The Tale of Sinuhe, ancient Egyptian tale

Posted: October 27, 2021 in Chat
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The Oxford World Classics series publishes an edition of an ancient Egyptian collection of tales, ‘The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems. 1940-1640 BC

The structure of the title piece caught my eye. First recorded in written form in circa 1875BCE, it was much copied in the preceding three hundred years. The book jacket remarks on the respect with which the Tale was held, for its dramatic scenes and use of a variety of narrative styles. 

‘The Tale of Sinuhe’ itself is a relatively short piece, of little over three hundred lines.

After years of civil war and unrest, coup d’état, of wars against the competing claims of Nubians and of Wawat, there followed a settled golden age, where literature also flourished. ‘The Tale of Sinuhe’ is generally regarded as the best of the texts from this middle period, the Twelfth Dynasty. Toby Wilkinson suggests (The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt) that Sinuhe was a commissioned piece to commemorate the settled rule of King Senwosret. It succeeded.


The Tale consists of five sections, clearly marked, and roughly equal in length. The range of writing styles in the piece enriches the reading. By this I mean that the narration embodies the cultural signifiers of the time, and we can begin to share these as we juxtapose our knowledge of our own time with that of our knowledge of the period of the Tale.

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 lands to the West, that is the north African coastal regions. A messenger from the Royal Court arrived, and Sinuhe overheard the news that the King was dead. The king’s son immediately returned to Court leaving the party behind, uninformed. But Sinuhe had heard, and fled in a panic.

It was nightfall, he hid, travelled South, then East, then North. At one point a man recognised him, but he avoided him, hid again. He made his way to the eastern border of Egypt, travelling by night. Suffering badly from thirst he was rescued by a Syrian who also recognised him. He took care of him, took him in. They travelled 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 asked him Why did you come here? Sinuhe replied, and told a wary version of his tale. He reassured Amuneshi that he was no fugitive, he had not been disgraced, was not a wanted man. 

Amuneshi’s next question was So how is that land (Egypt)? Sinuhe entered 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 was practical and down to earth.

We are then regaled with a description of all the riches of fruits, oils, cattle, grains of Sinuhe’s new settlement in the land of Iaa. He was honoured, his abilities recognised; he was given Amuneshi’s eldest daughter.

In Part Three we find he had lived there many years, his children grown into tribal warriors; the ruler of the adjoining land of Retjenu relied on him as chief warrior to subdue recalcitrant tribesman. He was very successful; his life was good and he was richly rewarded. And yet, as the Notes point out, he was an outsider, to some extent an inferior. Then the greatest warrior of the land challenged him to a fight for supremacy. Sinuhe won the battle, killed the challenger with the man’s own axe. He was allowed as with all such acts, to seize the man’s cattle, goods, enslave his people etc.

There is a richness of wordplay in the text here, in the use of homophones. The imagery is of cattle as plunder, but also as representing the nomadic people he found himself living amongst.

Following this again, he reminisced: we have moved on many years, and he felt age upon him, and also a desire to return to Egypt. He wondered if the new King would allow him home. The Notes give another clue to structure; the central settings, descriptions and events of the Tale emphasise change in fortunes and health that find parallels with Sinuhe’s collapse earlier. 

Part Four consists of letters of correspondence between the King of Egypt and Sinuhe, and Sinuhe and the King. The King remembered him, had no blame for his flight; told of Egypt, how he was remembered, and would welcome him home. Sinuhe in turn effused and offered the King the land of Retjenu, which he had 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.

R B Parkinson in his Introduction emphasises the use of repeated phrasings and events within the Tale. The parallels between the Parts are clearly drawn, and the turn in Part Three well constructed. Throughout Sinuhe’s 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 asserted his Egyptian identity, whilst the audience cheers sounded more like the cries of beasts, cattle. 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. Before the fight the Retjenu ruler commented that his people and the Nile people were never in accord with each other. 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 clearly 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. In his flight from Egypt (Part One) he recorded how he ran and behaved like a beast and hid from sight, of how he travelled only at night.
In the central Part Three, he began 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.

Several Parts are connected with repeated phrasings, references: in One he mentions how he set out for Byblos and Qedem; in 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 back there upon his return to Egypt. In Part One there are two references to being recognised as he fled, this contrasts with being recognised and welcomed 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.

Part Three opens some years later, with Sinuhe in his prime, his sons grown, and himself the chosen warrior and subduer for the ruler of Retjenu. The section closes after the challenge, again some years later, but with Sinuhe past his prime, declining in years, health and potency. It is a structural paralleling, and as such a well used device. 

Sinuhe’s prostration and raising in Part One is neatly paralleled by his prostration before the king in Part Five.

The full referencing of the beginning and end of the tale occurs at the central point. What we have in the challenge is Sinuhe’s felling the challenger with the man’s own axe; the Notes then comment how Sinuhe called on his Egyptian gods. This is sufficient, I think, when we consider that these motifs, images were placed there to be picked up by the listeners to the tale.

There does seem good cause to read each section as a complete sequence in itself, in fact one that is chiasmic in nature, whose beginning and end find common phrasings and/or situations. 

Part One begins with a lead-in to the tale. We also find this device used as a lead-out at the very end of the tale also: the funerary inscription mode.
The tale proper begins after this. Part One begins with Sinuhe as part of a company returning – from the Libyan lands.
The end of the sequence of Part One finds find him once more part of a company, and a company that returns to its own territory.

For Sinuhe it is not a return but a departure, the reverse of his first action. The central part seems to occur when Sinuhe is saved from dehydration by the Syrian; he is raised up and revived.

Part Two like Part Four is a complex sequence of seven parts. There is a question and answer sequence which seems to take the form of the ‘Negative Confession’.
The turn around seems to occur in part six, where after Sinuhe’s veiled threats about the might of the Egyptian king, and how it would be wise for the Syrians to pay homage, send conciliatory messages. Amunenshi’s response is not what Sinuhe counseled. In the Notes R B Parkinson comments the response is more down to earth – that is, re-contextualises for him, it emphasises Sinuhe’s delicate position. 

Part Three is the well-framed sequence of Sinuhe’s sojourn in Iaa, his marriage and fatherhood, that is, growth to maturity. This is contrasted with his later acknowledged sense of decline in health. The main event is the challenge from the regional warrior.

Part Four we see the epistolary sequence; this is also a quite complex piece where personal, internalised thoughts, and open and external responsibilities and desires play out. The centre here is the acceptance by the new King of Sinuhe’s request to return. The sequence begins much as Part Two with a negative admission, a sequence repeated at the end of the section.

Part Five is full of symbolic and resonant imagery: Sinuhe’s triumphant return to Egypt, to the royal Court, to his rightful place. The turn here is paralleled with Part One’s near-death episode: this time it was the opposite, he was raised up by the King himself.

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.
Iaa is in effect an earthly paradise. He is able to prove his prowess there; 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. 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, and the source of reason; and as the offspring of the Gods, to whom he will return in due time. And so when the King died (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-on-the-blasted-heath moment. 

He describes how in his flight he crossed a river like a boat with no steering. 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 eventual 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. The constant referrals to Maat in the text point to these positionings: Maat is often glossed as ‘truth’; the Introduction says that Maat has many meanings, but the most important is that the name expresses the cohesion of the people and their beliefs.

Not a lot of humour, here. And certainly no place for women.
In the Gilgamesh tale, approximately similar time period, women’s roles are crucial to the story.

It is also worth nothing that neither this nor the Gilgamesh tale exist in complete forms, but only as fragments. It may well be that no period’s tale of s readers would recognise the patched-together tales as we now have them.

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