The Tale of Sinuhe
Looking through a collection of older texts I came upon the Oxford World’s Classics series edition of an ancient Egyptian collection of tales, The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, 1940-1640BC. (published 1997).
Certain recognisable characteristics of the Tale of Sinuhe caught my attention. On further examination it is, yes, a ring-structured text.
First recorded in written form in circa 1875BC, it was much copied in the proceeding three hundred years. It is, the book jacket claims a ‘supreme masterpiece… a perfect fusion of monumental, dramatic, and lyrical styles…’.
The Tale of Sinuhe itself is a relatively short piece, of little over three hundred lines (though there are differences on the page: between lines marked 265 and 270 for instance there are eleven lines on the page etc).
The Tale consists of five sections, clearly marked, and roughly equal in length.
Part One opens with what seems to be a funerary inscription, an autobiographical account of the dead man’s life. It tells us that Sinuhe was a ‘Follower’, that is, Retainer, of the Egyptian Royal household.
We then encounter a narrative by Sinuhe that is dated: Year thirty, Month three, Day seven; it tells how he was part of the King’s son’s party returning from ’the Libyan Lands’. A messenger from the Royal Court arrives, and S overhears the news that the King is dead. The son immediately returns to Court leaving the party behind, uninformed. But Sinuhe has heard, and flies into a panic; he flees.
It is nightfall, he hides, flees South, then East, then North. At one point a man recognises him, but he avoids him, hides again. He makes his way to the eastern border of Egypt, travelling by night. Suffering badly from thirst he is rescued by a Syrian who recognises him. He takes care of him, takes him in. They travel up to Byblos, Qedem. He spent six months travelling with the Syrian group, when he was carried off by Amunenshi, another Syrian of higher rank. But he was a Syrian, a non-Egyptian, in fact a barbarian, or so he is also titled, an Asiatic.
Part Two consists of a question and answer section. Amuneshi asks him ‘Why did you come here?’ Sinuhe replies, tells a wary version of his tale. He reassures Amuneshi that he is no fugitive, he has not been disgraced, is not a wanted man: ‘I do not know what brought me to this country – it is like a plan of God.’ he says.
Amuneshi’s next question is ‘So how is that land? (Egypt). Sinuhe enters into a huge sell of all the righteous wonders and virtues of Egypt, its culture, and its claims to supremacy.
Amuneshi’s reply to this is, ‘Well, Egypt is certainly happy…But look, you are here now… I shall do you good.’
We are then regaled with all the riches of fruits, oils, cattle, grains of the lands of Iaa. He is honoured, his abilities recognised; he is given Amuneshi’s eldest daughter.
In Part Three we find he has lived there many years, his children have grown into tribal heroes; the ruler of the adjoining land of Retjenu relies on him as chief warrior to subdue recalcitrant tribesman. He is very successful, his life is good and he is richly rewarded. Then the greatest warrior of the land challenges him to a fight for supremacy. He wins the battle, and kills the challenger with the man’s own axe. He is allowed as with all such acts, to seize the man’s cattle, goods, enslave his people etc.
He reminisces: we have moved on many years, and he feels age upon him, and also a desire to return to Egypt, and wonders if the new King would allow him home.
Part Four consists of letters of correspondence between the King of Egypt and Sinuhe, and Sinuhe and the King. The King remembers him, has no blame for his flight, tells of Egypt, how he is remembered, and would welcome him home. Sinuhe in turn effuses and offers the King the land of Retjenu, which he has claimed through conquest.
In Part Five we see Sinuhe return to Egypt in splendour, be received with honour, and given an honoured residence, food from the Court, and in time, a tomb according to his rank prepared for him amidst the Royal pyramids.
The parallels between the Parts are clearly drawn, and the turn in Part Three well constructed. Throughout his exile one constant thread is the conflict between the Delta Man: Egyptian, and the barbarian: Asiatic. When Sinuhe killed the challenger, using strategy, skill, he records he ‘gave my war cry…’ while ‘every Asiatic was bellowing’. There are many disparaging comments on the behaviour and ways of the ‘Asiatics’ – who were after all his wife’s people, and who saved him from death and dishonour. The ruler of Retjenu says to Sinuhe before the fight ‘No barbarian can ever ally with a Delta man.’ And so, in Sinuhe’s reply to the King of Egypt he has no hesitation in saying, ‘Retjenu… it is yours…’ in other words Sinuhe has conquered it for the King. The area of Iaa and Retjenu seem to coincide with modern Lebanon, Syria; in effect Sinuhe has added to Egypt’s dominion lands.
The paralleled contrasts between Part One, his journey out like an outcast, hiding, travelling by night, and Part Five his journey home in splendour are well drawn; as also are the use of the question and answer of Part Two, with the use of Royal correspondence in Part Four. Both cover similar grounds: Why are you here? What is it like there (itself a rather dubious question: in times of conquest and expansion, such a question could only mean, Is it worth my having/Have I anything to fear?).
There are many similarities of phrasing between the Parts that also tie them together. The paralleling is not what we would expect, however: there is not much straight Part to Part paralleling of event, action, theme, as contrasts, and that often between adjacent Parts. In his flight from Egypt (Part One) he records how he ‘crouched down in fear of being seen…’, of how he travelled only at night. Line 152 in the central Part (Three) he begins a series of almost homilies about how a fugitive, a man who leaves his land, a man who runs off, behaves, and how he himself by contrast was an honourable man. Sinuhe’s running off was not an act of dishonour, subterfuge; he was not an outlaw, he was ‘out of (his) mind’. He cannot account for his behaviour, either to Amuneshi, or the King.
Parts are connected with repeated phrasings, references: in Part One he mentions how he set out for Byblos and Qedem; in Part Four the place names are referenced again. Parts Three and Five are linked with references to linen: the clean linen of Iaa, and then the linen of his clothes that are returned there upon his return to Egypt. In Part One there are two references to being recognised as he fled, this contrasts with the recognition of him (‘Is it really he…?’) by the Royal household (Part Five).
It can be seen from this that there is a complex system of linking images and phrases, rather than a system of straight equivalences. We now begin to see why the Tale was so esteemed.
It will be noticed that the central section, Part Three, consists of a small ring in itself. It opens some years later, with Sinyje in his prime, his sons grown, and himself the chosen warrior and subduer for the ruler of Retjenu. The section closes after the challenge, also some years later again, but with Sinuhe past his prime, declining in years, health and potency. It is a structural paralleling, and as such a well used device.
One of the strongest contrasts drawn is between the events of the night and of the day: it is by night he travels as he flees the country, whilst he disembarks in Egypt on his glorious return at dawn. By night he scurries away, avoids people. By day he is recognised by the Syrian, and saved from dying of thirst; in the daylight he takes on, and conquers, the challenger.
There is also a very striking contrast between the description of the riches of the land of Iaa, and those of Egypt. Iaa: ‘Figs were in it, and grapes;/ its wine was more copious than its water;/ great its honey, plentiful its moringa-oil/ with all kinds of fruits on its trees./ Barley was there, and emmer, and numberless were its cattle of all kinds…’. It is in effect an earthly paradise; he is treated honourably there, good food and drink are served him, he is able to prove his prowess, his abilities are recognised. Egypt is first described by alluding to the supreme worthiness of the new King, of his might, how he can subdue all others. Later this King is called ‘great in sweetness’, and how all the people of the land love and exult in his presence. It is as though Egypt was the residence of the Gods on earth. The earthly paradise pales against the actual paradise of the King.
These last are important points, because they allow us to understand the panic, the flight of Sinuhe. For the people of Egypt at that period it was commanded that they value the King as supreme, source of reason; as the offspring of the Gods, to whom he will return in due time. And so when the King died suddenly (the Notes suggest it was an assassination, and that this would be a given reference for the readers) then reason was suddenly extinguished. Sinuhe’s flight was a panic, a consequence of loss of reason. It is as though his wits had been disordered. It is almost a King Lear moment on the blasted heath.
He describes how in his flight he crossed a river ‘… a rudderless barge/ blown by the West wind…’. It was, as we have seen, mostly an act of the night, of chaos, where order and clarity are obscured. ‘Truth, balance, order, morality, law and justice’, as one source has it, were the attributes of the goddess Maat. It is at the border of the kingdom he crosses a lake dedicated to Maat. In effect then, by crossing the border he leaves the ordered world behind. His return is at dawn, where reason, and order are restored. Although he and his sons were tribal leaders and warriors amongst the ‘Asiatics’, his return to the Royal Court is to be placed once more amongst the children of the King where he began. Being of ‘common’ stock, this apparently was the highest position he could command in the supreme hierarchy of the King and his Court.
There is a comment by Sinuhe early on (Part One), in his flight, his ‘madness’, where he says as he was suffering from thirst: ‘I was scorched, my throat parched./ I said, “This is the taste of death”./ But I lifted up my heart, and gathered my limbs together.’ This has all the tones of a quote from the later Book of the Dead. The Book of the Dead is considered to be an authoritative version of many scattered and variant versions of rites, spells, procedures and accounts, that date from many periods of early Egyptian history.
R B Parkinson, Assistant Keeper in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum, in his Notes to the Tale points out several references within the Tale to connections with the Egyptian deity Hathor. If we take Sinuhe, the name itself, it means ‘Son of the Sycamore’, a tree associated with Hathor, the goddess of fertility and, more importantly, rebirth. The sycamore tree occurs several times in the text. Sinuhe’s flight was not so haphazard either: all the place names in the text of his flight were places connected with Hathor. So why was Hathor so important to the Tale? Is it because she was the goddess of fertility, rebirth and also patroness of foreign countries?
One source describes the after death paradise, from the later Book of the Dead, as ‘the ‘Field of Reeds’, a paradisaical likeness of the real world. The Field of Reeds is depicted as a lush, plentiful version of the Egypt of the living. There are fields, crops, oxen, people and waterways.’ This description fits rather closely to the land of Iaa as described in the Tale. Iaa, in the Notes, is glossed as ‘whose name may mean ‘Rushy place’’.
The newly dead undergo a ritual Weighing of the Heart. The deceased was led by the god Anubis into the presence of Osiris. There, the dead person swore that he had not committed any sin. There are distinct parallels in all this to the passage of Sinuhe from his leaving Egypt, his encounter with the Syrian, and his being taken off by Amunenshi, the questioning, and Sinuhe swearing that he was not a criminal, wanted man etc. In the Book of the Dead commentaries, this swearing is termed the Negative Confession, in that the phraseology is concerned with the person denying wrongdoing. Similarly in the Tale Sinuhe swears, that ‘I had not been talked of, and my face had not been spat upon;/ I had heard no reproaches; my name had not been heard in the herald’s mouth…’. It is only then the soul can enter paradise. And is then in the Tale that Sinuhe enters the land of Iaa. The heart is weighed against an ostrich feather, an accepted epithet of the goddess Maat, reflecting, it is assumed, the freedom of choice one has in one’s behaviour; and also reflecting again Sinuhe’s connection with the goddess in the means and ways of his flight. Maat is often identified with granting the individual the freedom of the will. It is this freedom of will that is constantly referred to when Sinuhe’s flight is discussed by all parties: the new King in his letter writes, ‘… your roving through countries/ going from Qedem to Retjenu,/ country giving you to country,/ was at the counsel of your own heart.’ (ll184-7, Part Four).
The central challenge also is reflected in the Book of the Dead. In the Tale the challenger is not named, but in the Book he is the god Apep: the god Osiris (Amenenshi?) constantly battles Apep.
As stated earlier Sinuhe’s return is at dawn; the alternative title to the Book of the Dead, is The Book of Coming Forth by Day. That is, into the light of the sun deity Ra, and the family of gods and goddesses. Sinuhe’s return at dawn begs the question whether he does actually return to Egypt, or does he enter the domain of the Gods. The recognition scene is important in this aspect; in the Book of the Dead the dead person meets again his/her parents. In the Tale he recognised by the Royal court and family. I stated earlier that the inhabitants/Asiatics ‘bellowed’ in the all-important central part, when Sinuhe defeated the challenger. Is this a reference to them being followers of Hathor, often depicted as a cow, or as horns? The cattle imagery in this central part is quite extensive. Would this would indicate that the Asiatics, the inhabitants of those other realms are not ordinary people but… priests/priestesses of Hathor in their after-death roles?
When Sinuhe meets the King at last, he falls as if dead: ‘I was stretched out prostrate,/ unconscious of myself in front of him,/ while this God was addressing me amicably./ I was like a man seized in the dusk,/ my soul had perished, my limbs failed,/ my heart was not in my body./ I did not know life from death.’ (ll222-5, Part Five).The King/God raises him up: ‘The years were made to pass from my limbs’ (l291, Part Five), and he lives amongst them for a period. His tomb is prepared amongst their pyramids.
There are a number of pertinent passages here that support a reading of an after-death journey. Is this a further pointer to the Tale having another parallel meaning: political fable, moral tale, wonder tale, also an after-death tale?