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Ancient Egypt: The Tales from the Westcar Papyrus
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The Tales from the Westcar Papyrus

    King Khufu sat to hear tales told by his sons regarding the wonders of other days and the doings of magicians. The Prince Khafra stood before him and related the ancient story of the wax crocodile.

The Wax Crocodile

    Once upon a time a Pharaoh went towards the temple of the god Ptah. His counsellors and servants accompanied him. It chanced that he paid a visit to the villa of the chief scribe, behind which there was a garden with a stately summer house and a broad artificial lake. Among those who followed Pharaoh was a handsome youth, and the scribe's wife beheld him with love. Soon afterwards she sent gifts unto him, and they had secret meetings. They spent a day in the summer house, and feasted there, and in the evening the youth bathed in the lake. The chief butler then went to his master and informed him what had come to pass.
    The scribe bade the servant to bring a certain magic box, and when he received it he made a small wax crocodile, over which he muttered a spell. He placed it in the hands of the butler, saying: "Cast this image into the lake behind the youth when next he bathes himself."
    On another day, when the scribe dwelt with Pharaoh, the lovers were together in the summer house, and at eventide the youth went into the lake. The butler stole through the garden, and stealthily he cast into the water the wax image, which was immediately given life. It became a great crocodile that seized the youth suddenly and took him away.
    Seven days passed, and then the scribe spoke to the Pharaoh regarding the wonder which had been done, and made request that His Majesty should accompany him to his villa. The Pharaoh did so, and when they both stood beside the lake in the garden the scribe spoke magic words, bidding the crocodile to appear. As he commanded, so did it do. The great reptile came out of the water carrying the youth in its jaws.
    The scribe said: "Lo! it shall do whatever I command to be done."
    Said the Pharaoh: "Bid the crocodile to return at once to the lake."
    Ere he did that, the scribe touched it, and immediately it became a small image of wax again. The Pharaoh was filled with wonder, and the scribe related unto him all that had happened, while the youth stood waiting.
    Said His Majesty unto the crocodile: "Seize the wrongdoer."
- The stories in the Westcar Papyrus are thought to have been composed during the Middle Kingdom or the Second Intermediate Period.
-Khufu: c. 2585-2566
-Khafre: c. 2558-2532
-Ptah: city god of Memphis
-wax: frequently used by magicians for modelling (cf. p. Rollin or the demotic magical papyrus.)
    The wax image was again given life, and, clutching the youth, leaped into the lake and disappeared. Nor was it ever seen after that. Then Pharaoh gave command that the wife of the scribe should be seized. On the north side of the house she was bound to a stake and burned alive, and what remained of her was thrown into the Nile.
    Such was the tale told by Khafra. Khufu was well pleased, and caused offerings of food and refreshment to be placed in the tombs of the Pharaoh and his wise servant.
    Prince Khafra stood before His Majesty, and said: "I will relate a marvel which happened in the days of King Sneferu, thy father." Then he told the story of the green jewel.
-she was bound to a stake and burned alive: there is no evidence that there was such a punishment for adultery in reality.

The Story of the Green Jewel

    Sneferu was one day disconsolate and weary. He wandered about the palace with desire to be cheered, nor was there aught to take the gloom from his mind. He caused his chief scribe to be brought before him, and said: "I would fain have entertainment, but cannot find any in this place."


-Sneferu: c. 2613-2589
    The scribe said: "Thy Majesty should go boating on the lake, and let the rowers be the prettiest girls in your harem. It will delight your heart to see them splashing the water where the birds dive and to gaze upon the green shores and the flowers and trees. I myself will go with you."
    The king consented, and twenty virgins who were fair to behold went into the boat, and they rowed with oars of ebony which were decorated with gold. His Majesty took pleasure in the outing, and the gloom passed from his heart as the boat went hither and thither, and the girls sang together with sweet voices.
    It chanced, as they were turning round, an oar handle brushed against the hair of the girl who was steering, and shook from it a green jewel, which fell into the water. She lifted up her oar and stopped singing, and the others grew silent and ceased rowing.
    Said Sneferu: "Do not pause; let us go on still farther."
    The girls said: "She who steers has lifted her oar."
    Said Sneferu to her: "Why have you lifted your oar?"
    "Alas, I have lost my green jewel she said it has fallen into the lake."
    Sneferu said: "I will give you another; let us go on."
    The girl pouted and made answer: "I would rather have my own green jewel again than any other."
    His Majesty said to the chief scribe: "I am given great enjoyment by this novelty; indeed my mind is much refreshed as the girls row me up and down the lake. Now one of them has lost her green jewel, which has dropped into the water, and she wants it back again and will not have another to replace it."
-It will delight your heart... I myself will go with you.: Lichtheim []: Your majesty's heart will be refreshed by seeing them row, a rowing up and down. As you observe the fine nesting places of your lake, as you observe its beautiful fields and shores, your heart will be refreshed by it.
-and twenty virgins who were fair to behold ... the girls sang together with sweet voices.: Lichtheim: Let there be brought to me twenty oars of ebony plated with gold, their handles of sandalwood plated with electrum. Let there be brought to me twenty women with the shapeliest bodies, breasts, and braids, who have not yet given birth. Also let there be brought to me twenty nets and give these nets to these women in place of their clothes!" All was done as his majesty commanded.
Lichtheim explains concerning these nets: These were nets made of pearls which ladies liked to wear over their dresses. Here they are to be worn in place of dresses
-an oar handle brushed against the hair of the girl who was steering: Lichtheim: the one who was at the stroke oar fingered her braids
-a green jewel: Lichtheim: a pendant of new turquoise
-She lifted up her oar and stopped singing: Lichtheim: she stopped rowing,
-She who steers: Lichtheim: Our leader
-His Majesty said to the chief scribe: "I am given great enjoyment by this novelty; Lichtheim: Said his majesty: "Djadja-em-ankh, my brother, I did as you had said.
    The chief scribe at once muttered a spell. Then by reason of his magic words the waters of the lake were divided like a lane. He went down and found the green jewel which the girl had lost, and came back with it to her. When he did that, he again uttered words of power, and the waters came together as they were before.
    The king was well pleased, and when he had full enjoyment with the rowing upon the lake he returned to the palace. He gave gifts to the chief scribe, and everyone wondered at the marvel which he had accomplished.

-the waters of the lake were divided like a lane: cf. Exodus 14, 21 ... the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. The Hebrew tradition with its strong condemnation of magic gives a 'reasonable' explanation for the occurrence - reasonable, if one believes in an almighty god playing around with the so-called laws of physics. To the Egyptians on the other hand magic was an inseparable part of life, a tool to be embraced rather than shunned.
Lichtheim translates this passage: He placed one side of the lake's water upon the other;
-he again uttered words of power, and the waters came together as they were before: Lichtheim: Now the water that had been twelve cubits deep across had become twenty four cubits when it was turned back. Then he said his say of magic
-The king was well pleased, and when he had full enjoyment with the rowing upon the lake he returned to the palace.: Lichtheim: His majesty spent the day feasting with the entire palace.
    Such was Khafra's tale of the green jewel, and King Khufu commanded that offerings should be laid in the tombs of Sneferu and his chief scribe, who was a great magician.
    Next Prince Hordadef stood before the king, and he said: "Your Majesty has heard tales regarding the wonders performed by magicians in other days, [ ] but I can bring forth a worker of marvels who now lives in the kingdom."
    King Khufu said: "And who is he, my son?"

-Hordadef: Lichtheim: Prince Hardedef is of course the famous sage and author of an Instruction. In P. Westear and in the Intef Song the name is written as Hardedef, rather than Hardjedef. The actual reading may have been Djedef-Hor. It is an open question how names of this type are to be read; there are good arguments for either reading.
-[ ]: Lichtheim inserts here: and one cannot tell truth from falsehood.

Djedi the magician

    "His name is Dedi," answered Prince Hordadef. "He is a very old man, for his years are a hundred and ten. Each day he eats a joint of beef and five hundred loaves of bread, and drinks a hundred jugs of beer. He can smite off the head of a living creature and restore it again; he can make a lion follow him; and he knows the secrets of the habitation of the god Thoth, which Your Majesty has desired to know so that you may design the chambers of your pyramid."
    King Khufu said: "Go now and find this man for me, Hordadef."
    The prince went down to the Nile, boarded a boat, and sailed southward until he reached the town called Dedsnefru, where Dedi had his dwelling. He went ashore, and was carried in his chair of state towards the magician, who was found lying at his door. When Dedi was awakened, the king's son saluted him and bade him not to rise up because of his years. The prince said: "My royal father desires to honour you, and will provide for you a tomb among your people."



-Dedi: Lichtheim: named Djedi who lives in Djed-Snefru.
-his years are a hundred and ten: the ideal life span
-a joint of beef: Lichtheim: half an ox for meat
-he can make a lion follow him: Lichtheim: He can make a lion walk behind him, its leash on the ground
-the secrets: Lichtheim: knows the number of the secret chambers
-habitation: temple.
-chair of state: Lichtheim: carrying chair of ebony, the poles of which were of ssnDn-wood plated with gold.
-lying at his door. When Dedi was awakened: Lichtheim: lying on a mat in the courtyard of his house, with a servant beside him anointing him and another rubbing his feet.
-"My royal father desires to honour you, and will provide for you a tomb among your people.": Lichtheim: "Your condition is like that of one who lives above age - for old age is the time for death, enwrapping, and burial - one who sleeps till daytime free of illness, without a hacking cough. Thus greetings to a venerable one! I have come here to summon you, commissioned by my father Khufu, You shall eat the delicacies that the king gives, the food of those who are in his service. He will convey you in good time to your fathers who are in the necropolis."
    Dedi blessed the prince and the king with thankfulness, and he said to Hordadef: "Greatness be thine; may your Ka have victory over the powers of evil, and may your Khu follow the path which leads to Paradise." -khu: or akh, the part of a person which rose to the heavens to become a star. (cf. Body and Soul)
Lichtheim gives ba instead of khu
    Hordadef assisted Dedi to rise up, and took his arm to help him towards the ship. He sailed away with the prince, and in another ship were his assistants and his magic books.
-and in another ship were his assistants and his magic books.: Lichtheim: Then Djedi said: "Let me have a barge to bring me my children and my books."
In tomb reliefs servants and children were often depicted together, cf. The stela of Mentuhotep.
    "Health and strength and plenty be thine," said Hordadef, when he again stood before his royal father King Khufu. "I have come down stream with Dedi, the great magician."
    His Majesty was well pleased, and said: "Let the man be brought into my presence."
-was well pleased, and: not in Lichtheim's version.
    Dedi came and saluted the king, who said: "Why have I not seen you before?"
    "He that is called cometh," answered the old man; "you have sent for me and I am here."
    "It is told," King Khufu said, "that you can restore the head that is taken from a live creature."
    "I can indeed, Your Majesty," answered Dedi.
    The king said: "Then let a prisoner be brought forth and decapitated."
    "I would rather it were not a man," said Dedi; "I do not deal even with cattle in such a manner."
    A duck was brought forth and its head was cut off, and the head was thrown to the right and the body to the left. Dedi spoke magic words. Then the head and the body came together, and the duck rose up and quacked loudly. The same was done with a goose.
    King Khufu then caused a cow to be brought in, and its head was cut off. Dedi restored the animal to life again, and caused it to follow him. His Majesty then spoke to the magician and said: "It is told that you possess the secrets of the dwelling of the god Thoth."
    Dedi answered: "I do not possess them, but I know where they are concealed, and that is within a temple chamber at Heliopolis. There the plans are kept in a box, but it is no insignificant person who shall bring them to Your Majesty."
    "I would fain know who will deliver them unto me," King Khufu said.

-"I do not deal even with cattle in such a manner.": Lichtheim: Surely, it is not permitted to do such a thing to the noble cattle!"
The "noble cattle" refers to mankind.
-A duck: Lichtheim: A goose.
-a goose: Lichtheim: a "long-leg"-bird
-cow: Lichtheim: ox. There is an inconsistency here in Mackenzie's rendering. First Djedi says: "I do not deal even with cattle in such a manner." and then he does exactly that.
-secrets: knowledge of the number of secret chambers
-it is no insignificant person: Lichtheim: It is not I
    Dedi prophesied that three sons would be born to Rud-dedit, wife of the chief priest of Ra. The eldest would become chief priest at Heliopolis and would possess the plans. He and his brothers would one day sit upon the throne and rule over all the land.
[ ]
    King Khufu's heart was filled with gloom and alarm when he heard the prophetic words of the great magician.
    Dedi then said: "What are your thoughts, O King? Behold your son will reign after you, and then his son. But next one of these children will follow."

-Ra: The Re worship became increasingly important during the 4th and 5th dynasties. Since Djedefre (c. 2413-2381) the pharaohs bore the title of Son of Re.
-[ ]: Lichtheim: Said his majesty; "I want it; but say: who is this Ruddedet?" Said Djedi: "She is the wife of a priest of Re, lord of Sakhbu, who is pregnant with three children of Re, lord of Sakhbu. He has said concerning them that they will assume this beneficent office in this whole land, and the eldest of them will be high priest in On."
On: Heliopolis.
-What are your thoughts, O King?: Lichtheim: What is this mood, O king, my lord? Is it because of those three children?
    King Khufu was silent. Then he spoke and asked: "When shall these children be born?"
    Dedi informed His Majesty, who said: "I will visit the temple of Ra at that time."
    Dedi was honoured by His Majesty, and thereafterwards dwelt in the house of the Prince Hordadef. He was given daily for his portion an ox, a thousand loaves of bread, a hundred jugs of beer, and a hundred bunches of onions.
-Dedi informed His Majesty: Lichtheim: [Said Djedi]: "She will give birth on the fifteenth day of the first winter month."
-"I will visit the temple of Ra at that time.": Lichtheim: "Just when the sandbanks of the Two-Fish Channel are dry! I would have crossed over myself, so as to see the temple of Re, lord of Sakhbu." Said Djedi: "Then I shall make four cubits of water over the sandbanks of the Two-Fish Channel."
-onions: Lichtheim: vegetables

The Birth of the Royal Children

This story may have been conceived as a justification for the accession of the 5th dynasty kings. But it is likely that these pharaohs belonged to the same group of noble families as - and possibly even descended from - the 4th dynasty.
    The day came when the sons of the woman Rud-dedit were to be born. Then the high priest of Ra, her husband, prayed unto the goddess Isis and her sister Nepthys; to Meskhent, goddess of birth; and to the frog goddess Hekt; and to the creator god Khnumu, who gives the breath of life. These he entreated to have care of the three babes who were to become three kings of Egypt, one after the other.
    The deities heard him. Then came the goddesses as dancing girls, who went about the land, and the god Khnumu followed them as their burden bearer. When they reached the door of the high priest's dwelling they danced before him. He entreated them to enter, and they did according to his desire, and shut themselves in the room with the woman Rud-dedit.

-The day came....who gives the breath of life: Lichtheim: On one of those days Ruddedet felt the pangs and her labor was difficult. Then said the majesty of Re, lord of Sakhbu, to Isis, Nephthys, Meskbenet, Heket, and Khnum:
-Nepthys: sister of Osiris, Isis and Seth
-Meskhent: Personification of the birth brick. Announces the destiny of the newly born, as did also the seven Hathors.
-Heket: Female counterpart of Khnum, worshiped in Herurm assisted at birth, and was part of the circle of gods around Osiris at Abydos.
-the high priest's dwelling they danced before him. He entreated them to enter, and they did according to his desire,: Lichtheim: Rawoser, they found him standing with his loincloth upside down. They held out to him their necklaces and sistra. He said to them: "My ladies, look, it is the woman who is in pain; her labor is difficult." They said: "Let us see her. We understand childbirth."
    Isis called the first child who was born Userkaf, and said: "Let no evil be done by him". The goddess Meskhent prophesied that he would become King of Egypt. Khnumu, the creator god, gave the child strength.
    The second babe was named Sahura by the goddess Isis. Meskhent prophesied that he also would become a king. Khnumu gave him his strength.
    The third was called Kaka. Meskhent said: "He shall also be a king", and Khnumu gave him strength.
    Ere the dancing girls took their departure the high priest gave a measure of barley to their burden bearer, and Khnumu carried it away upon his shoulders. They all went upon their way, and Isis said: "Now let us work a wonder on behalf of these children, so that their father may know who hath sent us unto his house."
-The first three pharaohs of the 5th dynasty were
Userkaf c. 2494-2487
Sahure c. 2487-2475
Neferirkare c. 2475-2455
-Isis called the first child who was born Userkaf, and said: "Let no evil be done by him": Lichtheim: Isis placed herself before her, Nephthys behind her, Heket hastened the birth. Isis said: "Don't be so mighty in her womb, you whose name is 'Mighty.'' The child slid into her arms, a child of one cubit, strong boned, his limbs overlaid with gold, his headdress of true lapis lazuli. They washed him, having cut his navel cord, and laid him on a pillow of cloth.
All three births are described in the same words.
-strength: Lichtheim: health
-Ere the dancing girls took their departure the high priest gave a measure of barley to their burden bearer: Lichtheim: These gods came out, having delivered Ruddedet of the three children, They said: "Rejoice, Rawoser! Three children are born to you." He said to them: "My ladies, what can I do for you ? Please give this sack of barley to your porter and take it as payment for beer."
    Royal crowns were fashioned and concealed in the measure of barley which had been given them. Then the deities caused a great storm to arise, and in the midst of it they returned to the dwelling of the high priest, and they put the barley in a cellar, and sealed it, saying they would return again and take it away.
    It came to pass that after fourteen days Rud-dedit bade her servant to bring barley from the cellar so that beer might be made. The girl said: "There is none left save the measure which was given unto the dancing girls."
    "Bring that then," said Rud-dedit, "and when the dancing girls return I will give them its value."
-measure: Lichtheim: sack
-cellar: Possibly not an exact translation. Cellars were apparently rare in Egypt, little more than covered holes in the ground used for storage (cf. the workman's house at Deir el Medina).
-sealed it: there were no real locks which would have withstood even feeble attempts at breaking in. So, short of placing a guard at an entrance one put a seal on it and trusted in the efficacy of its magic.
-would return again: Lichtheim: come back from dancing in the north
-It came to pass that after fourteen days: Lichtheim: Ruddedet cleansed herself in a cleansing of fourteen days
-I will give them its value: Lichtheim: Rawoser shall give them its equivalent when he comes.
    When the servant entered the cellar she heard the low sounds of sweet music and dancing and song. She went and told her mistress of this wonder, and Rud-dedit entered the cellar, and at first could not discover whence the mysterious sounds issued forth. At length she placed her ear against the sack which contained the barley given to the dancing girls, and found that the music was within it. She at once placed the sack in a chest and locked it, and then told her husband, and they rejoiced together. -and song: Lichtheim: and shouting - all that is done for a king - in the room.
-in a chest and locked it: Lichtheim: ) in a box, placed it in another container, bound it with a leather strap, placed it in a room containing her belongings, and locked it up.
There were no locks on chests. If something had to be kept safe the chest lid was tied to the body of the chest with rope and a seal was applied to it.
    Now it happened that one day Rud-dedit was angry with her servant, and smote her heavily. The girl vowed that she would be avenged and said: "Her three children will become kings. I will inform King Khufu of this matter."
    So the servant went away and visited her uncle, who was her mother's eldest brother. Unto him she told all that had happened and all she knew regarding the children of her mistress.
    He was angry with her and spoke, saying: "Why come to me with this secret? I cannot consent to make it known as you desire."
-smote her: Phtysical violence was not a rare occurrence in employer-employee relationships.
-her uncle, who was her mother's eldest brother: Lichtheim: her older half-brother binding bundles of flax on the threshing floor.
-"Why come to me with this secret? I cannot consent to make it known as you desire." Lichtheim: : "Is this a thing to do, to come to me, so as to involve me in your tattle?"
    Then he struck the girl, who went afterwards to draw water from the Nile. On the bank a crocodile seized her, and she was devoured. The man then went towards the dwelling of Rud-dedit and he found her mourning with her head upon her knees. He spoke, saying: "Why is your heart full of gloom?"
    Rud-dedit answered him: "Because my servant girl went away to reveal my secret."
    The man bowed and said: "Behold! she came unto me and told me all things. But I struck her, and she went towards the river and was seized by a crocodile."
    So was the danger averted. Nor did King Khufu ever discover the babes regarding whom Dedi had prophesied. In time they sat upon the throne of Egypt.

Source: Donald Mackenzie, Egyptian Myth and Legend 1907

-he struck the girl: Lichtheim: He tore off a strand of flax and dealt her a bad blow.
-So was the danger averted. ... they sat upon the throne of Egypt. not in Lichtheim's version.

R. B. Parkinson, The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, 1940-1640 BC, Oxford University Press 1999, pp.108ff.
Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt, University of Texas Press 1995, pp.96f.
B. G. Trigger, Ancient Egypt, Cambridge University Press 1996, pp.292f.
Christopher J Eyre, The Cannibal Hymn: A Cultural and Literary Study, Liverpool University Press 2002, p.199
Gaston C. Maspero, 1915, Popular Stories of Ancient Egypt, Kessinger Publishing 2003, pp.24ff.
Hilda M. Ransome, 1937, The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore, Courier Dover Publications 2004, pp.28ff.
Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge, 1935, Egyptian Tales and Romances, Ayer Publishing 1980, pp.37ff.
C. J. S. Thompson, 1927, Mysteries and Secrets of Magic, Kessinger Publishing 2003, pp.53f.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, 1973
[1] M. Lichtheim, 1973, pp.215ff.

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