On Sunday Linda Steynor came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about a Middle Kingdom Egyptian poem called “The Eloquent Peasant”. She started her talk by telling us the plot of the story. This poem follows an Egyptian small market trader, Khunanup, who travels from his home on the outskirts of Egypt to the capital. The journey is not easy, and on his way there he has to travel along a very narrow path between the Nile and the farmlands. Partway along he meets a bully who has hung his washing across the path – in order to get past Khunanup accidentally walks on the washing (and his donkey eats a small amount of grain). The bully beats him, and confiscates his donkey & goods, an over the top response to such a minor transgression. Khunanup continues on to the capital where he petitions Rensi, the Chief Justice, to put right the wrong he was done. But Rensi gives no answer. 9 times Khunanup petitions him, and 9 times he is met with silence. Unbeknownst to him the Pharaoh is so entertained by Khunanup’s eloquence that he has told Rensi not to answer and to have scribes write down what Khunanup says so it can be read to the Pharaoh. Pharaoh also tells Rensi to organise food for not just Khunanup but also for his family back home in the provinces. But Khunanup doesn’t know any of this and is in despair by the end, even considering suicide – which so appals Rensi that he breaks his silence and passes judgement in favour of Khunanup, giving him back not only his own goods but also the goods of the bully (and the bully himself to be a slave).
The poem was re-discovered in modern times by agents of Henry Salt, the British pro-consul in Egypt, around 1880. Sadly there is no provenance for the first copies of it that were found. I think she told us there are six surviving papyrii with this poem written on them, and when we know their provenance it is generally from a noble’s tomb. This is quite a lot of surviving copies for a 4,000 year old poem, so it must have been a popular work, which people wanted to take with them as part of their library for eternity. It is believed to’ve been composed in the 12th Dynasty, around the reign of Amenemhat III or Senostris III (so roughly the same time frame as the Tale of Sinuhe that was the subject of last week’s In Our Time (post)). The story is set in the 10th Dynasty, in a fairly obscure Pharaoh’s time. But this is thought to be a device to stop the author getting into trouble for criticising the current ruler – quite likely the themes of corruption in justice and bureaucracy were still relevant in the contemporary time of the author. Early 20th Century egyptologists and translators of the poem into English weren’t particularly impressed with it – calling it things like “turgid” and “perverted” (!?). Steynor was quite clear that this said more about those critics than it does about the poem – it is actually a sophisticated piece of literature.
Steynor then moved on to talk about the structure of the poem, and its use of metaphor. The story is not told in a strictly linear fashion. The bulk of the poem is the nine petitions that Khunanup makes to Rensi, and each of these tells the same story and makes the same plea in a different way. As well as this repetition of the narrative there are also cross references between the various petitions which enhance the cyclical nature of the structure. Steynor’s own work is on the metaphors used in the poem – this was the subject of her PhD thesis. She showed us a section of how she’d tracked the metaphors in each line of the poem in a rather fascinating colour coded chart. She has broken the metaphors into three broad groups – water metaphors, grain metaphors and justice metaphors. Then within these large groups she identified sub-themes and looked at how all of these interweave and reinforce themselves and each other throughout the poem.
The water metaphors are often based on the destructive and chaotic nature of water and water dwelling creatures. So Khunanup was saying things to Rensi like “Don’t be like the crocodile which pounces on the unwary”, or exhorting him to follow Ma’at (or order) rather than being like the chaos of water. Other uses of water imagery invoke ships and sailing – for instance Khunanup telling Rensi that he is the helmsman of the state and needs to steer a straight course. Grain metaphors are about sustenance, and the themes these are intended to evoke are both the literal (as Khunanup believes his family to be beginning to starve in his long absence) and the spiritual (by refusing justice Rensi is failing to nourish the state). Some of the justice metaphors are still familiar to us today – the scales of justice for instance. Of course to an Ancient Egyptian that would first make one think of the weighing of the heart after death, and Khunanup invokes that directly in a variety of ways during his petitions.
Steynor finished by talking about resonances with the Eloquent Peasant in modern literature. She gave us several examples, but the one that stuck with me most was that it is a poem of social criticism and satire so similar in genre to George Orwell’s “1984”. And that one possible reason for its popularity across Ancient Egyptian history might’ve been that the themes of corruption in the state were always relevant for each new generation.
This was a fascinating talk, and it was clear that in the hour & a half we’d only been given a small taste of what could be learnt about & from this poem.