It is easy to get distracted by the largest and most obvious material from ancient Egypt – vast tombs, colossal statues and beautiful jewellery. This can lead to a disconnect in our understanding of what ancient Egyptian life was really like – how ‘normal’ people felt, behaved, and acted. One of the ways that scholars try to connect with ancient Egypt at a personal, individual level is through the translation and understanding of literature written by ancient Egyptians themselves; and on Valentine’s Day, what better way is there to do that than to read some ancient Egyptian love poetry?
What Is Love?
Surviving evidence of Egyptian love poems and songs comes from the Ramesside workman’s village of Deir el-Medina (a community of craftsmen who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings). Because of the dry desert conditions, fragile material such as papyrus survives to a greater extent here than it does elsewhere. Exceptional literary finds have been discovered at Deir el-Medina, including the famous cache of the scribe Kenherkhopeshef; dream books, medico-magical papyri and literary tales. Some of the rarest of these finds are poetry and songs meditating on love, romance and desire.
Vision of Love
One of the most curious and enjoyable aspects of Egyptian love poetry is how similar the sentiments and expressions are to modern love songs; the language of love transcends time and place. Often, the songs list the beautiful qualities of their subjects, going into (sometimes slightly excruciating!) detail about just how wonderful their lover is. Often, the poetry will discuss emotions and situations that the modern reader might be quite familiar with; for example, the idea of the ‘girl next door’ – or in this case, the ‘girl across the Nile’!
“I love a girl, but she lives over there,
On the far side of the river,
A whole Nile in flood rages between,
With a crocodile hunched on the sand.”
– Cairo Ostracon 25218
Often, metaphors and similes are used which are familiar to us as modern readers – ideas such as feeling ‘drunk’ on love, becoming ‘ill’ with desire, and in this particular case, having one’s breath stolen away by the one they love.
“Whenever I leave you, I go out of breath,
(Death must be lonely like I am);
I dream lying dreams of your love lost,
And my heart stands still inside me.”
– Papyrus Harris 500
Other metaphors that are often used in Egyptian love poetry relate to animals, geography and the natural world. The geography of the Nile Valley, and its flora and fauna, was an important source of inspiration in Egyptian art from theriomorphic vessels in the Predynastic period, to Middle Kingdom tomb paintings, to decoration on the floors of the New Kingdom city of Amarna. This fascination with the natural world is also evident in Egyptian love poetry.
“Oh, hurry to look at your love!
Be like horses charging in battle,
Like a gardener up with the sun,
Burning to watch his prize bud open.”
– Papyrus Harris 500
Some of the themes that are reflected in Egyptian love poetry might seem more distant from the modern perspective; in particular, there are a number of poems which refer to religious themes and divine aspects. However, a reflection of religious ideas in love poetry was a common motif throughout ancient and modern history, and given the inextricable connection between religion and literature in ancient Egypt, it is not unexpected to find religious ideas reflected in love poems.
“I found my love by the secret canal,
Feet dangling down in the water,
He had made a hushed cell in the thicket, for worship,
To dedicate this day,
To holy elevation of the flesh.”
– Papyrus Chester Beatty I
Of course, that is not to say that all Egyptian love poetry was focused on beautiful metaphors, charming compliments and delicate longing. In fact, some of the poetry might be seen as a little raunchy by modern standards – here is one of the tamer examples!
“When we kiss, and her warm lips half open,
I fly cloud-high without beer!
What paradise gained, what fulfilment, what a heavenly turn of affairs!
Oh, raise one to Menkat, Our Lady of Liquor,
But keep your mouth tight on the girl!”
– Cairo Ostracon 25218
The Power of Love
One of the most endearing aspects of Egyptian love poetry is undoubtedly how relatable the thoughts and feelings expressed within it are to the modern audience. Poems that describe the delicate flutter of the heart when a paramour is near; the delight of a chance meeting with someone you have a crush on; and the joy of spending a day with someone you truly love. It can be said that love forever changes, but the language of love translates remarkably well across great distances and vast gulfs in time. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Translations taken from:
Foster, J.L. (1992) Love Songs of the New Kingdom. Austin: University of Texas Press.