The Harper’s Song: Enjoying Life After Death in Ancient Egypt

I bet ancient Egyptian poetry is not your strong point – it certainly isn’t mine! To begin with, I do rather subscribe to the view that while a great poem in translation may be still a great poem, it’s just not the same poem. So no matter how much you love Petrarch’s sonnets, if you only read them in English, there’s always the ever so slight chance that you don’t like them all that much, actually. (I had this experience with Wordsworth, myself. Fine poet in Hungarian translation. I’m not so keen in the original.) So when it comes to ancient Egyptian poetry, there’s the small problem that much as I like to stare at the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, the only hieroglyphs I can ‘read’ on it belong to Ptolemy’s name, and well, that doesn’t get me far in reading poetry.

So with that caveat let’s have some Egyptian poetry in translation. 🙂

Ancient Egyptian Funeral Poetry

Funeral poetry, at that. The poems known as harper’s songs were inscribed on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs with drawings of blind harpers who would play and sing for deceased in the after life. (I’m not entirely sure what was the significance of the harpers being blind!)

The Blind Harper. Source: Wikipedia [Public Domain]
The Blind Harper. Source: Wikipedia [Public Domain]

Eat, Drink & Be Merry

(Harper’s Song from King Intef’s Tomb)

Here’s the end of one such harper’s song from the tomb of a certain King Intef (there were seven) – both in English and Spanish translations, to please you all. Although to my mind the poem somewhat lacks in rhyme and rhythm, it certainly finishes with a first-class cliché…

Make holiday, don’t weary of it!!
Look, there is no one allowed to take their things with them,
and there is no one who goes away comes back again.

Haz, pues, del día una fiesta, y no te sientas harto.
Mira, nadie lleva consigo sus bienes.
Mira, ninguno vuelve de los que se han ido.

An advice that we perhaps all should take to heart before we’re quite as dead as the nth Intef.

How to Party Egyptian Style – According to Herodotus

If Herodotus is to be believed, rich Egyptians were in the habit of carrying a wooden figure of a corpse round the table at the end of their festivities, saying:

“When thou lookest upon this, drink and be merry, for thou shalt be such as this when thou art dead.” (The Histories II.78)

Just to keep things in perspective.

As it happens, Herodotus dedicated an entire book (Book II) to the Egyptians in his Histories, including a description of the various methods of embalming: go to II.85-90 if you’d like to immerse yourselves in the gory details.

Life Is a Shadow…

(Harper’s Song from Neferhotep’s Tomb)

Another harper’s song – with a real modern feel to it – from the tomb of Neferhotep, a priest during New Kingdom:

I have heard those songs that are in the ancient tombs,
And what they tell
Extolling life on earth and belittling the region of the dead.
Wherefore do they thus, concerning the land of eternity,
The just and the fair,
Which has no terrors?

For none may tarry in the land of Egypt,
None there is who has not passed yonder.
The span of earthly things is as a dream;
But a fair welcome is given him who has reached the West.

He escuchado aquellas canciones que están en las antiguas tumbas,
lo que dicen en alabanza de la vida terrenal,
menospreciando el país de los muertos.
¿Por qué le hacen esto al mundo de la eternidad?

Nadie perdurará en la tierra de Egipto,
no hay nadie que no acabe llegando allí.
El tiempo de las hazañas en la tierra,
no dura más que un sueño;
se le dice: «Bienvenido, sano y salvo».
Al que alcanza el Oeste.

How about a harper's song in the original?
⇒ Two Harper's Songs, complete with hieroglyphs & all. 
Or one that is sung in Spanish?
⇒ Macarena Vicente-Ortega: Papiro Harris 500

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