Ancient Egyptian Love Songs
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.
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