Monthly Archives: February 2014

I’m Not Gonna Write You A Love Song…But Khufu Might

Love is in the air! As an early Valentine’s Day gift to you, I’m giving you all the scoop on the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of Roses, Chocolates, and Singing Valentines: Love Poetry.

Before we get to the poems, it’s important to know that this type of composition wasn’t the only kind of writing that Ancient Egyptians produced for fun. There is a rich collection of literature describing the adventures of magicians, epic poems, epic journeys, and even a few fairy-tale like stories.

The Ancient Egyptian love poems that have been discovered date to the Ramesside period, around the 13th-12th centuries BC.  All of the love poems are from the same location: the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina.  Three papyri, one fragmented pottery jar, and twenty separate stanzas were discovered in the village. All were written in the Late Egyptian phase of hieroglyphics, a formal version of the spoken language of Ancient Egypt.  The contents of the poems, also referred to as “songs”, lead Egyptologists to believe that they were written to echo the elite lives of the palace and court of the king.  One vital difference between Ancient Egyptian love poetry and our own? The terms ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ were used to indicate intimacy and affection, not familial relations. The use of these terms in a romantic way was the basis of the argument that sibling marriages were common in Ancient Egypt, which is untrue for the common people. Even on a royal scale, sibling marriages occurred to secure power, not for the reasons we imagine ourselves being married today.

One of my favorite poems illustrates a great passion in sumptuous language that evokes a mesmerizing picture of a beautiful and powerful, but clearly Ancient Egyptian, woman. This describes a man so in love with his beloved, you can’t help but imagine it in a “Romeo and Juliet” kind of way:

“She has no rival,
there is no one like her.
She is the fairest of all.
She is like a star goddess arising
… at the beginning of a new year;
brilliantly white, shining skin;
such beautiful eyes when she stares,
and sweet lips when she speaks;
she has not one phrase too many.
With a long neck and shining body
her hair of genuine lapis lazuli;
her arm more brilliant than gold;
her fingers like lotus flowers,
ample behind, tight waist,
her thighs extend her beauty,
shapely in stride

when she steps on the earth.
She has stolen my heart with her embrace,
She has made the neck of every man
turn round at the sight of her.
Whoever embraces her is happy,
he is like the head of lovers,
and she is seen going outside
like That Goddess, the One Goddess.”

And here we read the classic tale of unrequited love…

My brother overwhelms my heart with his words,
he has made sickness seize hold of me.
Now he is near the house of my mother,
and I cannot even tell that he has been.
It is good of my mother to order me like this,
‘Give it up out of your sights’;
see how my heart is torn by the memory of him,
love of him has stolen me.
Look what a senseless man he is
– but I am just like him.
He does not realize how I wish to embrace him,
or he would write to my mother.
Brother, yes! I am destined to be yours,
by the Gold Goddess of women.
Come to me, let your beauty be seen,
let father and mother be glad.
Call all my people together in one place,
let them shout out for you, brother
.

…or the struggle of heartache….

My heart bares itself instantly,
at the memory of your love.
It does not let me walk like a person,
it has strayed from its shelter.
It does not let me put on a dress,
I cannot even wrap my scarf,
No kohl can be put on my eye,
I am not anointed with oil.
‘Don’t stand there – go in to him’
it tells me at each memory of him.
Don’t, my heart, be stupid at me:
why are you acting the fool?
Sit, be cool, the sister has come to you’
but my eye is just as troubled.
Don’t make people say of me
‘she is a woman fallen by love’
Be firm each time you remember him,
My heart, do not stray.

The love poetry of Ancient Egypt is a rare and beautiful “sneak peek” into the more emotional side of life in the ancient world.  Although the techniques of verbal flirting that these works represent may be considered a little “old-fashioned” by today’s standards, take notes boys—I’m certain any girl—ancient or modern–loves a poem that calls her a goddess.

 

Sources:

http://www.jstor.org/stable/3261159?seq=3

http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/literature/lovesongs.html

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Spring Semester (Scribal) Slump

As we begin our first full week of the Spring Semester, I can’t help but revel in my usual Winter “Back to School Slump.” The holiday season has ended, it is freezing cold, and spring seems nowhere in sight. I wonder…is this how it has always been? Did King Tut dread going back to school after a festival? Did Hatshepsut ever choose an Ancient Egyptian equivalent of a Netflix Movie Marathon in bed instead of attending class?

Little is truly known about the Ancient Egyptian education system. But the main difference we can identify when comparing their system to our own is that being an educated Ancient Egyptian was extremely rare. Only a small minority of the elite children, sons of scribes and noblemen, received a formal education that included reading, writing, and arithmetic. As a prince, one was given the highest form of education, including the “arts of war”—horse riding, the use of weapons, and guiding a chariot.

Young men in Ancient Egyptian society did not typically choose their own career paths, but instead followed the family trade or profession. Unless they were a child of the King himself, most children were personally tutored by their parents, through apprenticeships.

(courtesy of library.thinkquest.org)

Scribal schools were an exception. Young men wishing to follow in their father’s footsteps and become scribes entered a very intensive program of training in a formal school setting. As we know, the Egyptian writing system is extremely intricate and unique. Many student scribes were occasionally inattentive or just plain unmotivated, and expressed a desire to quit school altogether (sound familiar?). As one may expect, teachers were frustrated with their students, claiming:

“They tell me that thou forsakes writing, and departest and dost flee; that thou forsakes writing and usest thy legs like horses of the riding-school. Thy heart is fluttered; thou art like an axj-bird. Thy ear is deaf; thou art like an antelope in fleeing.“ (Warnings to the Idle Scribe)

Sometimes, frustration with students got a little out of hand:

“But though I beat you with every kind of stick, you do not listen. If I knew another way of doing it, I would do it for you that you might listen.” (Instruction in Letter Writing)

When they weren’t suffering the occasional beating, students in scribal training learned the ins and outs of Egyptian hieroglyphics, practicing their writing on pottery shards or stone fragments. Scribal students would copy memorized texts over and over again until their grammar and execution were perfected. Only then could they graduate and take over their father’s position.

But what about the ladies? Unfortunately, the Ancient Egyptian education system had rules similar to a boy’s tree house: NO. GIRLS. ALLOWED. There is no concrete evidence that women were taught to read and write, or were involved in the education system at all. Women from semi-elite families were, at the most, given the opportunity to become temple musicians, or dancers. However, it is possible that royal status gave women more educational opportunities. They may have sat alongside their siblings and been exposed to literature, mathematics, writing, and grammar. The historical record does hold a very few examples of women who had obviously been educated. For instance, from the Third Intermediate Period on, the highest office within the cult of Amun-Re was held by a woman. She received the title of “God’s Wife”. (British Museum) We also know that Cleopatra was one of the most educated rulers of her time, knowing multiple languages including Ancient Egyptian (uncommon for Pharaohs of her time), math, poetry, and much more. Some women were responsible for running estates or manors, conducting certain levels of business such as owning or renting land, and could also take part in legal cases such as marriage and divorces. However, in general, women were relegated to domestic responsibilities such as weaving, baking, gardening, or farming.

So, as we endure the spirit-numbing winter weather that continues plaguing us this spring semester, let’s remember three things. One: Everyone (girl power!) should be grateful to have the opportunity of receiving an education. Two: Be thankful you have the option to study WHATEVER you want. And Three: Be thankful beating sticks are not allowed.

Sources:
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/w/women_in_ancient_egypt.aspx
http://www.historyembalmed.org/ancient-egyptians/ancient-egyptian-education.htm
http://www.rom.on.ca/en/education/online-activities/ancient-egypt/life-in-ancient-egypt/education

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