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Copy of the "Westcar Papyrus" on display in the Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin

Westcar Papyrus (P. Berlin 3033) is a fragmentary ancient Egyptian text containing a cycle of five stories about marvels performed by priests and magicians. Each of these tales is being told at the court of the Pharaoh Khufu (r. 2589-2566 B.C) by his sons. The story in the papyrus is usually rendered in English as "King Cheops and the Magicians"[1] and "The Tale of King Cheops' Court,"[2] 'Cheops' being the Greek variation of 'Khufu'.

The surviving copy of the Westcar Papyrus consists of twelve rolls. It was, written in the Hyksos period (18th to 16th century BC), but the tales appear to have originated some time in the 12th dynasty of the Middle Kingdom (ca. 20th century BC).[3] It has been used by historians as a literary resource for reconstituting the history of the 4th dynasty.

In 1839 Henry Westcar, who had acquired the papyrus rolls in 1824 or 1825, gave them to the Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius, who was however unable to decipher the text. The text was finally edited by Adolf Erman in 1890.[4]

The papyrus is on display in low-light conditions in the Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin.

Contents

The stories

The first story, told by an unknown son of Khufu (possibly Djedefra), is missing everything but the conclusion. It seems to have been a text detailing a miracle performed by a lector priest in the reign of king Djoser, possibly the famous Imhotep himself.

The second story, told by Khafra, is set during the reign of one of Khufu's predecessors. King Nebka's chief lector finds that his wife is having an affair with a townsman of Memphis, and he fashions a crocodile in wax. Upon learning that his adulterous wife is meeting her lover, he spells the figurine to come to life at the contact with water, and sets his caretaker to throw it in the stream by which the townsman enters and leaves the lector's estate undiscovered. Upon catching the townsman, the crocodile takes him to the bottom of the lake, where they remain for seven days as the lector entertains the visiting pharaoh. When he tells Nebka the story, and calls the crocodile up again, the king bids the crocodile take what belongs to it (it proceeds to eat the townsman), and has the adulterous wife brought north, set on fire and thrown in the river.

The third story, told by another son named Bauefre, is set during the reign of Khufu's father Sneferu. The king is bored and his chief lector advises him to gather twenty young women and use them to sail him around the palace lake. Sneferu orders twenty beautiful oars made, and gives the women nets to drape around them as they sail. However, one of the girls loses an amulet - a turquoise fish so dear to her that she'll not even accept a substitute from the royal treasury, and until it's returned to her neither she nor any of the other girls will row. The king laments this, and the chief lector folds aside the water to allow the retrieval of the amulet, then folds the water back.

The fourth story, told by Hardedef, concerns a miracle set within Khufu's own reign. A townsman named Dedi apparently has the power to reattach a severed head onto an animal, tame a wild lion, and knows the number of rooms in the secret shrine of Thoth. Khufu, intrigued, sends his son to fetch this wise man, and upon Dedi's arrival at court he orders a goose, a waterfowl, and an ox beheaded. Dedi reattaches the heads. Khufu then questions him on his knowledge on the shrine of Thoth, and Dedi answers that he does not know the number of rooms, but he knows where they are. When Khufu asks for the wheres and hows, Dedi answers that the one who can give Khufu access is not him, but the first of the three future kings in the womb of the woman Reddedet. This is a prophecy detailing the beginnings of the Fifth dynasty, starting with Userkaf.

The final, incomplete story, breaks from the format and moves the focus to Reddedet's birth of her three sons. Upon the day of her birth, Ra orders Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, Heket and Khnum to aid her. They disguise themselves as musicians and hurry to Reddedet's house to help her with the difficult birth. The three children are born, each described as strong and healthy, with limbs covered in gold and headdresses of lapis lazuli, Meskhenet saying a prophecy of their kingship over all three in turn, and the gods leave, but not before leaving a sack of corn in which is hidden three crowns. Reddedet is pleased with this news and, after cleansing herself, tells her rejoicing husband, and orders her maid-servant to fetch materials for beer from the sack left by the gods.

The maid hears feasting and music when she enters the storage room, and finds it come from the sack containing the three crowns. When she later has an argument with her mistress and receives a beating, she flees and vows to tell king Khufu of these events, but on the way she meets her brother and tells the story to him. Displeased, he beats her and sends her running to the water's edge where a crocodile catches her. The brother then goes to see Reddedet, who's crying over the loss of the girl. The brother starts to confess what has happened, but at this point the papyrus breaks off and the rest of the story is lost.

References

  • R. B. Parkinson, The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, Oxford World's Classics, 1999 (translation)
  • Stephen Quirke, Egyptian Literature 1800BC: Questions and Readings, London 2004, 77-89 ISBN 0-9547218-6-1 (transcription and translation)
  • Marco Chioffi, Giuliana Rigamonti, "I racconti di Re Kheope" in Antologia della letteratura egizia del Medio Regno, volume II, Ananke, Torino, 2008, ISBN 8873252427 (hieroglyphic text, transcription and Italian translation)

Footnotes

  1. ^ Simpson, William Kelly. (1972). The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry. Edited by William Kelly Simpson. Translations by R.O. Faulkner, Edward F. Wente, Jr., and William Kelly Simpson. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300014821. Page 15.
  2. ^ Parkinson, R.B. (2002). Poetry and Culture in Middle Kingdom Egypt: A Dark Side to Perfection. London: Continuum. ISBN 0826456375. Page 295-296.
  3. ^ M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol.1, University of California Press 1973, p.215
  4. ^ Upsala Medical Society, Percy May, Arnold Lorand: Festskrift, tillägnad professor J. Aug. Hammar, Longmans, Green and company 1921, p.54

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