Monday, August 20, 2012


Damien Agut-Labordère, Michel Chauveau (ed.), Héros, magiciens et sages oubliés de l'Égypte ancienne: une anthologie de la littérature en égyptien démotique. La roue à livres, 60. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2011. Pp. 346. ISBN 9782251339610. €23.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Roberto B. Gozzoli, Mahidol University International College (

Version at BMCR home site

As a discipline within Egyptology, Demotic studies have seen a remarkable resurgence in the last couple of decades,1 and a number of literary texts have been published in recent years, showing both the richness of Demotic studies and the literary treasures still waiting to be discovered.2 Beyond works aimed at specialists, a more recent phenomenon is the publication of anthologies of Demotic literature, notably the Anthologie der demotischen Literatur by Friedhelm Hoffmann and Joachim F. Quack (Münster, 2007), a German translation of almost all Demotic texts of various genres.3 Heros fulfils this niche for French speaking readers, each text well translated and edited.

The book here under review does not aim to be complete. As the authors say, fragmentary texts and prophetical texts such as the Demotic Chronicle and the Oracle of the Lamb for instance have been left out.4

The introduction gives a description of the Demotic language and its stages, a history of modern Demotic studies, and a definition of the various genres of Demotic texts preserved. The authors also analyse the possible influences of foreign (Greek) literature on Demotic texts. Their opinion is that more than influences we are facing texts common to different literatures. Thus, the fights in the Pedubastis Cycle look similar to those in the Homeric Iliad.5

As for the translations, the first part deals with what the authors title "Contes, Histoires et historiettes". Within this section, the Papyrus Vandier, the story of Meryre and his trip to the Underworld to save his pharaoh's life, is given.6 As the text becomes a guesswork after column V, Agut-Labordere and Chauveau avoid translating these fragmentary parts.

We also find the story of Amasis and the Mariner, recorded on the verso of the Demotic Chronicle. Originally translated by Spiegelberg in 1914,7 this version does not differ from those as given by Bresciani or Hoffmann and Quack. The section also contains much longer stories of Setne I and Setne II.

Regarding the epic cycle, the so-called Pedubastis cycle is here represented by the Struggle for the Prebend of Amun, the Battle of the Armour and Padikhonsu and the Amazons, the usual selection among the various surviving texts.8

The story of Peteisi and his struggle to keep the income from a priestly position is given a part by itself, titled "À la lisière de la fiction". While the importance of the Peteisi story is clear, at least from a juridical and social point of view, its insertion among the stories is questionable, and the authors' explanation that documentary papyri were the vehicles through which Demotic "Literature" was transmitted, and therefore worthy to be mentioned, does not entirely satisfy me. In any case, the complete text of Rylands Papyrus IX is given, mostly based on Vittmann's edition.9

The second part offers the stories present in the Myth of the Sun's Eye from the Leyden Papyrus, beginning with a description of the Myth. The first story is of the female cat and the female vulture, punished for having betrayed the cat's trust. Two stories illustrate the advantage of saying wise words: the story of two jackals who escape a lion looking for prey by speaking so wisely that the lion lets them go, and the story of a lion who catches a mouse. who promises to be helpful if he is spared. The lion lets the mouse go and when the lion is caught by a trap the mouse bites the rope and frees him. The last of these moral stories tells of a sparrow who wants to fill the sea with sand in order to avenge the death of her children. As the authors remark, there are similarities with the Indian Panchacantra, but this can be connected with a similarity of intents more than direct influence of a culture.

The third and final section includes various sapiential stories. The Brooklyn Papyrus describes a country where the humble labourer can succeed, while the one searching for more comes to a loss. The Insinger Papyrus, rightly said by the authors to be one of the most beautiful compositions written in Demotic, offers various teachings and represents the summa of Egyptian savoir faire. The Insinger Papyrus sayings are the same as the older hieroglyphic tradition, with their eulogy of education. And the same links with ancient Egyptian tradition can be found in the Instructions of Onkh-Sheshonq, in which an imprisoned father sends a series of instructions to his son.

The Instructions from the Serapeum at Memphis coming from the archives of Ptolemaios, also published by Bresciani, and the story of the Harpist and his incompetence conclude the book.

As far as the translations have been checked with the original versions, it can be said that they are mostly correct, adhering to the original texts as much as possible. The translations by the authors fully match ancient Egyptian language, without sounding pedantic. The notes, as natural for this kind of book, give some additional information about interpretation and textual difficulties, but they do not go deeply into philological discussions. The bibliography is up to date and includes all the relevant scholarly literature.

Thus, this book, the first French translation of many Demotic texts, is a welcome addition to the anthologies of Demotic Literature.


1.   See for example, M. Depauw, A Companion to Demotic Studies, Brussels 1997; F. Hoffmann, Ägypten. Kultur und Lebenswelt in griechisch-römischer Zeit, Berlin, 2000 and J.-F. Quack, Einführung in die altägyptische Literaturgeschichte III. Die demotische unf gräco-ägyptische Literatur, Münster, 2005.
2.   I mention only F. Hoffmann, Ägypter und Amazonen, (Vienna 1995); F. Hoffmann, Der Kampf um den Panzer des Inaros (Vienna 1996).
3.   Edda Bresciani published very little Demotic in the first edition of her Letteratura e poesia nell'antico Egitto (Turin 1969), but in 1990 her book was substantially increased, especially in the Demotic part. R. Ritner in W. Kelly Simpson, The Literature of Ancient Egypt, New Haven and London, 2003, pp. 443-529 and M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature vol. 3, pp. 125-217 are anthologies of Demotic Literature available in English language.
4.   I understand the exclusion of the fragmentary texts, but the Demotic Chronicle is contemporarily political, prophetical and literary and would have fit into the series of texts here chosen. Moreover, within the introduction itself there are references to texts not included there, such as the Dream of Nectanebo, which would have benefited from a translation.
5.   In this respect, the authors agree with Hoffmann, Der Kampf um den Panzer des Inaros, 49-105. My remarks about it can be found in Gozzoli, The Writing of History, London, 2006, 274-279.
6.   The new translation is quite close to Posener's editio princeps: G. Posener, Le papyrus Vandier, Cairo, 1985.
7.   W. Spiegelberg, Die sogenannte Demotische Chronik des Pap. 215 des Bibliothèque Nationale zu Paris, Leipzig, 1914, 27-34.
8.   For a complete list of texts, see Ryholt, K. S. B., "The Assyrian Invasion of Egypt in Egyptian Literary Tradition. A Survey of the Narrative Source Material," in Studies Presented to Mogens Trolle Larsen, edited by J. G. Dercksen (Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten), 483–510.
9.   G. Vittmann, Der demotische Papyrus Rylands 9, Wiesbaden, 1998.

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