EP 003: From Egypt, With Love

EP 003: FROM EGYPT, WITH LOVE Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What's the secret to a happy life in Ancient Egypt? These ancient words might be one of history's best (and best kept) secrets. In this episode, we dive into songs and poems that feel as fresh as a stiff Nile breeze. 

Ancient Egypt is, in many ways, so symbolic of the ancient world that it pops up in our mind’s eye if someone so much as mentions the word history. And as a result of that, or maybe because of that, Ancient Egypt itself becomes reduced to a set of symbolic images. If you close your eyes and think of it, chances are that hundreds of us are thinking of the same five or six things. Pyramids, pharaohs, mummies and sarcophaguses, hieroglyphics, and maybe some artwork showing angular and very stylized profiles of nobles and rulers. If you were really lucky and had a great history teacher, or dope parents with a good sense of humour, you might have a little more to choose from here – maybe some of the sprawling, slightly incestuous stories about the gods, or clay jars filled with preserved organs, and the metal hooks that coerced them out of their former homes. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with having these pictures in your head, nor even with being completely fascinated with this side of Ancient Egyptian life. The trouble is, for many people, this remains the only side, with the result this entire, ancient culture takes on the same two dimensional qualities as the profiles of the pharaohs painted on papyrus.

Often what we forget – and the further back we go, the more fully we seem to forget it – that history is populated by people. That sounds crazy, but bear with me. If I type the type the words ‘was henry’ – just those two words, nothing more, 3 out of 8 suggestions are some version of ‘was Henry VIII a good man/ a good king/ a nice person etc.’ And you can try that combo out with a number of historical figures. It’s a not completely unenjoyable way to spend (slash waste) your time – provided, of course, you know that you’re never getting that time back.

The point is that we very describe our friends or family members – people we actually know – in such simplistic terms, because we understand that flesh and blood people are never really all good or all bad. They’re just people. And I think that’s the mistake we make, when we look back at the past – we paint in these really broad brush strokes that don’t leave very much room for the complexities of the human experience. We know that the Ancient Egyptians had highly ritualized ceremonies of death, but don’t very often think about them lying in bed as children, dreaming of what their lives might be. We forget that we aren’t the only ones who have a favourite drink, a favourite song, or two left feet at weddings. They had an uncle they liked, and a cousin they didn’t, and told bad jokes after too many drinks. And if we can try not to make that mistake, we suddenly find that the whole world of history comes alive for us, because it’s suddenly filled with millions of first steps, first kisses, first days at work.

Now whatever your views about art may be, this is where art in all its forms can be super handy. But for me, the sculptures and paintings of the Ancient Egyptians don’t quite get us laymen there – they’re too impervious, too austere.

Words are not, because words – if you can translate them – make a tenuous bridge to living history. Of course, they have to be translated, and naturally things do get lost in translation, but even with these mistakes, you suddenly fill the pages of history with voices that don’t sound too dissimilar to ours. And some of this Ancient Egyptian literature is, in my view, among the greatest lost treasures of the ancient world.

Many of these books and poems and songs were written during the New Kingdom, which stretched from 1539 to 1075 BCE. As Richard Parkinson, an Egyptologist involved in one of the translation projects puts it “People tend to assume all ancient Egyptian writing is religious, so the secular nature of these songs and of much other poetry continues to surprise readers.”

For example, a lot of what has been found is love poetry, and these writers use a lot of poetic technique that would be immediately recognizable today, to anyone who paid attention in their poetry classes – which, I know, is optimistic. 

One of my favourites – an excerpt from a longer poem called The Flower Song – captures that universal feeling of being caught up in the first wave of new love, when you think that nothing else exists and nothing else matters:

To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me:

I draw life from hearing it.

Could I see you with every glance,

It would be better for me

Than to eat or to drink.

Now of course, nobody can live on love alone, but that’s what makes this so beautiful – hearing voices from more than three thousand years ago speaking about that intoxicating feeling of falling in love.

And speaking of things that stretch back, another one of these poems just proves that we’ve always wanted what we can’t have! The chap in this poem fancies the girl next door, but unfortunately in Ancient Egypt, the girl next door is sometimes also the girl on the opposite side of the Nile:

I love a girl, but she lives over there,

On the far side of the river,

A whole Nile in flood rages between,

With a crocodile hunched on the sand.

Now whether or not all these love affairs had happy endings, we can’t know. But some of them must have had.  And then, to paraphrase Tolkien, whether by the crocodile hunched in the sand or the slow march of time, they would have ended, and one partner would be left behind. We think of the Ancient Egyptians as not only reverential about death, but almost obsessed with it, and that of course isn’t actually true. And whatever your views about a next life, the living are still left behind to grieve and to mourn, and to miss the people who have gone on. In a coffin inscription from the 21st Dynasty, we get a very poignant insight into how universal and timeless grief is, no matter how ancient the culture. Here, a husband says of his wife:

Woe, you have been taken from me, the one with the beautiful face; there was none like her and I found nothing bad about you.

Now judging by the sounds of things, that was a pretty happy marriage, so if you’re looking for some tips, you’ve come to the right place. The Egyptian sage Ani left behind a great deal of wisdom, and one of his gems is basically a slight more elaborate version of ‘happy wife, happy life’:

Don’t boss your wife in her own house when you know she is efficient, he says. Don’t keep saying to her `Where is it? Bring it to me!’ especially when you know it is in the place where it ought to be!

So there you go – if you’re spending your Thursday nights down the pub because your partner leaves their socks on the floor and doesn’t hang up the towels – you’re not alone. In fact you’re part of a timeless tradition stretching back centuries, of partners driving each other absolutely nuts. At least you can listen to this podcast while you make yourself a sandwich to eat on the spare couch.

Of course, when we talk about ancient Egyptian writing we naturally think of hieroglyphics, those incredibly detailed and complex – and exquisite – rows of pictures that form various sounds. They’re not actually a pictorial system in the sense that each word does not, actually, mean the thing that it is. So a picture of a bird, for example, is not the word for bird, and so on. Rather each hieroglyph denotes a particular sound. We’ll talk about this in more detail in an upcoming episode, but the thing to know here is that a great many of these poems and songs were not actually written in hieroglyphs, but in hieratic script. Hieratic is like the shorthand, cursive version of hieroglyphs, and it makes sense that that would be the form here, because hieroglyphs are so time consuming to produce that your love might have pegged it by the time you’d finished composing your Valentine -life could, after all, be very short in these days.

And that, in fact, is the subject of a very beautiful song inscribed on a tomb, which might remind you either of Robert Frost – “Be  happy, happy, happy, And seize the day of pleasure” – or  Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society – “Sieze the day, boys”.

This is the Harper’s Song at the Tomb of Inherkhawy. I’m going to use an excerpt from the Translation by J.L. Foster in “Echoes of Egyptian Voices”, but you should definitely look for the full poem – its freely available on the net.

As we’ve said already, we think of so many Ancient cultures as worrying more about the afterlife than the current life, and the Egyptians more than most, and this poem reminds us that humans – all humans – are capable of a deep and fundamental joy in the simple fact of being alive:

The busy fluttering souls and bright transfigured spirits

who people the world below

and those who shine in the stars with Orion,

They built their mansions, they built their tombs

and all men rest in the grave.

The waters flow north, the wind blows south,

and each man goes to his hour.

So, seize the day! Hold holiday!

Be unwearied, unceasing, alive,

you and your own true love;

Let not your heart be troubled

during your sojourn on earth,

but seize the day as it passes!

Put incense and sweet oil upon you,

garlanded flowers at your breast,

While the lady alive in your heart forever

delights as she sits beside you.

Grieve not your heart, whatever comes;

let sweet music play before you;

Recall not the evil, loathsome to God,

but have joy, joy, joy, and pleasure!

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