Ancient Egyptian Love Poems Reveal a Lust for Life

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Wilfong said that students in ancient Egypt inscribed many of the surviving examples of the culture's poetry. The students likely copied down poems from other texts and dictation as part of their lessons.

Love Poems From the Workers' Village

Archaeologists have discovered most of Egypt's love poetry in Deir el-Medina, a village of tomb builders during the New Kingdom. Here, many skilled artisans worked on the tombs of pharaohs such as Ramses II and Tutankhamun.

Findings indicate that these villagers may have been remarkably literate for their time. The local community—not just the scribes and students—may have contributed to the poetry of Deir el-Medina.

The love poems were likely set to music and used events from daily life and the natural world—growing grain, capturing birds, fishing along the Nile—as metaphors to talk about love.

     The Crossing (Excerpt)

     I'll go down to the water with you,
     and come out to you carrying a red fish,
     which is just right in my fingers.

     (Translated by M. Fox)

Women's voices were strong in Egyptian poetry—as the narrators of poems or as lovers making choices about their beloveds, for example. This strength confirms that women had a higher position in ancient Egyptian culture than in other societies at the time, Wilfong said. Women may even have written some of the poetry.

One of Wilfong's favorite poems, a harpist's hymn, celebrates life in a culture often thought to be purely focused on the afterlife. Dating from about 1160 B.C., this poem was found on the tomb of Inherkhawy, a supervisor of workers at the royal burial ground in the ancient city of Thebes:

     The Harper's Song for Inherkhawy (Excerpt)

     So seize the day! hold holiday!
     Be unwearied, unceasing, alive
     you and your own true love;
     Let not the heart be troubled during your
         sojourn on Earth,
     but seize the day as it passes!

     (Translated by J.L. Foster)

The British Museum's Parkinson still finds wonder and excitement in his favorite ancient Egyptian works. "The poems provide an archaeology of the emotions, a sense of what it was like to be Egyptian, which is otherwise inaccessible—the humor, the vivacity that lay behind the monuments," Parkinson said.

For more ancient Egypt and poetry news stories, time lines, and interactive features, scroll down.

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