Interpreting Ancient Egyptian Poetry
Updated: Sep 6
The Tale of Sinuhe is a poem written around 1850 BC and is considered a masterpiece of ancient Egyptian literature. It served as inspiration for historical novels such as “A professor of Egyptology” written by Guy Boothby or Mika Waltari´s “The Egyptian”, also known for its cinematographic adaptation. Professor Richard Parkinson tackled in the last OAS talk of this term the question of context and the significance of subtle details in the process of interpretation. He asked whether we should consider the poem as pure and simple text in itself or rather as an archaeological artefact with historical context that can change the meaning of the words.
From the perspective of material philology, literary works do not exist independently from their material embodiments. Therefore, the physical form of texts is an integral part of them. We also have to bear in mind that the Tale of Sinuhe was written in a particular place and time for particular culturally determined purposes. It means that when we encounter the remaining parts of the manuscript today in the Berlin museum or as a digital image, the context from which it was originally taken was very different from its current one. The poem was composed during the Middle Kingdom period but already in the period of the New Kingdom version with altered conception circulated through the empire. This relatively quick transformation of text within the same community indicates how much from the original version might have been lost through centuries of editing, commenting, and translating.
The Tale of Sinuhe describes real characters and places from the history of ancient Egypt. Because of that, artefacts such as stella found in Horus tomb can help us decode the symbolic meaning of certain passages. This particular object depicts king Senusret I, sitting near goddess Hathor accompanied by queen Nefru. Mutual complementarity of goddess and queen in the stella implies that Nefru was considered the earthly incarnation of Hathor. There are several sex passages in the poem, and heterosexual bias with expectations of romance led some commentators to conclude that these passages describe the love affair between Sinuhe and Nefru. Nevertheless, it seems that Nefru was not personally important in the text for her sex life but as a symbolical embodiment of the goddess. In contrast with the expectations, under closer examination, we will realise that Sinuhe´s relationship with the king is a central theme of the poem. According to the social paradigm of ancient Egypt, officials were expected to be intimate with his majesty in their hearts. In combination with specific verses, this historical background creates solid ground for the possibility of a homosexual relationship between Sinuhe and the king. Notions of gender and sexuality were probably culturally constructed differently from our own society, so we need to read the Tale of Sinuhe in the broadest cultural, archaeological and social context possible.
Even though historical facts and characters inspired the poem's plot, Professor Parkinson refuses the opinion that it captures real-life events of the existing Egyptian official. Sinuhe´s escape from the kingdom, emotional struggle on the road and happy end in the form of return make sense too neatly topographically, psychologically, and poetically to reflect reality. Nevertheless, even symbolical text as a poem can provide us with insights useful for archaeologists. Conversely, archaeology might help cast a new light on the interpretation of such ambiguous texts.