A fragment of pale limestone covered with hieratic script in black ink.

Page turners: literature in ancient Egypt

By Ilona Regulski, Curator of Egyptian Written Culture

Publication date: 19 January 2023

Discover fantastical stories and biting satires as Ilona Regulski introduces us to the varied world of ancient Egyptian literature.


Despite the ground-breaking decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822, the literature of ancient Egypt was not recognised until a few decades later. The belief that hieroglyphic or handwritten texts from ancient Egypt were either historical or sacred persisted and hindered a full appreciation of ancient literary pieces. The Tale of the Two Brothers on Papyrus d'Orbiney was the first text described as 'literature' by modern Egyptologists in 1852. The French Egyptologist Emmanuel de Rougé (1811–72) referred to the Tale as 'the first sample of Egyptian genius in a purely literary genre' and 'a work of pure imagination'. The papyrus was purchased by Elizabeth d'Orbiney, who sold the papyrus to the British Museum in 1857. 

A mid-brown papyrus with lines of hieratic script in black ink.
The Tale of the Two Brothers, also known as Papyrus d'Orbiney, Egypt, 19th Dynasty, about 1215 BC.

Tale of the Two Brothers

The Tale of the Two Brothers (and a flirtatious wife) features two semi-divine protagonists and their adventures. It begins by presenting an idyllic household consisting of Anubis, his wife and his brother, Bata. Their pleasant lifestyle is disrupted when the wife of Anubis unsuccessfully tries to seduce her brother-in-law. Upset by the humiliation of his refusal, she claims that Bata attacked her. Believing his wife, Anubis initially turns against his brother and forces him to leave the family. Anubis later discovers his wife's disloyalty and kills her, and the brothers are reunited. Meanwhile the gods have fashioned a wife for Bata. Unfortunately she rejects him in favour of the king. To win her over Bata assumes a sequence of different forms, the last being a Persea tree. Bata's wife orders the tree to be cut down. A splinter from the tree flies into her mouth, 'she swallowed it and in a moment she became pregnant'. Bata is reborn, now as her son, and becomes king of Egypt. He elevates his brother, Anubis, to succeed him, overcoming the catastrophes that had beset the pair. The story has variously been interpreted as a fairy tale, a historical allegory and a political satire. Highly entertaining and sophisticated, the tale is one of the most famous Egyptian compositions that became popular in New Kingdom Egypt (1550–1070 BC). The papyrus is also unique in attributing authorship to the scribe Inena. 

Teaching and preserving memory

Achieving long-lasting fame was a hallmark of greatness, though authorship was rarely attributed in pre-classical antiquity. One of the texts from a private library at the village of Deir el-Medina near present-day Luxor commemorates eight 'great' authors of the past. These learned scribes were said to have foretold the future and their sublime writings caused them to be remembered:

Is there any here like Hordedef? Is there another like Imhotep? There have been none among our family like Neferti and Khety, their leader. Let me remind you the names of Ptahemdjedhuty and Khakheperreseneb. Is there another like Ptahhotep or Kaires?

Some of the scribes mentioned are well-known from other sources, especially from so-called Teachings or Instructions. These are didactic works, mostly ascribed to famous sages, which discuss general matters of life and moral principles in the form of short sayings and warnings. The Teachings vary in their tone and didactic emphasis, one of the most exhortatory being the Loyalist Instruction of Kaires.  His Teaching stresses the dependence of the elite on their servants and subordinates: field-labourers should not be overworked lest they run away; a harsh master ultimately undermines his own prosperity. 

A fragment of pale limestone covered with hieratic script in black ink.
Limestone ostracon with a version of the Loyalist Teaching of Kaires, Deir el-Medina, Egypt, 19th to 20th Dynasty, 1295–1096 BC. 

Teachings 2

Such older literary works, written in Middle Egyptian (the language of the Middle Kingdom, around 2055 to 1650 BC, which became the classical language for writing literature and poetry), were studied in schools from about 1500 BC onwards. Part of the training scribes received consisted of copying parts of real or model documentary and literary texts written in hieratic, a handwritten version of hieroglyphs. Scribes thus preserved the written memory of Egypt by copying, reinterpreting and reworking revered pieces of literature. As a result, multiple copies of the same literary pieces have survived. The exhibition Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt displays no less than nine versions of the Teaching of Khety in the British Museum collection alone. Three versions have survived on papyrus rolls, whereas six ostraca (inscribed pieces of pottery or limestone chips) reveal different parts of the same text.

In the Teaching of Khety, Khety escorts his son to the capital of Egypt where his son is to be admitted to the scribal school. The work is also known as the Satire of the Trades because Khety mocks all other professions in favour of the scribal one in order to convince his son to become a scribe:

The potter is covered with earth, although his lifetime is still among the living. He burrows in the field more than swine to bake his cooking vessels. His clothes being stiff with mud, his headcloth consists (only) of rags, so that the air which comes forth from his burning furnace enters his nose. He operates a pestle with his feet, with which he himself is pounded, penetrating the courtyard of every house and driving (earth) into (every) open place. I shall also describe to you the like of the mason-bricklayer. His kidneys are painful. When he must be outside in the wind, he lays bricks without a loin cloth. His belt is a cord for his back, a string for his buttocks. His strength has vanished through fatigue and stiffness, kneading all his excrement. He eats bread with his fingers, although he washes himself but once a day.

Five limestone fragments mounted on stands against a black background. Black text is visible on the fragments.
Limestone ostraca with versions of the Teaching of Khety, on display in Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt.   

Tale of Sinuhe

One of the finest works of ancient Egyptian literature still being adapted for the stage today is the fictional Tale of Sinuhe. While on expedition to Libya, the royal official Sinuhe learns of King Amenemhat I's assassination and flees to Upper Retenu (Palestine). Leaving Egypt behind around 1875 BC, Sinuhe became an important local chief fighting many rebellions successfully but here, as an old man, he prays for a return to his homeland. Despite a successful career abroad, Sinuhe remains restless until he is allowed to return home. Perhaps the most famous reception of the Tale can be seen in the work of modern Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006), who produced a romantically evocative rewriting, Sinuhe, as a short story in 1942. 

A fragment of pale limestone covered with hieratic script in black ink.
Limestone ostracon with the Tale of Sinuhe, Egypt, 19th Dynasty, 1295–1186 BC.  

Tale of the Eloquent Peasant

A similar adaptation was made of the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, probably composed around 2000 BC, but mostly preserved through later copies. A mesmerically poetic film was created by Egyptian director Shadi `Abd al-Salam (1930–1986) in 1970. In the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, the peasant Khunanup is tricked and swindled by a greedy landowner. His case is brought before the high steward who is so intrigued by the peasant's gift for words that he forces him to endlessly repeat his elegant speeches so they can be recorded and presented to the king. With the words 'You are the equal of Thoth, one who judges without being partial' the peasant flatters, admonishes and pleads with the high steward to act. After much suffering, Khunanup is finally granted justice. The subject of social injustice is topical and resonates with us today.

A group of people sit on chairs, listening to a man standing in front of them talking.
A heritage outreach workshop in the village of Shutb, Egypt, as part of the British Museum’s Asyut Region Project.  

In 2017, a version of the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant in Egyptian colloquial Arabic, el-Falaḥ el-Hasiḥ, was used in the British Museum's Asyut Region Project in a heritage outreach workshop in the village of Shutb in Middle Egypt. The storytelling part of the workshop introduced children between ages eight and 13 years old to the ancient Egyptian story and enabled them to vocalise and visualise their perceptions of the story through different mediums, such as performances, drawing and collage. Such modern adaptations reveal the potential of Egyptian literature to be part of a living tradition of high art. 

The texts discussed in this blog featured in our exhibition Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt, which ran until 19 February 2023. You can find the book that accompanied the exhibition in our online shop.

Supported by bp.

Artwork: a mixture of drawing and collage, showing a donkey, palm trees, a river, a bird and a person.
A scene from the Tale of Eloquent Peasant drawn by Shahd Mahmoud Bakry, participant in an Asyut Region Project workshop.