The Geography of Ancient Egyptian Literature


Dr. Antonio Loprieno, received his PhD in Germany then taught in Perugia, Italy and at UCLA before accepting his current position at the University of Basal in Switzerland.

Dr. Loprieno opened the lecture by discussing how he came to his topic,
The Geography of Ancient Egyptian Literature, in the first place. He noted that for some time he has been interested in the features of Ancient Egyptian literature, and what differentiated literary and non-literary writings. He hoped through his research and analysis to identify categories of textual material that would allow him to clearly define what criteria qualified a writing as "literary" vs. "non-literary". He determined that there were two main aspects, which seemed to apply to literary discourse. 

Self or auto-referenetiality: 
He used as an example the inscriptions from Theban Tomb 60, that of Senet. The inscription contains a top register of many lines of text written vertically, then a mid-register of two lines of text written horizontally, and finally a lower register with a relief carving of harp players. The two lines inserted in the middle are typical funerary text. The upper register, however is written in what is known as "cursive hieroglyphs" - sort of half way between hieroglyphs and heiratic, and has nothing whatever to do with the funerary text. In fact it contains a hymn to the goddess Hathor - perhaps Senet was close to the goddess. What is important to Dr. Loprieno's theory, however, is that it is of a completely different nature than and context from the funerary register and refers to the something important in the life of the deceased - thus, self-referential.

Inter-textuality:
Egyptian texts were copied and translated over millennia, such that the documents themselves became a history of the reading of the text. Comparing the same texts as they were written at different periods provides not only a history of the changes in the language, but also a record of changes in the world-view of Egyptians. The translation in one era may be quite different in another depending on what was going on in Egypt and the world at the time.

Dr. Loprieno noted that when studying these ancient texts it is important to keep in mind that these are concepts that relate to current literature, for there is no way to prove that self-referentiality or inter-textuality were, in fact, mechanism that existed in the ancient cultures. They are modern devices for explaining a phenomena used by today's scholars.

He advised the audience that when he approached a noted scholar of literature with his theory, the scholar didn't think it was particularly pertinent, thus Dr. Loprieno determined to pursue an different approach. This new approach is the context of his lecture. His new approach to analysis of texts involves looking for "signs" about the culture, which the text doesn't concentrate on, but that give insights into the universe or society as it existed for the ancient writer, such as the presence of geographical signs. Where does the protagonist go; does the protagonist come home; etc.? The first of several signs evaluated involve detecting whether the protagonist travels nationally or internationally, is at home or abroad, is near of far, etc.

Dr. Loprieno discussed briefly, Franco Moretti's theory about European literature. Moretti theorizes that European literature of the Medieval period is topographical, where modern literature is geographical. Medieval literature is constructed elegantly with well-organized patterns - such as we see in fables. Modern literature has lost this elegance and organization, and can be called geographical. Old folk tales have no geography - just topography; since the 18th century [modern literature], we see complex geography, but not topography.

Dr. Loprieno set himself the task of seeing if Moretti's theory applies to Ancient Egyptian literature as well, and found that in Ancient Egypt the literature begins with geography and ends up with topography. The oldest of the Egyptian literary texts, from the Old Kingdom are autobiographical texts. They feature an idealized presentation of the moral qualities of the deceased along with a biography of his accomplishments, such as appears in the biography of Harkhuf. Such biographies are presented as journeys to a foreign land even though they all take place in Egypt itself. The traveler never passes a border in his travels, nor leaves the confines of Egypt. His life is considered as a journey which proceeds horizontally. Egypt is typically presented as being of higher status than foreign countries, which therefore need to be explored and opened or destroyed. For example, Elephantine, at Aswan was known to Egyptians from the earliest times, yet it was still considered a "foreign land" because of it's distance from the heart of Egypt [Heliopolis]. The same was true of the oases. Whether the journey is wholly within Egypt or in a foreign land it is based on practical experience.

This horizontal aspect to stories changes over time. In the narrative tales of the Middle Kingdom, including the
Tale of Sinhue, The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, and the story of The Shipwrecked Sailor, we see these changes. The Eloquent Peasant lived in the Wadi Natrun, and on his way to "Egypt" he is harassed by an official as he nears Memphis. He complains to the king. At the end of the story, the peasant is satisfied and the evil doer is punished. Likewise, Sinhue flees to the Libyan desert when he learns that the king had died, then crosses back into Egypt, crossing the Nile near the location where the Eloquent Peasant was harassed, and travels east to Asia. As he enters the deserts of the Sinai his thirst is extreme, and he notes that because of his thirst [and allegorically his departure from Egypt] he "tastes death". The shipwrecked sailor is sailing in the Red Sea and has passed below Nubia - thus also out of "Egypt". In each case there is a clear opposition between a "center" and a "residence". Each journey is from the periphery to the center. Dr. Loprieno referred to this basic feature of these tales as "centrifugal geography", and noted the important role played by the passage through a "border". At each "border" the protagonist meets a frontier that must be overcome, not just passed. Each "border" is the occasion of a liminal experienced for the traveler. The stories thus convey a concept of hierarchical vs. horizontal space. Egypt is seen as a nation, and the fictional journeys overlap the borders of the whole known world.

Dr. Loprieno noted that a comparison of texts helps to illustrate the changes that occurred over time. In the earliest manuscripts of the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, we find the hieroglyphic determinative for a foreign land , when the cities such as Medinet are referred to. By the 12th Dynasty that determinative has been replace with the determinative for a city. Dr. Loprieno suggested that such determinative changes may relate to the political changes that occurred in Egypt during the reign of Sesostris III, when power became more centralized and cities had less autonomy.

Dr. Loprieno's research has found striking relationships between what happened with Egyptian literature and what happened in European literature at a much later time. Middle Kingdom fiction shows an emergence of proto-nationalism paired with a question of hierarchical authority - the emergence, as it were, of a form of national conscience.

During the Rameside period literature is more centrifugal, more away from the center. An example is the
Tale of the Doomed Prince. The protagonist is abroad, not in Egypt, and the story is a bit like a historical novel from Europe. When the Doomed Prince goes to Egypt he "finds himself in Egypt", though we have not details as to locals. Lines are replaced by points as the actions shifts from place to place.

This structure changes again at the end of the Rameside period as we see in
The Report of Wenamun. The determinatives that follow the names of the locations where Wenamun stops often contain both the hieroglyph for a foreign land and the hieroglyph for a city - determinatives that are in opposition to each other. In Papyrus Pushkin 127, the Tale of Wermy, a man is banned from his home and spends his time in the great oasis, Khunmut, which is written with a city determinative.

Dr. Loprieno postulated that the use of both determinatives indicates an Egyptianization of these spots. He noted that this is a literary mode only and is found only in literature - never in other types of writing. The center had become abroad and there is a neutralization between Egypt and the foreign country. Also, there is a revival of linguistics. These approaches change again in the late Egyptian texts, such as those from the Persian period, for example, the
Bentresh Stela. The king is now the protagonist and his name is a fictional name derived from merging parts of the names of two kings. The story involves the fictional journey of a statue of Khonsu to Bahktan, which is also a fictional place, made up of a little of Iran, a little of Hatti, etc. The statue is in Naharin [modern day Iraq], it is in Thebes, it is in Bahktar - with both a foreign land and city determinative after each location name, which now become signs of fictionality.

The last text Dr. Loprieno discussed is but a scrap of a papyrus written in hieratic, the
Papyrus Londiga, written in the 26th or 27th Dynasty. In this text all temples in Egypt [a conglomeration of many temples] and Memphis are designated with city determinatives. The West [the Netherworld], however, is designated by both a foreign land and a city determinatives. In the papyrus, the king is plagued by a disease that could only healed if someone volunteered to visit the god in the Netherworld. The Netherworld is presented as a sort of huge temple.

In summary, Egyptian literature represents two millennia of change. In the Old Kingdom we had biographical literature; in the Middle Kingdom, classical tales. Finally in the late periods completely imaginary geography. Egypt's literature was gradually divorced from Egypt as a political entity and became pure literature. This transition and evolution goes back to The Shipwrecked Sailor and finally peaks in the Late Period with Demotic literature when it shares many rhetorical devices.

Nancy Corbin

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