Friday, May 31, 2013

The Harper's Song

I do a lot of research for my worldbuilding. This usually has me delving into various world mythologies, making word lists from various languages, or trying desperately to understand various philosophical concepts. Quite often, I come across fascinating material. So I've decided to do occasional posts sharing some of the cool things I've learned that may or may not be used in my fantasy world and stories.

Today I'm sharing The Song of the Harper, taken from my copy of The Literature of Ancient Egypt, translation by Vincent A. Tobin.

The Song of the Harper
Fortunate is this prince,
For happy was his fate, and happy his ending.

One Generation passes away and the next remains,
Ever since the time of those of old.
The gods who existed before me rest (now) in their tombs,
And the blessed nobles also are buried in their tombs.
But as for these builders of tombs,
Their places(1) are no more.
What has become of them?

I have heard the words of Imhotep and Hardedef(2)
Whose maxims are repeated intact as proverbs.
But what of their places?
Their walls are in ruins, And their places are no more,
As if they had never existed.

There is no one who returns from beyond
That he may tell of their state,
That he may tell of their lot,
New Kingdom harp
That he may set our hearts at ease
Until we make our journey
To the place where they have gone.

So rejoice in your heart!
Absence of care is good for you;
Follow your heart as long as you live.
Put myrrh on your head,
Dress yourself in fine linen,
Anoint yourself with the exquisite oils
Which are only for the gods.

Let your pleasures increase,
And let not your heart grow weary.
Follow your heart and your happiness,
Conduct your affairs on earth as your heart dictates,
For that day of mourning will (surely) come for you.
The Weary-Hearted(3) does not hear their lamentations,
And their weeping does not rescue a man's heart from the grave.

Enjoy pleasant times,
And do not weary thereof.
Behold, it is not give to any man to take his belongings with him,
Behold, there is no one departed who will return again.

(1) "places" here refers to cult chapels for the dead.
(2) There is an existing fragment of an Instruction text of Hardedef, but there are no known writings of Imhotep in existence. Given Imhotep's reputation for wisdom, it makes one wonder what writings we may be missing due to the destructive force of time.
(3) "The Weary-Hearted"  is a title of he god Osiris.

I find The Song of the Harper fascinating. First, it appears to be but one example of a genre of writings called "Harper's Songs". This particular Song claims, in the text, to be from the tomb of an unidentified King Intef though it was found grouped with many "love songs" in Papyrus Harris 500. The Papyrus is from the New Kingdom, however the language of the Song indicates Middle Kingdom origins. Second, Harper's Songs seem to give a view of life and death in ancient Egypt somewhat divergent from the mainline religious beliefs. The sort of "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die" theme wasn't common in Egyptian writings and may express a viewpoint more in line with the people rather than the religious leaders.

For my world, these songs have been partial inspiration for my minstrel/bard character Bulsara of Akhet. A highly skilled musician, a bit of a rebel, a lady's man, a fun guy who's going to get into quite a lot of trouble with the religious establishment, setting off a series of, I hope, interesting adventures that will be good short story fodder.


  1. That's true. Egyptian religion viewed death differently, which is why people were buried with their treasures.

    1. They had a very fascinating and complex view of death and the afterlife. It's a strong influence on my own fantasy world.

  2. Beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing. And I love the images too.

    Sarah Allen
    (From Sarah, With Joy)


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