Ancient Egyptian Love Songs

Papyrus Harris 500

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?

P. Harris 500 dates from the 19th dynasty (12th c. BC) in Egypt (Fox). It was presumably found in a casket in the Ramesseum in Thebes. It contains parts of 8 pages, some in better condition than others. The first part of first page is damaged beyond legibility, and the last page only has the beginnings of lines. The recto has four songs or song collections, three on love (the fourth is funerary—Antuf [11th dynasty], similar to the Harper’s song). The verso has two unrelated stories (The Doomed Prince and The Capture of Joppa). Each of the collections begins with a heading in red ink. The first is lost, but the next two say something like “The opening of the entertainment songs.” Probably the first did as well.

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. Lichtheim has been particularly useful in the second and third groups (B & C).

“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.

Group A

1. Girl:

a   … I am with you.
        Where is your heart?
Shouldn’t you be holding me?
        or do I no longer amuse you?
Do you want to stroke my thighs;
         [learn the curve of my breasts, and more?
It is all here, my love,
        quickly uncovered.]
b   Do you want to leave me to get some food?
        are you in love with your belly?
Are you uncomfortable being naked?
        I could lend you my bed sheet.
If you are hungry
        take my breasts, full with my gift to you
c   Better is a day in the arms of my brother
        than millions of …
 

2. Girl:

a   Your love mixes with my body
        like flour mixed with water.
        like love-fruit mixed with gum
        like pastry mixed with [honey(?)]
b   Come quickly to be with your sister:
        like a warhorse rushing into battle
        like a [farmer anxiously watching his] plants
c   Heaven makes a girl long for love
        like [being away from light,
        like being too far from longed for arms,
        like being tangled in you.]
 

3. Boy

a   My sister is a thick marsh;
        her mouth is a lotus bud
Her breasts are love-fruit blossoms;
        her arms are vines

Her face is a trap of fine love-wood,
        and I am the goose;
b   Her hair is the bait,
        and I am ensnared.
 

4. Girl:

a   My fire is not yet quenched from making love with you
        you wolf cub, you make me drunk with sex
b   I will not give it up, not if I am beaten away
        to waste my day in the swamp
c   Not if they drive me with sticks and rods off to Syria
        with palm-branches to Nubia
        with switches into the highlands
        with clubs into the lowlands
I will not listen to their harsh words
        and never will I surrender my passion
 

5. Boy:

a   I’m north-bound with the current
my bundle on my shoulder,
as the captain paces the oarsmen.
        Memphis, here I come!
I will ask of Ptah the just,
        “Give me my sister tonight!”
a   The river froths like fermenting wine:
        Ptah is in the reeds,
        Sekhmet in the lotus-leaves,
        Yadit in the lotus-buds,
        Nefertem in the lotus-blossoms.
……joy,
        beautiful, whitening with the dawn:
a   O Memphis, you bowl of love-fruit,
        set before the Gracious One.
 

6. Boy:

I will go home and lie still
        pretending to be sick.
The neighbors will come to gawk,
        and my sister will be among them.
The doctors will be at a loss,
        but she will know what ails me.
 

7. Boy:

a   The entryway to the palace of my lover
        is in the middle of her house.
Her doors have been left open:
        the latch is unfastened.
My sister is fuming.
b   Ah, to be the doorman of that house:
She would be angry with me,
        and I would hear her voice:
        trembling like a child before her royal anger.  

8. Girl:

a   I am sailing north on the King’s Canal
        Now I am on the Pre Canal
I am headed where the tents are pitched
        at the entrance of the Ity Canal
b   I think of Pre and hurry on—
        no time to pause.
I will see my brother in the [procession],
        headed toward the [offering]-house
c   I am with you now at the entrance of the Ity
        It is really for you that I have come.
d   We slip away to the [offering-house] orchard
        where I gather branches—
I’ll weave them into a fan.
        From here I can see the whole celebration
e   Now I head to the Garden of Love
        my arms full of flowering branches
        my hair sweetly perfumed
With you, I am a splendid lady—
        adorned like the Mistress of the Two Lands.

Group B

The opening of the entertainment songs

1. Girl:

a   From your sister, the one you love, as she comes from the meadow:
b   My brother, my beloved,
        I long for your love, for all you make me feel.
c   See, I am ready to trap birds.
        Here is my snare;
        Here is my cage;
        Here is my mat.
d   All the birds from Punt
        have come to Egypt, anointed with myrrh.
The first one takes the bait—
e           fragrant like Punt, his claws in the ointment.
I desire you;
        let us release the worm.
f   Here I am alone with you
        listen to my bird-call, myrrh anointed one.
You are here with me
        as I set the trap.
g   Going into the meadow is certainly pleasant
        for someone who loves it.
 

2. Girl:

The voice of the wild goose calls out
        as he’s trapped by the bait.
Your love holds me
        now I’m all tangled up.
I have my nets,
        but what am I going to tell my mother?
Every day I come home
        barely able to carry all the birds.
Today, no trapping:
        instead I was trapped by you.
 

3. Girl:

a   The wild goose flies, then settles
Other birds just circle
        but he disturbs the garden
b   I am [caught, but do not flutter];
        Your love excites me.
Our hearts are in balance with each other;
        Don’t let me ever be too far from you.
 

4. Girl:

a   My brother, we are apart
When I remember your love
        my heart skips a beat.
b   If I look at sweet-cakes
        they seem to be salt now.
Once sweet pomegranate wine
        is bitter as bird-gall.
Only your kiss
        can revive my heart.
c   Amon gave you to me
        as a gift to outlast forever.
 

5. Girl:

a   It is a beautiful thing:
        this desire of my heart to share your life,
        to be the lady of your house—
        arm in arm, my love would surround you.
b   I pray to my heart:
        let my prince be mine tonight
        or I know I am going to die.
c   You are my life and health:
        your face next to mine
        and I live.
Oh, how I long for you.
 

6. Girl:

a   The swallow speaks:
“It is getting light—you better be going!”
b   Don’t scold me, bird!
I found my brother in his bed
        and my heart leapt.
c   We told each other
        “I will never be far away—
        my hand in yours as we stroll
        and visit all the beautiful places.”
d   I am his favorite among the beauties;
        he will not break my heart.
 

7. Girl:

a   I keep watching the outer gate;
        my brother is coming to me.
I watch the road; I listen intently
        for the [approach] of the one who neglects me.
b   I think only of my brother;
        he’s the recurring theme of my heart.
c   It sends me a messenger
        who is quick to tell me I’ve been misled.
d           In other words, there’s someone else—
        who fills up his eyes.
Like I care!
        So some skank has shut me out.
 

8. Girl:

a   I was thinking of you, love,
        while I was only half-way through braiding my hair.
b   I came running to see you
        with the back of my hair still loose.
c   I need to finish my braids;
        I’ll be finished soon.

Group C

The opening of the entertainment songs

“The Flower Song”

The Girl:

1.

a   Balsam:
Our hearts are in balance
In your arms, I do for you
        what my heart desires
b   My longing for you is all the makeup I need;
        my eyes glow from seeing you
Draw me close and let me gaze at you
        prince of my heart.
c   Oh, the joy of this hour—
        it flows through me forever—
        beginning when I slept with you.
d   In sorrow or joy
        you have lifted me up.
Never leave me!
 

2.

a   Dahlia are here, calling us.
I am your sister, your darling.
b   I am yours like this garden
        planted with flowers, and fragrant herbs.
Its canal is pleasant—
        dug by your hand,
        cooled by the north wind.
A lovely place to wander hand in hand:
c           my body satisfied,
        my heart rejoicing,
        walking together.
d   Hearing your voice is pomegranate wine.
        I draw life from it.
You looking at me is more fulfilling
        than food or drink.
 

3.

There is Cowslip here:
I slipped your wreath off you
        when you came home drunk
        and fell asleep in your bed.
I massaged your feet
        while the children…
In the morning, [I] am glad …
        you are alive and healthy.

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