Continuing the theme of Egyptian literature, today we’re going to be talking about another ‘classic’ Egyptian story; the Tale of Khufu and the Magicians, also known as Papyrus Westcar.
The Westcar Papyrus (P. Berlin 3033) was (supposedly) found by Henry Westcar, a British antiquarian, in 1823-4. In 1838-9 it was (supposedly) bequeathed to Karl Lepsius, but was found in his attic after his death; there’s a deal of speculation about whether Lepsius did ‘inherit’ the papyrus, or whether it was stolen! The papyrus was viewed as a curiosity, until it was translated into German by Adolf Erman in 1890; since then, it has been re-translated numerous times.
The story is quite an unusual one, consisting of five vignettes relating to the sorcerous efforts of various priests and magicians. Each tale (save the last) is told in the court of King Khufu, the famous 4th Dynasty pharaoh and builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, though the composition of the text itself has been placed between the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period. The first of the stories is almost entirely missing, but the others survive.
The First Story
The first story is missing entirely, save for the ending, where Khufu orders that offerings be made to the kings featured in the story. The conclusion mentions King Djoser, and may have had something to do with his famous Step Pyramid (and Imhotep, its famous architect!).
The Second Story
The first complete vignette begins when Prince Khafre stands up to speak and tells of a biayt – a ‘wonder’ – that happened in the time of King Nebka. Nebka had gone to the temple of Ptah to perform rites therein, accompanied by his chief lector-priest, Weba-iner, and the lector-priest’s wife. The lady meets a charming commoner, and the two decide to spend a pleasant day drinking in a nearby pavilion…and their ‘pleasant day’ doesn’t end until the sun has set!
Weba-iner finds out about this, and decides to exact his revenge with magic. He crafts a wax model crocodile, and passes it to the caretaker, instructing him to wait until the commoner goes for his daily swim, and then throw the model crocodile into the water.
Meanwhile, Weba-iner’s wife sends to have the pavilion made ready again, and spends another ‘pleasant day’ with the commoner. After the sun sets, the commoner goes for his evening swim…and the caretaker throws the crocodile into the lake! When it touches the water, the crocodile springs to life, becoming a real crocodile, seven cubits long. It snaps its jaws around the commoner and drags him to the bottom of the lake!
Chuffed with his work, the lector-priest brings Nebka to the lake to see the magical crocodile. He summons it back, and it brings the commoner along for the ride. The lector-priest transforms the crocodile back into a wax figure, and explains his woes to Nebka. Outraged, the king declares that the crocodile can drag the commoner back to the bottom of the lake, while the adulterous wife of Weba-iner is burned alive.
Then, everyone celebrates how cool the magical crocodile was. Priorities.
The Third Story
After declaring that offerings be made to Nebka and his lector-priest, Khufu is ready for another tale. This time, Baufre has the floor, ready to tell a salacious story of a bored king, a boating accident, and fishnet stockings.
King Snofru is bored. So bored, in fact, that he sends for his chief lector-priest, Djadjaemankh, and complains that he has been through every room of the palace looking for something to do and found nothing. The lector-priest has an idea on how to alleviate his King’s ennui…
Djadjaemankh counsels Snofru to visit his palace lake, and sail around on it with a ship manned entirely by beautiful women. The king sends off for twenty ebony oars, plated with gold, with handles of special wood plated in electrum (why not?), as well as twenty beautiful, virginal women, with braided hair and large breasts. He also asks for twenty nets, and for the women to remove their clothes and replace them with the nets.
This may be the first historical reference to fishnet stockings in the world.
The women row back and forth, and Snofru feels very pleased with himself, but alas! He made a mistake asking for women with braided hair. The lead stroke gets entangled in her braids, and her turquoise fish-pendant falls into the water! Distraught, she stops rowing, which infuriates Snofru. He is, after all, a king, so he can just get her another pendant. Alas, she doesn’t want another pendant, she wants hers back. She gets a little bit sassy, telling Snofru, “I prefer my own to its substitute”. Ouch.
Growing rather grumpy due to this turn of events, Snofru sends for Djadjaemankh. The lector-priest arrives, and Snofru complains that he was having a rather wonderful time, but then this fish-pendant got lost and ruined everything. Without a worry, Djadjaemankh casts a magic spell, folding the waters of the lake, and revealing the lake bed. He pops over to the newly-revealed lake bed, retrieves the pendant, and then casts a spell to return the water to normal.
Cheered up once more, Snofru proceeds to spend the day partying with the entire palace, and making joyful offerings to his favourite lector-priest.
The Fourth Story
After another bout of offerings, this time dedicated to Snofru and Djadjaemankh, Khufu is amazed…but his son, Prince Hardedef, is not. Hardedef complains that all of these stories take place in the past, where one cannot easily discern truth from falsehood. Instead, Hardedef can tell Khufu of a man who still lives, and who can perform miracles! A commoner, named Djedi, who is 110 years old; he eats five hundred loaves of bread and a shoulder of beef, and drinks one hundred jars of beer every day. He can mend a severed head, make a lion follow behind him with its leash on the ground, and even knows the number of chambers in the sanctuary of Thoth!
Now, Khufu is intrigued. He himself had been seeking the chambers of the Thoth sanctuary, in order to make something like it for himself…so he commands that Hardedef bring Djedi to him, so he can be questioned! Hardedef sets off for Djed-Snofru by boat, and the prince is borne to Djedi upon an ebony palanquin, with poles of special wood, plated in gold (of course).
Hardedef finds Djedi, with servants anointing his head and rubbing his feet. After buttering him up, Hardedef summons Djedi to meet with Khufu, and the two return to the river bank, board ships, and head back to the royal residence. Djedi is announced to Khufu, who excitedly asks if it is true – can Djedi really mend a severed head? Djedi answers that he can, and Khufu sends for a prisoner to be brought so Djedi can prove it.
Djedi refuses to work his magic on a human, asking instead for a goose; Khufu agrees, and a goose is brought before Djedi and beheaded. The head is placed on one side of the chamber and the body on another, and Djedi works his magic – causing the body of the goose to waddle over to its head and reattach it. Khufu sends for another goose, and Djedi does the same; he then sends for a bull, and once again, it stands up and walks – with its leash on the ground (hang on, I thought Hardedef said it was a lion who would walk with his leash on the ground – oh well, I suppose Khufu wasn’t paying attention…).
Khufu then brings out the big question – does Djedi know the number of the secret chambers in the sanctuary of Thoth? Djedi says he doesn’t know the number – but he does know where it is kept, in a hidden casket at Heliopolis. Khufu asks him to bring the casket, but Djedi says it is not him who will bring it – it would be brought by the eldest of three children, currently in the womb of the woman Reddjedet.
“Who is she?” Khufu asks, and Djedi replies, telling him that she is the wife of a priest of Re, pregnant with his three children. These children would ascend to the highest offices of the land – a fact that Khufu is not entirely happy about. Khufu agrees to visit the woman, and the temple of Re, but the sandbanks of the canal will be cut off when she is due to give birth – Djedi assures him that he will cause water to rise there.
And then there are more offerings, of course.
The Fifth Story
The fifth vignette continues immediately, Reddjedet struggling with a difficult labour. Seeing this, Re sends for the gods Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, Heket, and Khnum, sending them to deliver these three children – who are prophesied to become the next royal dynasty. The gods disguise themselves as musicians – Khnum carries the bags – and go to visit Reddjedet.
The priest, Reweser, leads them to Reddjedet, and the gods assist with her birth. Isis commands the baby Userkaf to behave himself, and he is born into her arms with ease. After washing the child, Meskhenet and Khnum bless him.
Then, Isis brings forth Sahure, and again, he is washed and blessed by the other gods. Finally, she hastens the birth of Kakai, who is washed and blessed like the others. Having delivered the three children, the gods head out to inform Reweser, who provides them with a tip for their efforts – a sack of grain.
Isis realises that they had not yet provided a sufficiently wondrous wonder, and so the gods create three royal crowns, placing them in the sack. They summon a storm, and return to the house, asking if they can leave the grain so it will not get wet in the rain.
Later, the household are throwing a celebratory party, but there is no grain to brew beer – save for the grain left by the ‘musicians’. Reweser decides to use this grain and sends the maid to fetch it, thinking he will compensate them when they return. When the maid enters the room, she hears the sounds of celebration – dancing, singing, and music – without any obvious source. Reddjedet heads down to the room, puts her ears to the grain sack and discovers the sound is coming from inside the sack!
She realises that her sons will be kings, and is overjoyed – but fearful. Reddjedet hides the sack, locking it away in her room, and tells Reweser, who is equally joyous, and they have a wonderful party.
A few days later, Reweser has a quarrel with the maid, ordering her to be beaten as punishment, and she decides to seek her revenge by telling Khufu of the new kings. She finds her brother (or uncle, depending on the translation), and tells him of her plan, but he is appalled – and beats her with flax. Distraught, the maid rushes to the riverbank to get a drink of water and is snatched away by a crocodile (presumably not the same one from the previous story, but who knows?).
Her brother (or uncle) heads to tell Reddjedet, who is terrified that Khufu will now know about her children. He informs her of the maid’s death by crocodile…
…and the story ends there!
The Significance of Westcar
These stories appear to teach entertaining moral lessons – though some are perhaps lost in translation, and others just make very little sense to our modern sensibilities! Egyptologists have argued that these stories may have been drawn from the folklore of the common people of ancient Egypt, instead of deriving from the compositions of the royal court.
The tale was certainly written much later than it is set, and this provides the opportunity for reflection; the text itself acknowledges its fictional nature, with Hardedef remarking that it is hard to discern fact from fiction in stories from the past. Moreover, the text uses this temporal distance to create characters out of the royal figures it discusses; rather than distant, impersonal pharaohs, they are each portrayed almost as caricatures. Nebka is strict, lawful, and judgemental. Snofru is bored, cantankerous…and a little perverted! Meanwhile, Khufu is harsh, cruel even, willing to sacrifice a man’s life to see a magic trick and concerned that his dynasty will be replaced.
Is the ending of the story complete? It seems a little abrupt, but studies by Egyptologists Verena Lepper and Mirian Lichtheim both indicate that this is, indeed, how the story was supposed to end. The crocodile sequence is repeated – almost like a refrain – and in any case, Lepper argues, there was enough room on the papyrus to add more if there was any more to add.
By Christopher Bebbington.