Scholia Reviews ns 20 (2011) 23.
R. B. Parkinson (ed.), Reading Ancient Egyptian Poetry among Other
Histories. Malden, Oxford: Wiley- Blackwell, 2009. Pp. xxi + 392, incl. 69
black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978- 1-4051-2547-5. UK£50.00.
Brookline, Massachusetts, USA
R. B. Parkinson, one of the foremost scholars of Egyptian literature, provides a detailed and interesting description of how the Tale of Sinuhe, the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, and the Dialogue of a Man and his Soul were written, read, performed and transmitted from the Middle Kingdom period to the modern age.
The book consists of three parts. Part I, entitled 'Performing Poetry', comprises three chapters on bridging the gap between the modern reader and the ancient. Chapter 1, 'Visitors in Egypt' (pp. 3-19), suggests a range of literary and interdisciplinary methods that the modern reader of Egyptian poetry can use in order to comprehend the cultural background of the texts. These approaches combine 'philological activity' (p. 7) and 'archaeological practice involving a thinking ourselves into the past' (p. 8) as well as an anthropological emphasis on lived experience. Parkinson also stresses subaltern attitudes, in light of 'queer philology' (p. 10), in order to point out representations of certain elements that fall outside the range of conventional motifs. Problematic aspects of the contemporary social space for literature and evidence of the representation of poetry in the archaeological data are also examined. Parkinson's approach highlights the absence of a substantial contemporary meta-discourse on literature and performance outside of the poems themselves in the surviving Middle Kingdom evidence.
Chapters 2 and 3, 'Reciting Two Poems at Abu' (pp. 20-40) and 'A Performance' (pp. 41-68), contextualize the poems within the characteristic spirit of Middle Kingdom culture. In the second chapter, Parkinson offers a conjectural reconstruction, later unmasked as 'anachronistic and unacademic' (p. 30), of a recital of the Tale of Sinuhe and the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant before Mayor Sarenput. The scene is set at the southern border town of Abu (Elephantine), where official tomb inscriptions were found a number of motifs in common with the two poems. In the third chapter, Parkinson evokes a performance that highlights the 'darker side of the poems' (p. 41) and whose audience consists of males belonging to the social elite and sub-elite. This enables him to show, on the one hand, how one can recreate an Egyptian poetry performance and, on the other hand, how the two poems would have been received by these social classes.
Part II, 'Reading Old Poems', outlines the reception of the poems within the Middle Kingdom libraries and then through the New Kingdom and beyond. This part consists of four chapters in which Parkinson offers, in light of representative manuscripts, a thorough analysis of the poems themselves accompanied by a philological commentary.
In Chapter 4, 'Writing at the Southern City (c. 1780)' (pp. 71-112), Parkinson strives to identify the locations where the papyri were found, the potential relationship between the four poems, and the scribe(s) of the papyri. The study of documents by Giovanni d'Athanasi leads him to postulate that the papyri were placed in the burial chamber of a minor official similar to those found in the cemetery of the Temple Montuhotep or those in Hay's 'mummy-pit' (p. 82). Afterwards, Parkinson describes how the scribes assembled the papyri and composed the poems: one scribe, who might have been the tomb owner, made the Sinuhe text and one of the Eloquent Peasant texts, and obtained the other Eloquent Peasant text and the Dialogue text. Parkinson was led to make this distinction by examining the handwriting of each manuscript. He makes a thorough analysis of the difference between errors occurring from a rapid writing and those from sheer ineptitude by emphasizing how either kind of scribe corrected theirs errors. He also examines in detail how frequently the scribes refilled their pens as well as the layout of the texts. This analysis, based on annotated photographs, demonstrates that the scribes complied with certain recognizable scribal practices.
In Chapter 5, 'A Certain Provincial Scribe (c. 1780 BC)' (p. 113-37), Parkinson attempts to identify the Sinuhe-scribe. Considering the location of the scribe's burial chamber in Thebes and the extensive copying of literature among the scribal class in the Middle Kingdom, Parkinson argues that the Sinuhe-scribe was most likely a member of the lower officialdom. The second half of the chapter looks into possible reasons that made the Sinuhe-scribe opt for a tomb with poetry.
Chapter 6, 'A Library in the Southern City (c. 1680 BC)' (pp. 138-72), refers to an archive discovered in a late Middle Kingdom tomb. The archive, known as 'Ramesseum Papyri', belonged to a lector-priest, and contained liturgical texts in linear hieroglyphs, texts of healing and protection, written mostly in hieratic but with some in linear hieroglyphs, and a small number of rolls written in hieratic. The complete archive is presented in a three-page table (pp. 151-53). Noteworthy is the discovery of a papyrus containing both Sinuhe and the Tale of Eloquent Peasant. Scribal differences existing between the editions of Sinuhe dating from the 13th dynasty and another dating from the 12th dynasty lead Parkinson to postulate that the former is the one which served as a basis for a standardized version.
Chapter 7, 'Old Imperial Classics in the New Kingdom and Beyond (c. 1550-500 BC)', deals with the place of Sinuhe in the New Kingdom and Late Period. Throughout the New Kingdom, two important changes have to be observed. The first regards the material on which the texts were inscribed: the former practice of excerpting poems on papyri now utilized ostraca. The other concerns the tendency to copy excerpts of the poems rather than entire editions. This can explain the deposit of writing boards, rather than papyrus scrolls, in tombs. According to Parkinson, Sinuhe might have influenced the New Kingdom elite and subsequently formed the conception of foreign lands. The Ramesside period is known for the collection of ostraca found in a village at Deir el-Medina. A study of some 26 copies of Sinuhe discovered in the area shows that the editions are more coherent. This enables Parkinson to suggest that the Middle Kingdom poems had become classics. In the post- Ramesside period the patronage of the poems began to decline and by the Greco- Roman period the poems had progressively vanished from the cultural milieu.
Part III, 'Studying and Interpreting Texts', focuses on the discovery, study and reception of the poems in the modern era. Chapter 8, 'Some Modern Readers (AD 1836)' (pp. 221-78), provides a short history of European and Egyptian discovery of the poems. The stress is put on the Orientalist and Eurocentric colonial structure and content of the Egyptian literature. This assessment has been made by Western scholars, resulting in the negative valuation of philological variants in the diverse manuscripts of the poems and in the construal of the texts themselves as being based on history. This literary approach has brought on attempts to identify Sinuhe's flight with an historical harem conspiracy and the assassination of Amenemhat. Moreover, certain popular adaptations of Sinuhe and the Eloquent Peasant, such as 'Sinuhe, The Egyptian' by Mika Waltari and its later adaptation 'The Egyptian', show the effort of Egyptian authors to combine the plot of the poems with that of the Bible. Lastly, Egyptian writers have also concentrated on romance, justice, and drama.
Chapter 9, 'Among other Histories' (pp. 261-78), examines the contemporary process of editing Egyptian literature and, especially, the difficulty in editing and presenting different manuscripts of a poem. The book ends with accurate translations of the 12th Dynasty papyri (pp. 279- 322), a list of manuscripts from all periods with their primary publications (Abbreviations for the Manuscripts (pp. 323f.), Abbreviations for Egyptian Literary Works (pp. 325f.), Abbreviations for Frequently Cited Periodicals, Series, Volumes, and Institutions (pp. 326-29)), a systematic bibliography (pp. 330-81), and an Index (pp. 382-92).
In conclusion, Parkinson's volume offers a highly thoughtful reading of the Egyptian poems. In light of the relationships between text and performative context, on the one hand, and the translations of these poems, on the other, Parkinson explores the meaning of ancient Egyptian poetry and succeeds in bringing the reader back to the lives of everyday ancient Egyptians by giving a rich picture of the performers, the audiences, and their cultural world.