Egyptian Tales of Wonder – Part Two

As we learnt in part 1, the Westcar papyrus contained 5 tales, and was set in the court of king Khufu. The over-arching narrative of the stories being that the Pharaoh has tasked his sons with entertaining him by telling tales of wonder.  While much of the first tale is lost, it can be safely assumed that the teller of the first story is his son Djedefra, the heir to the throne, as the following three tales are told by his brothers in descending order of birth-right.  Djedefra’s tale is also the historically oldest and is set in the era of King Djoser which we know from the small remaining fragment in which King Khufu blesses King Djoser.  Many have speculated the tale would have been about Imhotep, the Pharaoh’s close adviser, and the genius behind the architecture of King Djoser’s step pyramid at Saqqara, believed to be the first ever monumental structure made from stone, and definitely a wonder of its time.

The second tale is told by Khafra and set in the time of the Pharaoh Nebka. Most translations do not include either the first or second tale as the first is all but missing the last few lines and the second is extremely fragmented and has a large middle section missing. The story is believed to be about the chief lector of King Nebka and his cheating wife (the lector priests in ancient Egypt were the ones who were responsible for reciting the hymns in the temple rituals and were often also practitioners of magic). When the lector discovered his wife’s unfaithfulness, he created a crocodile out of wax and had it thrown in the stream his wife’s suitor was using to enter and leave his estate. The crocodile came to life, captured the man, and kept him prisoner until the lector was able to tell the Pharaoh of his wife’s transgression. The man and the crocodile were brought to the king, who told the crocodile to eat the man, and then sentenced the wife to be set on fire and thrown in the river.

The third tale was told by Baufra, and pertained to his grandfather, and King Khufu’s own father, Snefru. One day King Snefru was wandering around the palace, looking for a way to relax. Unable to find anything to do, he called his chief lector, Djadjaemankh, for advice. Djadjaemankh advised the king to round-up all the beautiful young women in the castle and get them to row up and down the lake for his amusement. The King approved, and ordered twenty oars made of ivory and gold, and gathered twenty of the most beautiful women in the palace, their hair in braids and dressed only in netting. The women were placed in a boat, and the king watched with great joy as they rowed around the lake. As they rowed, the women sitting at the stroke oar reached up and touched her braid, which caused her new turquoise fish pendant to fall out into the water. She stopped rowing, and in response all the women by her side stopped rowing too. The king was displeased and asked, “why have you stopped rowing?” The women replied, “our leader has stopped rowing”. So, the king addressed the woman sitting at the stroke oar and said, “why have you stopped rowing?”  “Because my pendant of new turquoise fell in the water” she said. The king promised her that he would replace it from his treasury, but the woman replied: “I prefer my thing to one like it”.

Unsure of what to do, King Snefru called for Djadjaemankh and told him that the women had stopped rowing and that he had asked them “why have you stopped rowing?” and that they had replied “our leader has stopped rowing”. So, then he had asked the woman at the stroke oar “why have you stopped rowing?” who had replied “Because my pendant of new turquoise fell in the water”. The king then told Djadjaemankh that he had promised her that he would replace it from his treasury, but the woman had replied: “I prefer my thing to one like it”. Djadjaemankh thought for a moment, and then cast a spell and folded the water over so that he could reach down and grab the pendant that was lying on a potsherd in the bottom of a lake. He then returned the water and the girls resumed rowing, and the entire party spent the rest of the day happily on the lake.

While this tale of the parting of the waters may seem like an innocuous tale of a miracle, there is something deeper at work. The tale is deeply critical of King Snefru and suggests at his complete dependence on the lector priest Djadjaemankh. At first the King is unable to even find a way to entertain himself, wandering the palace aimlessly. Then, when Djadjaemankh finds the king something to do, he is unable to resolve a simple dispute with a young woman. The king does not even attempt to find a solution or persuade the young woman, immediately calling for Djadjaemankh to help him instead. This whole tale suggests that King Snefru was a weak ruler who relied heavily on his staff.

The fourth tale is told by Hardedef, and unlike the others which all involved historical events, Hardedef tells his father he knows of a magician, Djedi, who lives in their time. Djedi can not only attach a severed head, and tame a lion, but he is also rumored to know the number of secret chambers of the sanctuary of Thoth which King Khufu desires. Upon hearing this, King Khufu dispatches Hardedef to find the magician and bring him before the court.

Hardedef arrived back at court with Djedi, and the king asked him to demonstrate his skills, offering to bring in a prisoner to behead so he can re-attach it. Djedi declined, saying it was not proper to use his magic on human beings, and so a goose was brought instead. The goose was beheaded, its body placed on the west side of the great hall, its head on the east side, but despite this, the goose’s body got up, and waddled over to the head, and they reattached. The feat was repeated, first with a long-legged bird, and then with an ox. The king was impressed by Djedi and believing him to be the great magician he claimed to be, asked him to divulge the number of the secret chambers in the sanctuary of Thoth. Djedi admits that he does not know the number, but that he knows where the secret is stored: in a casket of flint in a chamber in Heliopolis. King Khufu tells Djedi to fetch the casket for him, but Djedi tells him he cannot, and provides a prophecy, that the eldest of the three children still in the womb will be the one to bring it to him. The children are the sons of a priest of Ra, and Djedi also advises that they will be the founders of the fifth dynasty, but not until two of his sons have reigned.

So, why was King Khufu so determined to find out the number of secret chambers in the sanctuary of Thoth? The assumption would be that King Khufu was in the midst of building his own pyramid, the great pyramid of Giza, and wanted to know to incorporate into his own plans. The architecture of the temples and pyramids was sacred, and for the King to be able to replicate the sacred designs of Thoth, the god of wisdom, within his own monument would bring him great power.

The fifth tale tells the story of the birth of the three kings, a future continuation of tale four. Their mother Ruddjedet had started to have labor pains, and as she was the wife of a priest of the god Ra, Ra sent five of the other gods and goddesses, Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, Heqet and Khnum to attend her. The boys are each born in turn, Userref, Sahura, and Keku. They were big and strong, each a cubit long, with limbs of gold and wearing headdresses of lapis lazuli.

A few weeks after the children were born, Ruddjedet and her maid had a quarrel, and Ruddjedet had the young girl beaten. In defiance, the girl decided to set off and tell king Khufu about the children. Along the way, the girl ran into her brother and told him where she was going, at which her brother proceeded to beat her too. Upset the girl went to the river to get a drink and was snatched by a crocodile. The brother then went to Ruddjedet, and found her greatly upset that his sister had gone to tell King Khufu about her children, so he told her the girl had been eaten by a crocodile.

The children in the fifth tale are the first three rulers of the fifth dynasty, after the rule of both Djedefra and Khafra (exactly fulfilling the prophecy of Djedi in tale four). While little is known about how the interchange between the 4th and 5th dynasty occurred, this tale is designed to provide support for their legitimacy; their birth attended by the gods themselves, and the crowns they wore within the womb. As discussed before, this papyrus is dated between 18-16 BCE (13th Dynasty onwards), whereas the 5th dynasty started in 2494 BCE. It suggests that this legend was recounted orally long before the papyrus was created and supported by the repetition of the questions in tale three, the beheaded animals in tale four, and the birth of the children in tale five. The tale does not recount the changing dynasty in detail, rather just suggesting that it was ordained by the gods, a tale that was still told hundreds of years later.

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