Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.01.53 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.01.53

Sylvie Donnat Beauquier, Ecrire à ses morts: enquête sur un usage rituel de l'écrit dans l'Egypte pharaonique. Collection Horos​.   Grenoble:  Jérôme Millon Editions​, 2014.  Pp. 286.  ISBN 9782841372522.  €26.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Juan Carlos Moreno García​, CNRS (

One of the most characteristic aspects of pharaonic culture is undoubtedly the funerary domain. Massive monuments like the pyramids, beautifully decorated royal and private tombs, extensive ritual texts carved on temples or inscribed in coffins, even contemporary popular icons of the Egyptian past like mummies or the Book of the Dead, attest to the importance of death and deceased people in Egyptian beliefs and in contemporary interpretations of pharaonic civilization. In fact Egyptology has devoted most of its archaeological and philological work to the study of texts and monuments related to the mortuary sphere, especially those belonging to members of the royalty and of the elite who ruled the country. Furthermore, these researches have been mainly focused on art and religious history, while the social aspects of death and its importance in cementing interpersonal ties among the living ones, especially among common people, have not received as much attention. In the last decades Egyptologists have become increasingly aware, however, of the existence of extensive kin networks in Egyptian society, a circumstance usually concealed behind the use of rather general and imprecise kinship terms like “brother”, “sister”, “son” or “child” to refer, in fact, to collateral or descendant members of one's family as well as to subordinates. The epigraphic and ritual sources of the end of the 3rd millennium suddenly contain a plethora of terms evoking extensive kin groups, but the precise meaning of many of them still eludes us and in many cases it is only possible to suggest approximate translations like “household” or “extended family”. Irrespective, the influence of these networks left their mark in the domain of funerary beliefs.

The end of the 3rd millennium appears in fact as an unstable period of political turmoil, increasing social autonomy and weakened royal authority. Under these conditions, extensive kin and patronage networks provided protection for people and inspired new forms of ideological legitimacy, alternative to those derived from service to the (now divided) monarchy. The provincial elite now proudly proclaimed their old and noble origins and, in some cases, developed ritual activities centered on the presentation of offerings to deceased members of the ruling local family or to a prestigious ancestor.1 The best known examples come from the area of Elephantine, in southern Egypt, and from the oasis of Dakhla, where chapels dedicated, respectively, to Heqaib and Medunefer, remained active foci of local cults and of presentation of offerings until the beginning of the 2nd millennium.2 More generally, ritual activities centered on deceased members of a kin group or devoted to ancestors of powerful patronage networks helped drawing together families and communities. Not surprisingly some recent Egyptological research has explored the impact of these ritual practices in pharaonic society, usually from the perspective of archaeological, anthropological and cultural history studies, thus departing from the more traditionally philological and art history views prevalent in Egyptology.3

The book published by Sylvie Donnat Beauquier belongs to this renewed tradition and the focus of her work is an exceptionalcorpus of texts, mostly dating from the end of the 3rd millennium BC, and known as “letters to the dead”. Its author is a reputed specialist in the study of these documents and she has devoted much of her research to a better knowledge of the social and religious context in which they appeared, especially to the very particular ways in which deceased people were invoked in order to help solving everyday problems of their living relatives. In a very insightful introduction, Sylvie Donnat reminds us that the ritual uses of hieratic writing have been somewhat neglected in Egyptological studies, as most research was focused on the more prestigious (and abundant) texts written in hieroglyphs and in cursive hieroglyphs. Commonly regarded as an everyday type of writing, mostly restricted to the administrative and personal (i. e. letters) sphere, the utilization of hieratic in ritual and religious compositions has attracted less attention from Egyptologists, despite its early appearance in the 3rd millennium in the so-called “execration texts.” She continues her argument by highlighting the importance of the other early corpus of ritual sources written in hieratic, the letters to the dead, for two reasons: on the one hand because the analysis of this epistolary genre helps better understand its history and particularities within text production of pharaonic Egypt; and, on the other hand, because it provides a privileged tool for understanding the role played by writing in the communication between dead and living people.

After a general description of the problems and state-of-the-art of these particular documents, the book is organized in two main parts. The first one consists in the presentation, translation and discussion of all relevant texts. Usually grouped under the label of “letters to the dead”, Sylvie Donnat introduces a subtle classification of the corpus by categories. As she reminds the reader in the introduction to the first part, the very notion of “letters to the dead” is a modern one and the sources under discussion appear in fact in a variety of supports, like papyri, bowls, stelae, pieces of cloth, even figurines. But they all share a common feature, the use of the formulaic repertory characteristic of the epistolary genre, but here adapted to an actually funerary communication. In fact, these letters were addressed to a very particular kind of recipient, to the point that rites played an essential role in the communicative context in which they were enacted. These characteristics distinguish them from other types of petitions addressed to deceased people. After a brief overall presentation of the texts, Sylvie Donnat classifies them in two broad chronological categories, texts written in the (late) 3rd millennium (fourteen documents) and those composed in the 2nd and 1st millennia BC (five examples), the former one being in turn divided into five sub-categories, depending on the use of very distinctive epistolary formulae: summings-up, petitions/complaints, classical epistolary expressions, classical funerary expressions and other epistolary formulae (including a contract). As for texts later than the 3rd millennium, they spread over nearly 1500 years, appear on a diversity of supports and, contrary to those of the late 3rd millennium, they do not constitute a coherent corpus from a stylistic or a contents point of view.

The second part of the book consists in an insightful analysis of the social and cultural context in which the documents were produced. To begin with, the earlier group of letters, going back to the late 3rd millennium, consists in pleas addressed to the dead by members of his extended family (sons, spouse, dependents), often motivated by troubles menacing the stability of the household: disputed inheritances, debts, protection of the dependents, etc. A crucial element was the accomplishment of the appropriate rites in order to obtain the help of the dead, but also to remind him or her that offerings were subject to the efficacy of the assistance obtained, so libations and presents might be interrupted if the aid failed to appear. To put it in other terms, these texts reproduce the characteristics and tensions typical of social relations where patronage links bounded together extensive households, including not only people of the same family but also a broader network made up of servants, dependents, friends, colleagues, etc. It is not by chance that such links are often evoked in contemporary sources where rituals played an essential role, like the Coffin Texts or some “execration texts” where wet nurses figure prominently in households.4 As a reflection of contemporary social practices, the dead plays the role of patron, the one from whom help is expected in troubled times, but whose authority must be continuously reasserted and legitimized through the efficacy of his measures. On the contrary, the “letters of the dead” from the 2nd and 1st millennium BC lack a comparable stylistic homogeneity, to the point that the author suggests that only two of the five documents analyzed could be considered true “letters to the dead”. This leads to a difficult question: did the practice continue uninterrupted over time? Sylvie Donnat suggests —quite sensibly in my opinion— that it was not the case due to the differences between the earlier and the later (and rather more discontinuous) group of texts. In fact she thinks that what reappeared from time to time was the idea of using letters as an appropriate tool to communicate with dead people, even gods.

Finally, the author suggests a sensible link between changes in funerary beliefs and transformations in the political and cultural spheres. While patronage networks provided crucial support for people during the First Intermediate Period, the reconstruction of the monarchy and the centralization of power in the hands of Pharaohs again, during the Middle Kingdom, had a durable impact on funerary beliefs. Cults sponsored by the king (like that of Osiris) and the formation of a Court society, where provincial nobles were integrated and granted honors and recompenses by the king, undermined the influence of local patronage networks and put an end to the letters addressed to the dead. Later on, during the New Kingdom, the emergence of a more direct relation between individuals and gods further restricted the role to be played by deceased relatives. They appeared as potential irascible forces to be appeased instead of powerful mediators between the world of the living and the world of invisible forces.

In the end, Sylvie Donnat deserves our warmest thanks for the task of bringing together a corpus of texts indispensable for the study of the social practices and funerary beliefs during a rather obscure period of Egyptian history. Also for providing a sensible and suggestive analysis of the interactions between the two spheres and for scrutinizing the use of cursive writing in domestic, private activities, far from its more current utilization in administrative documents. Egyptologists, historians and anthropologists will be well repaid to read her book.


1.   Michael Fitzenreiter (ed.), Genealogie — Ralität und Fiktion von Identität (IBAES, 5), London: Golden House Publications, 2005; Michael Höveler-Müller. Funde aus dem Grab 88 der Qubbet el-Hawa bei Assuan (Die Bonner Bestände) (Bonner Sammlung von Aegyptiaca, 5), Wiesbaden: Harrassowtiz, 2006; Paul Whelan, Mere Scraps of Rough Wood? 17th-18th Dynasty Stick Shabtis in the Petrie Museum and Other Collections (GHP Egyptology, 6), London: Golden House Publications, 2007; Antonio J. Morales, “Traces of official and popular veneration to Nyuserra Iny at Abusir. Late Fifth Dynasty to the Middle Kingdom.” In: Miroslav Bárta, Filip Coppens, Jaromír Krejčí (eds.), Abusir and Saqqara in the Year 2005, Prague: Czech Institute of Egyptology, 2006, p. 311-341.
2.   Detlef Franke, Das Heiligtum des Heqaib auf Elephantine. Geschichte eines Provinzheiligtums im Mittleren Reich (SAGA, 9), Heidelberg: Heidelberger Orientverlag, 1994; Georges Soukiassian, Michel Wuttmann, Laure Pantalacci, Balat, VI : Le palais des gouverneurs de l’époque de Pépy II. Les sanctuaires de ka et leurs dépendances (FIFAO, 46), Cairo: Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, 2002.
3.   Harco Willems (ed.), Social Aspects of Funerary Culture in the Egyptian Old and Middle Kingdoms (OLA, 103), Leuven: Peeters, 2001; John Baines, Peter Lacovara, “Burial and the dead in ancient Egyptian society: respect, formalism, neglect”, Journal of Social Archaeology 2 (2002), 5-36; Heike Guksch, Eva Hofmann, Martin Bommas (eds.), Grab und Totenkult im alten Ägypten, Munich: C. H. Beck, 2003; Janet Richards, Society and Death in Ancient Egypt. Mortuary Landscapes of the Middle Kingdom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005; Juan Carlos Moreno García, “Oracles, ancestor cults and letters to the dead: the involvement of the dead in the public and private family affairs in Pharaonic Egypt.” In: Anne Storch (ed.), Perception of the Invisible: Religion, Historical Semantics and the Role of Perceptive Verbs (Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika, 21), Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe, 2010, p. 133-153; Nicola Harrington, Living with the Dead. Ancestor Worship and Mortuary Ritual in Ancient Egypt, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013.
4.   Georges Posener, “Tablettes-figurines de prisonniers”, Revue d'Égyptologie 64 (2013), 135-175. ​

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