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.