British Museum blog

Reading an ancient Egyptian poem

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collectionRichard Parkinson, curator, British Museum

Reading an ancient poem is often a difficult experience, and academic traditions do not always help.

The Tale of The Eloquent Peasant, was written in Egypt around 1850 BC and is a darkly passionate work, concerning a peasant’s quest for justice after his goods are stolen. But its elaborate style has made many academics regard it as simply a source of ancient words/vocabulary and grammar and not as a poetic work of art.

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collection

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collection

So once, when teaching a class in Germany, I was struck that when I asked ‘what does this verse of poetry mean?’ a student replied ‘it is a perfective verb-form’. Which is an important fact, of course, but it is not the total meaning of the poetry (and not at all the answer I was looking for!).

Last year I published a new commentary on The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant to try and encourage a deeper engagement with the poetry. As well as notes on its construction and language, I included, among other things, pictures.

In the poem, the peasant hero is beaten with a stick of iser, ‘tamarisk’. It is a minor detail, unless you visualise the shrub as you read, and remember both that it is very whippy and that it grows everywhere on river banks. The poet uses this particular plant to characterise the action as not only highly sadistic but also opportunistic: the villain grabs whatever is to hand to attack the hero. Everywhere in the poem, a concrete visualisation of the imagery allows the reader to realise the vivid interconnectedness of the poet’s thought.

A tamarisk in the Wadi el-Natrun

A tamarisk in the Wadi el-Natrun

The new commentary also placed text, translation and all the notes on a single page to help the process of reading as a single integrated experience: the reader does not have to flick between different sections for comments on the grammar, historical allusions, or possible meanings. Everything the reader needs appears together in one glance, and I look forward to seeing if this has worked for students when I take up a new job teaching Egyptology in Oxford.

The ability of the poem to still speak to audiences is nowhere better sensed than in the mesmeric prize-winning film of Shadi Abd el-Salam (1970), recently restored by the World Cinema Foundation, and they have generously allowed us to include an image of the actor Ahmed Marei as the frontispiece.

Ahmed Marei as the peasant in Shadi Abd el-Salam’s film; courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Film Centre.

Ahmed Marei as the peasant in Shadi Abd el-Salam’s film; courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Film Centre.

This is a gesture towards the humanity of the original — a reminder that the poem was written by an individual for his contemporaries (and not for Egyptologists). This may even be the first time that an Egyptological commentary on a literary text has included a photograph of a living person. And this living and subtle work of art gained new resonance with the Egyptian revolution of 2011. As author Ahdaf Soueif noted then, it represents an Egyptian tradition of non-violent protest against any abuse of authority, and it is, in the words of Shadi Abd el-Salam, ‘a cry for justice, a cry that persists throughout the ages’.’

Find out more about the Reading Ancient Egyptian poems research project

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , ,

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. Thank you for sharing this, and for your emphasis on the poem’s content & contemporary relevance – (rather than a technical exercise in grammatical structure). Ideally that is the way ancient and classical literature (Egyptian or otherwise) can be best incorporated into modern contexts. Reading historical accounts whether in poetry or prose provide us with an opportunity to learn from our shared human past. The complaint of the peasant against injustice i.e., transgressions of Ma’at are perfect reminders…and from my perspective, the ancient Egyptian philosophy of holism has yet much to teach modern humankind about observing, revering and living in harmony with nature.

    Like

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 15,712 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Today we are celebrating #ValentinesDay by highlighting some of the love stories in the Museum. This Japanese shunga print comes from a masterpiece album titled 'Poem of the Pillow' by Utamaro (d. 1806). Utamaro has avoided the stereotypical scenes of love-making that were often produced at the time, and instead created an innovative and powerfully sensual design. He uses a very low viewpoint and places the unusually large figures so that they seem to expand beyond the frame of the picture. The eye is shocked by the white of the woman's skin against the bright scarlet under-kimono, and the transparency of the gauze fabric that covers the couple's entwined legs only heightens the sensuousness. Finally, however, the viewer focuses on the heads and shoulders. The details emphasise the emotion of the moment – the man's eye as he gazes intently at his lover, the tender touch of their delicate fingers and the exquisite nape of the woman's neck.
#Valentines #love #history #Japan #shunga #💘 Happy #ValentinesDay! To celebrate, we’ll be sharing some of the love stories in the Museum. This image shows the Roman emperor Hadrian with his lover Antinous. Hadrian (r. AD 117–138) had married into the imperial family, but in his late forties he met a Greek youth named Antinous from Bithynia, now in modern Turkey. The young man became the emperor’s lover, but drowned in the Nile in AD 130. Hadrian founded a city named Antinooplis at this site, and made him into a god – an honour usually reserved for members of the emperor’s family. Hadrian publicly commemorated Antinous in huge number of statues, figures, portraits and coins across the Roman world, an almost unparalleled public memorial to a lost love. The statues of Hadrian and Antinous can now be found together, side by side, in Room 70.
#history #valentines #love #Hadrian #💘 This envelope, with a colourful design on its front and a red background and reverse, is typical of the 1990s and early 21st century. On the front is a traditional sailing boat, or junk, sailing on a calm sea with just a few clouds high in the sky. The four characters written on the main sail wish for 'the wind in your sails'. This phrase is used as a general wish for good luck, but is especially used to wish 'Bon Voyage' to someone setting out on a journey. There are five other good luck wishes on the front, all presented as though stamped images from a carved seal. They wish for peace and calm, wind in your sails, a wonderful future, abundance and profit. Wishing everyone a happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai The inscription on this tall red envelope translates as 'Good luck in all you wish for!' Above the inscription are illustrations of three objects representing traditional forms of money in China, and a ruyi sceptre. The traditional forms of money include spade money, a coin with a square hole in the middle, and a small silver ingot. Unlike real coins, the spade and coin carry good luck wishes: 'good luck' (on the spade) 'in all you wish for' (on the coin).The ruyi sceptre also conveys a wish for good luck as ruyi means 'all you wish for'. Happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai Happy #ChineseNewYear! These are called xiao hongbao, literally translated as 'little red envelopes'. Red is the colour associated with celebration in China. In the 1990s, a new style of money envelope appeared. Although it still had a red back, the front was printed in many colours and overstamped in gold. On this envelope there are lush peony flowers in full bloom. They are symbolic of spring, as well as feminine beauty, love and affection. In Chinese, the peony is known as mudanhua or fuguihua. The characters fu ('wealth') and gui ('honour') appear frequently in good luck wishes, and pictures of peony flowers add strength to the wish. The inscription on this envelope reads 'May wealth and honour blossom, in abundance year after year'. The arrangement of the peonies and the inscription is reminiscent of traditional Chinese flower painting. #GongXiFaCai We welcome nearly 7 million visitors a year to the Museum and this photo by @zoenorfolk wonderfully captures the movement of people around the Great Court. Completed in 2000, the Great Court also features a quote by Tennyson: 'and let thy feet millenniums hence be set in the midst of knowledge...’
#repost #regram
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 15,712 other followers

%d bloggers like this: