Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
Page: 83The Fable of the Head and the Stomach
Romances regarding life in Egypt, such as that dealing with King Rhampsinitus given elsewhere, are frequent. A papyrus of about 1250 B.C. has for its background the war against the Hyksos, and describes an encounter between rival princes—Apepi, leader of the Hyksos, and the nationalist prince, Ra-sekenen, who dwelt in Upper Egypt. They propounded riddles to one another, and on their solutions the fate of one of them depended. Fables were extremely popular in the Nile valley from an early period. In the Turin[Pg 195] Museum an example, dating about 1000 B.C., is painted upon two small boards and contains the story of a dispute between the head and the stomach. The Court of the Thirty, the supreme tribunal of Egypt, sits in judgment. The stomach first brings forward its case; but here the document is defective. We have, however, the reply of the head, who at considerable length argues that he is the principal beam, from which all the other beams that support the house radiate. His is the eye that sees, the mouth that speaks, the nose that breathes. The rest of the proceedings and the verdict are unfortunately wanting. It is interesting, however, to know of this early progenitor of the widespread fable of the strife between the stomach and its principals which was adduced by Menenius Agrippa to the Roman plebeians, when, in 492 B.C., they threatened to forsake the city, as a symbol of what might happen if they proceeded to extremities. It contains good proof that the popular story has, as a rule, a lease of life spreading over many centuries, and that, originating in one country, it becomes in time the property of many. It has often been asserted that in all likelihood the fables of Æsop must have originated in Egypt, the land of animal-worship; and it is noteworthy that in the Leyden Demotic papyrus we find the fable of the grateful mouse and the lion which had become entangled in the net. But this dates within the Christian era, and is probably Greek in conception. However, we discover stories of animals acting as human beings, playing games, engaging in war, just as we do in the folklore of other barbarian peoples. Lepsius imagines that the purport of most of these is satirical.
In a papyrus of the Ptolemaic period we find the old expedient of rebuking a king by recounting to him an apposite story. The monarch in question was Amasis (died 526 B.C.), a pleasure-loving ruler, who was wont to imbibe too freely and too often of an Egyptian intoxicating beverage called kelebi. It happened one day that he spake to his nobles, "It is my good pleasure to drink Egyptian kelebi." They spake, "O our mighty lord, it is hard to drink Egyptian kelebi." He said unto them, "Hath that which I say unto you an evil savour?" They said, "O our mighty lord, that which pleaseth the king, let him do." The king commanded, "Let Egyptian kelebi be brought to the lake," and they did according to the word of the king. The king washed himself, with his children, and there was no other wine set before them but Egyptian kelebi. The king feasted with his children, he drank much wine for the love which he bore to Egyptian kelebi; then, on the evening of that day, the king fell asleep by the lake, for he had commanded a couch to be placed in an arbour on the shore of the lake. When the morning dawned the king could not arise because of the heaviness of his carouse. When an hour had passed and he still could not arise, then the courtiers lamented, saying, "Can such things be? Behold, the king drinketh himself drunken like a man of the people. A man of the people cannot come into the presence of the king on matters of business." Therefore the courtiers went to the place where the king was lying, and spake, "O our mighty lord, what wish doth[Pg 197] the king cherish?" The king said, "It is my will and pleasure to make myself drunken. Is there none among you can tell me a story that I may keep myself from sleep?" Now among the courtiers there was a high official named Peun, who knew many tales. He stood before the king, and began: "O our mighty lord, knoweth the king not the story of the young sailor? In the days of King Psammetichus there was a young sailor and he was wedded. Another sailor fell in love with the wife of the first, and she loved him in return. Then it happened one day that the king summoned him to his presence. When the feast was over great desire took hold upon him"—here a hiatus occurs in the text—"and he wished once more to come into the presence of the king. He returned to his home and washed himself, with his wife, but he could not drink as aforetime. When the hour came for bed he could not bring himself to sleep because of the great grief that oppressed him. Then said his wife unto him, 'What hath befallen thee on the river?'" Most unfortunately the remainder of the text is wanting, and exactly in what manner the relation of what happened to King Psammetichus edified King Amasis we cannot tell.