Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt

Page: 81

The Cat and the Jackal

Another such discussion, which possesses some rather amusing characteristics, is found in a Late Demotic papyrus, and is perhaps tinged with Greek ideas.[Pg 189] The dialecticians in this instance are a monster cat, who represents the goddess Bast, and a diminutive jackal. The feline adopts orthodox views and gives it as her opinion that the world is directed by the gods, who will see to it that vice is vanquished and that virtue is triumphant in the end. If even a little lamb be injured, the violence offered will rebound upon the man who harms it. The sun may be darkened by clouds for a season, thunderstorms may roll, the sunrise may be veiled by the vapours of morning; but eventually the light of day will break forth through all, and joy will reign supreme. The jackal, on the other hand, is a realist. According to him might is right on earth. The lizard, he remarks, devours the insect, and in its turn becomes the prey of the bat, which is swallowed by the snake, upon which the hawk pounces. Nature is ever at strife. The scheme of the jackal's reasoning reminds one of that advanced by Darwin in his theory of the survival of the fittest: Nature is "careless of the single life." How is the sinner to be punished, and what prayer, however powerful, can deter him? The contest between the animals grows warmer; they adduce many proverbs and fables to illustrate the various points at issue, and occasionally specific complaints are made against the gods themselves. The author has evidently a leaning toward the jackal, whose subtle reasoning occasionally throws the cat into a rage. Most unfortunately the text is badly preserved, and many of its passages are exceedingly obscure; but it stands as an early example of the never-ending war between the optimist and the pessimist.

[Pg 190]

Travellers' Tales

Some of the most interesting passages in Egyptian literature are those which deal with travel and adventure. The natives of Egypt were by no means travellers, and for the most part confined their journeyings and excursions to the precincts of their own country, and even to their own nomes or provinces. To pass beyond the borders of Khemi appeared to them a formidable undertaking. But it was necessary that ambassadors should be sent to the surrounding states, and that tribute which had been agreed upon should be properly enforced. As the benefits of trade grew apparent Egyptian merchants pushed their way into the surrounding regions, and criminals often saved themselves by flight into foreign countries. Those who had sojourned abroad were wont upon return home to gather their friends and neighbours about them and regale them with an account of their travels. Some of these are in the best style of Sir John Maundeville, while others again are simple and correct narratives of possible events.

The Story of Saneha

One of these, the story of Saneha, dates from the Middle Kingdom, and possessed a great vogue for at least a thousand years. It is unknown whether its central figure is real or fictitious, as the name was a fairly common one at that period. Saneha was an official under the first king of the Twelfth Dynasty, Amenemhat I. When Amenemhat died and his son Senusert I[4] came to the throne, he chanced to be hidden near by where a secret reception of a certain embassy was held, all knowledge of which his royal master[Pg 191] desired should be kept inviolate. In terror lest his presence should have been observed by someone, he fled eastward across the Delta, passed the frontier, and journeyed to the Bitter Lakes, where he became overpowered by thirst. Here he felt that death had come upon him, but, summoning his courage, he pressed forward and, hearing the lowing of cattle, walked in their direction. Tending the cattle was a man of the desert, who provided him with water and boiled milk, and offered him a home with his tribe. But Saneha considered himself unsafe so near the frontier, and proceeded to the Upper Tenu, perhaps the south of Palestine. Here he encountered a tribe, with which he dwelt for some time, marrying the eldest daughter of its chief, and he became wealthy in land and cattle and was regarded with much respect. But as he grew older a great longing came upon him to behold the land of Egypt once more. King Senusert was communicated with, and permission was granted to Saneha to return. The king received him kindly and his bedouin garments were exchanged for costly Egyptian robes. A splendid tomb was built for him, and he was once more received into the royal favour.

The papyrus is valuable as affording vivid descriptions of the life of the tribes of Southern Palestine, the forays of the various clans and the picturesque barbarism of nomadic life. But the narrative is often interrupted by irritating eulogies upon the King of Egypt.

The Shipwrecked Sailor

In sharp contradistinction to this is a tale of the Twelfth Dynasty, known as the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor, preserved in the Hermitage Collection at Petrograd. A wandering sailor, recounting his[Pg 192] adventures to his superior officer, begs of him an introduction to Pharaoh. His master will not credit his story, but the man protests that it is true. He was bound for the mines of the king, he says, and took ship on a vessel 150 cubits long and 40 cubits wide, manned by one hundred of the best sailors of Egypt, whose hearts were stronger than lions, and who were inured to hardship and voyage. They laughed at the thought of tempests, but as they approached land a great wind arose and mighty waves dashed against the vessel. The narrator seized upon a piece of timber, and not too soon, for the ship and all who remained in her were submerged. He floated for three days and then was cast on an island, where he crawled into the shadow of some bushes upon which grew figs and grapes. He also succeeded in finding melons, berries, and grain, and in snaring fishes and birds. Contented to remain there awhile, he dug a pit and lighted a fire, and offered up a sacrifice to the gods.