The worst possible moment for a story to be cut off… in Ancient Egypt

One of my favourite childhood memories is of the one and only time I had a perfect day at school. It happened at Higham Park primary school and I must have been around seven or eight years old at the time. We had a substitute teacher whom we had not met before and we spent the entire day studying Ancient Egypt.

It was the most enjoyably day I’d ever spent at school and no other day afterwards, all the way through to university, ever came close. Today, to my great disappointment, the memories of exactly what we did have faded and I wish I’d taken the time to write them down, though I did remember all through my teens. The only specific thing I can remember doing is working out how to write my name in hieroglyphics. But what I do clearly remember is how much fun it was.

Everything we did, from the start of the day to the very end, was intriguing, interesting and immensely enjoyable. I don’t recall if everything was particularly easy, but it was all so much fun that working through it felt effortless. I also don’t remember what we had for lunch, but it must have been something good because any blot on this day would have stood out clearly. At an age when maths lessons seem to last forever and lunch hours are far too short, I remember being amazed at how the day was speeding by, how much we’d done and how much fun I was having. I’m not still in contact with any of my classmates from this time, but I hope they all felt the same way.

I can’t see anything even vaguely Ancient Egyptian today without the fond memories of the perfect school day stirring. It’s been happening a lot recently as I’ve been reading John Romer’s excellent book Ancient Lives, which tells the stories of the workmen who built and decorated the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. This in turn has sent me to the Egypt shelf in the history section of my local library hungry for more and I’ve been devouring the books there.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about this is getting reacquainted with the myths and legends of one of the world’s oldest civilisations. I have been feeling the disappointment though, that comes from reading a tale that is only partially recorded; on torn scraps of papyrus or damaged carvings, which can often result in the story being cut off just when it’s getting to the good bit. Possibly the ultimate example of this is this one, recorded in the 12th century BC Papyrus Berlin:

“The Herdsman and the Goddess”

…The herdsman tells of what he has seen: “One day I decided to take my charges down to the marshy land. There I saw a woman, who did not look like other, ordinary women. My own hair stood on end when I saw the woman’s hair, because it was such a beautiful colour. But I will never do what she asked me to do, because I am terrified of her…”

…But, when the night sky grew light with the dawn, what he had related did happen. The goddess met him at the pool, and she had removed all her clothes, and unbound her hair…

And the story gets cut off there.

We can only imagine what the Goddess was asking the poor, unfortunate herdsman to do (speaking personally, I’d be more than willing to do it in his place), but as the tale is written on the back of another, longer story entitled “The Man who was tired of life” it may not be that surprising that we’re missing the rest (misery loves company, after all).
But I like to imagine the very moral, serious and proper Victorian English Egyptology professor translating it for the first time: “DAMMIT! …Umm… I mean… Now we’re going never be able to study this era of New Kingdom literature properly! …Not unless we find the rest of it… What are you all standing here for? Get outside and start digging!”

(Kit Downes)


The Penguin Book of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt. Joyce Tyldesley. Penguin Books. ISBN: 978-0-141-02176-8




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