Ancient Egyptian poetry: The Tale of Sinuhe

What started off as the worst job I’ve ever been asked to do ended up as something really, really interesting. ‘I would give water to the thirsty I returned the wanderer to the path and rescued the robbed. Every country against which I set out I made my attack on it. And it was driven from its grassland and wells. I plundered his herds and carried off its inhabitants and took away their food. I killed the people in it with my strong arm, with my bow, with my campaigns and with my excellent plans.’ The tale of Sinuhe is perhaps the best-known work to survive from ancient Egypt. It’s an absolute masterpiece composed by an anonymous author around 1850 BC. The poem is an exciting adventure story on one level. It tells how an official panics and leaves Egypt, lives most of his life abroad in the Levant and then finally comes back to Egypt, thanks to the King’s grace, to die and be buried in a royal pyramid. It charts a sequence of great personal crises, but we get a sense of what it is like to be human to be worried, to be terrified, to have a sense that you are lost in the world. ‘Whatever god fated this flight be gracious bring me home. Surely you will let me see the place where my heart still stays? What matters more than my being buried in the land where I was born? This is my prayer for help.’ It’s wonderful to work with a performer like Barbara Ewing who can bring a whole range of skill sets to the poem that academics usually lack in a very spectacular manner. And so she can give voice to the ancient words and I think allow people to hear the emotion and the passion. I think the poem, in a way, it’s sort of a portrait of a human voice and I think that’s where it actually goes beyond the historical context is where Sinuhe comes across as recognisably human, all too human, all too fallible and I think the best way to get that across to people is to have it in the voice of a reciter which is what it was designed for originally. It was not designed to be an academic commentary and I think performance is absolutely essential to that side. But it was always a male reciter wasn’t it? Male or female, it doesn’t matter. It’s just got to be a human voice. The humanity. Well that was just another thing that I had that I’m telling a man’s story and yet I had to sort of take all that away as well and just tell a story. How do you know that this is a fictional story? How do you know that the writer the original writer hasn’t taken it from somebody’s life for his own? It’s based on a reality. It’s very naturalistic but it is so cleverly shaped I find it very hard to believe it is a genuine historical inscription. And there are lots of clues in the poem that hint at this It fictionalises itself. Sinuhe’s name is gloriously appropriate for what happens to him. Because? Because it means the ‘son of the sycomore’ and that is this play with the Sycomore goddess throughout the poem. But the main thing is the ending because the ending is of a private official returning to Egypt to be buried in a royal pyramid and that is just too happy an ending Perhaps he wasn’t really what he seemed? He certainly wasn’t what he seemed. The poem isn’t what it seems. It cannot. All the way through the style’s too complex it pretends to be an official biography but nobody reading it in the 12th Dynasty would have been fooled. It’s too dark! You could never say these things in official text. But it doesn’t actually say them you can only find them if you’re looking for them. Exactly which is what poetry and fictional poetry does in the period It is not what the state monuments do. No, no. It cannot be real but it cannot be completely fictional. It is based on real experiences, real countries, real situations in court. It’s very close to lived experience. But I don’t believe Sinuhe ever existed. I had to have a story. I had to have a story about Sinuhe, about his relationship with the people in the court and because in several times in the poem he has almost… he has a sort of nervous breakdown. Or so it felt to me. And I couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t – for myself – found some reason for him to do that. I think the poem invites that. It leaves so many gaps. Every reader is invited to imagine what it is like. So you are saying, anachronistic… although I’m not sure that’s the word but whatever the word is when we’re putting our own thing are you saying that is a wrong thing to do? No! I think it’s a very passionate poem which invites engagement by the reader and leaves everything open and I think that’s why it’s so subversive it challenges the idea that life is simple black-and-white and perfect. Well to me it was just a great, big mountain and I thought I’m never ever going to be able to do this but I read every single note and I made up my story and I told it. ‘A pyramid of stone was built for me. It is His Majesty who has caused this to be done. There is no other wretch for whom the like was done. I was in the favours of the King’s giving until the arrival of the day of landing. So it ends from start to finish as found in writing.’

33 Replies to “Ancient Egyptian poetry: The Tale of Sinuhe

  1. "She can give voice to the ancient words…" I've already seen this movie, it was called the Evil Dead and it didn't turn out so good.

  2. What is the context of that last phrase, "day of landing," in the original Egyptian? Are there any other places that phrase appears? "The day of landing" seems like it might be an Egyptian colloquialism, which is to say, it's a bit vague. Is the writer lamenting that he held the favor of the Pharaoh until the day he fell from grace, or boasting that he held such favor until the day he died? Or is there some other colloquial meaning for a "day of landing" in ancient Egyptian?

  3. When one does not understand the language of the original (like my own self in this instance), then one should be trusting the interpreter
 Life is complicated, indeed

  4. The main character in The Egyptian, by Mika Waltari, is named Sinuhe.

  5. Mika Waltari, a great Finnish author wrote "Sinuhe egyptilÀinen" (Sinuhe the Egyptian) in year 1945, must read!

  6. Top stuff! Currently reading Waltari`s retelling. It`s like the coolest book ever! The curator who think Sinoue is but a tale is a boring old fart

  7. I find his reasons for concluding the tale is fictitious are unconvincing. People wrote off much of the Bible as fiction in more recent centuries and now we have so much archaeological evidence in support of many of the places, peoples, characters, customs and accounts that those critics were eager to disclaim.

  8. Personally, I think her reading is just awful. Her vocal performance makes Sinuhe appear far too weak, almost effeminate. I would have much preferred to hear this read by a man; preferably Egyptian. Egyptian men are strong and proud, and you don't hear these qualities whatsoever in this woman's reading.

  9. It so tragic.he wanted to be berried in his home land were he was born,whanted to dy in his own birth place,rest for eternity in his tomb in Egypt.
    But thies brittish stole his coffin, his artifzcts to the next life and put it in a museum in a cold,far land displayed as a curriocity. Why do need to we put everyting in kages?.its just criminal.

  10. The technology of writing allows a voice from ancient times to time travel and be heard in the present. If the fates allow, it will continue its journey into the future and be told a thousand years hence. Such a marvelous accomplishment for humanity to be able to communicate a story beyond the grave.

  11. It may be due to the limitations of a 7 minutes video but it seemed to me that Richard's answers to Barbara's questions were too poor… What do you mean it cannot be real telling just because it's too perfect?

  12. That's not a poem ~ it sounds like an entry in the journal of a warmonger / killer who cared more about his end than the end of all those he bragged about killing.
    Why care at all about that kind of horrid human.

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