The Eloquence of Peasants: An Ancient Yet Modern Voice From Egypt

Several days ago, as the Twittersphere burgeoned with news of the situation in Egypt, an apocryphal piece of trivia from my undergraduate years -- that I had double majored in Near Eastern Studies with a focus on Egyptology -- came into play. For those expecting any tweets pertinent to these events, the protests come about 3,500 years too late, as my area of expertise pretty much ended with the reign of Ramses XI. Still, I tweeted my insight by way of a hieroglyphic excerpt from the "The Shipwrecked Sailor," an Egyptian tale of a mariner lost at sea.

"Whether they see the heavens or whether they see the land, their hearts are as brave as lions," the line reads. In college, it was one of my favorites, mostly because it demonstrated a non-geminating prospective verb being used to convey conditional mood, followed shortly thereafter by a clause containing an r of comparison (I spent a lot of time in libraries as an undergraduate). Later that night, however, I remembered another line, not quite as grammatically robust, but worth revisiting because it seemed to better fit the occasion: Mk wi r nḥm '3.k sḫty ḥr wnm.f šm'.i. Translating from the Middle Egyptian, it reads: Behold! I shall take your donkey, peasant, on account of its eating my Upper Egyptian barley.

The line comes from "The Eloquent Peasant," a Middle Egyptian story patched together from four somewhat fragmentary papyri that were found in four separate Middle Kingdom tombs. Though the story was quite popular with the ancient Egyptians, it had been years since I last read the entire "Eloquent Peasant." I remember translating the tale in college, and then writing a paper about it as a socio-cultural narrative highlighting judicial process in the ancient world. But the line of text -- spoken by a government official as he is about to steal the worldly possessions of a supposedly unsophisticated laborer -- seems to strike a resonant chord with the modern problems of an ancient land. And so, I found an online hieroglyphic transcription of the text, got out my hieroglyphic signs list and Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, and spent the better part of the next few hours re-reading it against Miriam Lichteim's translation from the first volume of her <em>Ancient Egyptian Literature. (R.B. Parkinson's more recent version, found in The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, with its excellent commentary and faithful translation, is, in my opinion, vastly superior.)

In the tale, a peasant named Khun-Anup leaves his home in the Wadi-Natrun on a trading mission to fetch provisions for his children. Along the way to Egypt, Nemtinakht, a public official, spies the peasant. Nemtinakht wants the peasant's supply-laden donkeys, and devises a plan to trick the peasant into forfeiting his property. Nemtinakht's servant fetches a garment and places it on the narrow public path, bordered on one side by a river and on the other by the private fields that Nemtinakht administers, to block the peasant's way. Just as Nemtinakht finishes warning the peasant about the consequences of trespassing, one of the donkeys starts eating a wisp of barley. The donkey's action serves as a good enough excuse for Nemtinakht to confiscate all of the peasant's supplies. An argument ensues, and Nemtinakht beats the peasant on his limbs with Tamarisk branches. When the peasant Khun-Anup complains bitterly about this treatment, the official warns the peasant that he'll surely be put to death (literally, "sent to the abode of the Lord of Silence") if he complains.

After several days, the peasant takes his grievance to Nemtinakht's boss, the high steward Rensi, who listens to the peasant's complaints. This speech impresses the high steward, who subsequently brings the story of the wronged peasant before the house of the pharaoh. Intrigued by Rensi's report of a peasant so eloquent, the king orders Rensi to extend the peasant's rhetoric for as long as possible so that the words may be written down.

What follows is a series of appeals that are, for lack of a better word, eloquent. Like, really, really eloquent -- so much so, that for those of us in the Introductory Middle Egyptian class, translating the peasant's nine petitions, navigating through Khun-Anup's metaphorical marshes populated with unclassified plants, on ships helmed by "praised one[s] whom the praised praise," became a rite of passage. What Heinrich von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas is to persistent action, Khun-Anup is to persistent speech, his main rhetorical thrust being that an injustice against one is an injustice not just against the individual, but also against the judge, the perpetrator, and the entire people.

Still, Khun-Anup's pleas are very moving (from one section: "Steering oar of heaven, beam of earth, plumbline that carries the weight! Steering oar, do not diverge; beam, do not tilt; plumbline, do not swing awry!"). Indeed, Upton Sinclair included a reading of the peasant's story in The Cry for Justice, an anthology of social protest literature, though the textual analysis ends quite expediently with the peasant's threat to go and plead his case with Anubis (meaning that he'll commit suicide). The fragmentary end to the tale suggests a happier ending--that the king was immensely pleased with the speech, and ordered all of Nemtinakht's property awarded to the peasant Khun-Anup.

To those of us in the 140-character-or-less generation, the appeals might seem a bit long-winded. But through the peasant's metaphors comes the message of leaders not straying from their course to preserve judicial order, to stamp out corruption (as the text poetically explains, "the judges are a fattened basket," or, quite literally, "the hearers are guilty baskets"), to safeguard the public welfare, to allow those who are wronged to seek remedy -- essentially, to preserve maat, a single word used to describe truth, justice, and balance, bedrock principles of ancient Egyptian society. And with the recent violence that has gripped the land of Khun-Anup, there might be some comfort to be found in the power of one man's eloquence -- whether written on papyrus, or updated on Twitter -- against the sometimes violent forces of injustice.