Ancient Egyptian Love Songs

Turin “love song” Papyrus

English interpretation by Alan Humm

Scholars generally call this a “love song” mostly because they can’t think of another category to stick it in. I can’t either, so I stuck it with the love poetry. The topic is really personified trees. The first two are masculine and are portrayed as self-absorbed. They honor themselves but complain that no one else does. Of course, lovers do appear, and do their thing in the shadow of the trees. The first tree says he is going to snitch on them, although the lovers in that stanza appear to hear the tree and decide to give it the appropriate honors so they can continue their trysts. The second tree just says that its owner will get what she deserves. The third tree (feminine) is praised by the author, and has a very different attitude. It is fond of its mistress (who planted it herself), and it promises, basically, that ‘what happens in the orchard stays in the orchard.’

The Turin love song comes from the 20th dynasty (11th–12th c., BC), and is damaged in various places. It may not have been a love song per se, but it probably served the same kind of purpose—entertainment. As I have noted regarding the real loves songs in this collection, Egypt seems to have been the first culture to regard such pieces as having enough literary value to preserve them in writing.

This is not a translation in the proper sense. Or perhaps we might say that it is a translation of a translation, 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 this poem I have used primarily the published translation Michael V. Fox, although I intend to compare it to others when the opportunity arrises.

“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:

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

“The Orchard”

1.

The persea tree (masc.) murmured,
a   “My pits look like her teeth,
        my fruit looks like her breasts,
        I am the best of the trees in the orchard.
b   I am constant through all seasons
        while the sister and her brother are together
[They sit in] my [shade]
        drinking grape and pomegranate wine
        and covered with balm and oil of ben.
c   All the other trees
        are now out of season
        I am the only one producing all year.
I keep going. While I’m losing a blossom
        I’m already growing another.
I’m the best of trees
        but no one values me.
d   Keep it up!
        I’ll tell on them
        [just a whisper] to her friend.
e   Then they will be found out
        and the sister will be punished.
No more of this lounging together
        with staff and lotus,
        with blossoms and lotus flowers,
        with ointments and fine oils.
f   Surely you want to keep spending your day happily
        secreted and lounging in my bower.
g   “The tree is making sense,
        we should keep it flattered,
        so it will be content spending the whole day
        with us in its shelter.”
 

2.

The murmuring fig-sycamore tree (masc.), rustles to speak:
a   Here’s what I’m going to do:
        I’ll come to the mistress.
b   I am the most noble of trees
If there are no servants
        Then I’ll be the servant
                [brought her from Syria]
                a prize for the sweetheart
c   She had me planted in her orchard
but poured me no libation
        when they had a drinking party.
not even quenching my thirst
        from the water-skins.
d   I was there for their pleasure
        but not allowed to drink
I promise you, “sweetheart,”
        you’ll get yours.
 

3.

a   The little sycamore (fem.), which she planted herself, murmurs,
b   Her dribbling sap
        Is like bee’s honey
She is stunning with gorgeous leaves
        lush and flourishing
with both ripe and unripe fruit
        new leaves brighter than red jasper
        mature leaves like malachite,
        [coloring] like a metallic glaze
The wood is green like feldspar
        with [berries] like the ???-tree.
The ones on the ground are
        drawn to her shade.
She drops a note to a little girl—
        the head gardener’s daughter—
        and directs her to the sister to say,
c   “Come, the party’s here
        the meadow is celebrating
I have a bench and a bar
        and the gardeners(?) are always glad to see you.
Send your servants first
        to prepare the place.
One is light-headed just to see me
        even without drinking.
d   Your attendants are here;
        all is prepared.
There’s every kind of beer
        and every kind of bread,
the freshest finger-veggies,
        and all sorts of wonderful fruits.
Come, enjoy the day here,
        or maybe two,
        lounging in my shade.”
{The tree appears to be speaking to the reader at this point:}
e   She is with her friend
        she gets him drunk
        and then lets him tell her what to do.
The bar is a mess; people are leaving.
        but she stays here with her brother.
f   The blankets are spread beneath them
        as she puts her plan in action.
But I’m not talking;
        you won’t hear from me what they’re up to!

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