Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ancient Egyptian Quote of the Week

Since I missed last week, this time I will post three related quotes. The first is an observation by Greek Hecataeus of Abdera which is found in Diodorus' Bibliotheca historica. Hecataeus traveled throughout Egypt and also spent 15 years living in Alexandria from 320 to 305 B.C.E.

"The natives attribute very little value to the time spent in this life. But they attach the greatest possible significance to the time after death in which one is preserved in the memory through recollections of virtue. They call the dwellings of the living 'temporary abodes' because we only spend a short time in them. The tombs of the dead they call 'eternal houses' because the dead spend infinite time in Hades. Accordingly they give very little thought to the equipment of their houses, whereas the effort they put into the tombs can never be high enough."

A similar Egyptian testimony is found in this quote from an inscription in Theban tomb 131:

I erected for myself a magnificent tomb
in my city of eternity.
I equipped most lavishly the site of my rock tomb
in the desert of eternity.
May my name endure on it
in the mouths of the living,
while the memory of me is good among men
after years that are to come.
A trifle only of life is this world,
[but] eternity is in the realm of the dead.
Praised by god is the noble
who acts for himself with a view to the future
and seeks with his heart to find salvation for himself,
the burial of his corpse, and the revival of his name,
and who is mindful of eternity.

Such a vivid inscription I need hardly comment on. All too clear is the emphasis on eternity in the afterlife, the idea that this life is but the beginning. Egyptian tombs were not graves but houses. Life did not end with death. One was alive as long as his name was remembered, thus the emphasis on the permanence of stone tombs and monuments. And though Hecataeus refers to "Hades", the Egyptian afterlife was not truly a place of the dead, but a place of the living. The inscription from Theban tomb 50 which is known as the "Harper's Song" contains the following hopeful verse about the afterlife:

I have heard these songs that are in the tombs of the forefathers and what they tell to glorify the here-and-now and to belittle the afterlife.
Why is suchlike done to the land of eternity?
[...] Our people rest in it since earliest primordial time,
and those who will be in infinite years,
they all come to that place. There is no remaining in Egypt. [...]
The time that one spends on earth is only a dream. But
"Welcome, safe and sound!"
one says to him who has reached the West.*

All quotations were found in Jan Assmann's The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs.

*("The West" is one way Egyptians referred to the underworld, as in, the place where the sun set and died to be reborn again in the morning.)


  1. I guess that's the same thing that drives us as writers - to have our name etched on a book and remembered...

  2. I love the Harper's song :D What I like most about Egyptian thoughts on the aterlife is that death never actually meant 'death', but 'rebirth'. The only real death to the Egyptians was 'the second death' where they were condemned to non existence for eternity. Pretty harsh :P

  3. Alex, that's a very apt comparison.

    Jamie, I find the more ancient Egyptian literature I read the more I love it.


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