The History, People and Culture of the Nile Valley
Ancient Egypt Magazine
Volume 7 issue 1 August 2006
Per Mesut - for younger readersStories and Storytelling
There is very little evidence from ancient Egypt for the words of songs, though there are many scenes in temples and tombs of singers taking part in religious rituals or entertaining guests at a banquet. Some pictures show a man playing a harp as he sings and it is possible that the songs he sang were like the Norse sagas or folk ballads, which told long stories about popular heroes, or famous battles, or fantastic tales of magic and mystery. Kings recorded their victories in the form of poems, which could have been recited to music to make them more memorable. Storytelling was a good way to spread the latest news around the country and storytellers played an important part in Egyptian life.
Most ancient Egyptians were illiterate and would not have been able to read these stories even if they had been written down, so they paid close attention to the harper’s songs or to the words of a professional storyteller. The tunes, or a repeated chorus that they could join in with, helped them to learn the words of their favourite stories which would have been remembered accurately and repeated again and again to other audiences. The words of stories and songs must have been transmitted this way, by word of mouth, for generations before someone decided to write down the best of them. Some stories and poems, which may have been performed with music, have survived in written form.
A musician, playing his harp and singing. This scene is a copy of a painting on a stela now in the Louvre, Paris. Painting by RP
The most famous set of ancient Egyptian stories is now known as The Story of King Khufu and the Magicians. It was not written down until Hyksos times, nearly four thousand years ago, but it is quite possible that the stories had been around for a long time before that.
The stories were supposed to have been told originally by the sons of King Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, who had commanded them to entertain him with tales of magic.
You might recognise this theme. The classic tales of The Thousand and One Nights are based on the same idea, a bored Sultan demanding to be told stories. Many of Scheherazade’s stories, for instance the one about Aladdin, included magicians, both good and bad.
The Egyptians were also fond of magical tales and, since they were generally very superstitious, they believed that a magician could have such great powers that it was unwise to annoy him. This is a version of the story told by Prince Bauefre, with a few notes to show how stories can tell us something about life in Egypt:
One day, in the reign of King Sneferu [who built two pyramids at Dahshur, including the so-called Bent Pyramid], the king was bored. To cheer him up, the court magician, a man called Djadjaemankh arranged a boat trip with a difference. The royal barge was to be redecorated and provided with new oars of ebony and gold. The rowers were to be young girls dressed in specially-made costumes resembling fishing nets. [You can see a dress like this, made from a network of blue-green beads, at the Petrie Museum in London.]
The trip on the Great Lake was going well and the King was feeling much happier when, suddenly, one of the girls stopped rowing because the cord holding the little fish amulet that she wore in her hair had broken, and the charm had fallen overboard into the water. [Fish amulets are mentioned in AE 29, including the British Museum’s cosmetic pot, which is supported by the kneeling figure of a girl with a fish charm hanging from her plaited hair.] The girl was so upset at losing her fish that she refused to start rowing again until she had it back. She even refused the King’s offer to replace it with one made of real gold.
A gold fish pendant, with a coloured stone as its body. This example is now in the British Museum in London. Photo: RP.
This was a very disrespectful thing to do and the King was about to lose his temper when Djadjaemankh took charge.
The magician held out his staff, [every important Egyptian official is shown with a tall walking stick as a symbol of his authority], and recited a magic spell, which caused the water to fold back on itself leaving a valley in the middle of the lake.
Djadjaemankh then jumped over the side of the boat and floated down to the bottom of the watery valley, which was as deep as ten men standing on each other’s shoulders.
[This tale comes from a time hundreds of years before the story of Moses parting the Red Sea was first written down.] There, on the dry sand of the lake bed, he found the girl’s turquoise fish. When he returned it to her she went back to her place at the oars as if nothing had happened. Everyone applauded Djadjaemankh as he said more magic words to make the waters return to normal. Sneferu’s good spirits had returned. He knew that no one would dare to oppose a king who had such a powerful magician as a servant.
The nobleman Ptahhotep carrying a stick to show his importance. Photo: RP.
Djadjaemankh’s display had not only been entertaining, it had also proved that Sneferu was a strong king, truly blessed by the gods. If you would like to read more Egyptian stories, there are many books available. Some are specially written for children, like Tales of Ancient Egypt by Roger Lancelyn Green, Stories from Ancient Egypt, by Joyce Tyldesley (see a review in the last issue of AE), or Egyptian Stories by Robert Hull. For more accurate translations of a wide range of Egyptian writing you could try The Literature of Ancient Egypt by William Kelly Simpson.
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