History of Literature/Literature of Ramesside Egypt

Writing was important to Egyptian society not only as a means of recording facts and debts but by the Ramesside period, also as a means of cultural expression and identity.

A scene from the Book of the Dead: the weighing of the heart

Because of the dry climate, much of their literature has come down to us on papyrus manuscripts accidentally dried in the desert sand. Fragments have also survived on ostraca. Ceramic ware was very common In the ancient world, more so than paper. When composing a text before transferring it to a final medium, scribes often scratched the words onto fragments of broken pottery, known as sherds or ostraca. In other cases, literature has been deliberately preserved carved into temples, monuments and most famously, tomb walls.


Literature had initially sprung from religious beliefs but by the nineteenth dynasty involved many different styles including instructions, love poetry, and narrative. Mortuary writing was one of the first genres of Egyptian writing, first appearing as basic accounts and then growing into tomb autobiography. One of the most famous examples of this is The Book of the Dead, in Egyptian the Coming forth by Day. This is a collection of hymns, spells, and advice to help the deceased in the afterlife. It was most often written on a papyrus scroll and richly illustrated. A person would prepare for their death by paying a large sum for the creation of a copy by specialist scribes, sometimes costing as much as half a year’s wage. From it, historians have a very detailed picture of Egyptian religious beliefs and afterlife. Unlike most modern religious texts it was not considered to be divine inspiration and therefore unchangeable but evolved slowly from pyramid texts and coffin texts.

Sebayt was another genre at the time. It is often translated as Instructions or Teachings and they contain ethical rules and ways of living. Many are addressed to a specific person such as from a father to a son, but these were not necessarily created by the attributed authorIt is comparable to other sophist literature such as Proverbs in the bible. Many of the sebayt papyri that survive are copies of older works, dating back to the Middle kingdom but it is impossible to tell when they were first composed as it is thought that they were falsely attributed to earlier times to give them greater authority. From them, it is possible to gain an understanding of the structure of Egyptian society and the ethical and philosophical ideas of the time.

Love poetry from nineteenth and twentieth dynasty Egypt has survived on 3 papyri, a vase, and about 20 ostraca. It was lyrical in form, similar to hymns such as those in the book of the dead, but without rhyme like modern poetry. Like much ancient poetry it would probably have been set to music. By this time it had developed a sophisticated structure, sometimes narrative in nature. The poems were often from a first person perspective as this one is and the lovers addressed each other as brother and sister. This is a curious example of how important family was to the Egyptians. It was also common to use symbolism form the natural world which sustained their way of life through agriculture: for example, The Nile, crops, animals and plants.


The Tale of Two Brothers was a narrative myth detailing how Bata and Anpu, two brothers, fight and reconcile over love and how eventually Bata becomes Pharaoh. It survived on the nineteenth dynasty papyrus D’Orbiney by the scribe Ennana, which had belonged to Seti II. It reveals much about the everyday role of the family and the structure of the household in Egyptian Culture as well as Pharaoh succession. There is speculation that it may have been a political satire based on Seti and his brother but too little of the events at the time are known to reach any definitive conclusion. The names Bata and Anpu are from Local Gods in upper Egypt which suggest that it was more based in mythology than politics.

The story of Horus and Seth, like the Tale of Two brothers, is a myth in the form of a story. Horus is the nephew of Seth and tries to reclaim his father’s right to the throne of Egypt after Seth murdered him. This form of narrative religion with the gods’ interaction mirroring humans is comparable to the Greek myths. Many aspects of the story influenced Egyptian religion, such as the Eye of Horus, which was supposed to have been lost and regained by Horus in a struggle with Seth. It also demonstrates the ideals that Egyptian society was based on. Seth was the God of chaos and disorder and was opposed to the pharaoh when it came to ruling over Egypt but was often invoked when embarking on a war.

We can gather that literature from the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties was varied and skillfully written, playing many important roles in their culture. It was a way of recording religious matters, teaching ethical living and even includes more everyday issues such as love. Unfortunately however, there is little doubt that much of it has been lost through the ages.