The Egyptian King in Narrative Texts

Dr. Antonio Loprieno, who is a member of the faculty at the University of California at Los Angeles, is an authority in Ancient Egyptian and Afro-Asiatic linguistics. He published an book on Ancient Egyptian linguistics in 1995. His special interest is literature. Dr. Loprieno is the editor of Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Form.

Dr. Loprieno spoke to the students and faculty of the Near Eastern Languages Department in early December, 1997. He opened his lecture by noting that the recent trend in the study of Egyptian literature has concentrated on what constitutes literary vs. religious writings. He defined literary texts as those in which the object of interest is a specific event but that is not the case in non-literary writing.

He suggested that there are four categories of universal beings reflected in Egyptian thought: a. Gods; b. Spirits; c. Kings; d. People. These four categories represent four explicit entities in the minds of the ancients, with proper characteristics for each:

These categories emerge as distinct shapes of beings and can be juxtaposed stereotypically with each other.

Kings in literary writing appear most often in a category of text known as The Royal Tale. It is a not a category that is easy to identify based on what it has been written on, or the content - some are narrative; some appear to be religious, but a common thread is that the king is ALWAYS the protagonist. These tales are presented as standardized events but in great detail, and different types of things form the basis of the event described.

At the end of the Middle Kingdom the first of the Royal Tale genre appeared. The Nefer-hotep Stela from Abydos is a prime example in which the supreme quality of the king is displayed in his being a better scribe than the other scribes. The period just before the end of the Middle Kingdom was a great period for the emergence of classic literature as it is filled with writings about "excellent" individuals - those who are loyal to the king and his administration and is a characteristic of the Middle Kingdom. This "excellence" is transferred to the king in the Neferhotep stela . This is not the type of king we find in other periods of Egyptian history.

In Dynasty 18 texts the king is a great builder or renewer of monuments. This is the period of the emergence of Egyptian "history". The experience with the Hyksos motivates all the kings of Egypt throughout the 18th Dynasty, to Thutmosis III. Thus the king is a builder and renewer of monuments versus the intellectual king of the Middle Kingdom.

The Ramesside king is the "thoughtful hero". The king is presented, wearing his crown, surrounded by his courtiers, debating a problem with them. They, however, are not as bright as the king, so the king ultimately solves the problem by enforcing his own plan or solution. The events involved relate to the well-being of individuals which is a departure from the two prior models. That the king as a thoughtful king whose predominate concern is with his people is a major change in form from earlier times. Dr. Loprieno suggested that this form may be viewed as a means for facilitating the king's own agenda, but in a different manner than in earlier times. In fact, one perception is that the Egyptians didn't really have a literature, for it was normal for there to be distrust of the aristocracy so writings were in reality political with underlying aspects of propaganda.

Prior to the Amarna period, religion was a ritual affair for the most part and little is known about the personal beliefs of individuals. In Dynasty 19, for the first time, personal prayers of individuals to their god(s) appear; e.g. "...took council with his own heart...". The kings of Dynasty 19 are seen as pious, thoughtful and concerned for the well-being of their people. The literary texts which survive from this period relate to specific events, but each is of different nature.

Some texts survive from the Late Period but are difficult to date. Some may be datable based on the content of the story. Though the king is the protagonist he is not a contemporary king, but one from the past. Many such stories survive in which Ramses II is the main character.

The king as priest is also a presentation form in Late Period Royal Tales. The king was always presented as a priest throughout Egyptian history, but the presentation was always cosmological. In the Late Period the king is presented as one who cannot alone do something, but must rely on the help of a god(s). There is a retreat from a presentation of the king as a majestic and self-bombastic entity, so such characteristics are projected to earlier kings. Surviving Late Period Royal Tales are exemplified by the "Famine Stela", which is attributed to King Djoser, however the stela was carved in the Ptolemaic period. The king is presented as the voice of the god and a pure priest.

Thus the study of literature is related to the study of history in a global way. The most typical characteristic of literary texts about humans is that they tell of fictional events, and are more fantastic and universal. Literary texts about kings refer to very specific, episodic events.

  • Nancy Corbin
For a membership packet either write
ARCE Northern California Chapter
P.O. Box 11352
Berkeley, CA 94712-2352

or email Membership Director, Betty Bussey

Contact Joan Knudsen by email at for further information on ARCE/NC events or by mail at P.O. Box 11352, Berkeley, CA., 94704-2352.

Return to Archives

Return to Homepage

Page Design and Content by Al Berens. All Rights Reserved
Copyright 2001 by Suredesign Graphics