Chapter 3:<I> </I>Egyptian Sacred Literature

The Scriptures of Mankind: An Introduction
by Charles Samuel Braden

Chapter 3:<I> </I>Egyptian Sacred Literature

In a strict sense, Egypt has no sacred book. The Egyptian people never reached the stage at which they formed a definitive canon of writings which served as the basis of their faith. But they did have a very extensive sacred literature which was highly influential in the expression of their faith, and to some extent in the determination of that faith. Why she never reached the point of canonization of her scripture can be a matter of conjecture only. Certainly she had materials of the sort that compose sacred scriptures in other faiths, and certainly she had a priesthood who might have been thought of as interested in crystallizing Egypt’s religion by means of a preferred set of sacred books. Possibly the shifting of capitals, due to the political changes, and the corresponding shifts in the centers of religious authority, may have played some part in the prevention of the crystallization of a true sacred book.

Egypt has had perhaps as long a period of literacy as any area in the world. Even before the dynastic period she had achieved the art of writing, using the picture or hieroglyphic method. She had immediately at hand a most durable medium on which to record her thought, and both political and climatic conditions were unusually favorable to the preservation of her writings. Politically, she was relatively isolated from the rest of the world for many, many centuries of her earlier history. There was a brief invasion in about 1700 B.C. by the Hyksos kings, and there were imperial wars fought with the nascent Babylonian and Assyrian empires at a later time; but few cultures have enjoyed a longer, more uninterrupted period of development than did Egypt.

Furthermore, her climate because of its extreme aridity was highly favorable to the preservation of what was written. For, of course, Egypt would be completely desert were it not for the Nile which furnishes irrigation for her fields. This climate makes anything written in Egypt almost eternal in its enduring quality, particularly if it has become covered over so as to escape the cutting effect of sand storms.

For many centuries there lay side by side in one of the famous archaeological sites two enormous obelisks, cut with great skill out of the living rock of Egypt, dressed down to the proper shape, then deeply inscribed with hieroglyphic characters. In the course of time, these were overturned and became at least partly covered by the sand. Something over seventy years ago it occurred to certain Americans to bring one of these obelisks to America so that it could be seen by those who could not make the journey to Egypt. Accordingly, at no small cost in money and effort, it was towed across the Atlantic Ocean on a specially constructed barge, unloaded, and transported through the streets of New York City on a specially built, very wide-tired truck, to its present site in Central Park near the Metropolitan Art Museum. There it was mounted, and has stood for roughly seven decades only, but already the eroding effect of cold and heat, moisture and dryness, has taken its toll, and the sharply cut figures have begun to lose their edges. It is certain that within a comparatively short time the inscription on the obelisk will become practically illegible. Meanwhile, a like monument in Egypt is said to be the same as it was the day the New York obelisk was borne away. Even writings on so perishable a medium as papyrus, the ancestor of paper, have survived for nearly three thousand years with almost no serious deterioration, a thing which could never happen in a climate like our own.

But there was a third factor which made for the preservation of Egypt’s writings which must be considered; namely, the fact that much of the material was written on the inside of, or deposited within tombs. During most of Egypt’s history it was customary, for important people at least, to be buried in rock-hewn tombs. On the interior walls of these burial places were carved religious texts as well as many other things that tell of the life and thought of the ancient Egyptians. Once sealed, the tombs were perhaps the least likely of all places to be disturbed, for in Egypt as elsewhere, there was a superstitious dread of the dead and anything connected with them. On the walls of some tombs were written words to this effect: "Cursed be he who does damage to this tomb." Egyptians believed very definitely in the spirit world, and only the most courageous would venture to violate such a tabu. One has only to recall the dread which modern people have of cemeteries, particularly at night, to understand how the Egyptians felt about this.

Some years ago an, unusually rich find was made in the rock cliffs along the Nile Valley. It was obviously a royal tomb. Naturally there was a great deal of interest in its discovery and in its opening. The sensational press wove a fabric of unbelievable but dramatic tales about the affair. Lord Carnarvon, the financial backer of the work of excavation, was said to have been stung by something that darted out of the tomb when the closed opening was finally broken through. Much was made of the fact that on the face of the mummy there was a mark similar to that on Lord Carnarvon’s cheek -- and that the latter suddenly died. Furthermore, it has been frequently alleged that one after another of those who had either directly or indirectly had anything to do with the affair died, some naturally, some tragically, all as a result of an implied curse.

The facts are that Lord Carnarvon was stung by a mosquito not there, but at another site, that the wound became infected and that he died some five months later, at the end of twenty years of invalidism, at the age of fifty-seven. Responsible scholars, checking on the facts, assert that of eight persons in the working party that opened the tomb, six were still alive fourteen years later, while two were still living twenty-eight years after the event, which was longer than the period of their average life expectancy. Howard Carter, who was in charge of the excavation, lived to be about seventy years of age and died only shortly before World War II. No wonder an Egyptologist cried, "We all die ultimately. How long does a curse take anyhow?"

While, therefore, the popular stories have no solid basis in fact, they do, nevertheless, illustrate in some measure the feeling people have about tombs; and to a considerable degree, help account for the preservation of so much that was placed in the burial places of the Egyptians. To this fact we owe a great deal, for much of Egyptian literature, particularly concerning their religion, has come to us from the tombs.

It may be, of course, that just because so much of the religious literature was from this origin, so much attention was focused upon death and the after life. No other single idea seemed so to preoccupy the mind of the Egyptians as this. Possibly if we had more general preservation of the writings which, lacking the protection of the tombs, have been lost or destroyed, we might have a better balance of interest. Certain it is that no people in the world, seemingly, have been so deeply concerned about what was to happen to them after death. It was a near obsession with them. Kings spent much of their time and effort, as well as the economic resources of their country, in building burial places that would defy the ravages of time, and so guarantee to them immortality. It was for this that the pyramids were built, hundreds of them, and literally thousands of mastabas, which were the more primitive forms of the developed pyramid. These latter served as the burial places of the wealthy and powerful who could not aspire to truly great pyramids, as their bid for immortality.

It is with this concept of the life hereafter that a great deal of the literature has to do. The very oldest writings known in Egypt, and indeed in all the world, were certain writings found on the inner passages of a group of pyramids at Sakkara, along the Nile, which date from about 2700 to 2600 B.C. They are known as the pyramid texts. At the present time nothing older than these in written form is certainly known. Yet, that these were not the earliest writings of Egypt is apparent from the fact that in the course of writing these pyramid texts, their authors quote from books written much earlier, perhaps many hundreds of years previously.

The purpose of the pyramid texts was to enable the king to reach the realm of the dead (at that early time not in the underworld, but in the sky, and in the East rather than the West, as in later times) and to insure his happiness there. To reach that abode it was necessary to ferry over certain bodies of water. Charms were therefore furnished to compel the ferryman, called "Look-behind," to bear him over the waters. Sometimes if he proved obdurate, the god Re was besought to command the boatman to serve him: "O Re, Commend King Teti to Look-behind, the ferryman of the Lily-Lake, that he may bring that ferry-boat for King Teti, in which he ferries the gods to yonder side of the Lily-Lake, to the east side of the sky."1

If these means fail he may fly to the sky. A charm is provided for this: "Thy two wings are spread out like a falcon with thick plumage, like the hawk seen in the evening traversing the sky."2 Or men and gods are called on to lift him to the sky. "O men and gods! Your arms are under King Pepi! Raise him, lift ye him to the sky, as the arms of Shu are under the sky and he raises it. To the sky! To the sky! To the greatest seat among the gods!"3

Then there were the doors of the celestial fields to be opened and for this also charms were required. As he faces the gates he cries: "O lofty one (gate) , whom no one names! Gate of Nut! King Teti is Shu who came forth from Atum. O Nun (the primeval waters) , cause that this gate be opened for King Teti."4

At last, of course, the Pharaoh is admitted and becomes one with the gods.

This literature is fairly extensive, running to something over two hundred printed pages in translation. It contains rituals for the funerary offerings at the tomb, charms, very old rituals for use in worship, hymns, myths and prayers. "The chief note," says Breasted, "in all this mass of material is that of protest against death." He calls it "humanity’s earliest supreme revolt against the great darkness and silence from which none returns."5 Again and again is repeated the assurance that the dead lives: "King Teti has not died the death, he has become a glorious one in the horizon."6

Although primarily of the character thus indicated, pyramid texts are highly revealing as to the general outlook of the people of that time, particularly with reference to the life hereafter. In the earlier period, it should be noted, this seemed to be chiefly the prerogative of kings, at least there is no comparable literature as expressive of the hopes of the common man. There are, however, indications that go far back of any of the pyramids, in the simple burials found in the desert sands, that there was a hope of an after life, and that one would evidently need there very much the same kind of things he needed here. This at any rate appears to be the case, from the sort of utensils and tools and other objects found in the graves.

The funerary literature, of which the pyramid texts are simply the earliest phase, was a constant element in Egyptian literature from the time of the pyramid texts until very late in the pre-Christian era. At a somewhat later time the writing was done, not on the walls of pyramids, but on the inside of coffins in which the mummies were placed. In this form the writings were known as the coffin texts, their purpose being essentially that of the pyramid texts, only there are now evidences that the after life is a concern, not alone of rulers, but also of people of lesser social stature.

The final phase of this literature is what is known as The Book of the Dead, a very extensive literature which is found written on papyrus rolls and placed within the coffins. At this stage it is quite clear that "Everyman" entertains the hope of immortality, and these numerous texts are the means by which the soul is supposed to be able to make its way through the nether world.

The Book of the Dead is sometimes called the Bible of the Egyptians. It is true that it is the one book which does have some semblance of a canon, but, aside from this, it would be a mistake to regard it as a Bible. As a matter of fact, there are various recensions of the book which are similar, but by no means identical, either in the number of the chapters included or in the content of the chapters. It is true also that it does form what, perhaps, for the first time, may be called a book, but it was certainly never the fixed and unchanging kind of a book that most Bibles have become.

The writing was done on long papyrus rolls, some of them reaching a length of something like 150 feet. They are written very much as the Hebrew scrolls are written, in columns a few inches wide. Some of them were written with great care, some of the chapters being headed by illustrations in color indicating the content of the chapter.

But even in death there is a difference among people. The wealthy and powerful were able to employ able scribes and use high-grade materials, while the poor had to content themselves with cruder, cheaper work of less capable scribes, some of it written almost illegibly. Dr. John A. Wilson says that probably the really poor (the great mass of the people) could afford no Book of the Dead at all. "Such privilege may have run down through the merchants, artisans and minor priests, but not to servants and peasants."7 Toward the close of Egypt’s history, the book grows shorter and shorter, possibly due to a changed view of its value, or to a conviction that it was primarily magic, and that a token book would work quite as effectively as a much more elaborate and expensive one. The result is that in lesser burials, the book comes to be only a small, single sheet of papyrus written in demotic script.

Each chapter as translated and published by Budge has a title, and from a study of these titles the general purposes of The Book of the Dead may be gathered. Chapter XV, for example, is a group of hymns to various gods, a hymn of praise to Ra8 at rising; a hymn and litany to Osiris; a second hymn to Ra at rising, followed by

three hymns to Ra at setting. These are similar to, but yet different from, the several hymns to Ra at rising which form part of the Introduction to The Book of the Dead. Other chapter titles are: "Of not letting the deceased do work in the underworld"; "Of making the Shabti figure to do work," the Shabti (Ushebti) being a molded figure of a slave placed in the tomb to serve the deceased. This was a late substitute for the earlier actual slaying of a slave to serve his master in the other world. Others are: "Of giving a mouth to the deceased"; "Of giving a heart to the deceased in the underworld"; "Of not letting the heart of the deceased be driven away from him in the underworld"; "Of not letting the deceased be bitten by serpents"; "Of not suffering corruption in the underworld"; "Of sitting among the great gods"; "Of causing the Soul to be united to the body in the underworld"; "Of providing the deceased with food in the underworld"; "Of forcing an entrance into heaven"; "Of not dying a second time"; "Of entering in the company of the Gods." These are but a few, but they furnish something of an indication as to the value of The Book of the Dead to the deceased.

Many of the chapters are quite lengthy and there is not space to quote them at great length, but a few excerpts will give an idea of their general nature. Here is part of Chapter 68, "Of Coming Forth by Day."

The overseer of the house of the overseer of the seal, Nu, triumphant, saith:

"The doors of heaven are opened for me, the doors of earth are opened for me, and the first temple hath been unfastened for me by the god Petra. Behold, I was guarded and watched, (but now) I am released; behold, his hand had tied cords round me and his hand had darted upon me in the earth. Re-hent9 hath been opened for me and Re-hent hath been unfastened before me, Re-hent hath been given unto me, and I shall come forth by day into whatsoever place I please; I have gained the mastery over my heart; I have gained the mastery over my breast C?) ; I have gained the mastery over my hands; I have gained the mastery over my two feet; I have gained the mastery over my mouth; I have gained the mastery over my whole body; I have gained the mastery over sepulchral offerings; I have gained the mastery over the waters; I have gained the mastery over the air; I have gained the mastery over the canal; I have gained the mastery over the river and over the land; I have gained the mastery over the furrows; I have gained the mastery over the male workers for me; I have gained the mastery over the female workers for me in the underworld; I have gained the mastery over the things which were ordered to be done for me upon the earth, according to the entreaty which ye spake for me (saying) , ‘Behold, let him live upon the bread of Seb.’ That which is an abomination unto me, I shall not eat, (nay) I shall live upon cakes (made) of white grain, and my ale shall be (made) of the red grain of Hapi.10 In a clean place I shall sit on the ground beneath the foliage of the date palm of the goddess Hathor, who dwelleth in the spacious Disk as it advanceth to Annu (Heliopolis) , having the books of the divine words of the writings of the god Thoth."11 ...

"I shall lift myself up on my left side, and I shall place myself up on my right side, and I shall place myself (on my left side) . I shall sit down, I shall stand up, and I shall place myself in (the path of) the wind like a guide who is well prepared."

"Rubiuc: If this composition be known (by the deceased) he shall come forth by day, and he shall be in a position to journey about over the earth among the living, and he shall never suffer diminution, never, never."12

Also part of Chapter 154:

"Homage to thee, 0 my divine father Osiris, thou livest with my members. Thou didst not decay. Thou didst not turn into worms. Thou didst not waste away. Thou didst not suffer corruption. Thou didst not putrefy. I am the god Khepera, and my members shall have an everlasting existence. I shall not decay. I shall not rot. I shall not putrefy. I shall not turn into worms. I shall not see corruption before the eye of the god Shu. I shall have my being, I shall have my being. I shall live, I shall live. I shall flourish, I shall flourish. I shall wake up in peace. I shall not putrefy. My inward parts shall not perish. I shall not suffer injury. Mine eye shall not decay. The form of my visage shall not disappear. Mine ear shall not become deaf. My head shall not be separated from my neck. My tongue shall not be carried away. My hair shall not be cut off. Mine eyebrows shall not be shaved off. No baleful injury shall come upon me. My body shall be established, and it shall neither crumble away nor be destroyed in this earth."13

Quite the most notable of all the chapters is the 125th, which describes the famous judgment scene through which every soul must pass before the entrance into the other world. The chapter is preceded by a graphic picture of the judgment scene, clearly showing the characters who participate in it. There is Osiris, god of the under-world; there is Anubis, the jackal god, who appropriately enough conducts the souls to the judgment hall; there are depicted the famous scales on which the heart of the person being judged is weighed in the balance against Maat, or justice, represented by a feather. Standing beside the scale with what appears to be a stylus and a writing pad is Thoth, god of learning and patron of all literature, who is the secretary always present to note the outcome of the judgment. And most fearsome of all stands a curious beast compounded of parts of a hippopotamus, a lion, and a crocodile, the latter furnishing the mouth, which stands with fearful jaws open, ready to receive the hearts which do not weigh out properly against justice. The figure is known familiarly as the "devouress."

Before proceeding to the weighing of the heart, however, the soul must appear in a great judgment hall in which are seated forty-two gods, each representing one of the ancient city states of which Egypt was compounded. Before each separate god, the soul must prostrate itself and deny having committed some particular sin. In the list of these denials of specific sin may be found an excellent index of what the Egyptian evidently thought was sin, and it proves to be a most interesting list indeed. It is too long to copy entirely, but here are some of the things which the soul must affirm that it has not committed. The negative confession here given is addressed to Osiris, Lord of the hall of judgment. It is given again in slightly different form to the several forty-two gods in the same 125th chapter. (Ed. Publishing error) Text; (1) (The following) shall be said when the overseer of the house of the overseer of the seal, Nu, triumphant, cometh forth into the hall (2) of Double Maati so that he may be separated from every sin which he hath done and may behold the faces of the gods. The Osiris Nu, triumphant, saith:--

(3) "Homage to thee, O Great God, thou Lord of Double Maati, I have come to thee,O my Lord, and I have brought myself hither that (4) I may behold thy beauties. I know thee, and I know thy name, and I know the name (s) of the two and forty gods who exist with (5) thee in this Hall of Double Maati. . . . I have not oppressed the members of any family, (8) I have not wrought evil in the place of right and truth. I have had no knowledge of worthless men. I have not wrought evil. I have not made to be the first (consideration) of each day that excessive labour (9) should be performed for me. (I have) not brought forward my name for (exaltation) to honours. I have not ill-treated servants. (I have not thought scorn of God.) I have not defrauded the oppressed one of his property. I have not done that which is an abomination (10) unto the gods. I have not caused harm to be done to the servant by his chief. I have not caused pain. I have made no man to suffer hunger. I have made no one to weep. I have done no murder. (11) I have not given the order for murder to be done for me. I have not inflicted pain upon mankind. I have not defrauded the temples of their oblations. I have not (12) purloined the cakes of gods. I have not carried off the cakes offered to the khus. I have not committed fornication. I have not polluted myself (in the holy places of the god of my city) , nor diminished from the bushel. (13) I have neither added to nor filched away land. I have not encroached upon the fields (of others) . I have not added to the weights of the scales (to cheat the seller) . I have not mis-read the pointer of the scales (to cheat the buyer) . (14) I have not carried away the milk from the mouths of children. I have not driven away the cattle which were upon their pastures. I have not snared (15) the feathered fowl of the preserves of the gods. I have not caught fish (with bait made of) fish of their kind. I have not turned back the water at the time (when it should flow) . I have not cut (16) a cutting in a canal of running water. I have not extinguished a fire (or light) when it should burn. I have not violated the times (of offering) the chosen meat-offerings. I have not driven off (17) the cattle from the property of the gods. I have not repulsed God in his manifestations. I am pure. I am pure. I am pure. I am pure." etc.14

If there remained no other inscriptions or written material concerning Egypt, it would be possible to reconstruct, to a very considerable degree, the life and thought of ancient Egypt from this important book, for in the process of preparing for death and immortality, almost everything that is important in life itself is considered in one way or another. It is thus a priceless document, telling of Egypt’s life and faith.

The ethical development indicated in the ‘‘Negative Confession" does not seem particularly remarkable from the standpoint of modern Christian civilization; but it is necessary to recall, as one reads it, that this antedates by hundreds of years the time of Moses and the earliest possible date given for the Ten Commandments. Evidently here man had already achieved a high degree of moral insight. Some think that there may have been some influence of the Egyptians upon the Hebrew people through the contact of Moses with the Egyptian court, but that lies in the realm of conjecture and is not to be taken too seriously. Reference will be made to it again a little later.

As in most scriptures, there appears in the literature of Egypt eventually not a little of disillusionment and pessimism. Life deals hardly with men; they seem unable to cope with it; they fall into moods of hopelessness, and melancholy, not unlike that found in the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. One of the most interesting of the poems depicting this mood is one called the Song of the Harper, a reflection upon the transitory nature of life and fame, prompted by the contemplation of tombs of ancestors.

 There is none who comes back from over there

That he may tell their state

That he may tell their needs

That he may still our hearts

Until we (too) may travel to the place

where they have gone.

This gloomy reflection led them as we shall see in a number of other cultures to a "Carpe diem" philosophy -- "Eat, drink, and be merry," for "You can’t take it with you."

Put myrrh upon thy head. . . .

Let not thy heart flag

Follow thy desire and thy good. . . .

Make holiday, and weary not again

Behold it is not given to a man to take his

property with him.

Behold there is no one who departs who comes back again.15

Still another, which has been entitled "Dialogue of a Misanthrope with his own Soul," Breasted calls our earliest Book of Job.’6 By a succession of misfortunes a man is brought to the depths of despair from which death in the end seems to offer a glad release. Though in the first half of the poem the same note of "carpe diem" appears, in the latter part life is seen to be utterly intolerable and death offers the only way out.

In the first of four poems which the Misanthrope addresses to his own soul, his name is unjustly abhorred by men, more than the odor of birds, or the stench of fish or crocodiles. He uses the strongest possible similes to express the depth of the abhorrence. In the second he is oppressed by the utter corruption of men about him, not unlike the psalmist who on one occasion says in his heart, "All men are liars." Even brothers are wicked, men seize their neighbor’s goods, the gentleman suffers while the bold-faced flourishes. It seems that none is righteous, and endless evil afflicts the land.

So unhappy and so hopeless of any happy outcome of life is he that he welcomes death as a glad release. It appears to him as a recovery from illness, as the odor of myrrh or of lotus flowers, as a release like that of a man who has returned from war, or from long years spent in captivity.

But in the fourth poem there is a forward look. There the dead will inflict punishment on the wicked ones, and shall cause the choicest of offerings to be made to the temples, and he shall be as a wise man, praying to Re when he speaks.

The tone is so different in the last poem, that one cannot help wondering if it may not have been the thought of one who lived later, interpolated into the total poem, very much as seems to have been true in the case of the Biblical story of Job and Ecclesiastes.

There are likewise documents preserved which, in almost prophetic vein, depict the evils of the period in which the writer lived. One of these, that of Ipuwer, arraigns the social and political life of his time as sharply as Amos:

"A man smites his brother." . . . "A man looks upon his son as an enemy." . . . ‘Blood is everywhere." . . . "A few lawless men are endeavoring to despoil the land of kingship." . . . "Some of the provinces make civil war and pay no revenue The economic situation is desperate: No craftsmen work. . . . The scribe sits idle in his office. . . . Cattle are left straying. . . . Grain has perished on every side. . . . The store house is laid waste. .

Public safety no longer exists: "Men are plundered and beaten." . . ."He who was a robber is a lord of wealth." . . . Even "royal tombs are not respected."

Society is topsy-turvy: "He who had no yoke of oxen is now possessor of a herd.. .. He who had no grain is now an owner of granaries." . . ."The owner of wealth now begs." . . . "The possessors of robes are now in rags." . . . "Mirth has perished." . . . "Great and small say, I wish I might die.... Little children say, He ought never to have caused me to live.... Life is no longer worth living."17

Unlike a number of other somewhat similar documents of despair, Ipuwer is unwilling to let things rest as they are. On the other hand, he exhorts his fellow countrymen to destroy the enemies of their king, and looks forward to a recovery of the land. This is compassed by an ideal king who stands in sharp contrast to the reigning sovereign. Of this ideal king he sings:

He brings coolness to that which is hot. It is said he is the shepherd of mankind. No evil is in his heart. When his herds are few, he passes the day to gather them together, their hearts being on fire. Would that he had perceived their nature in the first generation. Then would he have suppressed evil. He would have stretched forth his arm against it. He would have destroyed their inheritance. . . . Where is he today? Is he sleeping? Behold his might is not seen.18

What is here seen in vision is apparently a return to the Golden Age, not unlike that seen by the Hebrew prophets who look back upon the Davidic age as the golden period, and long for a return to it. Here, says Breasted, we have a reference to Messianism.19 The writer is definitely prophetic in character, although the predictive element may not actually have appeared in his writing. He goes ahead in somewhat the manner of Nathan condemning David, to condemn the line of sovereigns upon whom he puts the responsibility for the evil conditions which he has exposed. The end of the long document is a final picture of joy and prosperity, again not unlike some of the Hebrew prophecies.

In somewhat different vein is a remarkable document known as The Eloquent Peasant, which may be said, perhaps, to be the oldest literature of social protest in the world. It is the plea of a peasant who has had his donkeys taken away from him by a covetous, wealthy neighbor on a vicious pretext. The peasant seeks their restoration, finally carrying his plaint to the highest authority. It is too long to quote here, but the reader will do well to seek it out and follow The Eloquent Peasant through to the end. Finally the covetous neighbor is punished, and his possessions bestowed upon the eloquent peasant. Breasted thinks that The Eloquent Peasant was in the nature of a pamphlet issued by some members of the court of Pharaoh as a bit of propaganda for justice and kindness toward the poor.20

Most striking of all of the literature of this character, perhaps, is the "Wisdom" type; that is, the advice of the sage to his people, very similar in character to the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament. There are a number of these extant, but the most notable of them all is the Wisdom of Ptah Hotep, which purports to be the utterances of a governor of a city to his son, who, the father hopes, may be appointed as his successor as governor and vizier. It is dated in the Fifth Dynasty, according to John A. Wilson, about 2450 B.C. It is much too long to quote at length here, but a sampling at least is necessary:

Be not puffed up because of thy knowledge; be not confident because thou art a wise man. Take counsel with the ignorant as well as the wise.

If thou art one to whom petition is made, be calm as thou listenest to the petitioner’s speech. Do not rebuff him before he has swept out his body or before he has said that for which he came. A petitioner likes attention to his words better than the fulfilling of that for which he came.

Do not be greedy. . . . Do not be covetous against thy own kindred. Greater is the respect for the mild than for the strong. . . . It is only a litde of that for which one is covetous that turns a calm man into a contentious man.

If thou art a man of standing, thou shouldst found thy household and love thy wife as is fitting. Fill her belly; clothe her back. Ointment is the prescription for her body. Make her heart glad as long as thou livest.

If (thy friend) should do something with which thou art displeased, behold he is still a friend. Do not answer in a state of turmoil; do not remove thyself from him. Do not trample him down.21

Below are a few selections from The Instructions of Ani, written by a scribe Ani for the instruction of his son:

Do not talk a lot. Be silent and thou wilt be happy. Do not be garrulous. The dwelling of god, its abomination is clamor. Pray thou with a loving heart, all the words of which are hidden, and he will do what thou needest, he will hear what thou sayest, and he will accept thy offering.

Thou shouldst not eat bread when another is waiting and thou dost not stretch forth thy hand to him. A man is nothing. The one is rich; another is poor. . . . The man rich last year is this year a vagabond.22

These may or may not have been written by the persons to whom they are attributed but, like the wisdom literature of most peoples, probably represent the accumulated wisdom of the time in which they appeared, which is exactly what occurs in the wisdom litetature of the Old Testament.

The Instructions of Amen-em-Opet, which is variously dated by scholars from the tenth to the sixth century B.C., is thought to be quite similar to the Hebrew book of Proverbs -- particularly 22:17- 24:22

Do not neglect a stranger with thy oil jar

That it be doubled before thy brethren.

God desires respect for the poor

More than the knowing of the exalted.

For man is the clay and straw,

And the god is his builder.

He is tearing down and building up every day.

He makes a thousand men poor as he wishes

Or he makes a thousand men as overseers.

When he is in his hour of life,

How joyful is he who reaches the west

When he is safe in the hand of the god.

Better is poverty in the hand of the god

Than riches in a storehouse.

Better is bread when the heart is happy

Than riches with sorrow.

The ship of the covetous man is left in the mud

While the boat of the silent man has a fair breeze.

Do not spend the night fearful of the morrow.

At daybreak what is the morrow like?

Man knows not what the morrow is like.23

There is an extensive hymn literature in Egypt which may be said to be, in some sense, parallel to the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew-Christian Bible. Some of these we have already noted as appearing in the Pyramid Texts or The Book of the Dead, but apart from these there have appeared many hymns of high order in praise of one or the other of the gods. A few examples of these are as follows:

A hymn prayer addressed to the Lady of the West -- from a Stela dating from the 19th Dynasty (c.1350-1200 B.C.) :

Praised be thou in peace, 0 Lady of the West,

The Mistress that turns herself toward mercy!

Thou causest me to see darkness by day.24

I will declare thy might to all people.

Be merciful to me in thy mercy!25

A hymn to Luna-Thoth -- A Stela from the 19th Dynasty (c. 1350 -- 1200 B.C.) :

Giving praise to Luna-Thoth:

Homage to the Merciful One.

I give him praise to the height of heaven:

I adore thy beauty.

Be thou merciful to me,

That I may see that thou art merciful:

That I may observe thy might.

Thou causest me to see a darkness of thy making;

Lighten me that I may see thee.

In that health and life are in thine hand

One liveth by the gift of them.26

Still another is addressed to the Nile, which plays such an important role in Egyptian life:


Adoration to the Nile!

Hail to thee, 0 Nile!

who manifesteth thyself over this land,

and cometh to give life to Egypt!

Mysterious is thy issuing forth from the darkness,

on this day whereon it is celebrated!

Watering the orchards created by Re

to cause all the cattle to live,

thou givest the earth to drink, inexhaustible one! . . .


Lord of the fish, during the inundation,

no bird alights on the crops.

Thou createst the corn, thou bringest forth the barley,

assuring perpetuity to the temples.

If thou ceasest thy toil and thy work,

Then all that exists is in anguish. . . .


He shines when he issues forth from the darkness, to cause his flocks to prosper.

It is his force that gives existence to all things;

nothing remains hidden from him.

Let men clothe themselves to fill his gardens.

He watches over his works,

producing the inundation during the night. . . .


Establisher of justice! mankind desires thee,

supplicating thee to answer their prayers;

thou answerest them by the inundation!

Men offer the first-fruits of corn;

all the gods adore thee!

The birds descend not on the soil.

It is believed that with thy hand of gold

thou makest bricks of silver!

But we are not nourished on lapis lazuli;

corn alone gives vigor....


When thou shinest in the royal city,

the rich man is sated with good things,

the poor man even disdains the lotus;

all that is produced is of the choicest;

all the plants exist for thy children.

If thou hast refused to grant nourishment,

the dwelling is silent, devoid of all that is good

the country falls exhausted.


O inundation of the Nile,

offerings are made unto thee,

oxen are immolated to thee,

great festivals are instituted for thee.

Birds are sacrificed to thee,

gazelles are taken for thee in the mountain,

pure flames are prepared for thee. . . .


Come and prosper! come and prosper!

O Nile, come and prosper!

O thou that makest men to live through his flocks

and his flocks through his orchards!

Come and prosper, come,

O Nile, come and prosper!27

But perhaps the greatest of all the hymn literature belongs to the Imperial Age, particularly to the time of Akhnaton. As Egypt evolved from a body of separate city states into upper and lower Egypt and finally into a united Egypt, the religious concepts were also modified and certain gods became more and more important and far-reaching in their sway. It was therefore perhaps natural that precisely at the moment that Egypt became a world empire and sought, by conquest, to enlarge her borders, her gods should also tend to transcend their local, limited character of the earlier period.

It is a fact that at this time, under the noted sovereign, Akhnaton, there did appear, perhaps for the first time in the history of the world, a concept of monotheism, of a universal god subject to no limitations of time or space.

Akhnaton was an innovator in various fields. Although he came to the throne very young, married and reared a family, and passed off the scene in his early thirties, perhaps no monarch of Egypt or any other country came to stand out so sharply against the background of his own people. Students of ancient Egypt, particularly Breasted, grow lyric in singing the praises of Akhnaton. Breasted calls him the world’s first individual. Certainly he was unique in many respects.

First of all, students of the history of Egyptian art know well that from his period dates a new epoch in Egyptian art. As king, he required that he be represented with a crude naturalism that was little flattering to his person. He was definitely an innovator with respect to his attitudes toward his family, and the way in which he permitted himself and his family to be pictured for future generations, not as divine, but as very human, enjoying the most intimate relationships with his wife and children. He was likewise different in his attitude toward war. He was clearly the world’s first pacifist. Convinced of the evil and destructiveness of war, he refused to use violent means to hold his empire together, and, as a result, during his time it began to crumble. Living as he did nearly fourteen hundred years before Jesus, and over three thousand years before our own time, which pays little attention to pacifists, it was to be expected that few would follow him in his refusal to use force. So the decline of the political power of the Egyptian Empire began.

But perhaps his greatest claim to fame rests on his theological innovations. Already there had been some tendency in the direction of a unified view of the world, but it remained for Akhnaton to espouse a monotheistic concept of god and to give it prestige. He simply declared Aton, originally only the sun’s disc, but under his grandfather made one of the sun gods, to be not only the god of the sun but the universal divinity of the world, to whom men everywhere ought to give their allegiance. This set him in rivalry with the ecclesiastical powers of his day whose chief god was Amon, and his attempts at theological reform were made increasingly difficult by the opposition of the prevailing theological leaders.

It may well be confessed that he did not use the most tactful methods in seeking to get his ideas accepted. To escape from the immediate presence of the rival divinities, he created a new capital in which Aton alone was worshiped, and provided him with rich temples and a priesthood. But it was his attempt to erase from the minds of his contemporaries the rival god Amon that perhaps stirred up the deepest resentment against him. He sent out men to chisel off the tombs, including those of his own ancestors, the hated name of Amon. This was a violation of something very sacred in the minds of the people; so it is little to be wondered at that soon after his own early death a reaction against the reform developed, and that finally his own name and the name of the god Aton, whose name he had incorporated in his own when he had it changed from Amen-hotep to Akhnaton, were likewise erased from public monuments.

Akhnaton was himself a poet of no mean stature. If it be true that the great hymn to Aton is his own composition, then he must be rated very high indeed, for here is one of the truly great poems of all time. It is much too long to be given in its entirety, for it describes the universal splendor and power of Aton, the sources of night and day, man and animals, the waters, the seasons, etc. But a few characteristic portions follow:

Universal Splendor and Power of Aton

Thy dawning is beautiful in the horizon of the sky;

O living Aton, Beginning of Life!

When thou risest in the eastern horizon,

Thou fillest every land with thy beauty.

Thou art beautiful, great, glittering, high above every land,

Thy rays, they encompass the lands, even all that thou hast made.

Thou art Re, and thou earnest them all away captive;

Thou bindest them by thy love.

Though thou art far away, thy rays are upon earth;

Though thou art on high, thy (footprints are the day) .


When thou settest in the western horizon of the sky, The earth is in darkness like the dead.

Day and Man

Bright is the earth when thou risest in the horizon.

When thou shinest as Aton by day

Thou drivest away the darkness.

When thou sendest forth thy rays..


Day and the Animals and Plants

All cattle rest upon their pasturage,

The trees and the plants flourish,

The birds flutter in their marshes,

Their wings uplifted in adoration to thee.

All the sheep dance upon their feet,

All winged things fly,

They live when thou hast shone upon them.

Creation of Man

Creator of the germ in woman,

Maker of seed in man,

Giving life to the son in the body of his mother,

Soothing him that he may not weep,

Nurse (even) in the womb,

Giver of breath to animate every one that he maketh!

When he cometh forth from the body. . . on the day of his birth,

Thou openest his mouth in speech,

Thou suppliest his necessities.

The Whole Creation

How manifold are thy works!

They are hidden from before (us) ,

O sole God, whose powers no other possesseth.

Thou didst create the eartb according to thy heart

While thou wast alone:

Men, all cattle large and small,

All that are upon the earth,

That go about upon their feet;

(All) that are on high,

That fly with their wings.

The foreign countries, Syria and Kush,

The land of Egypt;

Thou settest every man into his place,

Thou suppliest their necessities

Every one has his possessions,

And his days are reckoned.

The tongues are divers in speech,

Their forms likewise and their skins are distinguished.

(For) thou makest different the strangers.

Watering the Earth in Egypt and Abroad

Thou makest the Nile in the Nether World,

Thou bringest it as thou desirest,

To preserve alive the people.

For thou hast made them for thyself,

The lord of them all, resting among them;

Thou lord of every land, who risest for them,

Thou Sun of day, great in majesty.

All the distant countries,

Thou makest (also) their life,

Thou hast set a Nile in the sky;

When it falleth for them,

It maketh waves upon the mountains,

Like the great green sea,

Watering their fields in their towns.

How excellent are thy designs, 0 lord of eternity!

There is a Nile in the sky for the strangers

And for the cattle of every country that go upon their feet.

(But) the Nile, it cometh from the Nether World for Egypt.

The Seasons

Thy rays nourish every garden;

When thou risest they live,

They grow by thee.

Thou makest the seasons

In order to create all thy work:

Winter to bring them coolness,

And heat that (they may taste) thee.

Revelation to the King

Thou art in my heart,

There is no other that knoweth thee

Save thy son Akhnaton.

Thou hast made him wise

In thy designs and in thy might.

The world is in thy hand,

Even as thou hast made them.

When thou hast risen they live,

When thou settest they die;

For thou art length of life of thyself,

Men live through thee,

While (their) eyes are upon thy beauty

Until thou settest.

All labor is put away

When thou settest in the West.28

The hymn is sometimes thought to have influenced certain of the Hebrew psalmists, particularly the writer of Psalm 104; but whether this is true or not, it is certain that it breathes the spirit of the Hebrew idea of God and his creative activity. It is just possible that the emergence of Hebrew monotheism is due in part to the influence of the great Egyptian philosopher-king.


Egyptian Sacred Liturature

Sources for Further Reading

James H. Breasted, The Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt, Charles Scribner’s Sons, N. Y., 1912.

Lewis Browne, The World’s Great Scriptures, Macmillan, N. Y., 1945, pp. 27-53.

E. A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Dead, three volumes, Translation of the Complete Book of the Dead, Open Court Publishing Co., Chicago, 1901.

Adolf Erman, Egyptian Literature, Aylward Blackman, Methuen, London, 1927.

Grace H. Turnbull, Tongues of Fire, Macmillan, N. Y., 1929. Book of Wisdom, pp. 13-27.

Psalms, pp. 37-73.

Janet Mayer, and Tom Prideaux, Never to Die, The Egyptians in Their Own Words, Viking Press, N. Y., 1938. Some, but not much religious literature included.

Sacred Books and Literature of the East, Vol. II, entire.

James B. Pritchard, Editor, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1950.

B. Gunn, Translator, The instruction of Ptah Hotep and the Instruction of Ke’ gemni, Wisdom of the East Series, London, 1909.



1. Pyr. 88599-60, reprinted from Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt, by James H. Breasted; copyright 1912 by Charles Scribners Sons, 1940 by Charles Breasted; used by permission of the publishers. Page 106.

2. Pyr. 81048, Breasted, up. cit. P. 109.

3. Pyr. 1101, Breasted, p. 113.

4. Pyr. 603, Breasted, p. 114..

5. P. 91

6. Pyr.8350, Breasted, op. cit., p. 919.Re-hent: the entrance to one of the great celestial canals.

7. Personal correspondence.

8. Ra same as Re. Ra is the spelling preferred by Budge, Re by Breasted.

9.Re-hent: the entrance to one of the great celestial canals.

10. Hapi: the Nile.

11. F. A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Dead, Open Court Publishing Co., Ltd. Chicago, 1901, Vol. 2, pp. 231-233.

12. Ibid.

13. E.A. Wallis Budge, The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians, p. 55.

14. E. A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Dead, Vol. 2, pp. 360-362.

15. J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Bible, Princeton University Press, 1950, p. 467. Translation of John A. Wilson.

16. Breasted, Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt, p. 188. The entire poem is given in translation, pp. 191-197. It is also found in Pritchard, op. cit., pp. 406-407, translated by John A. Wilson.

17.The translation is that of Alan H. Gardiner, Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage, Leipzig, 1909, pp. 9-12, passim.

18.Alan H. Gardner, op. cit., p. 13.

19.Op. cit., p. 212

20. This may be found in Sacred Books and Literature of the East, Vol. 2, on Egypt, Pp. 115-132. Also J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 407-410. Translated by John A. Wilson.

21. J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 412-414, passim. Translation of John A. Wilson.

22 The Instructions of Ani, Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 420-421, passim. Translation of John A. Wilson.

23. From The Instructions of Amen-em-Opet. Translation of John A. Wilson. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 422-424, passim.

24 Darkness by day seems to indicate that the suppliant is blind.

25 Sacred Books and Literature of the East, Vol. 2, p. 317.

26 Id., p. 323.

27. Sacred Books and Early Literature of tile East, Vol. 2, Egypt, pp. 300-305. Translation of M. Paul Guieysse.

28.Reprinted from Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt by James H. Breasted; copyright 1912 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940 by Charles Breasted; used by permission of the publishers.