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The Song of Songs and the songs of Egypt

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King Tutankhamun and his queen, Ankhesenamon
King Tutankhamun and his queen, Ankhesenamon
Yeah, OK, she she probably actually was his sister
The closest surviving parallel to the Song of Songs from the ancient world is Egyptian love poetry.

These poems come from the world of entertainment. They may have been sung, accompanied, enacted, or danced to. They are the earliest examples of simple love poetry that have survived from the ancient Near East. Some scholars, including Michael V. Fox, have argued from this that love poetry originated in Egypt. If love is a fundamental human emotion, however, it seems more likely that such poetry is older by far, and not limited to the Nile valley. It may be true, though, that the Egyptians were the first to collect it in written form. So when Lady Gaga sings about “Bad Romance”, she is just working out a theme from ancient Egypt.

Here is an example (from a Cairo vase, poem A, #5):

Those familiar with the Song of Songs will recognize immediately that the boy refers to his love interest as his 'sister' (as in SoS 4.9ff). This is not a reference to Egyptian incest (which was only practiced, at one point, by Pharaohs-not Egyptians generally). It is a term of endearment, just as in the Song of Songs. He also refers to her as his 'queen' which may be parallel to the girl in the Song referring to her lover as 'king' [1.4 & 12; 7.5]. Since tradition has Solomon as the lover, this metaphor is rarely noticed (two of the uses of 'king' do refer to Solomon [3.9 & 11], but not as her lover).

Female performers in ancient Egypt
Female performers in ancient Egypt
So, did this genre of entertainment make its way into the Bible? There are other cases of Egyptian literature influencing their Hebrew counterparts (particularly in 'wisdom' literature). The Hebrews did not live in a vacuum. They not only drew ideas from the world around them, but in all likelihood, contributed some of their own to other cultures. It should not be surprising, or offensive, that the Hebrew author of this poem draws imagery from what would probably have been well known and popular in his (or her) day.

As noted in the last article, it was not as a simple love song that the Song made its way into the canon of scripture, but the feelings we have for our loved ones (also our children, parents, and others) show up as metaphors (and similes) elsewhere in the Bible for the feelings we have (or wish we had) for God.

Those interested in seeing more Egyptian love poems should visit Love, Marriage, and Hieros Gamos, where there are links to ancient collections. Note that most of these come from the same general period-the 13th-9th centuries, BC(E); the Song of Songs is estimated to have been written around the 9th c., BC(E).

The next installment in this series will be looking at Mesopotamian love stories between the gods (also as background to the Song).

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