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Ancient Egyptian texts: The shipwrecked sailor
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North-eastern Africa
Map of north-east Africa, Arabia and the Red Sea
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Ancient Egyptian texts
The Shipwrecked Sailor
c. 2200 BCE

   The wise servant said, "Let thy heart be satisfied, O my lord, for that we have come back to the country; after we have been long on board, and rowed much, the prow has at last touched land. All the people rejoice and embrace us one after another. Moreover, we have come back in good health, and not a man is lacking; although we have been to the ends of Wawat [Nubia], and gone through the land of Senmut [Kush], we have returned in peace, and our land---behold, we have come back to it. Hear me, my lord; I have no other refuge. Wash thee, and turn the water over thy fingers; then go and tell the tale to the majesty."
    His lord replied, "Thy heart continues still its wandering words! but although the mouth of a man may save him his words may also cover his face with confusion. Will you do then as your heart moves you? This that you will say, tell quietly."
    The sailor then answered, "Now I shall tell that which has happened to me, to my very self. I was going to the mines of Pharaoh, and I went down on the sea in a ship of one hundred and fifty cubits long and forty cubits wide, with one hundred and fifty sailors of the best of Egypt who had seen heaven and earth, and whose hearts were stronger than lions. They had said that the wind would not be contrary, or that there would be none. But as we approached the land, the wind arose, and threw up waves eight cubits high. As for me, I seized a piece of wood; but those who were in the vessel perished, without one remaining. A wave threw me on an island, after that I had been three days alone, without a companion beside my own heart. I laid me in a thicket, and the shadow covered me. Then stretched I my limbs to try to find something for my mouth. I found there figs and grain, melons of all kinds, fishes, and birds. Nothing was lacking. And I satisfied myself; and left on the ground that which was over, of what my arms had been filled withal. I dug a pit, I lighted a fire, and I made a burnt offering unto the gods.
    "Suddenly I heard a noise as of thunder, which I thought to be that of a wave of the sea. The trees shook, and the earth was moved. I uncovered my face, and I saw that a serpent drew near. He was thirty cubits long, and his beard greater than two cubits; his body was as overlaid with gold, and his color as that of true lazuli. He coiled himself before me. Then he opened his mouth, while that I lay on my face before him, and he said to me, 'What has brought you, what has brought you, little one, what has brought you? If you say not speedily what has brought you to this isle, I will make you know yourself; as a flame you shall vanish, if you tell me not something I have not heard, or which I knew not, before you.'
-     This tale is the oldest known instance of a story of a castaway on a fabulous island, who returns home laden with riches. The Sinbad, the Sailor stories [1] from One Thousand and One Nights belong to the same tradition and share many of its characteristics.
 
-after we have been long on board, and rowed much: Lichtheim: The mallet has been seized, the mooring-post staked
-I have no other refuge: Lichtheim: I am not exaggerating
-His lord replied, "Thy heart continues still its wandering words: According to Lichtheim this is part of the servants speech: You must speak to the king with presence of mind. You must answer without stammering!
-A cubit = about ½ metre
Seagoing vessel
Model of a sea-going vessel, ca 2500 BCE
-150 cubits long: The ship was about seventy-five metres long and twenty metres wide. According to Lichtheim it was only 120 cubits (ca 60 metres) long.
-one hundred and fifty sailors: Lichtheim: 120 sailors
-They had said that the wind would not be contrary, or that there would be none: Lichtheim: They could foretell a storm before it came, a tempest before it broke.
-As for me, I seized a piece of wood: Lichtheim: The mast - it (the wave) struck (it). Then the ship died.
-figs and grain, melons of all kinds, fishes, and birds: Lichtheim: figs and grapes there, all sorts of fine vegetables, sycamore figs, unnotched and notched, and cucumbers that were as if tended. Fish were there and fowl
For sycamore figs to ripen they have to be infested by a certain fly or to be notched by hand with a knife.
-his beard: The serpent as king of the island sported a pharaonic beard.
-lazuli: Lapis Lazuli, a blue semi-precious stone was imported from Bactria via Canaan since prehistoric times.
-if you tell me not something I have not heard, or which I knew not, before you: According to Lichtheim this is part of the sailor's answer: <I said> "Though you speak to me, I do not hear it; I am before you without knowing myself."
   "Then he took me in his mouth and carried me to his resting-place, and laid me down without any hurt. I was whole and sound, and nothing was gone from me. Then he opened his mouth against me, while that I lay on my face before him, and he said, 'What has brought you, what has brought you, little one, what has brought you to this isle which is in the sea, and of which the shores are in the midst of the waves?'
    "Then I replied to him, and holding my arms low before him, I said to him: 'I was embarked for the mines by the order of the majesty, in a ship, one hundred and fifty cubits was its length, and the width of it forty cubits. It had one hundred and fifty sailors of the best of Egypt, who had seen heaven and earth, and the hearts of whom were stronger than lions. They said that the wind would not be contrary, or that there would be none. Each of them exceeded his companion in the prudence of his heart and the strength of his arm, and I was not beneath any of them. A storm came upon us while we were on the sea. Hardly could we reach to the shore when the wind waxed yet greater, and the waves rose even eight cubits. As for me, I seized a piece of wood, while those who were in the boat perished without one being left with me for three days. Behold me now before you, for I was brought to this isle by a wave of the sea.'     By this period (i.e. the late third millennium BCE) Egypt had conquered the Sinai (under Djoser, ca.2650) and Nubia (under Snofru, ca.2560), where they mined for precious stones and gold. They also exploited gold deposits in Upper Egypt.
 
-Then I replied to him: This speech is largely a copy of the narrative passage above.
-one hundred and fifty sailors: Ancient ships needed large crews, as they could not sail into the wind and tack. They had therefore quite often to be rowed.
 
    The Red Sea is not very wide and weather conditions are generally good. Storms are much rarer and less violent than in the open Indian ocean further south.

    "Then said he to me, 'Fear not, fear not, little one, and make not your face sad. If you have come to me, it is God who has let you live. For it is He who has brought you to this isle of the blest, where nothing is lacking, and which is filled with all good things. See now, you shall pass one month after another, until you shall be four months in this isle. Then a ship shall come from your land with sailors, and you shall leave with them and go to your country, and you shall die in your town.
    Converse is pleasing, and he who tastes of it passes over his misery. I will therefore tell you of that which is in this isle. I am here with my brethren and my children around me; we are seventy-five serpents, children, and kindred; without naming a young girl who was brought unto me by chance, and on whom the fire of heaven fell, and burned her to ashes. As for you, if you are strong, and if your heart waits patiently, you shall press your infants to your bosom and embrace your wife. You shall return to your house which is full of all good things, you shall see your land, where you shall dwell in the midst of your kindred.'

-isle of the blest: Lichtheim: island of the ka
-four months in this isle. Then a ship shall come: Journeys out and journeys home took place in different seasons, because of changes in the prevailing winds. Ancient ships sailed with the wind and not into it.
-Converse is pleasing, and he who tastes of it passes over his misery. I will therefore tell you of that which is in this isle: Lichtheim: How happy is he who tells what he has tasted, when the calamity has passed, I shall tell you something similar that happened on this island.
-by chance: Lichtheim: through prayer

   "Then I bowed in my obeisance, and I touched the ground before him. 'Behold now that which I have told you before. I shall tell of your presence unto Pharaoh, I shall make him to know of your greatness, and I will bring to you of the sacred oils and perfumes, and of incense of the temples with which all gods are honored. I shall tell, moreover, of that which I do now see (thanks to him), and there shall be rendered to you praises before the fullness of all the land. I shall slay asses for you in sacrifice, I shall pluck for you the birds, and I shall bring for you ships full of all kinds of the treasures of Egypt, as is comely to do unto a god, a friend of men in a far country, of which men know not.'

-I bowed in my obeisance: Lichtheim: Stretched out on my belly
-I touched the ground before him: Egyptians prostrated themselves in front of their superiors to show their respect. Canaanite local potentates did likewise before the pharaoh during the empire: "Rib-addi [speaks] to the king, his Lord, [the sun of all countries]; [I have prostrated myself] seven times seven times at the feet of the king, my Lord"
-Behold now that which I have told you before: Lichtheim: then I said to him
-with which all gods are honored: Lichtheim: which pleases all the gods

    "Then he smiled at my speech, because of that which was in his heart, for he said to me: 'You are not rich in perfumes, for all that you have is but common incense. As for me, I am prince of the land of Punt, and I have perfumes. Only the oil which you say you would bring is not common in this isle. But, when you shall depart from this place, you shall never more see this isle; it shall be changed into waves.'

-because of that which was in his heart: Lichtheim: which seemed foolish to him.
-The land of Punt is generally identified as the Horn of Africa.
-is not common: Lichtheim: abounds
    "And behold, when the ship drew near, according to all that he had told me before, I got up into an high tree, to strive to see those who were within it. Then I came and told to him this matter, but it was already known unto him before. Then he said to me: 'Farewell, farewell, go to your house, little one, see again your children, and let your name be good in your town; these are my wishes for you.'
    "Then I bowed myself before him, and held my arms low before him, and he, he gave me gifts of precious perfumes, of cassia, of sweet woods, of kohl, of cypress, an abundance of incense, of ivory tusks, of baboons, of apes, and all kinds of precious things. I embarked all in the ship which was come, and bowing myself, I prayed God for him. Then he said to me: 'Behold you shall come to your country in two months, you shall press to your bosom your children, and you shall rest in your tomb.'
    After this I went down to the shore unto the ship, and I called to the sailors who were there. Then on the shore I rendered adoration to the master of this isle and to those who dwelt therein.
-let your name: Lichtheim: Make me a good name
-perfumes ... Cypress wood was generally imported from Byblos in today's Lebanon, baboons, apes, ivory from East and Central Africa, incense mostly from Arabia. Many species of cassia grow in warm climates and a variety of products are made from them: the laxative senna is made from African species and Chinese cinnamon is made from the bark of a south-east Asian variety.
Lichtheim renders this list of gifts as follows: myrrh, Hknw-oil, laudanum, Xsyt-spice, tiSpss-spice, perfume, eye-paint, giraffe's tails, great lumps of incense, elephant's tusks, greyhounds, long-tailed monkeys, baboons, and all kinds of precious things.
-you shall rest in your tomb: The Egyptians went to great lengths to ensure this.
    "When we shall come, in our return, to the house of Pharaoh, in the second month, according to all that the serpent has said, we shall approach unto the palace. And I shall go in before Pharaoh, I shall bring the gifts which I have brought from this isle into the country. Then he shall thank me before the fullness of the land. Grant then unto me a follower, and lead me to the courtiers of the king. Cast your eye upon me after that I have both seen and proved this. Hear my prayer, for it is good to listen to people. It was said unto me: 'Become a wise man, and you shall come to honor,' and behold I have become such."
    This is finished from its beginning unto its end, even as it was found in a writing. It is written by the scribe of cunning fingers, Ameni-amenaa; may he live in life, wealth, and health!
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-When we shall come... Lichtheim rendered this passage in the past tense.
-Hear my prayer, for it is good to listen to people. It was said unto me: 'Become a wise man, and you shall come to honor,' and behold I have become such: Lichtheim: Listen to me! It is good for people to listen. He said to me; "Don't make an effort, my friend. Who would give water at dawn (185) to a goose that will be slaughtered in the morning ?"
-Ameni-amenaa: Lichtheim: Imenaa, son of Imeny

Sources:
 
    From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. III: Egypt, Africa, and Arabia, trans. W. K. Flinders Petrie, pp. 41-46.
Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg has modernized the text.
    Miriam Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol.1, pp.212ff.
 
   The main column of this page mirrors a text of the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

 

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-[1] The seven voyages of Sinbad the sailor
-The Shipwrecked Sailor - Papyrus Leningrad 1115: Hieratic and hieroglyphic texts
-The Shipwrecked Sailor in Isle of Fire by Jacob Rabinowitz, with hieroglyphs and transcription, size: 20MB
-The Shipwrecked Sailor
 

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