The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor: An Egyptian Epic

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by Joshua J. Mark
published on 18 January 2012

The Tale of The Ship-Wrecked Sailor is an epic tale written on papyrus around the year 2000 BCE, during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. Contemporary with the rise of the Cult of Osiris and the inscribing of the Coffin Texts, the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor tells a similar story of redemption.

The basic form of the story is very simple: a sailor returns home from an adventure in which he was lost at sea and tells the tale to his `master’ so that this master may unfold to the pharaoh what happened. In explaining to his master where he has been the past six months, the sailor tells of an amazing island on which he meets a great talking serpent who calls himself the Lord of Punt. As the Land of Punt had been a well-known partner in trade with Egypt since the 4th Dynasty it is interesting to see it portayed mythically as an island of riches and magic from which the sailor is rescued (after being helped by the serpent) and returned home a richer man.

Since the actual land of Punt did, in fact, finally vanish in the minds of the Egyptians into mythology and legend, it is tempting to speculate that the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor was the beginning of this process but, in fact, there is no hard evidence that this is so. More probably, the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor was first written long after Punt had been accorded mythical status. The following translation of the text is from W.K. Flinders Petrie, 1892.

 

Speech of an excellent follower:

May your heart prosper, my master. Behold, we have reached home. The mallet having been taken, the mooring post is driven in. The bow-rope having been placed on land, thanksgiving and praise to god are given. Everyone is embracing his companions. Our crew returned safely; there was no loss to our army. We have reached the end of Wawat; we have passed Senmut.

Behold, we have come in peace, our land we have reached.

Listen to me, O master, I am free of excess. Wash yourself, give water to your hands, so that you may answer the king when you are addressed and may speak to the king sensibly and may answer without stammering in telling this tale. A man's mouth rescues him. He speaks and causes one to show indulgence.

Do as you wish; it is wearying to talk to you, my master said to me.

Nevertheless, let me tell you the like thereof, it having happened to me, myself.
I was going to the mine of the king. I went down to the sea in a ship of one hundred twenty cubits in length and forty cubits in width. One hundred twenty sailors were in it of the choicest of Egypt. Whether they looked at the sky or they looked at the land, their hearts were braver than lions. They could foretell a storm before it came, foul weather before it occurred.

The storm came while we were on the sea, before we approached the land. While we were sailing it made a continuous howling, raising a wind. Waves were in it of eight cubits. A piece of wood struck it for me.

Then I was cast upon an island by a wave of the sea. I spent three days alone, my heart as my only companion.  Resting in the shelter of a tree, I embraced the shade.

Then I stretched out my legs to know what I could place in my mouth. I found figs and grapes there. Leeks were ruler there. Sycamore figs were there together with notched Sycamore figs. Cucumbers were there as though cultivated. Fish were there together with birds. There was nothing that was not within it.

Then I satisfied myself and I placed some of it on the ground because it was too much upon my hands. I took a fire drill and made fire and made a sacrifice.

And then I heard the voice of a storm or the hungry voice of the raging storm stike! What was it moving quickly, fast approaching, landing right before me. I thought that it was a wave of the sea or people taking refuge from the waves in the mouth of the channel. Trees broke and the earth shook. What is this in the water? Facing the division of the breakers I crouched, as it was quickly coming and approaching quickly. I covered my face; we are found.

I uncovered my face and found that it was a snake that was coming. It was thirty cubits long. His beard, it was greater than two cubits long. His body was overlaid with gold. His eyebrows were real lapis lazuli. He was bent up in front. He opened his mouth to me while I was on my belly in his presence. He said to me, "Who brought you? Who brought you, commoner, who brought you? If you fail to tell me who brought you to this island I will cause you to know yourself, you being as ashes having become as one who is not seen.”

You are speaking to me, but I do not hear it. I am in your presence but I am ignorant of myself.

Then he placed me in his mouth and took me to his dwelling, his place of happiness, and set me down untouched, I being uninjured, nothing being taken from me. He opened his mouth to me while I was on my belly in his presence.

Then he said to me, "Who has brought you, Who has brought you, commoner? Who has brought you to this island in the sea whose sides are in the water?"

Then I answered him this, my arms bent in respect in his presence. I said to him, "I was going to the mine of the king in a ship of one hundred twenty cubits in length and forty cubits in width. One hundred twenty sailors were in it of the choicest of Egypt. Whether they looked at the sky or whether they looked at land, their hearts were braver than lions. They could foretell a storm before it came, foul weather before it occurred. Every one of them, his heart was braver, his arm stronger, than his companions. There was none ignorant in their midst. The storm came while we were on the sea, before we approached the land. While we were sailing it made a continuous howling. Waves were in it of eight cubits. A piece of wood struck it for me. Then the boat died and of those in it not one remained therein, except me. Behold, I am at your side. Then I was cast upon this island by a wave of the sea."

He said to me, "Do not fear, do not fear, commoner. Do not blanch your face since you have reached me. Behold, it is god who caused you to live, he brought you to this island of ka. There is nothing that is not within it; it is filled with all good things. Behold you shall do month upon month until you complete four months from home on this island. A ship will come from home with sailors in it whom you know. You will go home with them and you will die in your city. Happy is he who tells what he has tasted, a painful thing having passed by. Let me tell you the like there of which occurred on this island in which I was on it with my brothers, and children were in the midst of them. We totaled seventy-five snakes, my children together with my brothers; I will not mention to you a little daughter whom I had obtained by prayer. Then a star fell, and these went up in flame because of it. It happened that I was not with them when they burned. I was not among them. I was dead to them and would have died for them when I found them a heap of corpses all together. If you are strong, subduing your heart, you will fill your embraces with your children, you will kiss your wife, you will see your house. It is more beautiful than anything. You will reach the residence of your homeland in which you were in it together with your companions.”

Having stretched out on my belly, I touched the ground in his presence. I said to him, “I will speak of you, I will relate your power to the king, I will cause him to know of your greatness. I will cause to be brought to you laudanum heknu oil, yudenbu, hesayt spice, incense of great temples which pleases all of the gods in it. I will relate what has happened to me, what I saw of his power. One will praise god for you in the city before the magistrates of the entire land. I will slaughter for you bulls as sacrifices. I will offer to you fowl. I will cause to be sent to you ships loaded with the provisions of every town in Egypt, as is done for a god who loves a people in a distant land not known to the people.”

Then he laughed at me for what I said was foolishness to him.  He said to me, "You are not rich in myrrh being an owner of incense. It is I who am the lord of Punt and the myrrh, it belongs to me. And the incense that you spoke of bringing, it is abundant on this island. When it happens that you leave this place, it will not occur that you will see this island again, it having become water."

Then, in time, that boat came like what he had predicted before hand. Then I went and placed myself in a high tree and I recognized those in it. Having gone to report it, I found that he knew it. Then he said to me,

"Health, Health, commoner, to your house so that you may see your children. Make my name good in your town, that is my due from you."

Then I placed myself upon my belly my arms bent in respect before him. Then he gave to me a quantity of myrrh, heknu oil, laudanum, hesayt spice, tishpes spice, perfume, eye-paint, giraffes' tails, great lumps of incense, elephants' tusks, greyhounds, monkeys, baboons and all kinds of precious things. Then I loaded them upon this boat. It happened as I placed myself on my belly to give thanks to him that he said to me, "Behold, you will approach home in two months. You will be full, you will embrace your children, you will be young in the home where you will be buried."

Then I went down to the river bank in the neighborhood of this boat. Then I called to the sailors who were in this boat. I gave praise upon the bank to the lord of this land, and those in it did likewise. It was a sailing which we did downstream to the palace of the king. We approached the residence after two months which he had said completely. Then I entered in before the sovereign and I brought to him the gifts which I had brought out of this island. Then he gave praise to me before the magistrates of the land to its ends. Then I was made a follower and I was endowed with two hundred people. See me after I returned to the land after I saw what I tasted. Listen to my mouth; it is good for people to listen.

Then my Master said to me, "Do not continue, my excellent friend. Does one give water to a goose at dawn that will be slaughtered during the morning?"

 It is done from its beginning to its end, as it was found in writing, a scribe excellent with his fingers, Imenyâs son Imena.

Written by , published on under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.

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