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Ancient Egyptian Wisdom and Sayings
The Wisdom of Ancient Egypt
From teaching scribes to educating princes Ancient Egyptian Wisdom texts contain many gems, some profound and some humorous! Education was important to the Ancient Egyptians, especially for the middle and upper classes which included professions such as scribes, priests, officials and royalty.
The Egyptians did not have a sense of philosophy like the Greeks, there is no Egyptian word for philosopher; 'wisdom' was seen as something certain people would develop after obeying the laws of order, ma'at. The Ancient Egyptians believed that no one was born wise and everyone had to be educated about the correct way to behave.The Ancient Egyptian word for these texts was 'Sebayt' which translates as 'teachings' or 'instructions'. Most wisdom texts survive as papyrus copies of older texts, wisdom texts were often copied by scribes as practice. The genre dates from the Middle Kingdom to the Roman period, some texts such as 'The Teachings of Amenemhat I' were continuously copied for up to 1500 years.
"As for You, teach him then the sayings of the past,
so that he may become a good example for the children of the great.
May hearing enter him and
the exactness of every heart that speaks to him.
No one is born wise." The Wisdom of Ptahhotep
The Content of Ancient Egyptian Wisdom Texts
Some of the most famous wisdom texts are The Teachings of Ptahhotep , The Wisdom of Amenenope and The Instructions of Kagemni.
The Teachings of Ptahhotep are preserved on the Papyrus Prisse, which dates from the 12th dynasty of the Middle Kingdom, the papyrus is the only complete copy of the text and is now housed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, they are attributed the the 5th dynasty vizier Ptahhotep though many Ancient Egyptian texts were attributed to revered figures of the past to impart a sense of authority, it is unknown, and perhaps unlikely, whether Ptahhotep had any input on the text at all.
The majority of Ancient Egyptian wisdom texts are not just a dry instructional text but a works of literature which including poignant musings on the nature of ageing, art and life and are often quite poetic in nature, employing literary devices such as metaphors, similes and comparisons to the affirm the points made. They often contain profound statements on the nature of life, love and offer a glimpse into ancient Egyptian spiritual beliefs as well as social customs. Many of the maxims are still seen as pertinent and wise advice today such as 'Every man teaches by his deeds' (the instruction of Ptahhotep) and 'Accept that death humbles us, accept that life exalts us, the house of death is for life' ( the instructions of Hordedef) .
Excerpts from Ancient Egyptian Wisdom texts
"Be skillful in speech, that you may be strong
it is the strength of the tongue,and words are braver than all fighting;
none can circumvent the clever man a wise man is a school for the magnates,
and those who are aware of his knowledge do not attack him.
Have character, without exaggerating it
for a sensible man idleness does not happen
Silence is precise, the leveller of the arm
The heart that does what is told is the effective one
rejection of words leads to violence
there is no baggage-man raised to the audience-hall
Whoever enters into words, opens the way for hearing
there is no winnower from whom one takes advice.
Interpret words without humiliating
a mean phrase slights its sayer."
- The Teaching of a Man for his Son (Middle Kingdom)
"The instructions for well-being,
every rule for relations with elders,
for conduct toward magistrates.
Knowing how to answer one who speaks,
to reply to one who sends a message,
so as to direct him on the paths of life,
to make him prosper upon Earth,
to let his heart enter its shrine,
steering (it) clear of evil,
to save him from the mouth of strangers,
to let (him) be praised in the mouth of men."
- The Teaching of King Amenemhat I (Middle Kingdom)
"Old age has struck, age has descended,
Feebleness has arrived, weakness is here again.
Sleep is upon him in discomfort all day.
Eyes are grown small, ears deaf,
Mouth silent, unable to speak,
Heart emptied, unable to recall yesterday.
Bones ache his whole length.
Goodness has turned to evil,
All taste is gone.
What old age does to people is evil in every way.
Nose is blocked, unable to breathe,
how old (it feels) standing or sitting.
Let a staff of old age be decreed to be made for this humble servant.
Let him be told the speech of those who assess,
the advice of the ancestors once heard by the gods.
Then the same may be done for you,
strife may be removed from the populace,
and the Two Shores may toil for you."
- Teaching of Ptahhotep (middle kingdom)
Ancient Egyptian Wisdom Texts and Ordinary Egyptians
The Ancient Egyptian Wisdom Texts are primarily aimed at an elite audience, royalty, scribes and the upper classes. Did ordinary ancient Egyptians have any access to these texts and the ideas contained within them?
It is very hard to accurately estimate the percentage of Ancient Egyptian society that was literate, estimates have suggested around 1-5% of the population were literate although these figures are based on very limited evidence. There may have been difference between rural and urban populations and across time periods, famous Egyptologist Flinders Petrie studies papyri from the town of Lahun which suggested that up to 15% of the population may have been literate. The famous Egyptian Hieroglyphic system was primarily used for display purposes, everyday writing was done using simpler cursive scripts such as hieratic and demotic. We must also remember that literacy is not a black and white subject, there are different degrees of literacy, for example a well trained scribe who perfectly copies complex hieroglyphic texts and a craftsperson who can read and write simpler cursive script.
Additionally literature is not always dependent on literacy; many societies thrive on oral literacy and storytelling. Many Ancient Egyptians who could not read or write would have heard stories, poems, songs and sayings. Indeed written literature evolved as a way of writing down stories told orally. It is likely that the ideas espoused in the Ancient Egyptian Wisdom texts were known by ordinary Egyptians, whether they had access to the full texts themselves or not. The overriding concept of Ma'at and what was considered good behaviour would have been important to Ancient Egyptians of all social classes, whether or not they needed instruction on how to be a good king or not! Indeed evidence from form such as letters to the dead and personal devotional stelae of middle class workers from towns such as Dier El-Medina reflect Ancient Egyptian ideas about life and the afterlife seen in elite sources such as the wisdom texts.