Ancient Egyptian Love Songs

Chester Beatty I papyrus

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 particular texts were written on papyrus from Thebes. It dates from the 20th dynasty (Fox) or between the 12th and 11th centuries, BC. I t contains three poem groups. The first (“Reticent Lovers”) hangs together with a single plot. The second three poems (“Come to your sister”) are variations on a theme. The third (the “Nakht-Sobek” poems) are less obviously connected other than by the larger topic of love.

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, and J.M. Plumley. Notes are heavily based on Fox. Foster’s offering is less concerned to give us a scholarly rendition than a poetic one, but his approach to interpretation is often interestingly different.

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 ingreen.

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


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.

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.

Collected songs from the ballad-mistress (verso) A.31-37

“Reticent Lovers”

[First Stanza]


a   There is no one like my sister,
        the most lovely of all women.
b   She is Sirius rising
        heralding the rising Nile.
Shining, light-skinned, exquisite,
        her eyes constantly wandering.
c   Her lips speak sweetly
        but do not ramble.
Her neck is long, her breasts white
        her hair lapis lazuli.
d   Her arms outshine gold,
        with lotus-fingers,
full rear, narrow waist,
         and thighs that lead to splendor.
Her stride is a magic-charm;
        my heart is bewitched in her embrace.
e   She’ll turn the head of any man
        who catches a glimpse of her.
Any man who gets her into bed
        is indeed a master lover.
f   When she emerges
        it is like the emergence of the One.

Second Stanza


a   My brother's voice unsettles me
        leaves me feeling ill.
He lives near my mother's house
        but I cannot go to him.
b   My mother is right to order,
        "Stop seeing him!"
But my heart is in turmoil when I think of him;
        I cannot keep from loving him.
c   He may be crazy,
         but I am too.
He must not know how I long to hold him
        or he would contact my mother.
d   O brother, I was chosen for you
        by the Golden One
Come! Let me gaze at you;
        my parents will approve.
e   My people will welcome you in;
        They will honor you, my brother.

Third Stanza


a   I devised to drink in her beauty
        while sitting in her house.
On the way, there was Mehy in his chariot,
        with his enchanted men in tow
        (how could I escape?).
b   Could I just walk on by?
        But the Nile was the road—
where could I put my feet?
        (O foolish heart,
        why are you so anxious to avoid Mehy?)
c   If I pass by him
        he will see where I am going!
It is as good as surrendering to him.
        Then he will call my name,
and put me in first place
        among his devotees.

Fourth Stanza


a   My hearts races
        When I think of you, love.
b   It throws ‘normal’ out the window
        and leaps out of its place.
It won’t let me get dressed,
        or put on a scarf,
I can’t do my eye-shadow,
        or even rub on my oils.
c   “Go there now!” it insists
        whenever he comes to mind.
d   Don’t be an idiot, heart,
        are you out of your mind?
Be patient, be still, the brother will come.
         There are eyes everywhere, you know!
I don’t want people saying,
        “Love did this woman in.”
e   Keep calm when thinking of him.
        Heart, stop racing!

Fifth Stanza


a   I laud the Golden One,
        exalt her majesty,
extol the Mistress of Heaven,
        give honor to Hathor,
        and acclaim to my Lady.
When I called, she heard me
        and sent me my lady.
b   She came on her own.
        Wonder of wonders!
I was pleased, joyful, ecstatic.
        when they told me she was here.
When she came, the ‘lovers’ bowed
        because of their love for her
c   So I’ll be pleading with my goddess
        to grant me my sister as a gift.
It was already three days yesterday
        since I started praying for her
and two days longer since I’ve seen her.

Sixth Stanza


a   I was passing near his house
        and his door was ajar.
My brother was standing with his mother
        and all his siblings.
b   Love must take hold
        of anyone walking by—
such a magnificent youth; there is no one like him,
        so honorable a brother.
c   He watched me going by
        and I was in heaven.
I’ve been floating on air
        since I first saw you, brother.
d   If my mother knew how I felt
        she would go inside for a while.
O Golden One, make her think of that!
        Then I could rush up to my brother
and kiss him—the kin could be there.
        I would not be embarrassed.
They are welcome to watch
        you acknowledge me.
        I’d make a feast for my goddess
e   Oh, how I long to go out
        and see my brother tonight.
Passing near is so thrilling!

Seventh Stanza


a   It has been seven days since I saw my sister.
        Sickness has invaded me.
I have grown sluggish;
        I can hardly move.
b   The best doctors look in on me;
        their medicines have no effect.
The magicians are useless;
        They can make no sense of it.
c   Tell me she is here, and I’ll come alive
        Her name would get me up
Her messengers showing up
        would give life to my heart.
Better my sister than any prescription,
        than anything you’ll find in a medical text;
        her arrival is my amulet.
d   I see her, I’m healthy;
        she looks at me, I’m strong;
e   I hold her, all sickness is driven away!
        But it has been seven days since we parted.

(Verso) B.38-40

“Come to your sister

1. Girl

a   I wish you would come quickly to your sister
        like the king’s quickest messenger
His master is anxious for news
        He waits for it impatiently.
b   The stables are ready for him
        while horses are waiting at the stations
The chariot is already harnessed—
        no time to rest on the way.
c   Only on reaching his sister’s house
        will he will be truly happy.

2. Girl

a   I wish you would come
        like one of the king’s horses
chosen from among a thousand:
        the best the stable can offer.
b   It has the best feed to help it run
        and its master is familiar with its paces.
It just hears the sound of the whip
        and there’s no holding it back.
There is no master rider
        who can overtake it.
c   The sister knows
        that he is not far away.

3. Girl

a   I wish you would come quickly to your sister
        like a swiftly running gazelle on the plain,
with stumbling feet, and weary to the bone,
        because it is gripped with fear.
b   Hunter and hounds are in hot pursuit,
        but they can’t even see it for the dust.
It regards a place of rest as a trap
         and takes the river as a road
c   Then you will reach my cave
even before getting your hand kissed four times
You are in pursuit of your sister’s love
        since, my friend, the Golden One has chosen her for you.

(Recto) C.41-47

“A collection of lively sayings found in a book container, written by the scribe Nakht-Sobek from the City of the Dead. ”

1. Mentor

a1   When you bring it to the house of (your) sister
        and blow(?) into her cave,
her gate(?) will be raised up(?)
        that her house-mistress may slaughter it.
Perhaps following Foster:
a2   Bring it to your sister’s house;
        come boldly into her den.
The gates of her reluctance will be thrown open;
        She will ready herself for the ‘sacrifice.’
b   Ply her with song and dancing,
        with wine and beer (she has plenty).
Get her tipsy, then close in;
        finish the job that very night.
c   She’ll say, “Hold me now,
        and we will still be that way when dawn comes.”

2. Mentor

a   Bring it to your sister’s “window.”
        when you are completely alone.
You will enjoy being in her snare.
        A light breeze will keep your comfortable.
b   But even a storm wind
        will not blow her away.
It only wafts her fragrance to you;
        you are drunk with her scent
        (as anyone would be).
c   It is the Golden One sending you a gift
        to fill up your days.

3. Boy

a   My sister can certainly throw a lasso,
        but never has to pay the cattle tax.
b   She lassos me with her hair,
        ensnares me with her eye,
ties me up with her thighs,
        and brands me with her seal ring.

4. Girl

   Why are you so conflicted:
        “Should I go after her, hold her close?”
By Amon, I came to you,
        my cloak hanging loose on my shoulder.

5. Girl

   My brother is at the canal,
        one foot on the bank.
He is preparing an altar to spend the day
        drinking his best beer.
He entices me with a glimpse of his member:
        long, not so thick.

6. Boy

   My sister was so irritating!
        I have to tell someone.
She left me standing by her front door
        while she just went inside.
No invitation to join her—
        she was deaf to my longing!

7. Boy

a   I was not in my right mind when I went by her house.
        I knocked, but no one opened.
        The doorkeeper was doing his job well!
b   Door, I will get you open
        (or you will be the death of me),
but my will will be yours.
        We could slaughter an ox inside?
c   Don’t resist me, door!
        We could slaughter an ox to your bolt,
        a calf for your threshold,
a fat goose to your door-posts,
        and a duck to the key?
d   But instead, I think we’ll give the best parts of our ox
        to the carpenter boy. He’ll make us a new bolt of reeds
        and a grass door.
e   Then whenever the brother comes
        he’ll find that her house is open,
and a bed made with fine sheets,
        and a pretty girl with them.
f   The girl will tell me,

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