Mathilda (taiyou_to_tsuki) wrote,

December Talking Meme - Day 2: Letters to the Dead

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.)

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Tags: ancient egypt, december talking meme
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