Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egypt: Letters to the Dead

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Letters to the Dead

Berlin Bowl

An offering given by the king and Osiris and Anubis who is on his mountain, sacrificed for the revered [///]tjat.
You have been brought here to the City of Eternity, without you harbouring anger against me. (But) should it be the case that these injuries were caused with your knowledge (then) behold: though the house is in the possession of your children, the privation (in the house) arises again and again. But if it is done as something you abhor, then may your father be great <in> the necropolis. If there is a reproach in your heart, forget it for the sake of your children. Be merciful, be merciful, (then) all the gods of the Thinite nome will be merciful towards you.
- Berlin Bowl, Berlin Inv.Nr. 22573
First Intermediate Period
The advantage of using a vessel to convey messages was that it could be filled with an offering which would attract the deceased.[1]
-City of Eternity: necropolis
-Thinite nome: 8th nome of Upper Egypt

Cairo Linen

It is the sister who is speaking to her brother (i.e. husband); it is the son who is speaking to his father:
May your condition be like life a million times! May Ha (HA), Lord of the West, act on your behalf as he wishes, <may> Anubis, Lord of the Good Burial <act for you as he wishes>. This is the oral report concerning Behesti's ( messenger who came for the leather, when I sat by your head (and) when one called for Irti's ( son (i.e. the son of the speaker) Iy (jy) in order to (exonerate him ?) vis-à-vis Behesti's messenger, and when you said: "Hide it/him (?) for fear of Iy the elder."
May the wood of this bed under me rot (?) if the son of a (respected ?) man is parted from his furniture. Behold, this Wabet (wabw.t) has come with this Isesi (jzzy). (They) have hacked to pieces your house after taking everything which was in it in order to strengthen this Isesi. They (both) want to render your son miserable by strengthening the son of this Isesi. They took Iaset (jAz.t), Iti (jtj) and Anankhi (ananxj) from you. (And now) she is (even) taking away all the followers of your lordship, after removing everything that was in your house.
Cairo-Linen, JdE/CG 25975
6th Dynasty, Saqqara
-sister: here: wife
-brother: here: husband
-West: i.e. the Libyan desert. The dead who could afford it were buried on its edge.
-hacked to pieces: the traditional description of destruction, cf. the symbolic destruction of walled cities on the Tehenu palette.

Vessel Chicago

This is an oral report concerning that which I have told you about myself, (as follows):
You do know that Idu (jdw) said concerning his son: "Concerning all that which is there and which was there - I shall not permit that he suffer any want."
Do for me something correspondingly similar. Behold, this vessel was brought, because of this your mother shall decide. It would be pleasant if you agreed with her. Moreover, cause that one will bear a healthy male for me, as you are the excellent transfigured one (Ax).
Furthermore behold these two servant girls who cause Seni (snyj) to be unhappy, (namely) Nefer-Tentet (nfr-Tnt.t) and Itai (jTAj) - drop them.
Keep away from me all afflictions directed at my wife, for you know I have a need for this. May you live for me in order for the Great One to praise you. May the face of the great god be joyous because of you, so that he will give you pure bread with both his hands.

Vessel Chicago, Chicago-Haskell Oriental Mus. 13945
First Intermediate Period
-male: it was generally the first born son who took care of mortuary offerings for his parents.
-the Great One: frequently used epithet of goddesses. Here used for Hathor

Letter to Nefer-sefekhi

It is the sister who is saying to her brother, the Sole Companion Nefer-sefekhi (nfr-sfx-j):
O, great grief! Useful is a complaint to [speaking (?)] concerning this which is done <against> my daughter in such an unjust way, although there is nothing that I have done against him, and (although) I have not eaten of his offerings, (and although) he has not given anything to my daughter. All mortuary sacrifices are made for the enlightened one in order to intercede on behalf of the inhabitants of earth. (Therefore) make a decision concerning him who caused that of which I suffered, for I want to be justified in front of the male and the female dead who did this against my daughter.

Hu Bowl, University College London
First Intermediate Period
-Sole Companion: - sole companion of the king, a title
-enlightened one: Akh, cf. Body and Soul
-male and the female dead: mwt mwt.t, dead persons who might harm the living, we might refer to them as ghosts or spirits.

Letter to Nebet-itief from Mer-irtief

A speech of Mer-irtief ( to Nebet-itief (nb.t-jtj=f):
How are you? Does the Great One (the goddess of the West) look after you according with your wish? Behold, I am the one you loved on earth. Exert yourself on my behalf and speak up for my name. I did not distort any utterance before you, (but) I preserved your name on earth. Keep disease away from my limbs. O, may you be glorious (Ax) for me (and) before me so that I may see in my dream how you are exerting yourself on my behalf.
I will make offerings [until the sun (?)] rises by establishing for you an offering table (Htp.t).
A speech of Khu-au (xw-Aw) to his sister ...:
I have not distorted any utterance in front of you and I shall not keep any sacrifice from you, as I have (just) brought it... Exert yourself on my behalf (and) exert yourself on behalf of my wife and my children.

Little Stele (Cairo-Museum)
-your name: for the importance of a person's name cf. Body and Soul.

Letter to Mereri

O Mereri (mrrj), born of Merti (mr.t-j). May Osiris-Khentamenti make millions of years for you by breathing breath into your nose, by giving bread and beer beside Hathor, Lady of the Land-of-Light (Ax.t).
Your condition is like life millions of time, by command of the gods who are in heaven and earth. May you erect a barrier against male (and) <female> enemies, male (and) <female> evil ones who oppose your house, your brother, your mother. .... for her excellent son Mereri (mrrj).
You are one who was excellent on earth, (therefore) you will also be capable in the hereafter. May one make offerings to you, may one make the Haker-feast (hAkr) for you, may one make the Wag-feast (wAg) for you, may one give you bread and beer from the altar of Khentamenti. You will travel downstream in the Bark-of-the-Evening ( and sail upstream in the Bark-of-the-Morning (manD.t). May you be given justification at the side of every god. Make yourself into someone praised by my male (and) <female> ghost (mwt=j mwt.t=j).
You know he said to me: "I am the one who will accuse you and your children."
Report concerning it, for you are in the place of justification.

Louvre Bowl, Louvre E 6134
First Intermediate Period
-Khentamenti: First of the Westerners, i.e. the dead.
-Ax.t (Akhet): the place on the horizon where the sun rises.
-like life millions of time: living innumerable lifetimes.
-Haker-feast: feast in Abydos
-Wag-feast: funerary festival
-Bark-of-the-Evening, Bark-of-the-Morning: solar ships.
-place of justification: the herafter was a place of reckoning (cf. The Judgment of the Dead). Mereri was apparently expected to counteract the accusations which Merti feared would be levied against her.

Letter from Shepsi to his father Ii-nekhen-mut

It is Shepsi (Spsj) speaking to his father Ii-nekhen-mut (jj-nxn-mwt):
This is an oral report concerning your travelling to the fortress (jtH), to the place where Sen's (sn) son Hetepu (Htpw) is, when you brought the foreleg of the ox and when your son (i.e. the speaker) came together with Nen-waief (nn-wAi=f), (and) when you said: "Welcome Sen (and) sit so that you may eat of the meat."
Should there be action against me in your presence, without there being anything that your son (i.e. the speaker) has done or said by my brother. I have buried him after I brought him from I... and after furnishing his tomb, although there was Upper Egyptian barley owed by him as a loan, as well as bales of linen, 1
mnw (?), 6 (bushels of) Upper Egyptian barley, flax, pastry, mH.t-dish, (and) in spite of his having done what is not done. He has done this against this son of yours really unjustly, although you have told your son (i.e. the speaker): "All my property shall remain with my son Shepsi."
Behold, my fields have been robbed by Sher's (Srj) son Henu (Hnw). Behold, he is in your company in the one city. Sue him, for your scribes are (busy) therewith in the one city. Happy is the man who makes
ns (?). His rulers are ...
Qaw Bowl, inside
Late Old Kingdom to First Intermediate Period
-the one city: the city of the dead

Letter from Shepsi to his mother Yi

It is Shepsi speaking to his mother Yi (jy):
This is an oral report concerning you saying to her son (i.e. the speaker): "You shall bring me poultry so that I can eat it," and when your son brought 7 quails (pAa.w.t) you ate them. Shall one act against me in your presence, so that my children are unhappy and your son is suffering? Who will pour water for you?
O, may you judge between me and Sobek-hotep (sbk-Htp.w). I have brought him from another city in order for him to be laid to rest in his burial place and to be given mortuary garments. Why is he acting against your son so unjustly, although there is nothing I have done or said. Hurtful is evil committed against the gods.

Qaw Bowl, outside
Late Old Kingdom to First Intermediate Period

Letter to Hetep-nebi and Teti-soneb

A record for Hetep-nebi (Htp-nb=j) and Teti-soneb (ttj-snb.w):
Have you seen this lamentation (now) that you are here (i.e. in the hereafter)? Lo, you are excellent for you (?) here and somebody who is praised by is descendants. May you seize this dead man and this dead woman. May they both not see his conduct, for there shall be none who is loud of voice here against you both.

Papyrus, Naga ed Deir, N 3500
First Intermediate Period

After the transcriptions and German translations on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften - Briefe - Briefe des Alten Reiches - Briefe an Tote

[1] cf. Ursula Verhoeven: "Post ins Jenseits - Formular und Funktion altägyptischer Briefe an Tote" in A. Wagner (ed.) Bote und Brief - Sprachliche Systeme der Informationsübermittlung im Spannungsfeld von Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit. NWS 4, Frankfurt/M. 2003,


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© May 2006
Changes: May 2015