Translated Ancient Egyptian texts reveal family disputes and domestic concerns, just like modern times

translated-ancient-egyptian-texts-toby-wilkinson_1A part of the 'Book of the Dead' funerary text.

In contrast to their ancient Greek and Roman counterparts, the ancient Egyptian texts are generally not accessible to the public, on account of lack of translated works. But a Cambridge academic and Egyptologist, Toby Wilkinson has sought to redress this ‘historical’ issue, with his compiled work that translates many of the hieroglyphic writings (from rock faces and papyri) into modern English. In that regard, while ancient Egypt tends to fuel our reveries of massive pyramids, monumental temples and ostentatious pharaohs, Wilkinson’s work reflects the more relatable ‘humane’ side of affairs in the ‘land of the Nile’. Simply put, beyond grand facades, his translations mirror how the ancient Egyptians viewed life and expressed their insights (and tribulations) through their rich tradition of writing for over 3,500 years.

As Wilkinson made it clear –

What will surprise people are the insights behind the well-known facade of ancient Egypt, behind the image that everyone has of the pharaohs, Tutankhamun’s mask and the pyramids.

For example, one of the translation collections, titled aptly as The Will of Naunakht, tells the story of an elderly Egyptian woman and her will. Reflecting the relatively high social and economic status of most free women in Egyptian society, Naunakht decided how not all of her eight children would be recipients of her estate. In other words, some of the children were disinherited due to their lack of caring shown to her in her old age. From the historical angle, Naunakht probably lived in Thebes during the late New Kingdom period, and she was married twice – first to a scribe and then to a tomb worker. Her last will was drawn in November of 1147 BC. A part of it proudly reads –

As for me, I am a free woman of the land of Pharaoh. I brought up these eight servants of yours and gave them a household – everything as is customarily done for those of their standing. But, look, I am grown old and, look, they do not care for me in turn. Whichever of them has given me a hand, to him will I give of my property; whichever has not, to him will I not give my property.

Interestingly enough, the will reflects a parent’s concern for her children, especially when it comes to monetary over-spending. A segment from the will presents her displeasure directed at one of her sons –

And as for my copper cauldron which I gave to him to buy bread for himself and the copper tool […] and the copper vase […] and the copper adze […] – they shall comprise his share. He shall not share in any further copper; it shall go to his brothers and sisters.

Even more intriguing is the fact that Naunakht clearly chose her favorite among the heirs, while showing no pretension about it. To that end, she directly mentions in her will how one of her children would additionally receive a copper bowl and ten sacks of emmer (type of hulled wheat). She also gives a grave warning to the potential candidates who might contest the will in the future (after her death), by advocating the punishment of ‘hundred blows’ and the forfeiture of their entire property received from her.


An example of hieroglyphic writing.

Beyond family disputes Wilkinson’s translated works also covers the scope of everyday domestic concerns faced by ordinary Egyptians. Harking back to a period even 800 years before Naunakht, one of the translated collections pertains to letters written by a farmer named Heqanakht (circa 1930 BC). He writes to his steward (back home) – “be extra dutiful in cultivating. Watch out that my barley-seed is guarded.” The farmer also voices his concern regarding how the housemaid is being aggressive to his wife, and asks the steward to take some action – “You are the one who lets her do bad things to my wife…Enough of it!”

On the other hand, some of the translated collections also present the literary ambit of ancient Egyptians; a few of which fuse fantastical elements with a humane story. One example pertains to The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, in which a monstrous snake with its body “fashioned in gold, his eyebrows in real lapis lazuli”, is the ruler of a magical island. Instead of devouring the shipwrecked protagonist, the giant serpent rather shares its poignant tragedy and encourages the sailor to face his difficulties –

I was here with my brothers and my children…we totalled 75 snakes…Then a star fell and they were consumed in flames…If you are brave and your heart is strong, you will embrace your children, you will kiss your wife and you will see your house.

And beyond poignancy there is philosophy, as The Teaching of Ani (written in 16th century BC), presents its fair share of wisdom from ancient Egypt –

Man perishes; his corpse turns to dust; all his relatives pass away. But writings make him remembered in the mouth of the reader.

So given the wide spectrum of ‘human’ avenues ranging from disputes to wisdom, suffice it to say, Toby Wilkinson’s translated work titled Writings from Ancient Egypt covers a fascinating ambit of ancient Egyptian insights. Touted as the the first literary English translation that elucidates rare texts from Egyptian monuments and tomb walls, the compilation is already published (by Penguin Classics) in Great Britain, while being expected to make its debut in America by January of next year.

Sources (for the article): TheGuardian / SmithsonianMag / Ancient-Origins

  • Tim Spicer

    I may disagree with some of that translation, around 1147 BC an asteroid exploded over Egypt, creating some of the first (oldest) glass bobbles we discovered, as well as recently an iron dagger (made of meteorite metals) was discovered. it may well be possible that the meteorite killed a lot of people too. (if snakes represent people). The meteorite did not hit the earth, it exploded right above the desert not to far from inhabited places..

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