Miriam Lichtheim has collected a lot of ancient Egyptian writings into three slim (200+ pages each) volumes, covering the Old and Middle Kingdoms, the New Kingdom and the Late Period. There are a lot of reasons you should read the literature of old Egypt, and here are some:
- It sheds light on the Bible, and therefore on the early history of Bible-related, Abrahamic religions.
- We don’t see back any further than Egypt (and Sumeria and a few other coeval cultures), so these writings are, practically speaking, the roots of our civilization.
- All writing constitutes, in some sense, the field notes of the human species. Living an informed life requires that we check our predecessors’ logs and adjust our own course accordingly.
- This is a blog about writing, so here’s the writer’s point: in ancient Egypt, we see a lot of writing firsts, and a lot of things written really well. The Story of Wenamun, for instance, is a historical novel that predates Homer by several hundred years (and the Tale of Genji by thousands). Ramses II’s account of the Battle of Kadesh is an important primary source for a pivotal historical event, and is also a piece of blatant and entertaining propaganda, which claims that the Pharaoh’s men all fled and he fought off the enemy hordes single-handed. It’s a great piece of writing for insight into the psychology of kings, and the need many of them have shown to claim the mantle of military hero.