Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.01.34

R. B. Parkinson, Reading Ancient Egyptian Poetry: Among other Histories.   Chichester/Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.  Pp. xxi, 392.  ISBN 9781405125475.  $99.95.  

Reviewed by L. R. Siddall, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (


"This book has been written for fun, and it is in a sense a love letter to these three poems and the places that produced them," so R. B. Parkinson describes Reading Ancient Egyptian Poetry. This "love letter" investigates how three of Egypt's best known ancient poems, the Tale of Sinuhe, the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant and the Dialogue of a Man and his Soul, were written, read, performed and received from the Middle Kingdom period to the modern age. The book is organized in three parts and each focuses on the poems' surviving manuscripts, the process of composition, reception and meaning in the respective historical periods with an emphasis on the poems' social, archaeological and historical contexts. With 69 excellent black and white photographs and illustrations, chronological tables and translations of the 12th Dynasty papyri, this book is a significant contribution to the study of ancient Egyptian literature.

Reading Ancient Egyptian Poetry is Parkinson's third monograph on ancient Egyptian literature. His previous studies have established him as one of the leading scholars in the field. For Parkinson, this book completes the triad on Egyptian literature, but it is the most divergent.1 In the preface, Parkinson describes this work as "post-paradigm and... post-theoretical" (p. xii). However, it seems to this reviewer, while the study may not adhere to a particular theoretical paradigm, it is clearly written from the standpoint of the field of literary studies. One's attention is drawn to the statement that "all historiography is fiction and an exercise in historical imagination" (p. 7), which followed by a citation of Heydon White. The result of this theoretical framework is that Parkinson has license to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction for the sake of the narrative in a manner reminiscent of Simon Schama. However, Parkinson rarely goes to the extreme of that approach. For example, while Part I engages with fictional reconstructions, a large amount of Part II is taken up by a traditional philological examination of the textual sources.

Part I, entitled "Performing Poetry", comprises three chapters on the theme of bridging the gap between the modern reader and the ancient. In the first chapter, "Visitors in Egypt" (pp. 3-19), Parkinson discusses the methods the modern reader of Egyptian literature can use to achieve a closer, cultural understanding of the texts. A multi-disciplined approach is called for, re-uniting philology with archaeology, and engaging with source criticism and the anthropological practice of focusing on the lived experience (pp. 7-10). The second section deals with "subaltern attitudes", looking at ways to identify representations of elements outside the main motifs with a method he refers to as "queer philology" (pp. 10-11). However, Parkinson is also acutely aware that there are significant limitations in applying queer philology to Middle Kingdom literature. For example, to what extent does the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant truly represent the attitude and diction of the Egyptian commoner? The final section considers the evidence for the representation of poetry in the archaeological record. The results are largely negative: identity of authorship is rare, artistic representation of performance is lacking and the ancients did not provide a treatise on poetry and literature.

The second and third chapters, "Performing Poetry" and "A Performance," contextualize the poems in the ethos of the Middle Kingdom officialdom. The 12th Dynasty was the period during which the poems were first composed and Parkinson sets the scene at the southern border town of Abu (Elephantine), which was home to official tomb inscriptions that shared motifs with Sinuhe and the Eloquent Peasant (pp. 20-30). With the scene set, Parkinson attempts to recreate how an orator would have gone about preparing a performance at the court of the Mayor, Sarenput. While Parkinson engages with recent speculative exercises undertaken in Shakespearean scholarship and draws on evidence from tomb scenes and literary texts, he states that the reconstruction is "anachronistic and unacademic" (pp. 30-40). A recreation of a performance of Sinuhe and the Eloquent Peasant and a postulation about the audience follows in the third chapter. Parkinson's orator has elected for a performance that focuses on the "darker side" of the poems, which results in an entertaining example of how one can recreate in their mind's eye an Egyptian poetry performance (pp. 41-61). The audience is considered to be generally male and made up of the elite and sub-elite. Parkinson points out that despite the male elite being our best evidenced members of Egyptian society, there is no way of interpreting how Sinuhe and the Eloquent Peasant would have been received by this class (pp. 61-68).

Part II, "Reading Old Poems," traces the histories of the poems from their creation in the Middle Kingdom to their disappearance from the cultural milieu in the Late Period. Throughout the four chapters that make up this section of the book Parkinson conducts his analysis through the study of representative manuscripts and their archaeological contexts. The result is a very handy companion to the study of the poems, which verges on a philological commentary. In chapter 4, "Writing at the Southern City (c. 1780)," Parkinson attempts to identify find spot of the papyri, the possible relationship between the four poems, and the scribe(s) of the papyri. From the scarce details available from the records of Giovanni d'Athanasi, the papyri's modern dealer in the 1830s, Parkinson presents a plausible case for the papyri having been deposited in the tomb of a minor official like those in the cemetery that surrounded the causeway of the Temple of Montuhotep, if not in that location itself (pp. 77-83). The second half of the chapter is one of the most significant contributions of the book. Parkinson presents in close detail how the scribe prepared the papyri and composed the poems. The analysis of the papyri reveals that one scribe, who might have been the tomb owner, produced the Sinuhe text and one of the Eloquent Peasant texts (B1), and obtained the other Eloquent Peasant text (B2) and the Dialogue text (pp. 85-90). This distinction is based on Parkinson's analysis of the handwriting of each manuscript, in which he discerns the difference between errors occurring from a speedily written text and those from incompetence, how the scribes corrected their errors, when the scribes refilled their pens, and the layout of the texts; all of which is excellently illustrated by the accompanying annotated photographs. It appears from the assessment that the scribes, while variation is evident, conformed to certain scribal practices, which indicates that the manuscripts were composed in a relatively short period of time, perhaps within one generation of being deposited in the tomb (pp. 90-112).

The study moves from the papyri to the identity of the "Sinuhe-scribe" in chapter 5, "A Certain Provincial Scribe." What can the papyri tell us about the tomb owner? Given the probable location of the scribe's tomb in Thebes and the widespread copying of literature among the scribal class that was occurring during the Middle Kingdom, the Sinuhe-scribe was most probably a member of the lower officialdom (pp. 113-127). A hallmark of the Sinuhe-scribe's editions of the poems is his lack of care for, or perhaps ignorance of, Levantine culture and historical details. Beyond those inferences, Parkinson explores possible reasons behind the Sinuhe-scribe's decision to furnish his tomb with literature, and those poems in particular.

The focus of chapter 6, "A Library in the Southern City," is an archive discovered in a late Middle Kingdom tomb (13th Dynasty). The archive, anachronistically known as the "Ramesseum Papyri," contained a wide variety of literary, ritual and magico-medical texts, which were probably compiled over approximately 130 years (pp. 146-157; the entire archive is detailed in a table on pp. 151-153). The type of texts in the archive and the other artifacts found in the tomb indicate that the owner was a lector-priest (pp. 141-147). Significantly, one papyrus roll contains both Sinuhe and the Eloquent Peasant. The editions of those poems differ from the 12th Dynasty papyri beyond minor scribal variances, in particular the scribe displayed a better understanding of the Levantine and historical details in Sinuhe. Parkinson suggests that this copy of Sinuhe is part of a process which led to a standardized version of the poem and its placement in a literary discourse that we recognize later in the New Kingdom period (pp. 166-169). The 13th Dynasty archive is the last known occurrence of Sinuhe and the Eloquent Peasant together. Indeed, while the Eloquent Peasant seems to have fallen out of circulation in the New Kingdom, Sinuhe continued to be copied to the close of the Pharaonic period.

The place of Sinuhe in the New Kingdom and Late Period is taken up in chapter 7, "Old Imperial Classics in the New Kingdom and Beyond." The early New Kingdom period saw a general interest in Middle Kingdom culture, and the New Kingdom scribal class considered the early poems classics. The early New Kingdom period saw two significant shifts in the production of literary texts. The first is the material on which the texts were inscribed, from papyri to ostraca. The other is that there was a tendency to copy excerpts of the poems rather than full editions. Those changes in text production were mirrored by a change in burial practice which saw writing boards, rather than papyrus scrolls, deposited in tombs (pp.175-179). Parkinson argues that Sinuhe, in particular, influenced the New Kingdom elite and might have even shaped the conceptions of foreign lands. For example, Tuthmose III anachronistically claimed to have conquered the land of Iaa (pp. 178-180). The Ramesside period is best represented by an impressive collection of ostraca discovered in the workman's village at Deir el-Medina. Some 26 copies of Sinuhe in varying degrees of completeness have been recovered among the many forms of literary texts recovered from Deir el-Medina (pp. 192-193). Parkinson argues that the New Kingdom scribes did not freely alter the poems to the same degree as the Middle Kingdom scribes. The editions are more uniform and the variances seem to be made out of an attempt to update information (such as Sinuhe's titles) and to interpret aspects of the language that had become obscure over the centuries. For Parkinson, those points indicate that the Middle Kingdom poems had become classics. The post-Ramesside periods saw a significant reduction in the patronage of the poems. Parkinson points out that it is extremely difficult to identify specific literary illusions to the poems, though some texts were still being copied in the Persian period (213). By the Greco-Roman period the poems had probably disappeared from the cultural milieu. The widespread use of Demotic and Greek saw that any influence that the Middle Kingdom poems might have had on the officialdom at that point in time would have been largely indirect (213-217).

Part III, "Studying and Interpreting Texts," returns to the themes raised in Part I and examines the discovery, study and reception of the poems in the modern era. Chapter 8, "Some Modern Readers (AD 1836 on)," is a brief history of European and Egyptian discovery of, and engagement with, the poems. From the beginning of Egyptology through to very recent times western scholars have typically read and assessed Egyptian literature within an Orientalist and Eurocentric-colonial framework; and commonly attempted to ascribe Biblical parallels (pp. 221-236). Those scholarly presuppositions have had wide ranging consequences in European and American academies. One such consequence was the tendency to interpret the philological variation between the different manuscripts of the poems negatively; that is, as a form of textual corruption (pp. 339-241). Another consequence is the tendency to read the poems, not as fictional literature, but as works grounded in history. That approach has led to attempts to connect Sinuhe's flight with a harem conspiracy and the assassination of Amenemhat, archaeological excavations in search of Sinuhe's tomb, and the theory that the poems were royal propaganda to encourage loyalty (pp. 243-246). Those academic attitudes can also be found in the more public realms. Parkinson surveys a number of popular adaptations, in particular those of Sinuhe and the Eloquent Peasant, and shows that they often trivialized, exoticized, mixed the storylines with those of the Bible, and set Sinuhe in the Amarna period. The novel by Mika Waltari, "Sinuhe, The Egyptian," and its later film adaptation, "The Egyptian," are examples (pp. 246-254). Egyptian authors have also embraced the ancient poems, but differently from those of the west. The Egyptian writers tend to focus on romance, justice and drama, and avoid Egyptian and Arab nationalism, which was a feature of twentieth century Egypt (pp. 254-258).

The final chapter, "Among Other Histories," looks at the processes of modern editing of Egyptian literature and the different challenges for academic and popular interaction with the poems. Of particular importance is Parkinson's discussion of the difficulty in editing and presenting multiple manuscripts of a poem, which he sets against scholarship's inappropriate interest in discovering the Urtext (original text). Despite this, the recent inclusion of ancient Egypt in anthologies of world literature and adaptations in recent theatrical productions means that the difficult task of deciding on a definite and timeless interpretation of literary texts to present non-specialists still plagues Egyptologists.

The book closes with translations of the 12th Dynasty papyri (pp. 279-322) and a catalogue of the manuscripts from all periods with their primary publications (pp. 323-324). The translations are an excellent resource, not only because they are of the standard one expects from Parkinson, but because the presentation of the texts is such that the non-specialist reader can have a taste of the state and paleography of the papyri. This is done through an elaborate, yet clearly explained, set of annotations, which indicate every rubric, error and correction made by the scribe and even when he refilled his pen!

In sum, Parkinson has produced a thoughtful and insightful volume on the Egyptian poems, specifically, and on ancient literature in general. His coverage of academic and popular treatments of, and attitudes towards, Egyptian literature and his study of the manuscripts make this book an important volume for Egyptologists. The theoretical framing of the study may raise questions in some quarters of the discipline, but all will agree that this "love letter" is a valuable addition to the field.


1.   The other works are R. B. Parkinson, The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940-1640 BC (Oxford: Oxford University Press); and R. B. Parkinson, Poetry and Culture in Middle Kingdom Egypt: A Dark Side to Perfection (London: Continuum).

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