Ancient Egyptian Love Songs

Cairo Vase

English interpretation by Alan Humm

Egypt provides us with the oldest literary examples of love poetry from the ancient world. Some have concluded, not unreasonably, that this shows that Egypt invented the genre. Perhaps. What we have here is entertainment—lyrics to songs. If it is earliest, then modern pop music owes its origins to ancient Egyptian leisure life. We get no similar love literature coming from ancient Mesopotamia (the closest examples are love stories between the gods), and the Song of Songs is the earliest example from Palestine. But it might be more accurate to say that the Egyptians were the first to see such material as worthy of preservation as literature. It is middle to lower class. It is unlikely that any such folks (except for middle-class scribes) would even know that their compositions had been transmitted through pen and paper. Most were, after all, illiterate. How long had these songs been in the oral tradition of entertainers before being written down? Why write them down at all? How much of this sort of entertainment existed, also only in oral form, north of the Sinai? Who knows?

These texts were written on a vase (or shards of one) found in Cairo. It dates from the 19th or 20 dynasty (Fox) or between the 13th and 9th centuries, BC. Shards were discovered and assembled over a long period of time, so older translations will not be complete, or even misleading (Lichtheim). There are two songs of seven stanzas each. The first begins with the girl speaking and then moves to the boy. The second is a series of wishes, all from a boy. They may have the same author, but do not tell the same story.

None of these are translations in the proper sense. Or perhaps we might say that they are translations of translations, in which I have tried to smooth the almost inevitable stiltedness of translation language into something more like poetic English (these are, after all, poems). For these poems I have used primarily the published translations of Michael V. Fox, John L. Foster, Miriam Lichtheim, John A. Wilson, J.M. Plumley, and Victor H. Matthews & Don C. Benjamin (M&B). M&B seems to be based on Fox, but as they are doing basically the same thing I am; they often have a better way of saying things, and I am not above stealing a good line when I see it. Notes are heavily based on Fox. Foster’s offering is less concerned to give us a scholarly rendition than a poetic one, so in many ways he is also in the same stream as this. But his renditions are often quite different in take from the others, and certainly worth a look for those wanting more.

“Brother” and “sister” are used throughout these poems as terms of endearment, not the same as “sibling.” Compare Cant. 4.9ff. I am showing the words when they appear in italics.

Notes are ‘mouse hover style’, connected to passages in green.

Please report errors to me (link at end of page). -Alan Humm

Sources:

Foster, John L. (1974). Love Songs of the New Kingdom. New York: Scribner.

Fox, Michael V. (1985). The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Lichtheim, Miriam (1976). Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume II: The New Kingdom,Berkeley: University of California Press.

Matthews, Victor H., & Benjamin, Don C. (2007). Old Testament Parallels (New Revised and Expanded Third Edition): Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. New York: Paulist Press.

Plumley J.M. (1961). Love songs. Documents from Old Testament Times (Ancient Texts and Translations). Edited by D. Winton Thomas. S.l.: Harper and Row.

Wilson, John A. (1969). Egyptian secular songs and poems. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament with Supplement. Pritchard, James B. (Ed.). Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.


Poem A

“The Crossing”

1. Girl:

a  
[I think] of you
        day and night
    when Iím lying down
        and when I wake in the morning
b   [Just thinking of(?)]
        your build sustains people;
    your voice [awakens] desire
        that makes my body feel alive
When I grow tired [of waiting]
        I remind myself (?)
c       “There is no one else
        to balance his heart.
    Only me.”
 

2. Girl:

a   Your love is as lovely
        as …,
        as oil and honey [to the throat],
        as fine clothes to nobles,
        as clean robes to the godís bodies,
        as fragrant incense to the nose…
                of a worshipper coming in [from the street],
        …
        [as a signet-ring] to a finger.
It is like breast-fruit in a manís hand;
        it is like dates mixed with beer;
        it is like [wine]. with bread.
b   We will be together
        even beyond the grave.
I will be with you each day,
        this womanís one wish fulfilled:
                a life spent serving of her lord.
 

3. Girl:

a   My god and my lotus…
As the north wind blows
        I so enjoy going down to [the river] …
b   I would love to go down there
        and bathe in front of you.
So you could see how nice I look
        in my tunic of royal linen,
        shining with oil,
        my hair plaited with reeds.
c   Iíll go down to the water
        and catch a red fish
        that just fits in my hand.
I offer it to you
        while you admire my beauty
d   O my brother, my hero,
        please see me!
 

4. Boy:

a   My sisterís love
        is across on the other side
The river lies between us,
        the current is strong at flood-time,
        and a crocodile watches from its edge.
b   But I have gone down to the stream
        and bravely stepped in.
c   The crocodile seems to me nothing but a mouse
        and the waves are like dry land
Her love makes me strong
        she'll cast a water-spell for me
d   I can see the one I love.
        There she is right in front of me.
 

5. Boy:

a   My sister is coming to me
        my heart dances
        and I open my arms to her.
My heart is at home
        like a fish in its holding tank
b   O night, be mine forever,
        now that my queen has come!
 

6. Boy:

a   When I hold her
        her arms opened to me
        I am transported to Paradise.
b   Then it is like the ???-plant
        crushed into an ointment
        She is fragrant like perfume.
 

7. Boy:

a   We kiss, lips parted—
        who needs beer?
My emptiness is filled,
        Menqetís claim annulled,
        as she leads me to her bedroom.
b   Come [servant],
        Iíll instruct you.
Put fine linen under her
        when you are preparing her bed.
        see to it you use the good white linens.
c   The surface of her legs
        seems drenched in fine oil.

Poem B

“Seven Wishes”

The Boy:

1.

a   I wish I were her Nubian maid
        the one seeing to her discrete necessities,
b           who brings her mandrakes.
(Thatís whatís in [my loverís] hand
        when we share pleasures.)
b   This would allow
        my eyes to drink in her whole form.
 

2.

a   I wish I did my sisterís laundry:
        to do her clothes
        for just a month.
b   I would draw virility
        from touching the clothes
        that touched her body.
c   I would wash out the perfumes
        lingering in her apparel.
Iíd rub them on my body—
        her soiled garments.
d   Iíd be ecstatic,
        and so aroused.
 

3.

a   I wish I were a signet-ring
        riding on her finger
b   I would get to see her
        day after day

        I would capture her heart.  

4.

a  
I wish we could spend a morning looking at each other
        like the mirror she sees all the time.
b   Isy is a truly wondrous place,
        and what comes from there is blessed.
Her mirror, into which she gazes,
        must be truly happy.
 

5.

a   I wish my sister was with me daily,
        like green on a wreath.
b   The reeds have dried,
        The summer flower has blossomed,
        The ???-flowers are clustered,
        the lapis-lazuli plants and the mandrakes have appeared,
        the Hatti-fruit has ripened,
        the nutmeg is in bloom,
        and the willow is green.
c   She would be with me daily,
        like green on a wreath.
The meadow is in full flower
        … entirely.
 

6.

a   I wish she would come
        so I could see her.
b   I would host a festival
        to the god who brings her here,
c       if he gave me my lady
        so we would never be apart.
Just a moment apart from her
        puts my stomach in knots.
Oh, I would so do it.
 

7.

a   [I wish that god would give me my sister.
        I would truly worship] him.
b   I would honor him
        with night-festivities,
        with a feast in homage to him.
c   Let my heart find its home;
        [she could chase]
                every ill away from me.
        [My body] longs for my sister
                whose body is beyond my reach.
But she would heal me.

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Page: © Copyright 1995-2011 Alan Humm.
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