The instruction of Ptah-hotep

updated English by Alan Humm from the translations of

Brian Brown, Miriam Lichtheim, and John Wilson

This is by no means a new translation. It represents an attempt to interpret and represent the text in a form more closely corresponding to modern (early 21st. century) vernacular English. My primary sources have been the translations of Brown, Lichtheim, and Wilson (listed below—though Wilson only hazards a little more than half of of the sayings, I think due to space limitations. [1] ). I do not read middle Egyptian, so most of the scholarly work behind this is theirs. With much trepidation, I have ventured to translate idioms; I am confident that I have sometimes erred. Those interested in seeing a rendering less encumbered by this problem are referred to The Maxims of PtahHotep providing a literal translation, along with a transcription and a transliteration. I have followed Lichtheim more often than the others, and have kept her line breaks which, however, do not directly correspond to line numbers in the Prisse ms. Those numbers (every tenth one or so) appear in red braces throughout the text.

Brown, Brian. (1923). The wisdom of the Egyptians: The story of the Egyptians, the religion of the ancient Egyptians, the Ptah-Hotep ... Ed., and with an introd. Pp. 96-124. New York: Brentano's.

Goedicke, Hans. (1967). Unrecognized sportings. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt .Vol. 6, (1967), pp. 97-102. New York.

Lichtheim, Miriam. (1973). Ancient Egyptian literature: A book of readings. Vol. 1, pp. 61-80. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Meyers, Robert R. The Maxims of PtahHotep. http://www.scribd.com/doc/21403019/The-Maxims-of-PtahHotep accessed 1/2011.

Wilson, John A., trans. (1969). The instructions of the vizier Ptah-hotep. In James B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern texts: Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. with suppliment. Pp. 412-414. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Zába, Zbynek., Ed. & Ptah-hotep. (1956). Les Maximes de Ptahhotep. pp. 176. Prague: Éditions de l’Académie Tchécoslovaque des Sciences.

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

Notes: Ptah-hotep was vizier during the reign of Pharoah Isisi in the 5th dynasty between the 24th and 25th centuries, BC. This collection of traditional wisdom claims to have been written down by him as a training textbook for his son (or apprentice) to prepare him to take his place at his retirement. It has survived in four copies, certainly not all identical. The oldest, p. Prisse, is generally used as the basis of editions and translations, as in this case. It is in Middle Egyptian, so its language dates a little later than its traditional date of authorship, and most scholars see even this oldest surviving version as having undergone a series of editions since it was first written down. Lichtheim puts it in the sixth dynasty (24th - 22nd c. BC), and thinks it is pseudepigraphic (not written by Ptah-hotep). Of course, the foundation would be oral, some of which could go back to him, but guessing which parts, if any, would be pure speculation.

Some of the sayings appear to be grouped by topic, but most seem to be in random order. There is a tendency for the last two lines or so of each saying to read like a traditional maxim, which may point to an earlier layer, that contained only those traditional mashal-like adages. The overall structure of the book is: An introduction (describing the, probably fictional, motive for composition), 37 sayings, and finally, an epilogue (on the value of keeping the sayings).

  • Following Lichtheim, I have not translated ka, mostly because it does not translate easily. Its core meaning is vitality, vital force, and personality, but not just the bodiless self (what we mean by soul).
  • Ba (which I rendered as person) is closer to our soul, but not necessarily bodiless—one of the goals is to keep the ba in the afterlife.
  • There are several allusions to crocodile personality types (highlighted in the notes). Although Pharaohs were sometimes compared to crocodiles, in these contexts I have taken the simile to refer to being obnoxious or belligerent.
  • Heart in the ancient middle east was viewed as the seat of the will. Sometimes this corresponds to our use of the term, but more often heart for us is where emotions live, not thought. We would usually say mind for the things the ancients attributed to the heart. Consequently I have often rendered heart as mind, or inner self.
  • Along the same lines the emotions were thought to come from the belly. There is a logic to this. That is where we usually feel it when we find out that our girlfriend is seeing someone else. A hot-belly is anger or lust. A cool-belly means someone is calm. I usually leave the bellies out and try to describe the emotion in question (anger, excitable, etc.)
.

Introduction

The instruction of the mayor and vizier, Ptah-hotep, during the reign of Isesi, king of Upper and Lower Egypt, who lives forever, to the end of time. The mayor and vizier, Ptah-hotep, said,

“My supreme Lord,
I have grown old and feeble;
senility is coming soon. I am tired,
my eyes are getting weaker, and I am going deaf.
My energy is low, {10}
and it is getting harder to talk.
My memory is so bad the past is fading.
My bones ache;
what used to be good is now bad; I cannot taste anything.
{20} Old age stinks:
my nose is stopped up, and I cannot breathe,
it is an effort just to stand or sit.

“Appoint my son [2] to my office; he can learn from me now.
{30} I can advise him
on the wisdom and decisions of his predecessors;
even of those that heard from the gods.
Then he can do the same for you and serve you
in order to reduce discord
in the Two Lands.”

His god’s appointed king replied,
“Teach him the traditions, and to speak properly,
so the other court children can learn by example.
{40} He should be deferential, and poised, and attentive.
No one is born wise.”

The proverbs

The rules of wise counsel, delivered by the hereditary Chief, god’s chosen father, loved by god, eldest of the King’s natural sons. [3] the mayor and vizier, Ptah-hotep. These are instructions for the ignorant in wisdom and in giving counsel, which will prove useful to the one who pays attention {50} and a hindrance to the one who ignores them. He said to his son:

1 Do not let your learning go to your head, or be over-confident in your wisdom.
Take advise from the uneducated, as well as from the sage.
No one can actually attain their full potential;
even skilled craftsmen have their limits.
Wise words are harder to find than emeralds,
but you are just as likely to find them with slave-girls at their grindstones.

2 {60} If someone takes you to court,
someone with a higher social rank,
act submissive, hunch over a little.
Putting on airs will make him mad at you.
Do not make a fuss about what he is saying;
your not fighting him
will make him look ignorant.
Defeat his big mouth with self-control.

3 If someone takes you to court,
someone with the about same social rank,
{70} you will look better by keeping quiet.
His malicious talk
will not go unnoticed by listeners. [4]
It will improve your reputation with the magistrates.

4 If someone takes you to court,
someone poor with lower social rank,
do not be scornful toward him because he is weak.
Let him alone and he will contradict himself.
Do not be an intellectual show-off,
or satisfy your ego at his expense.
{81} It is shameful to injure a poor man.
Your right-thinking will be self-evident,
the magistrate will take your side.

5 If you are a leader,
someone who manages a good number of people,
always be on the lookout for good deeds,
so you will be above reproach.
Justice is great and lasting;
unopposed since Osiris’ time, [5]
{90} assigning punishment for the guilty.
The greedy try to sidestep it, the unethical pursue riches,
but crime never pays.
Justice wins in the end.
A man can (still) say, “I inherited [6] this from my father.”

6 {99} Never treat people cruelly;
god will do the same to you.
Someone may retort, “It’s my job to be mean,”
but he will go hungry.
Or perhaps someone says, “I could get rich,”
but he will find himself saying, “I was trapped by my own cunning.”
If he says, “I will snag it for myself,”
he will not end up saying, “I snagged a profit.”
{111} If he starts off with, “I will steal it from someone,”
he will find himself being handed over to a stranger.
It is not people’s schemes that succeed,
but god’s command.
Live peaceably;
what <the gods> give, comes naturally.

7 If you find yourself a dinner guest
{120} of someone with higher social rank,
accept what he puts in front of you,
look at what he offers you.
Do not keep looking at him,
that will disturb his ka. [7]
Refrain from speaking until spoken to,
since you do not know what he is thinking.
When he has addressed you, you should say
things that you know will please him.
Noblemen are driven by their ka,
when sitting down to a meal.
It is customary for him
to be generous on these occasions,
but it is his ka that makes him give
to whomever he chooses.
Only a fool complains about it.

8 If you are a messenger
sent from one noble to another,
be sure to do as you were instructed,
deliver his message just as it was told to you.
Beware of creating hostility by your presentation,
which might set one noble against the other.
Stick to the truth without exaggeration,
and try not to let your emotions show.
Avoid disparaging anyone,
{160} noble or common. The ka hates that.

9 If you have ploughed, and have something to harvest,
because it was god who allowed it to prosper,
do not go boasting to your neighbor about it.
Your silence will increase his respect for you,
wealth goes with character.
But a thief is obnoxious in court. [8]
Make no assumptions about someone who is childless.
{170} Do not say anything about it, good nor bad.
Many fathers are discontented;
many mothers are less happy than their counterparts.
God watches out for the solitary;
the family man needs a helper. [9]

10 If you are poor, serve a worthy man,
so that god will approve of your actions.
If you knew him when he was poor,
do not be haughty
just because you knew him before;
respect him for what he has attained,
wealth does not appear out of thin air—
<the gods> grant it to those they love.
He earned his wealth,
and god establishes him,
protecting him even in his sleep.

11 Enjoy your life while you have it.
Do not overwork yourself,
stealing time from your enjoyment.
The ka is offended if you steal its time. [10]
Avoid wasting time on daily cares,
beyond what is needed to maintain your household.
When you have wealth, enjoy it.
What good is wealth to the weary?

12 If you have social status,
and god grants you a son.
If he is takes after you, pays attention to you,
{200} and takes care of your property,
treat him well;
he is your son, the child of your ka,
give him your heart.
However, a child can be poison. [11]
If he ignores your instructions,
{210} is disobedient,
is rude and ill-mannered,
then he should be punished.
<The gods> hate the undisciplined.
He <may be your seed, but> not really your son.
If they were guiding him, he would not go wrong,
but whom they make boatless cannot cross. [12]

13 {220} If you are waiting in the anteroom,
stand or sit where your rank suggests,
as assigned to you on the first day;
breaking in line will only get you ejected,
but you will be welcomed if you come in on schedule.
There is a seat of honor for the one who comes in when called.
The anteroom has protocol—
everything has an appropriate time and place.
{230} It is god [13] who promotes you;
someone who tries to elbow their way will run into resistance.

14 If you are a commoner,
being trustworthy will gain you respect.
The trustworthy man knows how to be discreet,
and will become a leader.
What is a worthy man like?
{240} You will have a good reputation, and will not easily be slandered;
you will be fit, with a kind face;
people will speak well of you behind your back.
Contrast the one who obeys his emotions:
He is the target of disgust rather than love;
his brain is empty, his body unkempt.
While the considerate man is a gift from god,
the impulsive man comes from the enemy. [14]

15 Report your message, suppress nothing.
{250} Save your advice for your own master.
If his speech is clear enough,
it will be easy to deliver his message,
and it is unlikely that the messenger will be asked, “How do you know this?”
If your master deserves punishment
he will receive it himself.
Expect the recipient to be silent once you have finished your report. [15]

16 If you are a leader
with wide influence,
you have a responsibility to do memorable things.
{260} You need to leave a legacy.
If you do well, no one will complain,
but belligerence [16] gives rise to hatred.

17 If you are a leader,
pay attention when a petitioner makes his case.
Do not stop him from venting
{270} on the subject of his complaint.
If he is hurting, he needs to be heard
more than he needs to win.
If a judge stops such a request peremptorily,
people wonder, “What made the judge reject it?”
Not all requests can be granted,
but a good hearing averts indignation.

18 If you want to continue friendship
with any house you may visit,
whether as master, as brother, or as friend,
{280} wherever you go,
stay away from the women!
No place where that goes on can prosper;
it is a good way to become no-longer welcome.
A thousand men have been ruined:
the briefest of dream-like moments,
followed by death for their indiscretion.
It is really a disgrace;
you know in your heart it’s wrong.
If you can suppress this lust,
all will go well for you. [17]

19 {298} If you want your actions to be perfect,
and to escape all kinds of evil,
beware of greed.
It is a serious incurable illness,
and resists all treatments.
It ensnares fathers, mothers,
and mother’s brothers.
It separates wife from husband.
It combines all manner of evils;
it is a grab-bag of wickedness.
{310?} But the just man will endure—
for the one who walks the straight path,
it becomes his legacy.
The greedy will not even have a tomb.

20 Avoid greed when dividing property;
be satisfied with your proper share.
Do not try to grab your relative’s portion;
earn respect by being mild rather than harsh.
{320} The one who finds fault with [18] his relations,
will be deprived of their companionship.
When people get even a little of what they want,
they shift from argumentative to agreeable.

21 When you are doing well enough to start a household,
and you love your wife, as is appropriate,
feed her, clothe her;
give her ointment for her body,
and make her happy as long as you live.
{330} She is your fertile field;
do not take her to court,
but do not let her think she is in charge.
Her eye is her inner storm-center;
if you fulfill her desires, she will stay with you.
But there is no point in trying to suppress her;
Her sexuality [19] gives her special persuasiveness
and she can charm her way into anything. [20]

22 Use what you have to keep your friends [21];
{340} god gave it to you.
If someone does not help his friends
people say, “He is a selfish S.O.B.” [22]
You can plan for tomorrow, but you cannot predict it.
Things are good now, they may go bad.
If you have kept your friends by being generous,
then they say, “Welcome.”
You will not get help from strangers; [23]
that is when friends come to your rescue.

23 {350} Do not be a channel for slander,
or even listen to it.
It is nothing but irrational and impulsive ranting;
report what you see, not hearsay,
unless it is important, do not pass it on anyway.
The person you are talking to recognizes discretion.
“Even if you are ordered to seize something as evidence
you will end up being branded a thief.” [24]
Mental clarity is clouded by slander.

24 {362} If you man of standing
sitting in your lord’s council,
summon your skills to excel.
Silence is better than wordiness,
so only speak when you have a solution,
and be aware of the complexities of the situation.
Proper speech is one of the hardest things to master;
if you can explain things clearly you will have passed the test.

25 {370} If you are powerful, honor comes from knowledge
and gentle speech.
Speak with authority, when you need to,
but provocation will get you into trouble.
Avoid conceit—you will be humbled—
but if you are completely silent, you will be censured.
If you have to respond to someone who is irate,
{380?} take a step back; control yourself.
It is easy to get swept up in impulsive anger,
but if you respond with calmness, you are on the right path. [25]
If you worry all the time, you will be unhappy;
If you party all the time, you will not get anything done;
The archer hits his mark; the pilot arrives at port, each by aiming in his own way.
The one that
considers finds the balance. [26]

26 Do not hinder a powerful man who is busy with something,
{390?} and do not make it worse if he is already weighed down.
He will get mad at anyone who slows him down, His ka will not be happy, even with someone he loves. [27]
He is the boss (along with the god),
so what he wants should be first priority.
He will get over his anger, and be open to you once again;
Then his ka will be at peace.
Opposition increases ill-will
as goodwill does for love.

27 Instruct a noble in what he will find useful;
{400} help him gain people’s confidence.
If you teach him things that impress his master,
he will provide for you.
As his own fortunes increase
it will turn into your own clothing,
and he will keep supporting you.
This nobleman you love,
who lives by your instruction,
will keep you on his staff,
and continue to love you
from the depths of his heart.
He has a teachable ka.

28 {415} If you are a magistrate,
you need to keep people’s confidence.
Administer justice with impartiality, [28]
and speak without favoring one side or the other.
You do not want anyone to say,
“Just like a judge; he distorts things!”
You end up judged by your own judgments.

29 If someone offends you,
consider the good character of the offender.
Let it pass; put it behind you,
If he kept silent about it, so should you. [29]

30 If you have gained status after having been low class,
are well off, although you used to be poor
{431} in some town, which you well remember,
since you know where you came from,
do not go trusting your new-found wealth;
it was a gift from god.
Do not lag behind someone else just like you:
someone who can tell the same story.

31 {441} Hunch over a little in the presence [30] of your superior,
your overseer from the palace.
This will keep the money flowing in to your household,
and your wages arriving when you expect them.
The one who clashes with his superior is an idiot!
Stay calm; you will get to live.
Offering a hand will not hurt you .
{450} Do not steal from your neighbor; do not steal from your friend—
he might accuse you for your behavior,
A quarreler has no future
if he is known to be belligerent.
An unfriendly man will not have a friendly neighborhood.

32 “Against illicit sexual intercourse…very obscure,”[Lichtheim]. This saying is omitted by all three of my main sources, either because if its difficulty, or due to its risqué content. These translations follow Zába (quoted in Goedicke) and Goedicke (presented in Meyers).
Zába Goedicke
You should not have sex with a young girl, [31]
because from then on she will long for the forbidden,
and will never be able to control her base desires.
{460} She will not go a night without illicit acts,
or find peace until she quenches this craving!
Do not have sex with a girly-boy. [32]
His base desires have possessed him,
and he is constantly seeking to express them.
{460} He is unashamed of shameful things.
Giving in to this desire robs him of peace.

33 If you are trying to probe a friend’s character,
do not go asking behind his back;
find out from him yourself.
You do not want irritate him.
Get into a discussion with him;
{470} feel him out through conversation.
If he seems to lack discretion, [33]
or if something he says irritates you,
try to stay friendly;
avoid flying off the handle
or lashing out at him.
Do not abandon or attack him.
{480} If he has something coming to him,
fate will make sure it arrives.

34 Be generous [34] while you are alive.
Once you are gone, you are gone. [35]
The food you have shared will sweeten you memory, [36]
but anyone you have left hungry, will hold a grudge.
If someone feels deprived he will make trouble,
so try to avoid having a neighbor that feels that way.
A man will be remembered for his kindness
long after the funeral. [37]

35 Know your staff well, and you will succeed.
{490} Do not abuse your friends;
they are your real wealth:
way better than money.
You enrich each other. [38]
A noble character is true profit,
and good nature is a memorial.

36 Correct firmly; punish severely.
Crime dealt with is virtue rewarded.
But suffering, other than from misfortune,
turns a complainer into a rebel.

37 If you marry an outgoing woman,
{500} full of joy, loved by all,
fickle and impulsive,
never get rid of her; keep her well-fed.
Her joy will become yours!

Epilogue

If you pay attention [39] these sayings,
everything will go better for you.
They are useful because they are true.
{510} People will keep repeating these
because they have high value.
Every word will be passed down;
they will be part of this land always.
They will become a pattern
for speech among the upper class.
It can teach someone to say things that will be remembered:
things the hearers will learn to do.
It is a good thing to speak to the future
and it will listen.

{520} The leader needs to set a good example
so his graciousness can endure,
and his wisdom continue always.
The person is exalted [40] by what endures,
leading to earthly contentment.
The wise is content through knowledge.
The leader finds worth through action.
What he says agrees with what he feels,
and it contains no deceit.
{530} His eyes see,
and his ears hear, things that will be helpful for his son.
He is trustworthy in both word and deed.

If a son can pay attention, it is his most useful quality.
once he learns to pay attention
he becomes a listener.
Good attention leads to good speaking,
{540} so that it also becomes useful to the listener.
Paying attention is foremost
since it fosters good will.
It is so rewarding when a son takes hold of his father’s teaching;
it will guide him into a healthy old-age.

God loves the one who pays attention;
God hates the one who will not do so.
{550} The ability to pay attention or not comes from inside a person; [41]
that will determine a person’s life, success, and health,
so if you can pay attention, do it.
The one that loves to pay attention, will do as he is told.
It is so rewarding when a son pays attention to his father;
It is deeply gratifying when people say,
“Here is a son who has learned to pay attention.”
The one about whom this is said
will be good-looking
and honored by his father.
Everybody talks about him,
not just now, but well into future.

{564} If a son receives what his father tells him,
all his ventures will come out right.
Teach your son to pay attention
so officials will value him,
so his words will be guided by has been told,
and others will know that he pays attention.
Such a son will surpass those around him,
but the one who does not pay attention will fail.
When the wise rises early, he will prosper;
the fool rises early to be frustrated.

{575} The fool cannot pay attention;
he does nothing;
he sees ignorance as knowledge,
and loss as profit.
If it is stupid, he does it,
and regularly catches the blame.
If someplace ought to kill him, he lives there,
and empty talk is his food.
Officials ‘know his type,’
{585} and comment, “Every day is a living death.”
People try to ignore him,
because his situation is too depressing to think about.

A son that pays attention is a follower of Horus. [42]
When he has paid attention, things go well.
When he is old and venerable
he will pass this on to his own children,
renewing his own father’s teaching.
Each man’s teaching reflects his actions.
He speaks to his children,
{595} in the same way they will with theirs.
If you set a good example, and do not break the chain,
justice will stand, and your children will live.

Lichtheim’s translation of the next paragraph is so completely different from Browns (she admits that she has trouble understanding it), that I am giving a version of both (still in updated English).
Lichthiem Brown
When the [foolish son] gets in trouble
{600} people who see it will say,
“That is completely in character.”
Those that just hear about it will reply,
“Indeed, that is completely in character.”
Then they will attain high status and be above reproach
{600} and discerning men will say,
“That man spoke wisely,”
(and they will emulate him),
or [will say,] “He has much experience”

Everyone knows [wisdom] is the key to good leadership;
riches [43] are useless without it.
Do not remove any of these sayings; do not add any;
do not replace any.
Be careful not to speak before considering; [44]
You do not want a wise man to have to tell you,
“If you want people who know how to pay attention to take you seriously,
master the art of speaking before you open your mouth.”
If what you say has value
all your affairs will be in order.

{618} Do not blurt out everything you know; control your mouth.
This will get you a better reputation among the officials,
do not ‘beat around the bush’ when speaking to your lord,
Act in such a way that people will know whose child you are.
Bystanders should be able to say,
“His parents must be truly pleased.”
Consider before speaking
so that what you say has significance,
then the officials who listen to you, will say,
“What he says is always worth hearing!”
Behave so your master will say,
“This man’s father was a good teacher,
starting before he was born,
he shared with him all he knew,
and he goes beyond what his father told him.”

It is true: a good son come from god
and does not wait to be told what to do.
His thinking is right, and what he does is right.
As you succeed me, having a healthy body, [45]
and with the king being happy with your performance,
I hope you will live a very long time!
{640} May you live even longer than me,
and I am 110 years old,
which I attribute to the king’s kindness,
even more than to my ancestors.
This is because I did right [46] for the king
all the way up to my veneration. [47]

Colophon

It is finished from its beginning to end, just as it was found in writing.

Notes:

[1] although his comment is “This translation omits many sections which are obscure.”

[2] or apprentice.

[3] Presumably this does not mean he is heir to the throne. It seems clear that he is older than the Pharaoh. ‘Son’ can mean something like trusted courtier. It is not infrequent in this literature for people of similar rank to refer to each other as brother, and to their superior as father. The fact that he expressly says natural (lit. of his body) may indicate that they are actually related, though.

[4] following Lichtheim. Brown’s reading is diametrically opposite. He translates this passage as, “keep not silence when he says anything that is evil; so will you be wiser than he.”

[5] Osiris was the mythical first king. Wilson reads this as, “since the time of him who made it.”

[6] This could be read as an example of justice, but as Wilson, probably correctly, reads this, justice itself is the inheritance.

[7] For ka, see the introduction. Here it gives him his social instincts.

[8] Lichtheim thinks this line is out of place, quite independent of what it might mean. For obnoxious, she has, like a crocodile (see introductory notes).

[9] follower; this could either mean an heir or an assistant.

[10] In other words, ‘me time’ is ka time.

[11] Wilson points out the Egyptian words for semen and poison are the same.

[12] The last two lines are doubtless a proverb to the effect that good and bad character come from the gods. Although the general ideas are the same, the three translations I consulted vary widely over the last four lines or so. I have generally followed Lichtheim.

[13] Most likely the supernatural one, but there is a possibility that this refers to the Pharoah.

[14] considerate, lit. big-hearted; impulsive, lit. belly-serving; for comes from the enemy, Brown reads has an enemy (presumably, himself).

[15] Brown comments that [as of 1932], “No intelligible translation of [this] has yet been made,” and speculates that it may be corrupt. Sadly, I don’t think Lichtheim did much better fifty years later, although I have followed her generally in my attempt to make sense of this saying.

[16] or hard-headedness. Lichtheim, who tends to leave metaphors uninterpreted, reads this as, where the crocodile arises. See introductory notes.

[17] For last four lines I have followed Brown and Wilson. Particularly in the first of the four, Lichtheim gives us the raw idiom: Poor advice is “shoot the opponent.” The last two she inverts: He who fails through lust of them, / no affair of his can prosper.

[18] The core meaning for this is reveals, according to Lichtheim. She translate it as shuns (derived from comes out from under), Wilson has exposes (from the same derivation), and Brown gives us, comes empty from. If I was going to be wordy, I might have said, uncovers his relations’ little secrets (i.e. as a tool in undermining their claims).

[19] vulva.

[20] can get a canal built. Michael V. Fox reads these two lines as, "What she asks about is he who makes for her a canal," which he sees as a reference to sexual intercourse. The last three lines are “very obscure” [Lichthiem], and so passed over by all three translators. This is based on the translation in Meyers.

[21] lit. those who enter. Brown read this as servants, Wilson as clients, and Lichtheim as friends. The rest of the saying can be read very similarly with either friends or clients (in some ways reminiscent of the parable of the Unjust Steward—Luke 16:1-13). Read as slaves, it is not having someone you can run to in time of need that is the issue, but keeping your staff around. I have followed Lichtheim, but I suspect that Wilson’s reading is just as appropriate

[22]he has a selfish ka.”

[23] with Wilson. Lichtheim has an adage: One does not bring supplies to town; I take this to mean the same kind of thing as “You don’t carry coals to Newcastle,” but how it fits into the context, I cannot say.

[24] I have followed Lichthiem here, although she allows as how the two lines are “very obscure.” Brown sees it as saying that thievery is bad. Wilson abstains on this saying. I have put it in quotes because I am seeing it as an adage, quoted here to the effect that you can end up being associated with things even if they were not your fault. So, in this case, even though the slander did not originate with you, you can end up being viewed as a slanderer.

[25] i.e. Prov. 15.1.

[26] Lichtheim comments that these two lines are “obscure” and can only confirm arrives and listens to his heart (considers); she makes no attempt to translate the rest. I have been forced to follow Brown alone here, who comments, “So also in life, by diversity of aim, alternating work and play, happiness is secured. Tacking is evidently meant in the case of the steersman.”

[27] Lichtheim: [The master’s] ka will part from him who loves him.

[28] following Zába (quoted in Lichtheim).

[29] I read this to mean that if the offender is a good person, and said nothing, perhaps he was unaware, so you should let it pass.

[30] or bow, but not like prostrate.

[31] Zába understands this to be a young girl. Goedicke is inclined to think it refers to homo-eroticism. I assume the main issue is in the first line where you are not supposed to have sex with a lady-boy (Meyers). It depends on whether lady or boy is the primary noun, and which the modifier. Zába sees lady as the noun, so boy is understood as young, giving young girl. Goedicke goes the other route, making lady the adjective, so we get girly-boy. Lines 3–4 could probably read either way under either model.

[32] Goedicke's approach leaves the question open as to whether the boy needs to be young; in other words, is this about pederasty? Alternatively, girly-boy could simply be an effeminate man, e.g. a gay male. If so, this saying is a prohibition on male homo-eroticism generally.

[33] lit. if what he has seen escapes him, Lichtheim points out that this could mean that he is being frank, or telling too much. I went with the latter because it is in better parallel with the next line.

[34] bright faced.

[35] What leaves the storehouse does not return [Lichtheim].

[36] be coveted.

[37] Prb. septer, which Zába takes to mean official function. Lichthiem has doubts but goes with it in her translation.

[38] Lichtheim: what belongs to one belongs to another.

[39] hear and obey are the same word here. I have used (pay) attention throughout this section in an attempt to capture the term’s ambivalence.

[40] the ba is fed.

[41] from the heart.

[42] Wilson thinks this expression means that he is a servant of the king (Horus being the first).

[43] or social honors.

[44] This is how Lichtheim interprets what she reads as do not loosen your inner cords . Brown sees this as opening some unknown plant, so something like be sure not to open your inner [foolishness plant] He has no idea what plant this word refers to, or what its effects might be, only that it is bad, and presumably stimulates personality traits of which Ptah-hotep disapproves. I could make several suggestions.

[45] Wilson reads this as meaning, may your body still be healthy when you join me in the next world.

[46] or justice.

[47] Presumably, this means his funeral, unless it is some sort of retirement honors.

Ancient Near Eastern Myths Return to Ancient
Near Eastern myths index
Page: © Copyright 1995-2011 Alan Humm.
Comments and corrections: