Talk Like an Egyptian

June 6, 2016

Consider the New Kingdom Egyptian. He can be forgiven for thinking his state sits at creation’s centre, a kernel of order anchoring the known world. If he lives during the reign of Ramses II, his Egypt has already governed Northeast Africa for the better part of 2,000 years. Trouncing Hittites at Kadesh, Ramses will confirm Egypt as the preeminent military power in the region and, for any Egyptian then living, the entire human fraction of the cosmos. That, at least, is what official accounts will show. Bombastic descriptions of the battle will decorate monuments across the empire.

A millennium and a bit later, not a living soul will be able to read them.

The scientific community has recently begun to think hard about natural and technological existential risks to human beings: a wandering asteroid, an unfortunately timed gamma-ray burst, a warming planet. But we should also begin to think about the possibility of cultural apocalypse.

The Egyptian case is instructive: an epoch of stunning continuity, followed by abrupt extinction. This is a decline and fall worth keeping in mind. We should be prepared for the possibility that humankind will one day have no memory of Milton, or for that matter Motown. Futurism could do with a dose of Egyptology.

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Western obsession with Ancient Egypt – Egyptomania – has always drawn on the split personality of its legacy: its suggestively modern face and its alien distance. Its zeitgeist is very nearly intelligible, but not quite. Here was a culture obsessed with writing. One Egyptian cosmogony gives credit to Ptah for creation through the Word, though other traditions put the cause down as Atum’s spit or semen.

Still, for all its carven glyphs, Egypt cannot claim to have passed down its dreams, memories and hopes for the future. Some of its civilisation has been recovered, but some was lost irretrievably. This is sobering enough on its own terms. When you examine our beloved present day from an Egyptological distance, you see that we are vulnerable to a similar fate.

The predicament is neatly captured in one of the best-known works of Egyptian literature, The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor. This Middle Kingdom story is exactly what it says on the tin, straightforward enough that its translation was assigned in my first year of Hieroglyphic Middle Egyptian at Yale University.

The sailor of the title meets a ferocious storm, washes ashore on a phantom island, and enjoys several conversations with an impressively ornate serpent. The copyist scribbles: ‘His beard, it was more than two cubits long. His body was overlaid with gold. His eyebrows were lapis lazuli, truly.’ Enlightened, the sailor is duly rescued.

for the modern reader, the story’s ultimate meaning amounts to: huh?

Thanks to the survival of this particular papyrus, we have in hand the ancient bones of an adventure tale, one that’s washed ashore in virtually every cultural tradition (whether contrived independently or not). World literature is littered with shipwrecked sailors, cast overboard on this, that or the other mystical journey. Indeed, the story’s skeleton is recognisable enough that an illustrated children’s book edition is available.

And yet, the crucial ending of the story remains inaccessible. The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor is couched in a frame story; the account of wreck and recovery is meant to reassure a courtier, newly returned from a naval expedition to Nubia, as he readies to address the pharaoh. The tale’s sense – its moral – hinges on his response to this fantastic account.

That answer is a rhetorical question:


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