World Poetry Project: The Cannibal King

The Cannibal Hymn, ca.2180 BCE

Ancient Egypt is remembered for its great monuments, its claims to eternity, insofar as the eternity of human constructions are measured. The pyramids and the sphinx pre-existed the glory of Greece, the grandeur of Rome, Jesus Christ, Mohammad, and remain today in a strange serenity, as about them Egypt changes again, new Crusades are initiated, and mummies are lost in Cairo. However, Ancient Egypt was not a sterile land of immortals and eternities. It was, at times, contentious and divided. Dynasties blossomed and deteriorated. There were wars and disasters. The monuments make claims to which the people were not equal, as all monuments do.

The Cannibal Hymn is a strange piece on its own and juxtaposed against the Ancient Egypt we think we know. Translated forWorld Poetryby Tony and Willis Barnstone, its claims to power and supremacy are bold and uncompromising, framed in a language of consumption, of devouring, that gained it it's title. The Cannibal King is not the Pharaoh of the New Kingdom in smiling serenity.

The sky is a dark bowl, the stars die and fall.

The celestial bows quiver,

the bones of the earthgods shake and planets come to a halt

when they sight the king in all his power,

the god who feeds on his father and eats his mother.

The ascension of the dead king disturbs the heavenly order: the stars die and fall, the planets halt before him. What separates him from the other gods is that which he has consumed, his father and his mother, the power of his parents augmenting his own, so that he is greater than a single god who devours none.

The king is such a tower of wisdom

even his mother can't discern his name.

The name is important, and knowing the proper name of a thing, god, or man, gives one power over it. Thus, in Egyptian legend Isis gained power over Re when he was forced to reveal his secret name to her so that she could cure him of a bite received from her magic serpent. The name was not separated from the nature of the thing, but when the name was true it was the nature of the thing named. This is one reason for the multiplication of names applied to pharaohs and gods in ancient Egypt: all the names openly spoken and written down were approximations, more or less true of the man or the god in a given relationship, but were not the true name, the name by which he could be controlled. The king in his wisdom is unknown to his own mother; he is free of her control.

His glory is in the sky, his strength lies in the horizon

like that of his father the sungod Atum who conceived him.

Atum conceived the king,

but the dead king has greater dominion.

His vital spirits surround him,

his qualities lie below his feet,

he is cloaked in gods and cobras coil on his forehead.

The king's divine paternity is established: he is the son of Atum. Immediately, however, he is proclaimed more powerful than Atum, whom according to an earlier line he has devoured. Here he wears other gods as a cloak and is crowned in cobras. The child has surpassed the father.

His guiding snakes decorate his brow

and peer into souls,

ready to spit fire against his enemies.

The cobra of the pharoanic crown are revealed here as his protectors and guides. They are more than decoration; they are powerful weapons, acting in their own agency but in service to the king. They fight his enemies and have ability to see into souls.

The king's head is on his torso.

He is the bull of the sky

who charges and vanquishes all.

He lives on the stuff of the gods,

he feeds on their limbs and entrails,

even when they have bloated their bodies with magic

at Nesisi, the island of fire.

The king is whole: his head is on his torso. He is not mutilated or dismembered. He is complete, and his power is complete. The other gods are not whole. They are food for the king. They have no defense against him.

He cooks the leftover gods into a bone soup.

Their souls belong to him

and their shadows as well.

In his pyramid among those who live on the earth of Egypt

the dead king ascends and appears

forever and ever.

The king does not only eat the limbs and entrails of the gods. He does not waste them like that. He makes their bones into soup and devours the whole of them. He consumes them, and they belong to him. He is the most powerful of the gods after his death. And he remains in contact with the living at his pyramid in eternal appearance and ascension. So long as his image remains, he is powerful on earth as well as in the abode of the gods.

This hymn is from the end of the Old Kingdom. It is the reflection not of an all-powerful pharaoh, but of a pharaoh in decline, whose power on earth was deteriorating, taken over by nobles and priests to whom that power had over the years been delegated. The pharaoh might not rule Egypt anymore, at least not the whole of it and certainly with nothing approaching absolutism, but he could still devour the gods and hope for eternal power on the other side of death.

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