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World Poetry Project: The Harper's Song of Inherkhawy

Updated on December 16, 2011
Rameses III confronts Isis, Valley of the Queens, Egypt
Rameses III confronts Isis, Valley of the Queens, Egypt

It is time for me to move away from the present and into the past, perhaps finding by this route a way back into the present in a better frame of mind than I currently possess. So, I return to my World Poetry project with this, "The Harper's Song for Inherkhawy" as translated by John L. Foster, a scholar and researcher associated with the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and former professor of American literature at Roosevelt University. Dr. Foster died this year at the age of 81 after bringing the poetry of ancient Egypt into modern language so that we, the readers not of hieroglyphs but of twenty-first century American English, could enjoy it. Thank you Dr. Foster.

The Harper's Song comes, as much Egyptian literature does, from a tomb. This tomb is not that of a pharaoh, however, but of a foreman in charge of the workmen of the royal necropolis. It is found at Dayr al-Madina where Inherkhawy was titled "Foreman of the Lord of Two Lands in the Place of Truth" during the rights of Rameses III and into the reign of Rameses IV. His tomb is officially noted as TT359. We even know the names of two of the artists who decorated the tomb, the brothers Nebnefer and Hori.

The harpist's song begins with a frank recognition of mortality and the replacement of the old by the young: "young blood mounts to their place." The first half of the poem is about just this, the certainty of death: "They built their mansion, they built their tombs--and all men rest in the grave." The metaphor of construction runs throughout the first section of the poem: the living build their homes for their living bodies, tombs for their corpses, and the tomb is also a home, a physical space to be inhabited, as acts are bricks for building a pleasant space in the West, the afterlife.

This first section ends with a beautiful couplet:

"The waters flow north, the wind blows south,

and each man goes to his hour."

Dr. Foster once wrote, "The two great hindrances to any proper appreciation of the literature and civilization of ancient Egypt are the Bible and the glory that was Greece". As readers we must be mindful of our education in the Western tradition, lest we carry those habits of thought and interpretation into this poem, which mentions things of universal interest, mortality and the proper way of living, but have a separate cultural context from similar statements on these realities that we know better. The Harpist Song recognizes mortality, but without fear, without the malaise that often accompanies such recognition in Western literature. This difference in culture is clear when we move from the first to the second section of the poem, which includes a sentiment common to Western literature, but deployed in a far different key.

The second section of the Harper's Song is a command to seize the day. It directs you to live the day you have been gifted, not in private celebration, but in public, with your lover-wife, music, recalling the good done and the pleasures you have, before the God. There is the suggestion in this public display of joy that the gods are pleased by the pleasure of man, perhaps such joy being proper gratitude in creatures for the gift of life. That the gift ends, that it is not immortality, does not prevent it from being a precious gift which would be ruined and turned to ash by ingratitude, by dwelling on evil and ignoring good.

"Let your heart be drunk on the gift of Day

until that day comes when you anchor".

We can compare this celebration of the life granted to statements with similar themes, but a far darker context. Ecclesiastes and Isaiah of the Old Testament have given us the sentiment, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die ", which places mortality in the position of an immediate fact, a darkness before which celebration plays as defiance, not gratitude. Much later in Western literature, we get Charles Baudelaire's "Be Drunken" which celebrates intoxication as the only available escape from the reality of mortality: "If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time weigh you down and crush you to the earth, be drunken continually ".

Both these examples of the Western tradition of partying before death are not so much acceptance of mortality as they are defiance of it, or despair. The Egyptian view presented in the Harper's Song is far more gracious: there is death, but before that, and precious, is life which must be lived, enjoyed. A life well lived becomes a consecration of itself; living becomes a sacred act of gratitude and honor to the gods who provide it. Every good thing in life, remembered and re-presented to the gods in the recalling of it, adds to the gift that is the Day given to a man upon the earth.

I feel better already.

The Tomb of Inherkau


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    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thank you for your kind and encouraging words after looking at some of my Hubs. And I will keep reading. :)

    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      In this particular project I have to work through various gaps in my own knowledge. I love history, but this has not gifted me with a universal grasp of everything and every culture. Some periods and cultures, even figures within particular cultures and epochs, are easier for me to access than others.

      I am glad that you are enjoying my work. Keep reading.

      Egyptian culture in particular presents problems for me, although I find it at some levels fascinating, especially in the reality the ancient egyptians gave to signs and symbols, to writing itself as a creation act.

      Thank you for your comment.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Goon Hub- I was not familiar with this particular work or with Dr. Foster. Your summary and insights about Egyptian literature and history are very helpful.

      And as much as I value and respect the influence of the Bible/Christianity and Classical Greece in the Western tradition, I think you are right, they are not necessarily helpful in understanding and interpreting Egyptian literature. Very nice work.