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Ancient Egyptian Harper’s Songs

These are ancient Egyptian "Harper's Songs" in modern English translations by Michael R. Burch, followed by a summary and interpretation of the longest poem, the "Harper's Song: Tomb of Intef," with an analysis of authorship, history, theme and tone. These is also a modern English translation of an ancient Egyptian love lyric which is pretty "hot" but not too graphic.

The first carpe diem or "seize the day" poems may be the various versions of the ancient Egyptian "Harper's Song" (or "Song of the Harper"). These may also be the oldest ubi sunt or "where are they now" poems. Such poems were inscribed in Egyptian tombs along with the image of a blind man playing a harp. Thus it is believed these were songs performed during funeral services for the deceased. Versions of the "Harper's Song" found in tombs of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2181 BC) tend to be short and traditional in regard to the afterlife (i.e., affirmative). The so-called Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom contain some of the earth's oldest poems and hymns. Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-1786 BC) and New Kingdom (1539-1075 BC) versions of the "Harper's Song" tend to be longer and sometimes encourage listeners to "seize the day" while rejecting the more traditional Egyptian view of eternity (for instance, satirizing large funerary monuments and saying possessions cannot be taken into the afterlife). Such more skeptical versions of the "Harper's Song" include "Harper's Song: Tomb of Neferhotep" and " Harper's Song: Tomb of Inherkhawy." The following are my personal favorites from both genres ...

This song comes from a tomb which contains an image of Djehutiemheb and Hedjmetmut seated at an offering table while their son, dressed as a priest, pours libations and burning incense before them. It seems the song may be a blessing being voiced by the son, as the text appears before his representation.

Harper's Song: Tomb of Djehutiemheb
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

... The sky opens for you,
the earth opens for you,
and for you the good path leads into the Necropolis.
You enter and exit like Re.
You stride unhindered like the Lords of Eternity ...

***

This song from the funerary stela of Iki depicts the deceased sitting at an offering table with his wife, with the rotund harpist Neferhotep sitting on the other side of the table. Neferhotep was one of the earliest known Egyptian singer/harpists. His portrait and song were included on the stela of a man named Iki.

Harper's Song: Tomb of Iki
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

O tomb, you were prepared for a festival,
your foundations anchored in happiness!
The harpist Neferhotep, son of Henu.

***

Interestingly, the three Harper's songs found in the tomb of the priest Neferhotep seem to display very different viewpoints about the afterlife, if we can take the first two to be saying that death is peaceful because no one is doing anything ...

Harper's Song: Tomb of Neferhotep
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I.
I have heard songs inscribed in ancient tombs,
extolling earth-life while belittling the Beyond ...
but why condemn the kingdom of Eternity,
the just and the fair,
which holds no terrors?

II.
Death abhors violence: no man there arms himself against his brother.
No one rebels in that peaceful kingdom.
All our ancestors rest there, since man’s earliest days;
the multitudes assemble there, every one,
for none may tarry overlong in the land of Egypt.
There is no one who will not cross over.

III.
Earth-life is no more than the span of a dream,
but fair welcomes are given when one reaches the West.

***

The stela of Nebankh from Abydos contains a Harper's Song with the deceased depicted sitting at an offering table with the harpist squatting before him:

Harper's Song: Tomb of Nebankh
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Tjeniaa the singer says:
Now you are seated securely in eternity,
in your eternal monument!
Your tomb is filled with food-offerings
and complete with every fitting thing.
Your soul is with you
and will never desert you,
Royal Treasurer and Seal-Bearer, Nebankh!
The sweet north wind is now your breath!
So says the honorable singer Tjeniaa,
whom he loved and who keeps his name alive
by singing to his soul every day.

***

An Ancient Egyptian Love Lyric (circa 1085-570 BC)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Is there anything sweeter than these hours of love,
when we're together, and my heart races?
For what is better than embracing and fondling
when you visit me and we surrender to delights?

If you reach to caress my thigh,
I will offer you my breast also —
it's soft; it won't jab you or thrust you away!

Will you leave me because you're hungry?
Are you ruled by your belly?
Will you leave me because you need something to wear?
I have chests full of fine linen!
Will you leave me because you're thirsty?
Here, suck my breasts! They're full to overflowing, and all for you!

I glory in the hours of our embracings;
my joy is incalculable!

The thrill of your love spreads through my body
like honey in water,
like a drug mixed with spices,
like wine mingled with water.

Oh, that you would speed to see your sister
like a stallion in heat, like a bull to his heifer!
For the heavens have granted us love like flames igniting straw,
desire like the falcon's free-falling frenzy!

***

Harper's Song: Tomb of Intef
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

from the tomb of the Pharaoh Intef

Here lies a happy prince
because death is the kindest fate.

One generation passes, another remains:
so it has been since our eldest ancestors.

Now those who were once "gods" rest in their sepulchers
along with other nobles
and those who built their tombs.

Their palaces are gone,
and what has become of them?

What of the words of Imhotep and Hardedef,
whose sayings are still recited entire?

What of their palaces?
Their walls have collapsed into ruins,
their halls have vanished
as if they never existed!

And no one returns from that realm
to inform us of their state
or to calm our fears.
We remain in the dark until we join them ...

Hence, rejoice with happy hearts!
It is best to forget: heedlessness is happiness!
Humor your hearts as long as you live!

Perfume your hair with myrrh,
adorn yourself in your finest linens,
anoint yourself with the costliest oils, fit for a god,
heap up your treasures here on earth!

Let your heart remain buoyant! Don't let it sink!
Humor your heart and find happiness!
Here on earth do as your heart demands!

What use is mourning,
when weary-hearted Osiris pays tears no heed?

Weeping and wailing spares no man from the grave,
so make every day your holiday. Never tire of joy's pursuits!
Because no one is allowed to take his possessions with him
and none who departs ever returns!

This song, also known as “The Lay of the Harper,” appears in the tomb of Paatenemheb, where the introductory line says it was copied from the tomb of a King Intef (a name used by several kings from 11th and 17th dynasties). The poem is also preserved in the Ramesside New Kingdom Harris 500 papyrus. These works are accepted by scholars as being a copy of a genuine Middle Kingdom text.

Summary/Analysis/Theme/Plot: The Egyptian harper-poet begins by declaring death to be a good thing and pointing out that death is also natural. The ancient Egyptians revered their pharaohs as "gods" but even they lie silent in their tombs and all their magnificent buildings lie in ruins. He says that no one has ever returned from the dead to calm our fears about death. Because we cannot avoid death or know what to make of it, the harper-poet advises us to forget death, to stop thinking about it and making ourselves miserable. He advises us to enjoy life to the fullest instead.

Authorship: The poem's author is unknown.

History: Versions of the "Harper's Song" have been found in tombs of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2181 BC), the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-1786 BC) and the New Kingdom (1539-1075 BC). Later versions tend to be longer and may be more skeptical about the hopes of an afterlife.

Tone: The tone of the poem and the speaker's voice can be described as optimistic, while not glossing over the darker aspects of death.

Interpretation: The poem is plainspoken, didactic, and seems meant to be taken literally as advice about how to live one's life with happiness, by not dwelling on death when that does no good.

Similar/Related Poems: The poem is somewhat similar to Old English (i.e., Anglo-Saxon) poems like "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer" and "Deor's Lament," in which the speaker is realistic about the human condition, but intends to make the best of things. There are links to the Old English poems below, if you'd like to compare them.

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

The Seafarer
Wulf and Eadwacer
Adam Lay Ybounden
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
The Rhyming Poem
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
This World's Joy
Charles d'Orleans
Whoso List to Hunt
Alexander Pushkin's tender, touching poem "I Love You"
MICHELANGELO Translations by Michael R. Burch
The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?
Native American Poetry Translations
Tegner's Drapa
Ancient Egyptian Harper's Songs
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Meleager
Sappho
Basho
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Vera Pavlova
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky
Robert Burns: Original Poems and Translations
The Seventh Romantic: Robert Burns
Poetry by Michael R. Burch
Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch
Doggerel by Michael R. Burch

If you want to learn more about the origins of English poetry, please check out English Poetic Roots: A Brief History of Rhyme.

For an expanded bio, circum vitae and career timeline of the translator, please click here: Michael R. Burch Expanded Bio.

The HyperTexts