From the origins to the classical period
Although writing is a very ancient invention in Egypt, we do not have direct documents of primitive literature. Historical and funerary inscriptions remain, concise and poor, and only with the end of the V and the beginning of the VI dynasty do they take on larger forms in the biographies of the dead carved on the walls of the tombs. In this period, in the meantime, the texts of the funerary ritual began to be written on the walls of the burial chambers, in the tombs of the kings, shortly before being recast in Heliopolis in a very composite collection. They are of very different origin: some of recent formation, most of by now a centuries-old tradition, and contain precious allusions to political conditions that have been outdated for centuries, to rites that have overlapped or have disappeared, to myths which appear side by side with different editions of origins. and for historical significance; and it is among these texts that the first truly literary writings are found. In a language maintained ritually more archaic than that of the Old Kingdom, there are hymns to various divinities, cosmogonic narratives, magical formulas. The precious and constructed language of the poetic language is formed; and in some single cases theology and eschatological utilitarianism also leave room for a true poem.
Literary flowering is very intense in the Middle Kingdom. First of all, a group of works called Insegnamenti should be remembered: collections of maxims and advice. The authors of two of these works are considered to be Herdedef and Ptahhotpe. We know the tombs of characters with this name, who lived in the Old Kingdom, and Herdedef is a famous son of Cheops; but here we are probably faced with a mythical attribution, or at least faced with a profound remaking, even if many elements of the society described may seem more Memphites than Heracleopolitans or Thebans. The teaching of Khety is certainly to be attributed to the Heracleopolitan period for his son Duauf, who describes the disadvantages of all trades compared to that of the scribe: a tone of calm humor enlivens the whole work. Two other teachings are very important and live: one of an anonymous Heracleopolitan king for his son Merikare, who describes the murky political situation of the time with clear realism and a profound and new moral sense; the other of Amenemhat I to his son, full of a bitter pessimism. The two works must be evaluated as apocryphal: but, if not personally by the two sovereigns, they were written by those who were very close to them, and they are the first two truly and humanly profound literary works given to us by Egypt.
Another group of writings goes by the name of Lamentations: compositions that still collect the frightening echo of the revolution and the civil war that close the Memphite era; mistrust, terror are the two psychological themes of this sometimes vaguely prophetic and messianic literature. The oldest of these texts seems to be the Dialogue of a discouraged person with his soul, who debates at length the problem of the legitimacy of suicide, destroying with bitter criticism the serene afterlife promised by religion. Much more prose is the pamphlet called Ipuwer’s Admonitions, an essay describing to the king, probably Pepi II, the ruinous state of Egypt in revolution. The text has value as a document, albeit biased and distorting, of the era it describes. More lively is another work that recounts, in the form of prophecies pronounced by a wise man at the court of King Snefru, the revolution and the quiet that will succeed it thanks to a king in whom Amenemhat I recognizes himself, at the time of which the opera must have been composed.
This literature, which has lyrical elements suspended in a search for moral reasons, is accompanied by a rich literature that is more strictly narrative. The story of the eloquent farmer can act as a connecting link, which tells how a farmer robbed of his donkeys and their load turns to the king for justice with 9 speeches, which constitute a fine essay of literary virtuosity. But the classic work of this narrative literature, which will remain so throughout Egyptian history, is the biography of Sinuhe, which has come down to us through a broad manuscript tradition that proves its extraordinary diffusion. Full instead of vivid fantasy is the story of the Castaway: a sailor, the only survivor of a terrifying shipwreck, is thrown on the shores of a blessed island and is welcomed kindly by the local lord, a gigantic divine serpent, who treats him with all courtesy and fills him with gifts when he can finally leave; this story seems to have been extracted from a series of chain stories, which we do not know. We know instead another chain story of this era, much more popular as a language and as a subject: in the presence of King Cheops, the wonders of the great magicians who lived under his predecessors are told; at the end of the narration a magician is introduced to the court, who performs various prodigies, finally prophesying to the pharaoh the birth of three brothers from the wife of a priest of Ra and from the god Ra himself, who will occupy the throne after him; with the story of the birth of the three children,