Thoughts on reading two Ancient Egyptian short stories.

The first stories in the Great Short Stories of The World anthology are THE TWO BROTHERS (ANPU AND BATA), and, SETNA AND THE MAGIC BOOK. According to the editors, both of these date from ‘about 1400 B.C.’, and are by that most prolific of all authors, Anonymous.

They go on to say that these tales ‘have an extraordinary interest in that they are the very earliest examples that we possess.’ Thinking that such a statement may have been challenged by now, I had a quick look through some more recent sources on my bookshelves, and then did an internet search.

The first thing I was reminded of was how slippery the term ‘short story’ is. If we demand that it is something told strictly in prose form, then yes, these two stories from Ancient Egypt are some of the earliest written examples. It would get a lot more complicated, though, if we included stories that employ rhyme, rhythm and repetition, hallmarks of the oral storytelling tradition. Then, questions about when, where and how the dividing line between story and poetry come into play, and I’d need to open up a longer reaching discussion than one small blog-post usually manages.

I’m going to side-step that can of worms, and hand responsibility for starting in Egypt back to the esteemed editors, Messrs Clark and Lieber. However, while I’m happy to concentrate on the content they’ve provided, I am not going to rely on them for historical accuracy.

In presenting SETNA AND THE MAGIC BOOK, they claim that the original manuscript, ‘came from the workshop of the scribe Anena, who flourished in the reigns of Ramses II, Menephtah, and Seti II.

I don’t know how changes in the archeological science may have affected this theory, in the decades since 1937, but I am convinced by the textual argument David K. Jordan Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of California, makes against it. On an internet page published in 2011, and updated in 2020, he suggests that we should be careful of taking too much notice of what may seem authentic detail. Our narrator, says Professor Jordan, makes some significant errors about Egypt in the time of Ramessses II.

…that setting was either mere romanticism or an inaccurately understood historical tradition, for the writer of the existing copy of the story seems to have imagined the capital to have been at Memphis (one of the Ptolemaic capitals) rather than at Thebes, where Ramesses really had his capital, and the author gives far more attention to the god Ptah than would have been appropriate for a story from the time of Ramesses. Some Greek names also point to the Ptolemaic copyist’s (or author’s) lack of attention to historical accuracy in the setting of the tale.

Professor Jordan says that this story was ‘probably copied… somewhere after 305 BC‘.

What’s a century or two, between readers?

Well, it can be the difference between sense and confusion. There was such a moment for me in this translation of THE TWO BROTHERS (ANPU AND BATA). It was made by William Flinders Petrie in 1895.

Anpu’s wife has falsely accused Bata of trying to seduce her. Anpu takes up a knife and tries to kill Bata, and is only prevented when the God, Ra, helps Bata by causing a vast stretch of croccodile infested water to form between the brothers. In order to convince Anpu of his innocence, Bata ‘took a knife, and cut off of his flesh, and cast it into the water, and the fish swallowed it.’

Wow, I thought, that’s extreme, and rather random, but I didn’t take time to think it through. The story was moving fast, and I was still acclimatizing to a culture in which it seemed to be acceptable for Anpu to return home and not only kill his wife, but feed her body to his dogs.

Meanwhile, Bata was busy making a home in the desert, building a tower and meeting nine Gods, who made a wife especially for him. All, I thought would be fine, now.

I should have remembered my Mabinogian*, in which two magicians made a woman from flowers, to give to the hero Lleu.

Funny thing, but this woman didn’t seem grateful about her given position either. Soon I was so intent on her devious machinations I read right over an important piece of contextual information. Well, that and the slightly arcane narration William Flinders Petrie had decided would give the correct atmosphere for the period.

And Bata loved her very exceedingly, and she dwelt in his house; he passed his time in hunting the beasts of the desert, and brought and laid them before her.

[This reminded me of a cat I used to have, called Jester.]

He said: “Go not outside, lest the sea seize thee; for I cannot rescue thee from it, for I am a woman like thee; my soul is placed on the head of the flower of the acacia; and if another find it, I must fight with him.” And he opened unto her his heart in all its nature.

Oh boy, some men just don’t know how to keep their mouths shut. Still, the stage was now set for all kinds of developments. While I was still pondering the significance of the acacia flower, the nameless girl had enticed a Pharaoh into her orbit, established herself as his princess, and was scheming to make sure Bata couldn’t steal her back again.

And when I think about it, why should she want to live in a tower in the desert? Is it me, or does this bit remind you a little of Rapunzel?

Anyway, before I give you any more spoilers, let me say that I loved this, as I did SETNA AND THE MAGIC BOOK. The editors offer a description that might be applied, these days, to magical realism.

Whether or not the Egyptions actually beleived all they were told in a fairy tale is an idle conjecture, but it seems probable that the strange happenings described in this story were accepted by many. Even the present age of science has not entirely banished a belief in magic…’

After finishing both stories, I looked them up. One of the summaries named the portion of sliced off flesh that William Flinders Petrie was too modest to identify, and suddenly Bata’s action made a lot more sense.

I read both stories again, and again, tantalized by glimpses of fairytales and myths I knew from other cultural backgrounds; reminded of Aristotle’s claim that we retell the same seven stories over and over again, and of Carl Jung’s theories of archetypes. How far back does the short story go? What does it include? I’m still working on these questions.

*Footnote on The Mabinogian: these are the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain. The stories were compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions. (Wikipedia)

51 thoughts on “Thoughts on reading two Ancient Egyptian short stories.

  1. Wow Cath, how exciting – and I thought a small dose of Fred Astaire on YouTube was the best way to start a dismal Monday morning. As usual a thought provoking piece – and the side track of when is a short story a poem is fascinating. Perhaps categorising “collections of words” in this way is just us being lazy so that we can sort out what we think we would like to read. Great post, thanks.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I love Fred Astaire on any morning, though I find him so compulsive that tends to become my morning…
      I’m so glad you enjoyed my dip into Egyptian story-land. Yes, the questions of applying categories regularly set me off on rambles. They have a tendency to be circular, but I generally enjoy the scenery, so I guess I’ll continue to take them.

      I hope you, Pat, Frances and the family are all well, and still finding enjoyable pass-times.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My ignorant guess is that the story – short and otherwise – has been with us since we started to communicate. The rhyme and the alliteration and all the other devices of poetry just made the stories easier to memorise.

    Enjoyed this.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. This is EPIC. I just love all your what I’d call ‘theatrical asides.’ I’ve done them as a side narrator in plays and I have to say after I found myself doing your first one here…well… I’ve been having a wee giggle since. Great post and what a detail you’ve put in.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What fascinating reads. Wow, Cath. Of course people have been telling stories for thousands of years, but rarely do we have a chance to read something so ancient. How interesting, but unsurprising, that they told magical tales. Great share. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  5. It’s interesting, Cath.

    As well as oral and written traditions, there must have been a pictorial way of storytelling, like the Bayeux Tapestry. The many cave paintings may have been a way of telling or remembering a story though the meaning is lost to us.
    The oral way is easily most transportable and doesn’t require literacy. Taking a story around with them probably explains why similar tales crop up in different places in the world.

    The tower in the desert reminded me of Babel. Did he build it to meet his nine gods? But even today, building a tower anywhere can be an ostentatious display of status, power and wealth.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. The Two Brothers tale type, with its inherent theme of sibling rivalry, is of great antiquity, certainly: my first introduction to it was via Robert Graves’ rather dubious The White Goddess where he goes on powerfully about it (in fact I think he identifies what that rogue piece of flesh really is). Charlotte Brontë seems to have had an obsession with it, especially in her unfinished novels, as I discuss in a review of her incomplete Ashworth:

    Liked by 2 people

    • The White Goddess has been waiting on my shelf for more years than I care to count up. It’s so familiar that I only half notice it, these days. Thank you for the reminder. I might line it up to follow on from GSSs of the W.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I time-travelled and enjoyed this short trip. Egypt, one of the oldest civilisations, always fascinated me… these folktales are a door to explore their ancient world.
    Loved this witty post and the way you deeply looked into these stories.
    Thanks Cath!

    PS – my latest post is about a folklorist. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Gotta hand it to Anonymous. You won’t find a more prolific author. These stories sound great. I had a professor who was an Egyptologist, and it seems like a very intense community where people are very adamant about their views. Even those views which may be somewhat tenuously supported and open to debate. But that’s just my impression from the outside.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Wow, what a fabulous find, although I would have guessed the ancient Greeks were the first to pen the short stories given their prolificness early on. Also, is it me, or have women had a bum rap like, ALL THROUGH RECORDED HISTORY! Time to change that story, right, Cath?

    Liked by 2 people

  10. You are right, it is the same story but just a different culture. Feeding the dead woman’s body to dogs is also mentioned in the bible. I find the common theme in ancient stories in male dominate societies the females’ punishments are always something degrading.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What a coincidence, my friend! I’m working on a presentation for my university’s literature festival about the Outsider-Turned-Hero across different cultures. The archetypes turn up everywhere across time and land!

    Liked by 1 person

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