Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
If one commences the study of Egyptian texts with an examination of the Book of the Dead, and turns from its gloomy, if picturesque, pages to the rest of the national literature, he is perhaps doomed to disappointment, for the field of Egyptian letters, though somewhat widespread, presents a poverty of invention and verbiage exhibited by few literatures, ancient or modern. In the early periods, as might be expected, the style is simple to banality, whilst later a stiff and pompous fashion too often mars what might otherwise have been meritorious work.
Documents of almost every conceivable kind have come down to us—letters of business men, legal scripts, fragments of historical information, magical papyri; scientific, theological, and popular works, even fiction and poetry, are fairly well represented. Most of the standard works, such as books of proverbs or instructions like those attributed to Ptah-hotep and Kagemni, appear to have been of great age, dating not later than the Middle Kingdom. The style of these was imitated by most writers, just as the shape and colour of the hieroglyphs and wall-paintings were sedulously copied by draughtsmen and scribes. Amenemhat I wrote a work resembling Machiavelli's The Prince for the instruction of his son in the principles of good government, and the instructions of Ani to his heir are of similar character. In Egyptian literature we frequently find parallelisms of phrase like those of Hebrew poetry, and repetitions are common.[Pg 188] Philosophical treatises, although rare, appear to have had some vogue, and the great problems of existence seem to have been disputed in their pages in the form of a dialogue. A papyrus of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2500 B.C.) now in the Berlin Museum descants upon the justification of suicide. The disputants are a man and his khu or other-self. The man in question appears to be weary of existence and has made up his mind to destroy himself. He trembles for the future, and seems afraid that his corpse may be neglected. In this dilemma he turns to his khu and entreats it to perform for him the duties of a relative. This request the khu refuses point-blank, and urges its possessor to forget his sorrows and to render his life as happy as possible. It indicates that after death the remembrance of the deceased speedily vanishes, and even granite monuments cannot retain it for long. This counsel the man bitterly rejects, exclaiming that his relatives have forsaken him and that his name is utterly condemned; everywhere the proud triumph and the humble are oppressed; the wicked man flourishes and dishonesty is universal; of just and contented men there are none. Death appears to him very pleasing; in his coffin he will be surrounded by the fragrance of myrrh, will repose in the cool shadows and partake of the offerings made to him. After this outburst the khu argues no longer and assents to the man's proposals, agreeing that when he is at rest it shall descend to him, and together they will prepare for themselves an abiding-place.