Thursday, October 28, 2010

Miriam Lichtheim (EGYPT, part two)

EGYPT, con't

One of the things reading PHARAOH'S FLOWERS did was reminded me of Miriam Lichtheim's* three-volume set of scrupulous translations ANCIENT EGYPTIAN LITERATURE. I've had this set for quite a while, and enjoyed reading it v. much; I'm looking forward to re-reading it at some point after I've done some more background reading, the better to appreciate it (e.g., reading the whole of THE BOOK OF GOING FORTH BY DAY). In the meantime, I enjoy dipping into them now and again.

Of these, Vol. I I inherited from Taum; Vol II I bought about five years later at the long-vanished Blake's Books in Milw, and Vol III I thought I'd picked up at the museum store at the Field Museum next to their impressive Egypt room, but I've written in it that it was one of my earliest purchases on either my memory is faulty or I must have seen it in the museum store on my first visit there, passed on it, later regretted having not picked it up when I had the chance, and then not been able to find it again on my second visit.

In any case, Lichtheim's series covers everything from Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts (which fall into what we think of today as 'THE BOOK OF THE DEAD') to brief autobiographies, hymns, cosmogonical myths, wonder stories, wisdom literature (think Proverbs), even love poems. One of my favorite bits was an inscription of a pharaoh who, on a long trip across the desert, got thirsty. He ordered that a well be dug so others crossing that desert after him shdn't have to suffer like that, and put up a marker with the inscription to explain why the way-station was there. Now that's my kind of pharaoh.

What particularly struck me this time I looked into the books were the love poems included in her second volume (THE MIDDLE KINGDOM). One of these is so short and simple as to be essentially timeless: a mere six lines from Papyrus Harris 500:

My heart thought of my love of you
When half of my hair was braided;
I came at a run to find you
And neglected my hairdo.
Now if you let me braid my hair
I shall be ready in a moment.
(Lichtheim, Vol. II, p. 191)

That sounds to me v. like one of Ezra Pound's translations from the Chinese. Another, also from the same papyrus, is quite different:

I shall lie down at home
And pretend to be ill;
Then enter the neighbors to see me,
Then comes my beloved** with them.
She will make the physicians unneeded
She understands my illness!

--I found this one striking for its similarity to courtly romance motifs C. S. Lewis claimed (in THE ALLEGORY OF LOVE) to have been the invention of the 12th century. I suspect the attitudes described were already old when those lines were written down, some three thousand years ago. People don't change much.

Speaking of which, another piece included in the same volume is the wonder tale The Two Brothers, which Tolkien famously evoked in ON FAIRY-STORIES (see Anderson/Flieger p. 37 et al). This comes from Papyrus D'Orbiney, and it's rather a nice touch that we actually know who wrote this papyrus -- that is, the name of the scribe, Ennana, who carefully copied it down near the end of what we know as the Nineteenth Dynasty.


*the late Miriam Lichtheim, I shd say, since a quick check shows that she died a few years back at the age of ninety. Apparently she was a Turkish-Israeli Egyptologist: an interesting combination, and highly respected in the field.
**Lichtehim's original reads "sister" here, and she explains that "brother" or "sister" were terms of endearment between lovers in Egyptian custom. That strikes a somewhat creepy tone to the modern ear, however, so I made the substitution.

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