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In search of Sinuhe: “What's in a Name?”


Edmund S. Meltzer


Writing about Sinuhe is a formidable and challening endeavor – something like volunteering to discuss Shakespeare's Hamlet or one of the major protagonists and narratives of the Bible, or the Quijote, or all of the above. With all of the ink that has been and continues to be spilled on Sinuhe (he must be drowning by now!), one question must be, is there really anything new to say about him or his Tale, or more properly poem? And yet he beckons – like the dead Captain Ahab in Moby Dick – and challenges us, like Hamlet himself, to “pluck out the heart from [his] mystery.” I must admit that I simply cannot resist that challenge, just as I cannot read Sinuhe without seeing something new, something that I – and perhaps others – have previously overlooked, or just something captivating and beautiful. Perhaps, as with all great literature and its protagonists, it is something like looking into a mirror. We recognize the commonality shared by Hamlet, and Sinuhe, and Clytemnestra, adn Quijote, and Saint Joan, and King David, as different from one another as they are; and we recognize something of ourselves in all of them – or, egocentric creatures that we are, they would not interest us. Before proceeding on our voyage of discovery – or at least of charting some of the shores, islands and reefs of Sinuhe scholarship – I must acknowledge with gratitude the insights and prodigious labors of those colleagues who have advanced our knowledge and understanding of Sinuhe from many perspectives, among many others, Sir Alan Gardiner, John Baines, Kelly Simpson, Jack Foster, Richard Parkinson, Antonio Loprieno, Kenneth Kitchen, Robert Plant, Hans Goedicke, Anson Rainey, Scott Morschauser, Miroslav Bárta, Wolfhart Westendorf and Vincent Tobin. In the course of my discussion I shall be considering many ideas developed in the work of scholars just named, as well as others. However, the overall structure within which the ideas will interrelate is my own synthesis, ordered by priorities which have emerged in the course of my study of the text and literature.


In our whirlwind tour, we shall touch all too briefly on several high points which have been part of the recent and current conversation on Sinuhe and shall suggest some of our own preferred paths through these thickets. Our starting point will be a brief summary of the plot or “argument,” along with an examinatiuon of Sinuhe's name and its implications for his journey. We shall examine some major themes that Sinuhe shares with the univesal conflicts and passions of drama – especially given the tendency of some scholars to dub the Sinuhe poet the “Egyptian Shakespeare” (e.g. Foster 2001, p. 124) and the rhetorical resonances that can be discerned between the Egyptian and Elizabethan in some of their soliloquizing (cf. Meltzer 2004). We shall touch on major currents of the discussion of grammar as it pertains to the Sinuhe text, intertwined as that area is with style and literary study. We shall also briefly turn to some suggested links between Sinuhe and the Bible. In all of this, we shall attempt to highlight Sinuhe's humanity, to try to divine at least to some small extent how he acted and how he felt. The major issue of whether or not the Sinuhe tale or poem is the real autobiography of a real official will lead us into a consideration of the nature of “fiction” and ultimately of literature itself.


While most of the readers of the present journal are no doubt familiar with the story or poem of Sinuhe, some may be newcomers to our fascinating field, and it might be helpful to start out by summarizing the bare bones of the plot so that we are all “on the same page,” or scroll or ostracon. It has been described as “the story of a man who ran away” (Foster 1993, p. 112), and it might also be summarized by Bilbo Baggins' description of another epic journey, “There and back again.” Sinuhe, an eminent official accompanying Prince (or coregent) Senwosret I in Libya, overhears something connected with the death of King Amenemhet I and flees headlong, leaving Egypt and ending up in Upper Retjenu, where he becomes the favorite and son-in-law of Chief Ammunenshi. His sons grow to maturity and become chiefs in their own right. After fighting against rebellious tribes on behalf of Ammunenshi, Sinuhe defeats a swaggering champion in single combat, thus reaffirming his supremacy. In the aftermath of the victory, Sinuhe, now an aging man, prays for return to Egypt, and then (serendipitously) receives a gracious and magnanimous invitation from Senwosret I. Sinuhe accepts it in very moving terms, returns to Egypt, confounds the court with his non-Egyptian appearance, and lives the rest of his life in high royal favour, finally being laid to rest in a fine tomb in the necropolis. The Egyptian themselves esteemed the work, very highly, judging by the number of copies including school texts, and by the discernible footprints of its influence in the scribal tradition.


Sinuhe's name has strong and suggestive implications for our understanding of the story, and of the protagonist himself. The commonly used transcription “Sinuhe” is a Copticizing pronunciation of the Egyptian phrase sA-nht “Son of the Sycomore Tree.” One recent translator explains that the sycomore is “the most characterisict tree of Egypt, and one associated with Hathor, the goddess of fertility and rebirth, who features throughout the Tale” (Parkinson 1997, p. 43 n. 1) and who numbers among her epithets “Lady of the Sycamore.” Moreover, nht , “sycomore” has several homophones and near-homophones, certainly etymologically related, which have unmistakably relevant meanings: nh “to escape” death; nht “shelter, refuge;” nht , magical “protection;” nhw , “protection” of the king's arm (Faulkner CDME , p. 135). It might even be said that these words form a web of association or potential paranomasia, and that the name of Sinuhe, introduced in the autobiographical “frame” at the beginning of the composition, has a strong element of foreshadowing. In the course of the story, Sinuhe will escape death, not only once but repeatedly; will need, seek and find shelter in more than one place, finally back in his beloved Egypt; and will be the beneficiary of the protection of both male and female divine powers, including prominently that of the king, from which at first he tries hard to escape, and that of Hathor and her alter ego the queen. Hathor is the patroness of foreign countries, including those of northern areas in which Sinuhe wandered and settled (Wilkinson 2003, p. 143). On his flight from Egypt, before Sinuhe leaves his native land, he traverses a canal or lake called mAaty , in the vicinity of the Sycomore ( nht ) (Foster 1993, p. 6). The Sycomore, part of Sinuhe's own name, is most likely a Hathor shrine (Parkirson 1997, p. 44 n. 9). The name mAaty means either “one belonging to Maat,” the Egyptian principle of order and justice (Parkirson ibid. ), or the “Two Maats” (Simpson 2003, p. 56 n. 6), the paired goddesses found in the judgement hall of the underworld – who are typical of the later Book of the Dead , but attested as early as the Pyramid Texts ( Wb. II, p. 21). Suggestively, the juxtaposition of mAaty and the sycomore occurs in an afterlife context in the speech of Thothrekh in the tomb of Petosiris (Lichtheim 1980, p. 53): “I received bread in the hall of the Two Truths, water from the Sycomore as (one of) the perfect souls.” Equally significantly, when Sinuhe returns to Egypt, the princesses, who also partakes of the nature of Hathor, make a pun on his name, calling him sA-mHyt “Son of the Northern Wind” (Foster 1993, p. 34). Aside from the fact that Sinuhe has been sojourning in the north, perhaps one should call to mind the evocative description of the north wind in Coffin Texts Spell 162 (Foster 2001, p. 91):


“The north wind is she who caresses sea-washed islands,

spreads wide her welcoming arms to the ends of the earth,

grows quiet at night

to further her lover's designs each new day.

She is the breath of life, the north wind,

offered to me

and through her I live.”


And it is difficult to ignore the possible paranomasia of mHyt “north wind” and the goddess Mehyt, a warlike lioness-goddess who at Edfu is identified with Hathor, though the texts confirming that identificarion are later (Bonnet 1952, p. 445).


It might be significant that, after its introduction in the opening “frame,” Sinuhe's name does not appear again until the king's letter inviting him to return to Egypt. Sinuhe uses his own name when he replies to the king, and when he arrives to Egypt the king and the princesses address him, the latter with a pun as noted. Ammunenshi never addresses him as “Sinuhe” – indeed, one might wonder whether he uses a West Semitic name in his new life, though this is never stated. One might assume that this long period of non-appearance of Sinuhe's name is trivial or a mere by-product of the fact that most of the story is first person narration. It has a suggestive implication, though: that during his flight and foreign sojourn, his identity – his Egyptian identity at any rate – is suspended or held in absence, until he is officially addressed by the Pharaoh and reintegrated into the Egyptian reality. (For the reintegration cf. Parkinson 1997.)


One of the major issues of the study of Sinuhe is that which divides what might be called the “impulsive school” – the majority of commentators, who regard Sinuhe's flight as some form of panic – from a recent proposal according to which Sinuhe, following Amenemhet I's death, coldly and rationally calculated where to seek a new overlord and invest his political loyalties (Morschauser 2000), in the manner of a medieval knight-errant. This vision of the protagonist provides a radically different and initially somewhat refreshing reading of the tale. However, it consistently strikes me as dramatically and psychologically impoverished compared with the “impulsive” perspective. We are asked to accept a Sinuhe who tells the truth (even though at least at one point he confesses that he lied or prevaricated), who is innocent because he says so (“I am not a crook”); and likewise a king Senwosret I who “meant what he said and said what he meant,” and who should be believed implicitly when he echoes Sinuhe's denials. Where in this reading are the undercurrents and hints and double-entendres, the “garishly mixed motives,” to borrow a striking phrase that has been applied to the Holocaust rescuer Oskar Schindler? Where is the dramatic depth in this understanding of the tale? Far more justified and dramatically satisfying, it seems to me, is the characterization of Sinuhe as a man who bolts, who takes it on the lam, and who “doth protest too much.” (Tobin 1995)! – thus making his protestations all the more, not less, suspect. Neither is Senwosret being entirely aboveboard. His exoneration of Sinuhe can be seen as disingenuous. As the ruler and himself a divine being, grace or mercy is his prerrogative – and who will challenge his assertion of Sinuhe's innocence (Meltzer 2004), even if they know it's a bare-faced lie? (I'm not saying that is , mind you!) As we proceed, the full dimension of Senwosret's role – or at least possible role – will be revealed, and we shall see what he is not telling us.


Paradoxically (and more than one paradox is involved), Sinuhe's flight can also be seen as a vain attempt to escape the power of the king (= the god, the major overt locus of divine power in the narrative) (Meltzer 2004). When Sinuhe finally realices that try as he may, he cannot escape the purview of the divine monarch's power, he makes a very memorable statement, or admission: “Whether I am in the Residence, or whether I am in this place, it is you who covers this horizon” (Foster 1993, p. 57). “This horizon” ( Axt tn ) has a strange ring to it, as for the Egyptians there was an eastern horizon ( Axt iAbtt ) where the sun rises and a western horizon ( Axt imntt ) where it sets. Why “ this horizon”? It seems a possibility that, in reinventing himself, the expatriete Sinuhe has reoriented himself, has attempted to reconfigure his world – but he finally realizes the all-encompassing nature of royal/divine might.


It is that very power which points to the king's unspoken role. There are very suggestive indications that the crisis through which Sinuhe is passing has been engineered or orchestrated by the king in his divine capacity. Sinuhe's flight is referred to as “ordained” and statements made about the god “who ordained this flight” (Foster 1993, pp. 20, 28, 32); in this text, the verb sA “ordain” and its derivatives are used when a god (including the king) is the agent. The timing of the king's invitation is very serendipitous, following on Sinuhe's prayer (cf. Parkinson 1997, p. 48 n. 44). But the kong himself insists, in his letter, that what Sinuhe has done was “according to the counsels of your own heart” (Foster 1993, p. 23). Now we must confront the incomplete or misleading nature of the king's statement. Now the Egyptians had a concept of “free will” – the injuction to “do Maat” entails that one can choose to do so or not to. But that still leaves room for the paradox that sometimes “free will” could be illusory, that the God could be causing a person to will something, that unbeknownst to the protagonist, it was the God's plan for the person to want this. Sinuhe's flight can be seen as such a case. This is somewhat analogous to the Biblical narrative in which “God hardened Pharaoh's heart.” But is the king the sole architect of this turn of events? He most probably had help, powerful help, and it is to this aspect that we now turn.


And so we come to a question with important implications for the perhaps murky area of Sinuhe's personal dynamics as well as action of the story. One scholar (Tobin 1995) refers to Sinuhe's “secret” – a secret which amid all the protestations and denials is never revealed. Why indeed does he seem to react so guiltily? Why does he goes into a long series of denials with little or no provocation? We have a “modest proposal,” and this pertains not to the king but to the queen. Is it just possible that the, or a key might be Sinuhe's apparently admirable devotion and loyalty to Queen Nefru? What if his love for the queen is more than the dutiful dedication of a steadfast and zealous subject and servant? His wish for her to arch over him eternally as the revivifying sky goddess, while reflecting funerary iconography and texts as several commentators note, is powerfully charged with erotic imaginery. The phrase he uses, generally translated “that she spend eternity ( sb.s nHH ; Foster 1993, p. 22), apprears later in the title of the a mortuary text, usually rendered “The Book of Traversing Eternity,” but recently translated as the “Book of Encompassing Eternity” (DuQuesne 2003). The book culminates with “a unio mystica with Osiris” (15 n. 37), with language suggestive of physical intimacy (“… my tongue tastes you… I am clean in your mouth…;” p. 15). Could it be such a state to which Sinuhe aspires with the Queen? In any case, she is an incarnation of what has been called the archetype of the Supernatural Lady (cf. Meltzer 2005). To pursue the knight-errant analogy for a moment, perhaps Sinuhe wears her colors on his lance. Even if his adoration has been entirely innocent – if it exists, a big “if” we admit – it is a powerful motivating force. Perhaps Sinuhe is, like Othello, “one who loved not wisely but too well.” And perhaps then, old age – when, as Senwosret observes, Sinuhe's virility is diminished, or when in Shakespeare's words “the heyday in the blood is tame” – is a safe time for him to return. Be that as it may, it has been very reasonably suggested that “Sinuhe's return to Egypt is a rebirth medianted by Hathor” (Troy 1986, p. 59; citing Westendorf 1977). Queen Nefru, who is herself and embodiment of Hathor (Troy o.c. ), would thus seem to share with the king some responsability for the string-pulling of Sinuhe's flight and return. The Hathoric reference of his name indicates the extent to which Sinuhe's life is bound to the goddess and her earthly representative (cf. Troy 1986, p. 59), and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Hathor, the patroness of exotic climes, has been watching over Sinuhe during his flight (note that Byblos, which is mentioned, is a particularly notable city of hers) and the years he has spent in his adopted country. We would see the punning variant of his name, “Son of mHyt ,” as an affirmation of this, along with the deities Sinuhe himself invokes on Senwosret's behalf in his reply to the king's letter, who include Hathor and her alter ego “The Great One, Lady of Punt” and “Lady of the Necropolis,” identified with the uraeus (Foster 1993, p. 26) (variant of this last: “Lady of Imet,” i.e. Wadjyt).


Sinuhe's homecoming is bittersweet, involving as it does the abandonement of his Syrio.Canaanite family, about which very little is said; it features overwhelming emotion as well as some rather light “comic relief” humor. One of the human dimensions of this Heimkehr centers on language; he is returning to the land where his native tongue is spoken. The story presents an irony. When Sinuhe met Ammunenshi, the latter told to him, “You'll be happy with me; you'll hear the speech of Egypt.” Indeed there were other expatriate Egyptians, who perhaps had histories as colorful as Sinuhe's own. But Egyptian was certainly not Sinuhe's main language during his years of exile, and after his introduction to Ammunenshi, we hear nothing more of his compatriots, though we learn of emissaries he hosted who were travelling to and from the Residence. An appreciation of how it must have felt for Sinuhe to return is provided by a German scholar's poignant description of Bertolt Brecht's return to Germany – where he could speak his own language again, “after years of stammering in a foreign tongue.”


The Syrio-Canaanite setting of much of Sinuhe has guaranteed that it would be grist for the mill of Biblical scholars. One recent study (Barta 2003) finds in the tale's extreme verosimilitude a description of the Biblical “Patriarchal Age.” The present writer strongly suspects that Manfred Bietak's identification of an Israelite “four-room house” in the old excavation reports of Medinet Habu provides an anchor for a realistic chronology of the early Israelites and their relations with Egypt, an assessment that – in our own best judgement likely pulls the “Patriarchal Age” considerably later, namely to the Iron I period and perhaps the end of Late Bronze. But that no doubt provocative suggestion is probably best left for another lecture. I find the strongest Biblical resonances of the Sinuhe story/poem to be the theme of the protagonist's inability to escape the orbit of God's power, and the totally of God's mercy and forgiveness (Meltzer 2004; Blumenthal 1998; also Parkinson 1997 with his reiteration of “grace”); as well as the striking and unmistakable – to me at any rate – mirror-image relationship between major plot elements of Sinuhe and of the Biblical Joseph narrative (Meltzer 2004 – despite my overall agreement with my teacher Donald B. Redford, e.g., 1992, that the milieu depicted in the Joseph story is at east predominantly a late one). As I have remarked elsewhere (2004, p. 791):


“Sinuhe is an Egyptian who flees to Syro-Canaan, ‘goes native' as a member of the local ruling elite (in the process acquiring a wife and having sons), ten returning to Egypt and being recognized by the royal family. Joseph, on the other hand, is a Syro-Canaanite who, by what he ultimately recognizes as an ‘act of God' (also Sinuhe's characterization of his flight), is taken to Egypt, where he ‘goes native' as a member of ruling elite, acquiring a wife and having sons, then being reunited with and revealing himself to his Syro-Canaanite family…


“It is also worthy of note that Joseph absolves his brothers of both a real and a tumped-up charge against him.”


The Tale cannot of course be separated from the form and language of its telling. Along with the realization, now firmly established, that Sinuhe is a verse text, an important perspective is provided by the suggestion that the work might well have been performed, and would have provided an excellent vehicle for a gift reciter (Tobin 1995) – as I think was the case with Papyrus Westcar (Meltzer 1994), and has been suggested for the bulk of ancient Egyptian literature (Eyre 1990/1991).


Sinuhe has been the focus of grammatical studies of Middle Egyptian – quite naturally, in view of the superb quality of its writing – and it has thus been consistently at the intersection of competing grammatical analysis. While this is not a major theme of our current discussion, it cannot be ignored, especially since grammatical approaches have been strongly connected with literary and poetic analysis. One approach, developed in many publications, has identified “though couplets” as the fundamental units of Egyptian verse and of the grammar itself, at least for literary texts and has used the verbal forms in Sinuhe to mount a strong challenge to Polotsky's so-called “Standard Theory” of the “Emphatic Forms” in Middle Egyptian (Foster 1982-1983) Other scholars of a more Polotskyte bend have responded (Greig 1990 and Meltzer 1991), in one case enterily rejecting those arguments, in another maintaining that, despite some possible validity of the “thought couplet” analysis of Sinuhe, the overall “Standard Theory” model seemed to remain valid. Somewhat to my surprise, Leo Depuydt, a veritable Aquinas of the “Standard Theory,” substantially accepted understanding of the sDm.n.f forms in Sinuhe as belonging to the “thought couplet” system (Depuydt 1993, pp. 178-185), and I myself became more flexible as it seemed to me that the “thought couplet” approach discerned patterns that could not be predicted by the “Standard Theory” (Meltzer 1995). Somewhat earlier, Callender (1983) had taken issue with Junge's (1978) percieved departures from the Polotskyte form of the “Standard Theory,” and especially with what he considered Junge's “exclusion of meaning” (Callender 1983, p. 154). Junge's study relied heavily on Sinuhe as a source of examples. Over about the past two decades, initial challenges to the “Standard Theory” have escalated into the growing ascendancy of the “Verbalist” approach, which s also wryly dubbed the “Not So Standard Theory” (Collier 1990 and many other publications; Loprieno 1995; Allen 2001). At the same time, (as Allen acknowledges, p. 408), the “Standard Theory” is still well represented among current Egyptologists (e.g. Dupuydt 1999; Hoch 1996), and lively discussion of these approaches will certainly continue for some time to come.


One of the perennial questions surrounding Sinuhe and his story is whether he was a real official and the Tale or Poem was his real autobiography. Ten years ago, one scholar (Kitchen 1996) strongly asserted that we are dealing with a “real biography,”while others and current researchers (Barta 2003; Parkinson 1997; Blumenthal 1998; Simpson 2003; Foster 1993) have other perspectives. In one recent paper (2004), I refrained from addressing this issue, because in my view it was not decisive for the area I was exploring in that publication (Sinuhe's relationship with the god/king) and because I think any attempt to separate “autobiography” from “literature” cannot help being arbitrary. Are not the Autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin, Benvenuto Cellini, Mark Twain and many other luminaries read and valued primarily as works of literature, rather than as primary historical sources? And are not the authors often engaging in self-consciously literary production, as well as taking conspicuous liberties with the humble facts? This is a point to which we shall return. The identification of Sinuhe as simply a copy of an autobiography or as a literary tale is, however, an important issue in its own right, and it merits our deep examination and reflection.


The insistence that “Sinuhe goes entirely with the real biographies (Kitchen 1996, p. 60), and even more insistently, “Sinuhe goes firmly, clearly and unequivocally with the real biographies” (1996, p. 61), depends on an impressive array of criteria which, upon scrutiny, are all quite mechanical and only deal with actual content on a rather gross level of subject-matter. Thus, while the checklist of genres embedded in actual autobiographies (such as Weni's triumphal song, and Pepi II's letter to Harkhuf) goes some distance in accounting for the observation of Sinuhe's “wide range of genres and techniques” (Parkinson 1997, pp. 21 ff.), or “profusion of genres” (p. 25), it does not address the articulation of Sinuhe's motivation and introspection, or the “constant tension between the ideal and the actual” – matters that, as noted by another current Egyptologist and major scholar of Middle Egyptian literature, seem “unparalleled in actual Autobiographies” (Parkinson 1997, pp. 21 ff.). Thye clear-cut, “up or down” nature of the comparisons is itself possibly somewhat illusory. Counterbalancing this cookbook of criteria is the fact that Sinuhe simply does not “read” like a traditional autobiography, as subjective as that judgment might seem. Sinuhe talks about things that no Egyptian would be caught dead talking about in his autobiography; e.g., the people who were afraid when they recognized him, the statement that he himself lied or equivocated or was afraid. I would go so far as to say that the compelling, overwhelming interest of Sinuhe as a work of literature is found precisely in those aspects which transcend the traditional autobiography, which cannot be reduced to the traditional autobiography. When looked at from that perspective, accusations of “superficial judgments” and “fashionable and shallow judgment” leveled at other scholars ring somewhat hollow, and the rigid adherence to a checklist of mechanical criteria may prove to be the more shallow approach. It is also doubtful whether echoing C. S. Lewis's statements in an apologetic work now nearly 40 years old (Kitchen 1996, p. 62 n. 3) is sufficient to dismiss the entire field of literary criticism.


One significant corollary of the “autobiography and nothing but autobiography” approach is that it seems to deny, at least implicity, the ability of the ancient Egyptian writer to adapt, manipulate and work creatively within the canons of the autobiography form. Another scholar, on the other hand, contrats the high artistry of Sinuhe, which is labeled “literarische Autobiographie” [literary autobiography], with what are designated “echte Beamtenbiographie” [true biographies of officials] (Blumenthal 1998, p. 213). Analogously, in a recent monograph we read that “the origin of the Tale lies with the ancient Egyptian genre of tomb biography” (Foster 1993, p.126) and that it “is thought to difference in narrative skill between the tomb biography in general and this Tale. Sinuhe was composed as a story (whatever its genesis) by an author superbly skilled…” ( ibid. ). The question “was there a historical Sinuhe?,” is answered with the likelihood that “probably he is a brillianty conceived fiction based on conditions at the Egyptian court and in Syria-Palestine at the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty” (p. 127; a similar formulation, Simpson 2003, p. 54). I think that Foster perhaps overenthusiastically tilts too far in another direction by undervaluing the literary nature and merit of the “ordinary” (auto)biographies. Another current treatment (Barta 2003) joins with most others by characterizing Sinuhe as “fiction” though extremely accurate in its background and descriptions.


Having reviewed in a rather summary fashion various “takes” on the identification of Sinuhe as “real autobiography” or “fiction,” we must return to a question to which we alluded earlier and interrogate the “fiction”/”non-fiction” dichotomy itself. Speaking not only of Sinuhe but of the Egyptian literary texts in general, an important recent commentary states (Parkinson 1997, p. 3):


“Perhaps most importantly, they are fictional. This last feature distinguishes them from commemorative texts, which were intended to be accurate – if idealized – accounts, and from religious texts, which were intended to be authentic reflections of the universe. Fiction, however, allows its audience a vision of a different reality and an experience of alternative possibilities.”


Several statements included in this characterization cry out immediately for further questioning. I, along with many colleagues, consider it a highly dubious generalization that commemorative texts “were intended to be accurate” rather than to conform to or uphold overarching ideological or ultimately religious criteria (Was it “accurate” that Hatshepsut and Akhenaten never ruled? That Ramesses II's Kadesh campaign was a “famous victory”? Perhaps, to paraphrase a current political figure, it conformed to “a higher accuracy.”) Likewise, while I would agree that religious texts were assumed to be “authentic reflections of the universe,” that they were “intended” to be so is less self-evident: their “intentions” seem to be more specific and linked to their setting and the religious practices to which they pertained. Finally, I would submit that the Egyptian world-view already entailed, indeed abounded with “alternative possibilities” – of which religious texts provide many instances – and that the Egyptians by no means had to restort to “fiction” to experience them.


The very definition of “fiction” can also be called into question from another direction. In a review of a recent work on III Macabees, Jed Wyrick (2006) warns us against the “anachronic assumption” “that all literary deliberate untruths should be classified as fiction, regardless of how they were actually amd typically received in antiquity.”


Another aspect of the tripartite “literary/commemorative/religious” categorization of Egyptian texts seems problematic, an aspect which also informs our study of the Sinuhe text. As Sinuhe itself can be taken to illustrate, the boundaries between different types of text, though justified (or justifiable) by a variety of empirical criteria, are porous and paradoxical upon closer scrutiny. The categories constantly cross-fertilized each other. Ammunenshi's question to Sinuhe “How have you reached this place?” (Foster 1993, p. 8), is echoed virtually verbatim by the Puntites greeting Hatshepsut's expedition (deBuck RB , p. 52). (Sinuhe's description of old age [Foster 1993, p. 21] suggestively echoes that of Ptahhotpe [Sethe Lesestücke , p. 36], with the interesting detail that the eyes are nDs “shrunken” in Ptahhotpe and dns “heavy” in Sinuhe [Meltzer 1995, p. 273; for the comparison of the two texts, see also Simpson 2003, p. 61 n. 14]. These latter are both “literary” texts, but of different predominant types, “tale” and “wisdom,” or “narrative verse” and “didactic verse,” and the scribal affinities are sufficiently intriguing to deserve mention.) The apparent wall between “literary” and “religious” texts is breached inter alia by the seemingly strong reference to religious texts in several tales – including my own proposal presented at last year's ARCE on Papyrus Westcar and the Amduat, as well as other suggestions on the Shipwrecked Sailor, the Herdsman and king Neferkare and General Sisenet. “Commemorative” texts are by large written in “literaru” language (Goelet 2001 – a study which includes no discussion and barely any citations of Foster's work!). They and “literary” texts, and at least to an extent “religious” texts as well, are the products of the same overall scribal establishment (though sometimes specialized departments or institutions thereof), and, given the limited demographics in ancient Egypt, it would be surprising if some text of different categories were not the work of the same authors. Turning our attention to other characteristics of genre, Foster's strong divide between Sinuhe and “real” autobiographies kseems to be reinforced by his understanding that the latter are predominantly in prose or at least an obvious place to look for that somewhat elusive style (Foster 1980), whereas this is at least seriously questionable as shown by a recent study of private laudatory epithets (Leprohon 2001).


A final reflection on the nature of literature itself: The assertion that “the literary papyri are the results of individuals choosing to copy individual works” (Parkinson 1997, p. 3) needs to be qualified, or at least put in a wider perspective. What he says may be predominantly true as regards papyri, but when one looks at the total inventory of exemplars of literary texts, there are a great many school texts, especially ostraca. The taste of those who had the luxury and leisure to copy literary papyri was shaped by their years of scribal education, and, as my teacher Klaus Baer pointed out, the most essential definition of literature is compositions that are crammed down the throats of students. That perceptive and gifted teacher said that if your want to define literature, look at the school texts. Then examine them to see what types of composition the Egyptians considered literary or potentially literary, and you will find that they have outward formal characteristics of text types that the tripartite analysis does not consider “literary” – the tomb (auto)biography (Sinuhe), the expedition-report (Shipwrecked Sailor), the court report (Lebensmüde).


Goethe's warning, in Faust , about the limitations of dry scholastic analysis, also quoted by A. Piankoff regarding the Pyramid Texts (1968, p. 3), is apropos, indeed urgent, in the case of Sinuhe:


“Wer will was Lebendigs erkennen und beschreiben

Sucht erest den Geist heraus zu treiben,

Dann hat er die Teile in seiner Hand,

Fehlt leider! nur das geistige Band…”


[“One who wants to understand and describe something living

First tries to drive out the spirit,

Then he has the parts in his hand,

Unfortunately! Only the spiritual bond is lacking…”]


Ultimately, the scholar is left with a choice: to cling to the familiar shorelines of “safe” studies or, like Sinuhe himself, to strike out for more adventurous horizons. I strongly suspect that the latter is where we shall encounter the “real” Sinuhe – whether or not he ever existed in the flesh.




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