Transcript: 7. Richard Parkinson on Egyptian Poetry

Egyptologist Richard Parkinson joins us to talk about the context and meaning of the Eloquent Peasant and other literary works of ancient Egypt.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We're going to be discussing some of the texts that we've been looking at over the last few episodes, which we're claiming are philosophical works from ancient Egypt. One of them is a text you've worked on quite a lot called The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, as an example of what you've been known to describe as Egyptian poetry. I was wondering whether you could just tell us something general about these works, for example, how it is that they have survived for such a long time so that we can read them today, and what kinds of themes they cover.

Richard Parkinson: Well, these sorts of texts are preserved on rolls of papyrus that are placed in tombs around 1850 BC. They're written in a phase of the Egyptian language called Middle Egyptian, and they seem to be associated with the court of the 12th dynasty in Egypt. They are found in the tombs of local officials, but it seems from literacy levels, from that sort of thing, that they probably originate within the sphere of the court; are read, performed throughout the country. And they seem to be part of an official's sense of his own social status and cultural sort of display and prestige. Beyond that, we don't know much about who the authors were. We don't know much about who the audiences were. So a lot of how we approach them is deducing the context from what the texts say about themselves, which is, of course, incredibly risky. But the view I take is that they're not, as has sometimes been claimed, propaganda, political propaganda, but they are more reflective works of literature.

Peter Adamson: And they would have been read out at court? Maybe with the accompaniment of music? Is that possible?

Richard Parkinson: That is one possible scenario, and one that I believe is quite possible. They're certainly very dramatic works, and they are full of rhetorical poetic devices, imagery, assonance. And I think they are highly emotional and really very subjective in many ways. And that's why I quite like the term poetry as opposed to propaganda or philosophical texts, something like that. They're very much concerned, it seems, with entertaining an audience - provoking them, shocking them, giving a sense of a very passionate sense of life.

Peter Adamson: Does that give us an insight into the audience? Because it seems to me that if that's right, then the audience must be expected to identify with at least some of the characters.

Richard Parkinson: Yes, but which characters they identify with is not a simple matter.

Peter Adamson: Because being read out at court, it's hard to believe that they're supposed to identify with the eloquent peasant because he's a peasant.

Richard Parkinson: He is a peasant. He is also addressing a fictional audience of courtiers and shouting, screaming abuse at them, which is in itself quite an interesting reversal of roles. And I think anyone in the audience is invited to identify with the peasant. So the engagement of the audience is not simple. It seems to be not conflicted, but certainly challenging and ironic and very dramatic in those sort of ways. So I think our response to them cannot be simple. And if we want to extract a sort of cultural and intellectual message from them, it's remarkably difficult at times.

Peter Adamson: You said we don't know much about the authors either, or maybe we don't know anything about them and we're just guessing. Would you care to guess and speculate a bit? I mean, there is this class of scribes and we assume, I guess, that they come from this class, right?

Richard Parkinson: Yes. I think it's fairly certain, although they're designed for performance, they seem to be composed in writing. That a certain workplace that only works if you're literate and you know the script system.

Peter Adamson: Oh, so you mean they wouldn't have originally been composed as oral works?

Richard Parkinson: I don't think so, no. I think they are composed by the sort of people who would compose official documents and monumental inscriptions. They are very close stylistically to those. The knowledge of court etiquette in some of them suggests people are really quite high up in court circles. There are lots of allusions to quite esoteric texts. So I think they are culturally central. It isn't, I don't think it's originating, say, in the so-called middle class of the scribal sub-elite. I think we're looking at court poets who are very close to the king and to the central state libraries and the temple priesthoods.

Peter Adamson: That would help explain why they survived because they were written by very important people.

Richard Parkinson: They can only survive if they were sent out through the country. That could only happen, one assumes, for state-approved works.

Peter Adamson: And do we have any idea why they would have been, I don't know what the right verb is, but interred with the body in the tombs?

Richard Parkinson: Absolutely not, no. Except you find in other tombs, say, staffs of office, things placed on the coffin intended to show the gender, the status, the prestige of a person. And it looks as if in the second half of the 12th dynasty, for some reason, literary texts became something you wanted to take with you. And sometimes administrative texts. And there, it looks as if they are bits of the professional life of the tomb owner.

Peter Adamson: So like, I take my tax documents with me to the afterlife?

Richard Parkinson: If I am an accountant, yes, I take the full works with me. We have one example where we're pretty sure the named tomb owner is the person who wrote the texts placed on his coffin. And I think the literary texts have a similar, but a slightly broader cultural role, though we can't prove that. We don't have the archaeological contexts of many of them. We do have fragmentary copies, though, from settlement sites. So they are certainly texts that are parts of the living world. They're not in any sense restricted to funerary deposits.

Peter Adamson: Clearly then we shouldn't be just assuming that they have some kind of religious significance that's eluding us. And in contrast to that, actually, the first group of texts we talked about in the first episode we did on Egypt was the pyramid texts. And those are religious in nature.

Richard Parkinson: Those are highly religious, but like the literary texts, are also incredibly performative.

Peter Adamson: And what do you think we can infer from the pyramid texts about the themes, perhaps, that are then captured also in these later poetic works? Would you see a connection between them?

Richard Parkinson: I think the main connection is almost formal. I think the funerary texts and the ritual texts are among the first texts to be written down of any length. And I think they provide a practical model for the writing down of literary texts. I think in the age of the pyramid texts, there's every chance the sorts of texts that are later found in literary manuscripts existed in an oral form. At a certain point in the 12th dynasty, it was decided that oral poetry should be transferred into the world of writing, presumably because it becomes elevated in status in court culture. I think looking back to ritual texts, those would be an obvious model for the poets to follow if they wanted to write down narrative dialogue. There's certain ways of formatting the manuscripts that seem to look back to ritual texts as well.

Peter Adamson: And do you see any philosophically relevant material in the pyramid texts, or do you think they're, as it were, just religious funerary works?

Richard Parkinson: They are religious and funerary works, but of course they are voicing concerns about kingship, about the state of the universe, in a way to enable the rebirth, the continuation of the king's life. But I think they draw, they express most directly the ideas that we can detect the Egyptians had about the world, about ethical behavior.

Peter Adamson: And one of the central ideas that's come up a lot already is this notion of ma'at. And already we have problems about how to translate it. We could just sort of cheat and say ma'at and not translate it. And I've seen some translations that do that. And these come up in the tradition of instructions. So when basically works of ethical advice and they always say, make sure to observe ma'at and you will flourish if you do, you'll pay for it if you don't. And so maybe first I should ask you what your preferred translation of it is, or what you think speaks for and against certain translations.

Richard Parkinson: Ma'at can clearly mean truth. So if when people are failing to recognize somebody they say, is that really him? Is that him in truth? It has ethical overtones to do truth, it's to do justice, to behave in a correct manner. It also has an almost cosmic sense of order. Ma'at is the ideal state of the world. It opposes chaos. The legal system is what creates and upholds ma'at. The king is the person who embodies ma'at. Ma'at is also mythologically the daughter of the sun god. She is part of the way in which the cosmos is created. So there are multiple possibilities of translating the word and the only reason for translating it the same way with the same word in a literary text is just to show how important that single concept is. And in something like the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, it's used in various ways but the main thing, the main literary effect is this word keeps ringing out like a bell throughout the text and it has ideas of reciprocity, of social engagement. If you are kind to people, that is ma'at. You do something to them and so the like will be done to you. That is the principle of ma'at. It's very much a word that summarizes the whole of the Egyptian world view in a sense.

Peter Adamson: One of the things I find really fascinating about it is that it does have both this cosmic instantiation so the whole universe somehow represents ma'at because it was built that way by the gods but on the other hand, we can express ma'at in our everyday lives. And should I understand that to mean that there's a causal influence there? So is the reason why I'll prosper if I exhibit ma'at that I am living in a universe that is constructed along these principles?

Richard Parkinson: Yes, everything is bound together is one phrase that is used in the teaching of Merikare. And ma'at is presented as sort of an almost a law of nature, a law of the cosmos. You cannot create it, you can try to destroy it but ma'at is thought to be transcendent in the sense that it is embodied in a flawed way in the human social world - in the world after the gods have departed from the originally perfect world and that frequently references the idea that now ma'at dwells in a perfect state in the other world and so it gains this eternal otherworldly aspect. And the eloquent peasant of course plays with this idea of how imperfectly embodied mat is in a corrupt society and how the official's duty is to try and be a perfect embodiment of these ideals. I think there's a very, very strong statement of the awareness that the present world is not ideal and the ideals of truth and beauty and justice do exist but not always in the society we see around us.

Peter Adamson: Do these texts give us much help on the epistemological front? So what I mean by that is, for example, if I want to know what ma'at consists in, do they tell me how I could find that out or how I could know whether my assumptions about righteousness or justice or truth or whatever you want to translate it as - how I would know that my assumptions were correct?

Richard Parkinson: The texts that are called teachings seem to claim to do this. I'm slightly skeptical that they are a handbook about ma'at simply because I think it was such a fundamental aspect of social life that probably everybody absorbed it by other means. One didn't have to say that kingship was a good thing in ancient Egypt because that just went without question.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, try saying it's not a good thing and see what happens!

Richard Parkinson: Or like somebody standing up now and saying, well, democracy is really completely lunacy. It goes without saying. What the teachings do is provide instances of ma'at, but sometimes I think they're slightly ironic. Sometimes they read against the grain. I think one of the great teachings, the teaching of the vizier Tahotep is ostensibly a text that is telling his son how to be wise, how to succeed in his career. The opening maxim is don't be proud because you're wise. Fine words can be found with the maids at the millstones. It's very rare, but you shouldn't assume that you as a vizier's son have an automatic right to it. A lot of the vignettes that are then given as 'this is how you behave in these circumstances' envisage a whole range of social possibilities. So I think the teaching texts are slightly poetic meditations on education. They are not actually the handbooks on how to educate a vizier's son.

Peter Adamson: And what do you see as the connection between those works of instruction or teaching, and the tale of the eloquent peasant and other poetic works?

Richard Parkinson: I think the eloquent peasant and some of the dialogues, some of the narratives, include elements of wisdom literature, but often in quite a dramatic context and often in quite an ironic way. In the tale of Sinuhe, there's a wonderful eulogy of the reigning pharaoh, but it's actually put in the mouth of a fugitive who is acclaiming how wonderful the king is to a small Palestinian kinglet. It is the most colossally tactless thing to do. He provides this huge, long, wonderful poetic eulogy and the answer comes from the foreign princeling: 'Well, that's awfully nice, but you're here.' I think with eloquent peasant, there is also this huge irony that the peasant is defining how the officials should behave, is producing wonderful eulogies of ma'at, denunciations of social injustice. The result is, he's speaking so perfectly, they continue to beat him - and they continue to beat him, so he continues to acclaim justice. And so the articulation of justice produces the exactly opposite result, that he continues to be oppressed, until he gets to the point of suicide and at that point it's revealed they have been listening and it's all right. That I think makes the social embodiment of justice incredibly problematic for the audience. At the end, you're not quite sure whether it's all a joke or really quite painful. And the peasant is the voice of truth, but he's not had an easy ride.

Peter Adamson: I can picture the audience as being on the verge of tears by the end because it's so agonizing that he's meriting better treatment and he keeps getting such horrible treatment. He goes for justice and they do things to him that are even worse than what happened to him in the first place. He gets beaten.

Richard Parkinson: Yes, and more than that! It's very passionate. I think part of that is it engages the audience. It isn't an academic description of the principles of my art. It is somehow sucking the audience in, forcing them to feel it in all its forms.

Peter Adamson: Would it be fair to say then that the works of instructions or teaching on the one hand and something like the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant on the other hand are two alternative ways to try to induce ma'at or a motivation to exemplify ma'at in the audience? One is very didactic, right? It says 'do this. Here's how you should be.' The other is, 'let me tell you a story.'

Richard Parkinson: Yes, I think so. I think, though, the teachings are also slightly framed. They're put in historical settings. They're given a slight narrative introduction. So I think they are slightly closer to the Peasant than is often assumed. There's also another genre, the lament, where ma'at is shown by description of the exact opposite, the chaotic state of the world. Clearly in the 12th dynasty and slightly later there was a taste for hearing somebody denounce the state of the world, to describe how ghastly and catastrophic society was. These are often assumed to be reflections on historical periods of chaos. I would assume you only really can listen to that sort of poetry if you're sitting in a fairly safe and stable state. So I think they are, again, dramatic literary presentations of a view of the world. All of the texts, I think, are fundamentally pessimistic. They all assume that society is tending to chaos. Sometimes you can do something to repel the chaos, but in other texts, you fully face up to the possibility that that won't happen.

Peter Adamson: I guess if you're trying to think of pessimistic or dark works from this period, one of the most obvious ones is the so-called dialogue between a man and his Ba, which seems to depict a suicidal person talking to... I don't know what you think "Ba" means. I mean, I guess it seemed to me that it might mean something like soul.

Richard Parkinson: It's something like soul. It's an aspect of a person which becomes animate at the moment of death, it seems. The idea he is speaking to his soul is itself, I think, a literary fiction. The man is apparently suicidal, and he does recite some descriptions of the state of the world which are very much like these full-scale literary laments. What he and his soul are quarreling about is whether it is a good thing to die. The man is taking the view that death is the only escape from the horror of life. With a proper funeral, everything will be fine. The soul, very ironically, is saying, 'no, the only pleasure is here and now. If you renounce life, that's it. You'll never, never come up again to see the sun.'

Peter Adamson: The reason it's ironic is that the Ba is actually supposed to be your afterlife. It's like his afterlife is saying to him, 'you better enjoy it now.'

Richard Parkinson: Even more ironically, of course, this is one of the poems somebody placed in a tomb along with The Eloquent Peasant and The Tale of Sunuhe. It's a single deposit. It's an incredibly complex dialogue. And the most awful thing for most  scholars is that it doesn't come to a logical conclusion. I think somehow through the exchange of poetic imagery, the two speakers manage to reconcile themselves and they agree that the soul will stay with the man who will look forward to death but not actively seek it. It does reach an emotional resolution, but not a clear-cut logical conclusion to an argument. That fits with a lot of Egyptian attitudes to legal decisions where the main aim is not that the righteous man will be vindicated but the two complainants will leave the courtroom content. It's a very social attitude to make sure there's reconciliation. That's what happens in this case. It has some of the most transparent poetry that survives from this period in ancient Egypt where the man is comparing death to the smell of lotus flowers, to sitting under a sail on a windy day. It really can speak across the generations and underlying it, of course, is the basic human fact that death is a very hard thing to come to terms with and to explain. So the soul produces this vision of death as horror. Saying how pyramids will collapse, offerings to the dead are useless - which as Jan Assmann has said are the Satanic Verses of Egyptian literature. This is not what we imagine the ancient Egyptians to think or say, but clearly they knew what death was as well as we do.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, it's interesting that we started off with this very optimistic idea where it sounded like a very optimistic idea that cosmic justice or ma'at, as you say, ma'at and individual justice mirror each other, and that if you exemplify ma'at in your life, then you'll do well. Then when we actually get into the texts, we have these very fraught situations, which is not like the point of the text in each case is, oh, 'and the man was a good man and so everything turned out for him right in the end.' It's more like 'every point of view is somehow justified.'

Richard Parkinson: Yes, I think it's one of the peculiarities of this type of discourse in the Middle Kingdom is that it expresses this subversive attitude. It doesn't say - as monumental tomb inscriptions say - 'I was a good man. I had a great career.' It produces more realistic visions of experience. And so the tale of Sinuhe in a way is a parody of a tomb inscription. It's about real life. And like so many real lives, it goes horribly wrong. It turns out fine in the end, but it still allows the audience to see that not everything is perfect. And I think it's hard to explain why the 12th Dynasty should foster this sort of literature, but perhaps it's the safety valve. Perhaps if the state just keeps producing visions of the perfect world, nobody is going to quite believe anything it says anymore. I think similar ideas have been advanced to the sort of propaganda and subversion in Shakespeare's plays. And I think that's quite a useful parallel. It's a very tightly contained sort of discourse coming from court circles.

Peter Adamson: There's a more general issue here actually about how to situate the texts in their historical context. And we don't have very much in terms of text. I mean, I was able to read it over a weekend. I mean, not in the original. That would have taken me a lot longer since I would have had to learn to read Egyptian first.

Richard Parkinson: Indeed. Yes. If you were fluent, it would take very little time for each one. They're not long.

Peter Adamson: So to what extent do things like our knowledge of burial practices, architecture, the political situation at the time, to what extent can we use all of those to inform our readings of these philosophical texts, if we are allowed to call them that?

Richard Parkinson: I think it's absolutely crucial. There is no way you can read any work of literature completely abstracted from its social, historical context. We imagine we can do it with European literature and classical literature because it's very close to us and second nature. Egypt is that one step different. And I think it's very hard to get into the mindset of the texts without having a sense of the society, even the landscape that they inhabit. Certain assumptions are made, of course. And if you don't get that, you miss the point of the works. The tale of Sinuhe has a lot about the relationship between the hero and the queen of the king under whom he serves. All modern commentators get awfully twitchy and really want that to have been an affair between Sinuhe and the queen. It surfaces in all the modern retellings of the story. For the ancient Egyptians, it's completely unthinkable. The key relationship there is the male bond between the loyal courtier and the king he serves. And that for them is the obvious emotional focus of the story. We from a different culture miss it completely and can reinterpret. And with everything talking about social ethics, I think there's this sense as well that without an awareness of the social structures, the supposed relationships between different members of society, you really can miss a lot of the vividness, a lot of the relevance of what is being said.

Peter Adamson: Actually, there's something before we wrap up that I wanted to ask you about. This is maybe a little bit of a shifted topic, but I can't resist because you've worked on this quite a bit. And it is about social relationships in ancient Egypt and in particular, sexuality and relationship between the genders and so on. What kinds of texts or other evidence can we draw on to learn about this? And what do we learn when we draw on them?

Richard Parkinson: Well, it's a very male dominated society. I think that's very clear. There are certain ritual texts that talk about that you shouldn't have sex with married women, a man shouldn't have sex with another man. And again, literature subverts those social norms or explores the possibility that everything isn't quite as normative as it should be. And so we find possibly the first detective story in world literature is where a king is having an affair with his general, a long standing affair, which in itself is historically very important for LGBTQ history, but the affair has to be conducted at night. So it's clearly disreputable. It has to be done by secrecy. He's followed through the streets and it is detected. We don't know what happens then because the ending is lost, but we know it. And ironically, the first chat up line in world literature seems to be between two male gods in ancient Egypt where Seth says to Horus "what a lovely backside you have" and is inspired by desire, not just by a desire for sexual domination. So there's quite a few surprises even in a court poetry produced by a very heteronormative male dominated court society. It still allows the voicing of realistic... subversive? I don't know what you call them - attitudes and I think that's what I find so fascinating about the poetic texts. Somehow, for some reason, there is a little bit of freedom which we would say addresses human reality in a way that the grander, funerary religious texts don't allow themselves to. They state obsessively that the world is perfect, the king is triumphant. Occasionally you find works that will address the fractures, the gaps in the record.

Peter Adamson: Maybe that's actually why Chike and I respond to these works as if they were philosophical, because I mean obviously there's a big question here about whether these are philosophical works in any sense, and maybe I hadn't thought about this until we had this conversation, but it's possible that the reason why they might strike someone as philosophical is because they're maybe at one remove from the phenomenon they're describing, they are playing around ironically, they're allowing you to think more than one thing about the other.

Richard Parkinson: They are encouraging questioning thought I think. In the same way they've been often said to be political propaganda, which I really doubt, but they are very politically engaged for all the frivolity, for all the jokiness and the irony in them, they tackle key questions about life and morals and the state of society in a way that doesn't just provide the usual ideological answers, and I think they engage the audience and they ask the audience to examine their own hearts and that is clearly one of the drives and heart means of course mind, intellect as well as emotions. It's very much a way of engaging the audience in a dialogue and not allowing them to escape with an easy answer. So I think in that sense they're profoundly philosophical.


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