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.  ). 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).
 although his comment is “This translation omits many sections which are obscure.”
 or apprentice.
 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.
 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.”
 Osiris was the mythical first king. Wilson reads this as, “since the time of him who made it.”
 This could be read as an example of justice, but as Wilson, probably correctly, reads this, justice itself is the inheritance.
 For ka, see the introduction. Here it gives him his social instincts.
 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).
 follower; this could either mean an heir or an assistant.
 In other words, ‘me time’ is ka time.
 Wilson points out the Egyptian words for semen and poison are the same.
 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.
 Most likely the supernatural one, but there is a possibility that this refers to the Pharoah.
 considerate, lit. big-hearted; impulsive, lit. belly-serving; for comes from the enemy, Brown reads has an enemy (presumably, himself).
 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.
 or hard-headedness. Lichtheim, who tends to leave metaphors uninterpreted, reads this as, where the crocodile arises. See introductory notes.
 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.
 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).
 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.
 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
 “he has a selfish ka.”
 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.
 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.
 i.e. Prov. 15.1.
 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.”
 Lichtheim: [The master’s] ka will part from him who loves him.
 following Zába (quoted in Lichtheim).
 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.
 or bow, but not like prostrate.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 bright faced.
 What leaves the storehouse does not return [Lichtheim].
 be coveted.
 Prb. septer, which Zába takes to mean official function. Lichthiem has doubts but goes with it in her translation.
 Lichtheim: what belongs to one belongs to another.
 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.
 the ba is fed.
 from the heart.
 Wilson thinks this expression means that he is a servant of the king (Horus being the first).
 or social honors.
 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.
 Wilson reads this as meaning, may your body still be healthy when you join me in the next world.
 or justice.
 Presumably, this means his funeral, unless it is some sort of retirement honors.
Return to Ancient|
Near Eastern myths index
Page: © Copyright 1995-2011 Alan Humm.
Comments and corrections: