be engaged in that way, the flower nevertheless seems intact. May it always represent the state of the art of scholarly knowledge…but if it doesn’t (and all for the better if that must be the case), what will remain is more than an out of date idea: here, the flower freshly plucked, in the act of argument and articulation, is frozen in expression, ever keeps its color, “Pollen der blühenden Gottheit” (Duino Elegy no 2) Rilke encountered in the ruined art of Ancient Egypt…this may be left behind one day, but it will never become grotesque.

Am I exaggerating? Ritner’s writing, when honing in on a big idea, is a fascinating, maybe raucous, mosaic of his own words, quotations of Egyptian texts, and of ideas canonically thought by Egyptology. These are the kinds of ideas that lead to feelings of exhilaration, and represent the best part about studying something ancient that needs recovery and reanimation. But for me, I will not be able to separate these ideas from the experience of a realization: when, because of the labor of this scholar and author, and the patience he had in leading me through his text, I was able to conceive of something essential about this ancient culture that had its own inherent reproducability, given an essential stamp by its author, but also freed from his text to be brought to bear on new texts, images, or ideas: as in the above extract, and from his wider argument, about the different way that nature, causality, and divinity are interrelated in the Egyptian world view. Once you see it in Ritner’s text (or heard it in class, or in a lecture, or slideshow), you see it everywhere. The idea does its own work, it has its own energy. It makes you want to look for more. The energy becomes a part of you.

We are fortunate that Ritner wrote so much (though it feels like he did not write enough, and did not live up to his true potential!), that he made himself literally into millions, as the Egyptians said about the god/cosmic force Heka, of which Ritner was its most eloquent and influential re-imaginer. Of course, not all of it was Copernican in its implications: the virtue of the scholar was that he applied the same methodological rigor, finessed readings, Textgefühl, and synthesizing ability to a scattering of minor inscriptions from a temple, or an amulet, or a historical quibble….but able to jump from an object of everyday religious life to an insight about the matrix of (a) human life (back then). He could also be extremely polemical and unkind to some. I wish it would have been different. I hope that is not all that he is remembered for, but this is an important part of him. I constantly worry that my passion does not find its match in expression or in stones patiently chiseled, matched, and laid. But I never stop being grateful for the passion. I am glad that his passion found its match, but I don’t want to excuse the offense that he caused. It has taken the shape that it will be, and its faults will stay there alongside the rest of it: jw=f pw (meaning “It goes,” the words Egyptian scribes used to indicate a scroll had been copied its full extent). I wish there was a way to make up for his failings as there is to carry on his work and inspiration.

That is the impact that his scholarship has had on me and on many others, but I also had the fortune of being one of his students and advisees. In text classes, it will be difficult to forget what it was like walking alongside him as he uncovered aboriginal meaning hidden in plain sight, like Egyptian words and ideas garbled by Greek or Hebrew tongues, or meanings of hieroglyphs deliberately obfuscated. I won’t forget his ability to translate Coptic on the fly into Demotic or Middle Egyptian. It was showboating at a rarified level. I would stay up so late sometimes preparing texts for class. I know I am supposed to say that such assumed behavior is unhealthy and verges on toxicity, but it was a thrill. Also, I was probably reading Ugaritic on alternate late nights at the same time. I can only be honest and speak from my experience. I miss those days. Ritner is my model for how to engage in Egyptian philology (like my other advisor, Dennis Pardee, for Northwest Semitic). It bears fruit in my everyday work as a philologist. Beyond the technique and the model for impossible emulation, I am grateful how anchored my education in Egyptian, through Robert Ritner, is to a specific place: tables, shelves, books in the Research Archives of the Oriental Institute. I will never stop appreciating his institutional enthusiasm for the OI, and will count myself fortunate if I can image of that kind of groundedness in place in whatever configuration my professional life awaits.

Teachers mean so much. Like parents, you are supposed to outlast your teachers, and although that is the natural way, and preferable, it is still painful. It should not have happened this way, but jw=f pw. He should have been around far longer, like his teacher Klaus Baer, whose own untimely death you frequently felt in Ritner’s classes: a chain of loss. He is one of many teachers that have left an indelible mark on my soul throughout my life, and one of several from Chicago I cannot thank enough. May we always try to live up to our teachers!

Mouvance and the Storyteller’s Art

On Feb. 18th I gave a paper (digital ofc) at a meeting of the fantastic Early Text Cultures reading group based at Oxford. Very excited and honored to be a part of the series “Writing Orality”; I highly recommend you check them out on Twitter and see what they have lined up, sign up to their email list, and think about participating! It is built for graduate students and early career scholars to share their work in an interdisciplinary setting. The feedback and questions I got were incredibly helpful. It is really startling the kinds of synchronisms between text cultures that become apparent in an interdisciplinary setting. This was driven home to me in working with my co-presenter (don’t think she has any social media, so I’ll wait to name her and say anything more specific!) who works on Japanese text culture. Anyway, if the mere phrase “early text cultures” makes you think, “That’s what I do!,” like it did for me, you know what to do!

As is usual nowadays, I drew from my work on the Demotic novella The Battle for the Prebend of Amun. The problem: how to account for the variation in the several published manuscripts of the novellas? I decided to apply the term mouvance, borrowed from romance literary studies, and suggest that there was more going on than copying, and even memory variants (the latter of which there is really strong evidence for in these manuscripts, by the way). I won’t go into the whole argument here, since it is still in process and finding expression in a dissertation chapter, but the gist is that I think manuscripts of literary works like this novella witness the creative work of storytellers, not improvising in new tellings of oral literature, but dealing with, interpreting even, written literature. As I put it in the paper:

As Jacqueline Jay notes (in her 2016 book Orality and Literacy in the Demotic Tales), written works of literature would have been composed with an oral realization, a performance, in mind: they are a kind of libretto. Building on this crucial insight, I will suggest that the mouvance seen among copies of The Battle for the Prebend of Amun witnesses to the life of an authored text, written to be delivered orally, its living textualization. I want to push the idea of oral residue further and attempt to locate a context for orality that goes beyond just the general features associated with performance and transmission in an oral context: to try and discover the orality inherent to the transmission of story, not just text. What I envision is not just scribes who are subject to the vicissitudes of memory, nor bard-like performers who can’t help but imbue a text with residual orality, rather, I envision storytellers engaged in reflection on the meaning of the story itself, in specific terms like plot and, especially, character. The key is to discover deliberate interventions into the story that make sense in the oral performance of a written text.

In discussion, my colleague and I realized—working with very different genres of literature I should add!—that we were articulating strategies to deal with a fundamental incompatibility of oral and written language, in order for the texts they were producing to realize their purpose in a written setting despite their connections to orality. As Hamlet says, “Suit the word to the action, the action to the word”! The incompatibility I tried to recover has to do with the challenge of embodying the words of characters as a dramatic reader, when you are working with a libretto:

Something that we initially recognized as an almost paradoxical willingness to sacrifice the original wording of an authored text, turned out to be a deliberate strategy to counteract the entropy of a written text inscribed as a libretto for concrete, living performance: in other words, a strategy to mitigate the inherent problem of writing orality. We all know very well the warning of Plato about the orphaned nature of written texts. The key to the scenario with the Battle for the Prebend of Amun is the inherent performative nature of Demotic novellas, requiring the storyteller to embody human figures in a coherent way with respect to their characterization and their embeddedness in the plot. At stake, in written versions of these stories, is the risk a storyteller necessarily takes of falling short of this performed embodiment by using the words of another. But by producing reworked, reauthored versions of The Battle for the Prebend of Amun, storytellers, and the scribes who recorded their versions for posterity, strategized a way to preserve a work of storytelling and allow it to be continually embodied and performed as such.

If you want to take a look at my handout, which gets into some more detail about the Prebend novella and tries to give examples of the mouvance in the manuscripts, you can take a look here.

This is a scene from the “Triumph of Horus” drama depicted on the walls of the temple of Edfu. It depicts a scene where a “cake” in the shape of a hippo (representing the vanquished Seth) is cut up, which, as dramatized, involves a lector priest (middle). In the text of the drama, the lector priest’s part is the same as the drama’s narrator. And as the editor of the drama, H.W. Fairman, notes, the lector priest is not only dressed as such (notice the lion skin), but also has the appearance of Imhotep, one of the most revered Egyptian sages. So, I’d like to think that the Egyptian storyteller/narrator thought highly of themselves! [image source]

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.

My working system…currently

Had a computer disaster last week. No data lost, but not sure if I am going to be working on my Windows laptop any more (passed down from my mom, not exactly a new piece of tech). So, I’ve set up my old desktop PC again (purchased in 2012 but not used much at all in the last five years or so) and installed Fedora LXDE. Back in the day, I used Linux almost exclusively (I don’t tinker with cars but with computers, and I’m also not very good at it), so it is fun—albeit a bit distracting unfortunately!—to get back into it. I’m back in business now, and part of the major effort to get running again was not only to transfer all my files and get software running, but to recreate my working system for dissertation writing and academic work in general. Thought I would describe it here (and stop narrating the process of getting it running: just talk about what it is). What this is, is an overview of a working system, as well as a lesson in trying to be focused on getting something up and running so you don’t loose too much momentum:

For writing. LibreOffice. I used to use Word. Years ago, I use to write in LaTeX (usually using Lyx), but I was never able to get bibliography stuff integrated too well (see below). Hebrew looks beautiful, but there is not a lot of support of hieroglyphics, and newever versions of LaTeX (esp. XeTeX) include much better Unicode support compared to when I first used it, which means it will work great for what I do, but I need the time to learn it. I’ve decided that this will be a post-PhD endeavor. I believe I had my entire (first) MA thesis (written 2009-2011) written in LaTeX/Lyx, but at the last minute translated it into OpenOffice. It was on Gen 1-3, written for a theology program where I took a major interest in Hebrew Bible towards the end. I wrote about how the two creation stories use ארץ/אדמה differently, and I came up with the idea that, while Gen 1:1-2:4a views humanity’s relationship to the earth as ארץ from a species-wide, historical perspective (as master of the earth), Gen 2:4b-3 views it from within the limit of a human lifetime (אדם/אדמה). Back then, I presumed historical criticism and also thought “final form reading” was the ultimate goal: I wanted to understand Genesis (well, Gen 1-3…I wish I would have continued to ch 4!) as a work of literature. Knowing what I know now, etc. etc. Anyway, I wrote that in Lyx/OpenOffice. Now, I’m trying to get my dissertation files working on LibreOffice (OpenOffice is dead). I also have two children and have moved about 12 times since I wrote about Genesis.

How do I write? It’s hard. Usually I have a doc open that contains notes and “scraps” that get moved into the main document, the “DISSERTATION” file. There is a lot of back and forth. Things I write in the main doc (on the right part of my screen) usually end up in the scrap pile (left part) and re-emerge, transformed, onto the other side at a later point. I’m trying to streamline this. In addition to the on-screen writing, I work with lots of paper notes, sticky notes, pieces of paper, etc. Bar napkins. Tried to find a way to write notes on the computer, but I usually do that by hand.

For bibliography. In the previous era (i.e. before last Wednesday), I had a version of Endnote I bought through the student software deal at U of C, and had it integrated to Word. It was great. I tried to replicate that with Mendeley, then with JabRef through LibreOffice, but it isn’t working. So, I’m back to doing it all manually, which is how I’ve almost always done it. You have to fix most of the metadata you download from library sites or JSTOR anyway. So, currently I have a “BIBLIOGRAPHY_NEW.odt” to be kept distinct from “BIBLIOGRAPHY.docx,” which I was using as my master diss. bibliography until the Endnote era (about two months ago). I created BIBLIOGRAPHY_NEW by outputting my Endnote bib into a plain text bibliography doc in Chicago style (using a virtually emulated Windows machine on a Dell laptop that I was lent when teaching at UNCA…still holding on to it, which wouldn’t run Windows because I needed to be in the UNCA network, so I had to dual boot it with Linux…to get Endnote to run, on a Windows emulation, to recover my bibliography…I’ve lost track of this sentence and am just going to move on).

So now: I cite using author date (or else the footnotes will always be 2/3rds the size of the page), and write the entry in the BIBLIOGRAPHY_NEW. I like doing it this way. I get familiar with the names, and I get better at using my German keyboard layout for typing things like Altägyptische.

In search for: a way to create reading lists as well as mini bibliographies for further use. I started using Endnote for this, but I need something else, and I didn’t really like that.

For notes. I have used a program called KeepNote, which is a stripped down version of something like Evernote, since 2013 or so, but I’ve just fallen out of the habit of taking notes on the computer. I need a break from it. So, I use notebooks, margins, and sticky notes.

For outlines. I have been experimenting with mind mapping software, where you literally plug your skull into your USB 3 port and it outputs your thoughts in rough plaintext, and all you have to do it shape it up into your favorite format and/or genre convention. Additionally, I’ve been using so-called “mind mapping” software to outline dissertation chapters and big ideas, going back and forth between FreeMind and XMind. I really like this, and I think it will be a big part of my working system. Since I am trying to finish a chapter, and not doing much big picture stuff, I’m mostly just working in the L-R document setup described above.

PDFs. I had to stop subscribing to Adobe. It was great having the full version of Acrobat (I was OCRing everything!), but it just got too expensive. Linux doesn’t have any good PDF viewers, and I’ve tried many. I’m not big on highlighting and commenting PDFs (though that should probably change). I’m using something called qpdfview, and it seems to work just fine.

The real problem is what to do with my ca. 100 GBs of PDFs. Every now and then I try to organize them manually (at least ones that I’ve downloaded or scanned recently). For the most part they are preserved in legacy folders from the people I got them from (let me know if you need PDFs…I have lots). Linux has a pretty quick ability to search folders, so that’s what I do: just search for the name. For current project/topics/chapters, I have desktop folders with relevant PDFs.

My actual desk. Revamping my PC setup, and waiting for 100’s of GBs of files to transfer, gave me time to revamp my actual desk. Sharing some pictures of them as is. Trying to keep stacks of books of the work surface and use tables (seen at R) for books I’m using a lot for short periods, and ref. works to left of desk that are used constantly.

I need to get back to work! Before I go, what is happening?

  1. Hopefully will finish my chapter on the Demotic novella I’ve been working on since basically last January, by the end of the month.
  2. Looking for adjunct jobs for next year I guess? Not sure if I’ll be able to teach online for UNC Asheville.
  3. Recording a talk for the Oriental Institute on epics in the ancient Middle East (more info TBA)
  4. Participating in the Early Text Cultures reading group/project at Oxford, presenting some of my work on evidence of oral transmission (or really, aspects of the transmission) of the novella mentioned in #1

Thanks for reading. -JC