Egyptian Tales of Wonder

The Westcar Papyrus, also known as The Fairytales of the Papyrus Westcar or Tales of Wonder is an ancient Egyptian text dating somewhere between 18-16th BCE, which is currently housed in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. The Papyrus contains 5 stories, told about the court of the King Khufu (also known as Cheops) who ruled during the 4th dynasty, and is famed as the commissioner of the great pyramid of Giza. While the tales tell of the great King Khufu from the Old Kingdom, the writing is dated towards the end of the Middle kingdom, some 4,000-6,000 years later. Still, the Westcar papyrus contains some of the oldest Egyptian stories known to date.

The Westcar papyrus was discovered by Henry Westcar during his travels through Egypt in 1823-24, but the ‘where’ and ‘how’ are details that have been lost to time. It received little attention, and when donated to the Egyptian Museum of Berlin in 1886, remained untranslated, displayed as an unknown curio.  This was because the Westcar papyrus is written in the cursive Hieratic script, a parallel writing system that was used in the same period as Egyptian Hieroglyphs. The main difference between the two systems is that Hieratic script is basic letters, and thus much quicker to write than the heavily stylized pictorial Hieroglyphs. This meant that the Hieratic script was preferred for every day use and typically used for record keeping and letter writing, while formal  hieroglyphs (bestowed by the God Thoth) were used mainly for tomb and temple decorative writings.  While hieroglyphs had been completely translated by 1820 with the help of the Rosetta stone discovery in 1799, and the subsequent work of Jean-François Champollion, Hieratic writing still remained largely unknown in 1886. It wasn’t until 1890 that the first real attempt was made to translate the Westcar text.

Westcar_photomerge-AltesMuseum-Berlin-5

These tales are considered to be faiytales: the first German translation named it Die Märchen des Papyrus Westcar (The Fairy Tales of Papyrus Westcar), and they do follow many of the fairytale classification criteria. This is in part because the themes invoke the magical in the miracles that are performed by priests and magicians, and also because the tales are accessible, and written in a common, easily understood language. They also include repetition of phrases and keywords as a mnemonic device which suggests they were originally oral tales that were passed from person to person, which is more than likely seeing as the subjects of the tales are significantly older than these records. While the tales feature historical figures, the addition of magic feats and miracles meant that they were most likely fictional embellishments.

While the original text contained 5 stories, the first and second are lost, the first only leaving an ending, and the second too fragmented to complete. The stories are set in the court of king Khufu, where his sons have been called to tell their father miraculous tales. While the first three tales recount past events, the youngest son tells a story set in the present, where his magician protagonist appears before the court to perform feats of wonder. The fifth, and final story breaks from the format of the previous four, telling a tale set in the future; a narrative of the birth of the royal children who will eventually form the 5th dynasty.

In part two we will dive in to the tales themselves and explore these fabulous stories, and their meanings.

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