The Wisdom Texts

The Wisdom Texts

Quotes from the Instructions of Ptahotep

Source: 'The Literature of Ancient Egypt' edited by William Kelly Simpson, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1973.


These quotes are used here to give the reader a taste of the popular 'instruction texts' from ancient Egypt, in which advises for good conduct and happy and prosperous living were taught. This is perhaps the most well-known of them but also one of the most difficult one to understand. It dates from the early Middle Kingdom and its earliest manuscript exists on the Prisse Papyrus in Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.


In his old age the City Governor and Vizier Ptahotep instructs his son:


1. Do not be arrogant because of your knowledge, but confer with the ignorant man as with the learned, for the limit of skills has not been attained, and there is no craftsman who has (fully) acquired his mastery. /Good speech is more hidden than malachite, yet it is found in the possession of women slaves at the millstones.


2. If you find a disputant arguing, one having authority and superior to you, bend down your arms and bow your back; if you disagree with him, he will not side with you. You should make little of the evil speaking by not opposing him in his argument; it means that he will be dubbed an ignoramus when your self-control has matched his prolixity.


3. If you find a disputant arguing, your equal who is on your level, let your virtue be manifest against him in silence when he is speaking ill; great will be the talk on the part of the hearers, and your name will be fair in the opinion of the magistrates.


4./If you find a disputant arguing, a humble man who is not your equal, o not be aggressive against him in proportion as he is humble; let him alone, that he may confute himself. Do not question him in order to relieve your feelings, do not vent yourself against your opponent, for wretched is he who would destroy him who is poor of understanding; men will do what you whish, and you will defeat him by the disapproval of the magistrates.


5. If you are a leader, controlling the destiny of the masses, seek out every good thing, until there is no fault in your governance, /Truth is great, and (its) effectiveness endures; it has not been confounded since the time of Wesir....


6.Do not inspire terror in men, for God also is repelled....


11. Follow your desire as long as you live and do not perform more than is ordered; do not lessen the time of following desire, for the wasting of time is an abomination to the spirit; do not use up / the daytime more than is (neccessary) for the maintenance of your household. When riches are gained, follow desire, for riches will not profit if one is sluggish.


14....As for him whose heart obeys his belly, he puts dislike of himself / in the place of love; his heart is sad and his body unanointed. Joyous are the hearts of those whom God has given, but he who obeys his belly has an enemy.


23. / Do not repeat slander; you should not hear it, for it is the result of hot temper. Repeat (only) a matter seen, not what is heard.


25... One who is serious all day will never have a good time, while one who is frivolous all day will never establish a household.


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Brief Overview

History of the Egyptian Religion, part I



I - Predynastic - Early Dynastic Period.


The Reed Shrine - Rituals - The Earliest Gods - The Myths



The temples were in essence the *Home of the God* and thus a place where only Pharaoh as the Son of God and those he appointed as his deputies, could meet with the god. This goes all the way back to Archaic and Predynastic times, when the cult place was a simple reed hut.




We have very little knowledge of the religious customs during the Predynastic period. Some painted pottery found in graves from Naqada II show painted scenes with boats carrying gods´ shrines and some deities of various forms. The most frequent one was of a Mother goddess and her son.




Deities were local ones, worshipped in their communities, and when communities joined and grew into nomes some of the deities acquired a wider worship. Deities of conquered tribes were assimilated in the process so that the stronger deity embraced the traits of the lesser one.




In the long run this situation became so confusing that in the Old Kingdom the priesthood tried to organize the pantheon into family groups or ogdoads and enneads, associating them with specific cult centers and linking some of them with mythologies and cosmogonies.




The Reed Shrine.



Evidence of temples or shrines from Predynastic and early Dynastic times are scant, except for some material from Abydos and Hierakonpolis. Shrines seems to have consisted of a matting of woven reeds attached to a wooden framework. Naturally these things have perished through time, but hieroglyphic texts, cylinder seals and ebony and ivory tablets from the Archaic Period show representations of early shrines.




The shrine where the cult statue was kept is thought to have been a light wooden structure made of wood or wickerwork, standing at the rear of an open courtyard around which a fence ran, drawing the line between the sacred and the profane. In the center of the courtyard is a pole bearing the emblem of Neith. By the entrance were two poles with banners erected. These poles are later used in hieroglyphs to denote the word ntr meaning 'god' or 'the Divine':





(From Hornung, Conceptions of God in ancient Egypt.)



The hieroglyph for "god", a "pole wrapped around with a band of cloth, bound by a cord, the end projecting as a flap or streamer." The most common is fig. a., which appears in the Old Kingdom. Fig b. is a rarely seen variant from earlier times, and fig c. is the oldest one, according to Hornung. Other scholars mean that none of these definitions withstand a deeper analysis.



The groundplan of these first shrine structures already resembles the great temple structures from thousands of years later.







Already in the early Dynastic days it was the king, or the tribe leader who performed the rites for the deity, acting as the mediator between the deity and the people, in much the same way as was done all throughout history. The god was purified, fed and clothed and the rites were carried out three times a day, just as in later times. Some evidence also suggests (the Palermo Stone) that there might have been frequent religious festival days when the statue of the deity was carried out from the shrine and presented for the community.





In the earliest Archaic periods there are evidence that points at a certain barbarism - women and servants were buried with the king to follow him into the Hereafter. Gradually this changed into placing statuettes in the tombs to achieve the same result, which became the ushabtis of later days. Even cannibalism seem to have occurred, the Pyramid Texts show references to this as a probable custom from an earlier period.




The Earliest Gods.



Originally most of the deities appeared in animal or fetish form. No sufficient explanation has yet been reached as to why the Egyptians so frequently deified animals, but the habit persisted throughout history. Towards the early Dynastic period the gods gradually appeared in human form, first with a human body and animal head, then in Dynasty 2 they began to appear in a full human form.





Baboon - early form of Djehuty, Late Predyn. ca 3050 BC

(Aegyptishes Museum, Berlin)





Although we don't know their exact importance or influence, we know at least that these names of deities occurred:




Inpew (Anubis), protector of the necropolis, the jackal-headed one. There was also Wepwawet, the 'Opener of the Ways', the wolf-god of Assiut who from the beginning was a god of war, but became a god of the dead.




There was Min, the ityphallic fertility god whose cult centers were around Koptos and Akhmin.




Djehuty (Thoth), as in periods to come he was already the protector of the art of writing, teaching and wisdom, and his spouse Seshat, likewise the protectress of writing and measuring.




The creator god Ptah was already worshipped at Memphis in the early dynastic days, he also showed himself in the aspect of the Apis-bull and the funerary god Sokar.




Nit (Neith), the goddess of hunting and warfare, is one of the earliest female deities to be found. Her name is known already in the Pre-Dynastic times.




The protector goddesses of Lower and Upper Egypt, Edjo and Nekhbet were worshipped, at their respective cult centers.




The Hare goddess Wenut, called *The Swift One*, and originally in snake form, lost in importance after the Prehistoric times. She had been worshipped together with Horus but was later taken over by Re.




The cult of Re might have begun during the later Pre-Dynastic period and scholars have various theories as to its possible origin. The circle with a spot in the middle, the hieroglyphic sign for the sun, appears already from the Late Predynastic period. He took over the cult center at Iunu (Heliopolis) from Atum and the king added 'Son of Re' to his titles, which tells us something of the importance of the worship of Re.




The Myths



The myth of the Contendings of Horus and Set is seen by some scholars as a reflection of a political conflict during an early period. This hasn't been fully proved and reconstructions based on myths must remain inadequate. We can only content ourselves with the observation that these two gods were worshipped as far back as Predynastic times, Horus ruling over Lower Egypt and Set over Lower Egypt.




The worship of Wesir (Osiris) and Aset (Isis), the parents of Horus, seems to go back to Dynasty 1. There have been various theories as to the origin of Wesir, including him being a foreign human king during the Predynastic times, entering Egypt from the North and settling finally in Busiris in Lower Egypt, where his cult center grew. Plutarch describing him as a human king who brought knowledge and agriculture to Egypt must be taken with a grain of salt.




Set apparently had his origin in Nubt (Ombos), Upper Egypt. The Set animal, which identification is still uncertain, has been called an imaginary animal, a dog or even a pig. The earliest representation of this animal is seen on an ivory haircomb from El-Mahasna, Naqada I period. From the beginning Set was seen as both the protector of the Sungod and the murderer of Wesir, but his role among the gods changed into that of the enemy of the Sungod and the subsequent banishment.




Thus the foundation for religion was already lined out and an essential part of political and societal life. The king was already central for the religious organization and maintaining of the worship and it would remain more or less in the same form throughout nearly 4000 years.








Other articles in this series:


1: Predynastic - Early Dynastic Period (ca 5000 - 2686 BC)


2: The Old Kingdom (ca 2686-2181 BC)


3: The Wisdom Literature


4: First Intermediate - Middle Kingdom (ca 2181 -1786 BC)


5: The New Kingdom (ca 1580 -1085 BC)


6: The Cult of Aten (ca 1350 - 1335 BC)


7: The End of The New Kingdom - Third Intermediate


8: The Late Period - Graeco-Roman Period






Egyptian Myths - George Hart

A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses - George Hart

Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt - Erik Hornung

The Ancient Egyptians - A. Rosalie David

The Egyptians - Barbara Watterson

Chronicles of the Pharaohs - Peter A. Clayton

Egypt, The World of the Pharaohs - Hartwig Altenmueller et al