Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egypt: The letter of Wermai
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The letter of Wermai
The Moscow Literary Letter or A Tale of Woe

Copy of the letter which the God's Father Wermai, son of Huny, has written, with greetings to his friend, the scribe of the royal residence Usimaarenakht, son of Ramose, at Heracleopolis. It reads:
All the best wishes for the future to you. May you reach a beautiful age in the city of Atem. May your good repute remain constant through the grace of the king, as you have always been good, both towards gods and men.
- pPushkin I, 6, 127
about 20th or 21st dynasty
The only known copy of this ficticious letter was found together with a copy of the Tale of Wenamen's Journey at el-Hibe in 1890
-God's Father: high priestly rank.
-All the best wishes.....: the text begins as real letters of the period opened.
When the sun-god shines in the sky, may his beauty cause happiness to your senses and may he show himself pleased with your prayers, so that he will answer your supplications when you adore him and you are encompassed by his rays, for they are life! May your body stretch contentedly and may he prevent you from suffering; for when someone distressed calls for him he will hurry to him, full of help. May he grant you 110 years on earth, your body be healthy and aged joyfully, without bodily infirmities, but with joy and zest for life in the heart and without decrepitude. But this is in your grasp anyway. -sun-god: Re
-you are encompassed by his rays: the most beautiful Egyptian depictions of the sun's beneficence are probably those of the sun-disk Aten softly caressing Akhenaten and his family with a myriad of little hands.
-110 years: the ideal age of death.
Far be from you the company of those doomed to die! Better to compensate yourself with bowls full of milk and basins of wine, for neither are you close to your end nor to the time when the bearer of vases and vessels of libation stands before you. Doubtful physical conditions are unknown to you. Your body is intact, everything in its place, your heart in the right spot, your tongue is nimble as always and will not forsake you. -your heart in the right spot, your tongue is nimble as always and will not forsake you: these would also be preconditions for making the journey through the underworld, cf. the Judgment of the Dead
Towards the end of life you should look out for a well-populated place. Searching for a desolate place should remain far from you when you have become a god and attained the goal of your journey. Indeed, your ears have not been damaged and body <and limbs function in every way> as expected. But even you will not last eternally! You will enter your tomb safe and sound and join the ancient ones at Heliopolis like all the just. In your own interest, look for a burial place so that you may have sustenance from your offerings which are placed at the disposal of the deceased before god until all eternity. -when you have become a god...: While in the Old Kingdom only deceased pharaohs became divine, by the New Kingdom everybody who could afford a 'proper' burial and successfully passed the judgment of the dead could merge with Osiris as his followers and become immortal after a journey through the underworld. The first instance of a non-royal recording his hopes of becoming an Osiris is found in a coffin text and dates to the early First Intermediate Period.
-Heliopolis: the city of Re
Coming to the point: I have been expelled illegally. I have been reduced to poverty before I could utter a sound. I have fallen victim to rapaciousness although I have not committed any crime and have been driven from my city. My things were robbed and nothing could be saved. -I have been expelled....: The causes of Wermai's misery have variously been explained as having been caused by political turmoil or by religious sanctions against the priest (H.W. Fischer-Elfert). One could even consider his to be a case of paranoia.
I stood against arch-enemies. Every inhabitant who knows about it will confirm it. They mistreated me, as well as killed utterly strange women and scattered their children to the four winds. Some they held in captivity, others were removed as booty, like things they were loaded, beginning with my own servants. My office was taken from me, yet I was not arrested. I was chased away and was condemned to err, a stranger without aim. The land burned in upheaval; the South and the North as well as the West and the East had fallen victim to him. I was taken on on a ship which was not mine. Mine had already been stolen. -like things: Ordinary Egyptians were quite harshly treated, but even slaves generally retained a measure of rights and dignity.
-had fallen victim to him: to the arch-enemy
Following the current of the river I voyaged through the land in constant fear of its watery depths, and thus I reached the North near Chemnis. I crossed the fields and swamps of the Delta as they were covered with water; in the East the land of the Pedjetshu, going round their holy springs, in the West the Tjemeh land, and finally I landed in Tjehenu. I crossed the land in all its width, dragged myself to Xois, passed Tura, reached the nome of Oxyrhynchos and arrived finally in the great oasis. I fled through all the borderlands of Upper Egypt. -Chemnis: near Buto in the Delta, where, according to the myth, Isis took refuge with Horus
-Tjemeh land: region in Nubia (cf. Tomb inscriptions of Harkhuf). Here apparently referring to a region in Libya, unless he went as far south as Nubia in his wanderings.
-Tjehenu: Libya
-Xois: Centre of the Amen-Re worship in the Delta (6th Lower Egyptian nome)
-Tura: town south of Cairo, also referred to as Troja
-Oxyrhynchos: Per-medjet, 19th Upper Egyptian nome
Strange places I had to cross on foot as my horses had been stolen and my carriage and team had been robbed. I was exposed to their worst <acts of> violence. I screamed because of my ill fortune, for I was forced to walk as I had none. I stayed all the time in cities strange to me and in villages I did not know: a stranger. My friends of olden days did not exist anymore. Company had to be found afresh. These people were with me for a while, then they turned away from me because of what I was, and ignored my need. -horses: only the rich could afford horses.
-none: no carriage
If only there were a piece of news which would let me breathe a sigh of relief, after I have been stranded in injustice. But nobody asked me how I was after my erring to and fro. Once flesh and bones are lying on the edge of the desert who will cover them then for protection. No news which could gladden my heart. No, not the dead, not the living: nobody asks after me in my misfortune. But what does this mean when I enter the realm of the dead and find myself in the presence of the god of the horizon.
He is kept apart from the clamour and turmoil. He is well, his erstwhile condition is in the past, and I was doing well too while under his responsibility. He will come immediately when a description of my errings is conveyed to him. Send him from your office a copy of my letter. People will see him with joy when he comes to me in my need. Petitioners on whose behalf he set out know about it. - He: the unknown saviour figure which remains unnamed throughout the text. At the end of the text he is referred to as a Tmrgn.
Believe me, I am suffering. For a month corn has been withheld from me, I and all the others here are going hungry. I do not remember any more what corn looks like, and they even less. There is none! The livelihood of the people among whom I am is modest: the waters have dried up, their land is parched. For them there is no escape from wretchedness: a petitioner is not even allowed to address his lord. When protest arises the gang show him only flattering mockery. While their own concerns are dealt with, they hinder everybody else's, apart from their income and the tax on salt, natron, onions, reeds and sedges.
Send a letter, I am certain he will come to the aid of the unpropertied.
-corn: wheat for bread making
-they even less: Wermai, as a God's Father, was in a much higher social class than the peasants among whom he had to live. It is doubtful that under ordinary circumstances they would have been as close socially or that a scribe would compare himself with his social inferiors. (cf. The social classes in ancient Egypt)
-his lord: the ruler of the oasis
-the gang: the followers of the local potentate
-he will come: Wermai's saviour figure.
A petitioner caused him to look busy: "I will procure heaps of corn," said the lord in order to choke off his inquiry. And he believed the promise. -him: the local magnate.
He came to me after he had been on the road for a month, burned brown like dried flesh which lies around on the edge of the desert and tanned like a cow skin. Immediately he accused me in the court of law: "He has committed a crime against me in my city!" -He came to me: the local magnate did, looking like an old corpse which had been dug up.
His tax was an incredibly heavy burden for me, and there were many which it ground down and whom he squeezed dry with the help of his gang. He left me, robbed of the corn even, which others had given me while he had been away travelling.
Without ceasing they burst in a rising grumbling when the corn measure, falsified by its maker, was used: "What a criminal is this carpenter who has made it. A sack in it is all of a sudden one and a half!"
By Atem, the unique, he has robbed them!
-corn measure, falsified by its maker: falsifying measures was one of the 'deadly sins'. Thus in the so-called Negative Confessions of Nu the deceased claims: I have not diminished from the bushel.
-A sack in it: measured with it
I only possessed a piece of dirt on the edge of the desert, which barely yielded enough corn for the tax. It was packed into bags on the same day when he came to me and said: "They are letting the amam-land go to ruin, and I do not know whether they don't let the plough-land go fallow as well!"
But nothing was done against it! I thought to myself: 'May the sparrows get the rest of their
amam-corn, if only I were relieved of this tax and the gang which causes tears of shame without end.'
-amam: a kind of cereal
If only I did not have to write to you concerning this unimaginable misdeed which he has committed against my god. What has happened to me will strike him (too), for who could hide himself when your wrath, O god, names the one who has perpetrated it?
Come and deliver me from their hands!
If only I could send him to Nehar, to fetch the hidden
Tmrgn with whom he had journeyed to Nays'ar! Turn your face towards us again!
Alas, if only he would take action against my oppressor!
-send him: it is unclear whom Wermai wants to send. R. A. Caminos proposes that the ruler of the oasis is meant.
-Nehar: has not been identified
-Tmrgn: According to Caminos warriors to whom the unknown saviour Wermai's belongs.
-Nays'ar: has not been identified

Gerald Moers, Der Brief des Wermai. Der Moskauer literarische Brief
in Otto Kaiser ed., Texte aus der Umwelt des Alten Testaments, Vol.3, pp.922-929
Gütersloher Verlagshaus 1995


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