Ancient Egyptian Literature

by Wim van den Dungen

Instrumental

Monumental

Religious Wisdom
technical honorific devotional funerary

instructions

scientific inscriptions hymns Pyramid Texts for the living
administrative biographies poetry Coffin Texts for kingship
legal decrees songs Book of the Dead admonitions
letters boundary stelae prayers Amduat various
Maat texts

school
examples

decrees, dedications, installations, etc. prose Netherworld Guides
Litany of Re
 etc.

These texts were written on papyrus, wood or stone. The large quantity of papyri still untranslated, allow to conjecture in the future new categories or subcategories will come to light. The sheer quantity of available sources is remarkable if compared to, for example, Archaic and Classical Greece. For our purposes, the literary sources are restricted to the native period (i.e. from Terminal Predynastic Egypt until the end of the New Kingdom).

modes 
of thought
examples
in Egyptian literature
major stages of growth in the formation of Middle Egyptian
mythical
sensori-motoric
Gerzean ware design schemata, early palettes

individual hieroglyps, no texts, no grammar, cartoon-like style

pre-rational
pre-operatoric
Relief of Snefru, Biography of Methen, Sinai Inscriptions, Testamentary Enactment, Pyramid Texts

individual words with archaic sentences, a very rudimentary grammar to simple sentences in the "record" style of the Old Kingdom

proto-rational
concrete operations
  Maxims of Ptahhotep, Coffin Texts, Sapiental literature, ... Great Hymn to the Aten ... Memphis Theology

from simple sentences to the classical form of a literary language capable of further change

The development of Egyptian literature, from solitary hieroglyphs to its classical form, follows the universal cognitive characteristics of the early stages of the development of our capacity to think, the "ante-rational" stage of cognition, linked with the imaginal, the sensorial, the concrete and the context-bound.

An understanding of these characteristics is helpful to discover the complex layeredness or linguistic stratification mentioned by most egyptologists, allowing us to compare any Egyptian text, as if it were an archeological object on its own. The logic of each stratum has never been defined before, nor were Egyptian texts read with this "filter" in mind. Doing so, thanks to Piaget and his suite, reveals three fundamental types of logics simultaneously at work in the instinctual mind of the Egyptians (like different, at times, interacting strata) :

  • mythical logic : return to the adualism of the "first occasion" (zep tepy), annihilating any clear distinction between the source of thought and the clustering, constellational set of thoughts put together on the basis of a shared concrete meaning, explicit or not, in terms of physical processes, in particular any rhythmical or recurring pattern. This return always implies the pantheon and its primordial, pre-mythohistorical founding sense ;

  • pre-rational logic : the formation of pre-concepts and a stable source of thought or primitive subjectivity, still linked to the coordination of actions (and not yet, to a concrete conceptual model). Psychomorph, active iconization happens and grammatical structures are worked out. Contradictions are not reconciled. Concepts have no stability outside their ritual or practical use, linked to person(s), place and time. The process of the creation of meaning and cognitive inventiveness remains triggered ;

  • proto-rational logic : on the basis of a conceptual structure, which has the necessary practical (not theoretical) tools to manipulate thoughts to solve problems, subject and object are clearly distinguished. This never leads to any discursive articulation (and its conceptual freedom), because of the contextuality of the concrete operations to which this logic is bound.

initiated : 2003 - last update : 27 XI 2010

© Wim van den Dungen
Antwerp, 2003 - 2017.