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Today, I made bean stroganoff with mashed potatoes (good), had a foot bath (v good), started reading The Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley (good so far) and have studied much less than I should have for the exam on friday (not very good at all). At least I'll finish the hand-ins on time. Being able to memorise the 140 artworks we're supposed to be able to identify... a lot less certain.

But! I'm not actually supposed to talk about that. Actually, since I don't have a question listed for today I wasn't sure what to talk about. So I decided to do a short write-up about what's possibly my favourite genre of Egyptian writing.

... I'm not sure that needs a further introduction. Letters to the Dead are more or less what it says on the tin: letters, usually written on clay bowls (but sometimes on stelae, papyrus or linnen) addressed to dead relatives with various implorations. As the dead were believed to be able to influence the realm and lives of the living, not always in benign ways, this was a way to regain control of an undesirable living situation. These letters were not written "socially", although they could be written in a startlingly everyday way.

Case in point, the first lines of this letter to a dead woman from her husband and her brother:

A message from Merirtifi to Nebitef:
'How are you? Is the west taking care (of you) [as you] desire?*
Look, I am your beloved on earth,
(so) fight for me, intercede in my name!
I have not garbled a spell before you, while making your name
to live upon earth.**
Drive off the illness of my limbs!
May you appear for me as a blessed one before me,
that I may see you fighting for me in a dream.
I shall lay down offerings for you when the sun's light has risen,
and I shall establish an altar for you.'
A message from Khuau to his sister:
I have not garbled a spell before you; I have not taken
offerings away from you.
Now, I have sought [your benefit(?)]. Fight for me!
Fight for my wife and my children!

* The west was the direction associated with the land of the dead; cemeteries and mortuary temples were usually, but not always, located to the west or on the west side of the Nile.
** I e haven't messed up any funerary rites

Another letter which is a favourite of mine I sadly can't quote as I had to return the book to the library, but it was also a letter from a husband to his dead wife, exasperatingly wondering why he's plagued with ill health when he's carried out the mortuary rites and even chosen to remain a widower-- the implication being that he hasn't married another woman because his dead wife might not take kindly to it.

While the ancient Egyptians' relationship to death and the afterlife is often stereotyped and exaggerated, these letters are rather fascinating in that they give an insight to how the relationship between the living and the dead was conceptualised. In a culture that imagined the afterlife as pretty much the same as your current living situation, where the dead needed to be provided with food and other necessities via mortuary cults, it makes sense that the dearly departed didn't really go away. For better and worse.

(Tangentially related, there are similar letters directed to gods that are often amusingly blunt and succinct. Apparently, if you were an Egyptian god who slacked off on looking out for your worshippers even after they sacrificed and made donations to your temple you could expect letters of complaint.)

This entry was originally posted at http://regndoft.dreamwidth.org/217325.html. Please comment there using OpenID.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 2nd, 2014 11:59 pm (UTC)
Very cool! Reminds me a little of Greco-Roman curse tablets...
Dec. 3rd, 2014 12:54 am (UTC)
Heh, the Egyptians had similar things-- lots of smashed pottery or statuettes with curses and people's names on them have been found, and as the vast majority of Egyptians could not read or write they must've hired scribes to do the cursing. Probably not very strange, as magic was considered by the Egyptians to be a gift from the gods in order to help mankind. :)

I have an entire book on magic in ancient Egypt I bought before it was pulled from the literature list of my last course. Should try to read it when I have the time...
Dec. 3rd, 2014 08:03 am (UTC)
How fascinating! I'm glad you shared. :-)

Apparently, if you were an Egyptian god who slacked off on looking out for your worshippers even after they sacrificed and made donations to your temple you could expect letters of complaint.

I can't help thinking this bit is very Pratchett-esque!
Dec. 3rd, 2014 08:28 am (UTC)
Watch half this meme just being stuff from my coursebook as I struggle to come up with topics not related to uni! But I'm glad you like it.

Further proof Pratchett is just the greatest knower of humanity. Actually I just remembered a similar thing my girlfriend (who studies ethnology) told me, about a letter to the Devil found stuffed into the keyhole of a church (not as unusual a practise as you might think in 19th century Sweden). In it, a young man complained most ardently that although he had sold his soul the Devil had not completed his end of the bargain, and if he didn't pay up the deal would be off. :)
Dec. 4th, 2014 02:22 pm (UTC)
Watch half this meme just being stuff from my coursebook as I struggle to come up with topics not related to uni!

If they're anything like this one - and that anecdote in your comment, too - then I for one will enjoy them! :-)

Dec. 4th, 2014 02:38 pm (UTC)
I shall do my best. =3=
Dec. 3rd, 2014 03:44 pm (UTC)
Lol, love that people were writing letters of complaint to their God, instead of thinking they were a bad person and making more sacrifices.
Dec. 4th, 2014 10:01 am (UTC)
The Egyptians do have a concept of divine punishment as a result of heresy or moral transgression-- but it's a thing that's very much felt. Illness, injury, bad luck or even feelings of intense guilt are supposed to be signs that a deity had put their bau (power, plural of the word ba, which is an aspect of the soul) on you. It's not the absence of good things but presence of bad things. So if your conscience was clean and a god simply failed to respond, presumably they weren't listening properly. :)
Dec. 4th, 2014 04:19 pm (UTC)
I think I'll have to go all Egyptian:)
Dec. 3rd, 2014 10:34 pm (UTC)
This is amazing. I should totally have asked you to share fascinting facts about anceint cultures for the meme.
Dec. 4th, 2014 09:49 am (UTC)
Well it's not like there aren't lots of empty slots left for the meme!! But really I'll probably be posting a lot of random cool history whenever I can't think of anything else to post. :3
Dec. 11th, 2014 08:54 pm (UTC)
Am now imagining various Egyptian gods dealing with piles of complaint letters and it's hilarious. x''D
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )