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History of the Egyptian Religion, part III: The Wisdom Literature

Author: Mirjam

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It may seem that religion in ancient Egypt was mainly concerned with preserving the status of kingship and of a powerful priesthood. However, at all levels of society relationship with a deity through prayers and offerings on a daily basis was of great importance. At this period, there were already texts, which were believed to be issued from the deities themselves, showing us that morale codes and ethical behavior was taught to young people, and that one's behavior in this life had a direct influence on life in the hereafter.


These sources are called the Instructions, or Wisdom Literature. They usually take the form of an elder teaching a young son or future king how to behave and conduct himself in order to be successful and gain esteem in society. The origins of these 'Instructions' dates back to the Old Kingdom although many of them exist on papyrii from the New Kingdom. They were frequently copied by schoolboys on ostraca for several reasons, partly for the instructions themselves, partly for the exercise of style and writing. And so these schoolboy copies have been preserved to our days.

The values taught to young people was to live a life in accordance with Ma'at and to interact with other people on all levels of society while taking into consideration experience, so that continuity, safety and success would be ensured. Individuals should listen and pay attention to each other and to temper their speech so that violence can be avoided. Thus right living can be achieved and Ma´at upheld, which ensures life after death.



There are three main sources that stem from the Old Kingdom; the 'Instructions of Ptah-Hotep', the 'Instructions to Kagemni', and the 'Instructions of Duauf', also called the 'Instructions of Kehety' or the 'Satire on Trades':



The Instructions of Ptahotep

Ptahotep is known to have existed, he was the vizier to king Isesi in the 5th Dynasty. There has been found a tomb at Saqqara for one Ptahotep, but if this would be the same person has not been proven. These rather long teachings exist in four copies, three on papyrus scrolls and the fourth one, which is only a beginning has survived on a wooden tablet. The copies are from the Middle and the New Kingdom but the originals are dated to the Old Kingdom.

Ptahotep instructs his young pupil in how to make achievements in the world, how to moderate his speech and behavior, how to treat superiors and inferiors and warns him against covetousness, which was strongly frowned upon.



If a man's son accepts his father's words

No plan of his will go wrong

Teach your son to be a hearer,

One who will be valued by the nobles

One who guides his speech by what he was told,

One regarded as a hearer.

(Ptahotep 564, Papyrus Prisse)





Instructions to Kagemni

Kagemni was the son of king Huni in Dynasty 3. It is copied on the Papyrus Prisse, before the Instructions of Ptahotep. The nature of the teachings are the same; discretion and moderation in speech and behavior, restraint at food and greed will bring success:


Let your name go forth

While your mouth is silent.

When you are summoned, don't boast of strength

Among those your age, lest you be opposed.

One knows not what may happen,

What God does when he punishes




Instructions of Duauf

These are also called the 'Instructions of Khety' or 'The Satire on Trades'. Supposedly these are written by Duauf, son of Khety and a man of low birth. He advises his son Pepi who has had the good luck to be placed in school along with children of the magistrates and therefore his father tries to ensure that the boy will take advantage of the teachings and become a scribe so he doesn't have to work in the various trades. Therefore Duauf describes the various trades and their toils, and glorifies the scribe's profession to make Pepy pursue this career.

Ethical conduct and moderation, respect for authority and kindness for those who are lower than oneself brings about personal attainment, which in its turn leads to contentment. The standards for 'right living' were thus already set as a way to uphold the balance and justice of all things, high and low. Maybe these standards were high and can be called an 'ideal'. Nevertheless the Wisdom Texts prevailed through time, and today they give us opportunity to gain an insight into what the ancient Egyptians considered as the most important values in life .

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