New texts coming through

Irtysen stela and pPrisse

published on 15th September 2015, 04:38 pm

Hi everybody and welcome back home! If you've been on vacation, we hope you enjoyed; and if you have been working, we hope you enjoyed your work as well: we did both... and enjoyed both!
In these last months, we have enriched our library with three amazing new texts: the last part of the Maximes for Kagemni, the entire Teaching of Ptahhotep (these two texts are the whole content of hieratic papyrus Prisse) and the Autobiography of Irtysen.
This last concerns the titles and the skills of the scribe and sculptor Irtysen, who lived at the times of Montuhotep II (2061-2010 BC), first king of XI Dynasty (2060-1991 BC). Its main parts are two: the former is the usual pr.t-xrw. This very common expression is made from the feminine infinitive form in status constructus pr.t, ver-, of the verb prj, viri, ver, qual. vori and veriwou, "to go out", "to sprout out", and from the status absolutus of the noun xrw, qrwou, ,ara-, qara-, "voice": hence, from both meanings of the verb, it can be interpreted either as "an outgoing of voice" (= a prayer) and as "a sprouting out of voice", "a fruit of voice" (= an offering made not from material objects but from a prayer in which those material objects are simply listed: in fact, immediately after this expression, a more or less short list of goods follows, the most common form of which is "loafs and beer; (meat of) cows and birds; vessels and fabrics"). In this latter case, the former part of the expression should be read pr(w).t, vrw, "fruit", "sprouting out", "germination", rather than prj, viri, "outgoing", but, as we said, the two meanings are co-radical, and hence strictly linked in Egyptian. Inserting this former part has been of paramount importance for our database, since this was the very first entry of such formulae as t Hnq.t kA.w Apd.w Ss mnx.t and others, knowledge of which is unavoidable for all students who are into, or want to become familiar with, Egyptian epigraphy. The latter part of the stela is even more important, because thanks to it we have added to our thesaurus a number of words of technical meaning, such as "dilution", "computing", "painting" and so on, which were lacking in our vocabulary since, till then, we had inserted exclusively texts of literary nature, in which words of more common meaning were used. And so, till yesterday, by means of Papersesh, you were able to say nothing more complex than "give me some water" or "listen to me!" in Egyptian. But now, you can say such sentences as "Look at this varnish, how fire- and water-resistant it is!", "Could you please remind me how to pictorially represent fear on face of my enemies?" and the like. All kidding aside, this document is a treasure both for linguists and art historians: by means of it, along with many other documents, we have knowledge of how high-ranked an Egyptian man could become by excelling in art during Middle Kingdom and, consequently, how respected painting, sculpture, gold-working and fine arts in general were at that time and in that society. We also know from it that there were no sharp boundaries between what we are nowadays used to call "art" and what we would rather consider as sciences, such as mathematics, physics and chemistry; that which abstracts this epitaph from its own field and could possibly transfer it in the contemporary debate on artist's role in society, and on the relationship between art, literature, aesthetics, philosophy on one side and science, technology, industry, know-how on the other. Is this operative separation an evolution or an involution? In other words, does it truly free artist's mind from contingent concerns, allowing him to experiment aesthetic solutions which would have been otherwise more difficult for him to reach, or should we rather suspect that it relegates him in a field which is more distant from us (i. e., "the others", the rest of mankind, in one word: society), and then less risky both for him and us?  These are far from being rhetorical questions, whatever one feels to answer.
The most famous utterance of this stela is jw(=j) rx=kw(j) sStA n(y) mdw-nTr (r. 6-7): "I know the secret of Hieroglyphs". As for students visiting this page of ours, if one day one of them will be able to say the same, we hope it will be partly thanks to Papersesh.
The other two works we have inserted (Ptahhotep and Kagemni) are part, the latter being the first known example, of what is called "sapiential literature"1 or "sebayt" (from sbAy.t, cbw, "teaching", deverbal noun of the causative root sbA, cabo, cabe-, cabo=, qual. cabyout, "to teach"), a genre Egyptians were very familiar with. Titles of works pertaining to this genre are alternatively translated as "teachings", "instructions", "maximes" and the like, which are all varying translations of the same term "sebayt", so that English titles, as well as those in whichever other modern language, are hardly useful to identify the exact text one is referring to, and you can find them on the Internet and elsewhere entitled with different expressions: so, those we use on Papersesh are purely indicative as well.  
As we can guess from the words of both Ptahhotep and Kagemni, preparing youth to succeed to old generations in important positions (like that of TAt(y), a term which is usually translated as "vizier", or "prime minister") was one of the main duties of functionaries during Old Kingdom. But, while in that part of the Maximes for Kagemni - who was a vizier of Snofru (2613-2589 BC), first king of IV Dynasty (2613-2510 BC) - which we can read on papyrus Prisse ethics is mainly debated ("Who's respectful is healthy, (...) to him who is silent tent is open, to him who is peaceful of word great respect is paid", pPrisse - I.1-2) along with proper behavior in public during certain circumstances (for example, the necessity of not showing oneself glutton while sitting at table with many people: "A bowl of water quenches thirst, a mouthful of herbs strengthens the heart", pPrisse - I.5-6), Ptahhotep, prime minister of Asosis, eighth king of V Dynasty (2510-2460 BC), left us what could be considered as a direct forerunner of Machiavelli's Prince: in other words, the portray of a leader. He doesn't see politics, and generally the problem of building a well functioning society, as a matter of state theory (an approach which arises with Greek thought, especially Plato's and Aristotle's), but rather as a problem of individual education. What kind of leader does Ptahhotep plan to build, it's clearly understandable from such sentences as that of pPrisse - V.8-10: "Don't be boastful for what you know: consult either the ignorant man and the wise man, for nobody has ever reached the limits of art and there's no artist whose skills are complete: the perfect word is more hidden than green stone, but it can be found among the women who work at the grindstone", along with the great hymn to the listening (pPrisse - XVI.3-XVII.12), noteworthy passages of which are that of XVI.6-7: "He who listens is one whom the god loves; as for him whom the god hates, listening is impossible for him"; XVI.11-12: , "One who listens is one it is said about: 'he was already strong in his mother's womb, he's his father's favorite'", XVII.4-8: "As for that fool man who doesn't listen, he can't succeed in anything: he sees knowledge in what is ignorance, good in what is evil (...). He lives on what one dies from; twisting the word is his bread; courtyers hold him up saying: 'He's a dead man living!'". Pillars of Ptahhotep's thought are humility, traditionalism, respect for authority: this last is the most important in so far as authority can arise not only from rank and age, but also from experience, and this last kind of authority can be found at each level of society, working class not excluded... for those who have ears to listen. And only one who listens can become one who's listened to (pPrisse - XVI.3-4): only he can become a leader.
1: LICHTHEIM, M, "Ancient Egyptian Literature", I, University of California Press, 2006.

Stefano Vittori

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