Picture the scene: from across the way, a young man spots a young woman who takes his breath away. She is exquisite, with dazzling eyes and sweet lips. Every part of her body is the epitome of feminine beauty. She is beyond compare. But his love is only from afar.
A papyrus today in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin bears several works of Egyptian literature from the New Kingdom. Alongside the Contendings of Horus and Seth, a text in praise of Rameses V, and several short business documents sit three groups of love songs. It is in one of these poems that we meet the smitten youth. He is not alone, though, in his longing. The girl has spotted him, too. And yet neither learn of the other’s feelings. As she bemoans: “He knows nothing of my desire to embrace him!”
Across seven stanzas, the poem’s audience learns of the yearnings of each, of their heartsickness at their unrequited love. Only the audience, though, knows the truth about these star-crossed young lovers and their shared infatuation. The thoughts of the young man and woman are presented in alternating stanzas; each takes it in turn to express their feelings, first the boy and then the girl. While the poem starts with the description of the girl’s beauty, with the boy extolling the virtues of her all parts of her body, we don’t have the same description of him. Instead, the rest of the poem is one of the pain of unrequited love. Of love as a sickness that invades the body and cannot be cured by doctor or magician. Of a heart that flutters and makes you crazy. The only cure is the other person, but this is the one cure that can never be attained.
Fourth stanza (by the girl)
My heart flutters hastily,
When I think of my love of you;
It lets me not act sensibly,
It leaps from its place.
It lets me not put a dress,
No wrap my scarf around me;
I put no paint upon my eyes,
I’m even not anointed.
“Don’t wait, go there,” says it to me,
As often as I think of him;
My heart, don’t act so stupidly,
Why do you play the fool?
Sit still, the brother comes to me:
“A woman fallen through love!”
Be steady when you think of him,
My heart, do not flutter!
Seventh stanza (by the boy)Translation from Lichtheim (1976)
Seven days since I saw my sister,
And sickness invaded me;
I am heavy in all my limbs,
My body has forsaken me.
When the physicians come to me,
My heart rejects their remedies;
The magicians are quite helpless,
My sickness is not discerned.
To tell me ‘She is here’ would revive me!
Her name would make me rise;
Her messenger’s coming and going,
That would revive my heart!
My sister is better than all prescriptions,
She does more for me than all medicines;
Her coming to me is my amulet,
The sight of her makes me well!
When she opens her eyes my body is young,
Her speaking makes me strong;
Embracing her expels my malady—
Seven days since she went from me!
As with Egyptian literature in general, the author – or authors – of the poem is unknown. The 20th dynasty scribe of the Chester Beatty papyrus was seemingly interested in such love songs, collecting several of them together, but the diverse texts on this papyrus means that it can’t be understood as an anthology of love songs. The title of this poem is ‘The Great Entertainment’, where ‘entertainment’ is literally ‘distraction of the heart’; the text is meant to be performed. And so who would perform the poem and where? Again, specifics are unclear, but it is not far-fetched to imagine it at either a private affair – at banquets or court festivities – or a religious festival, perhaps connected with Hathor, the goddess associated with love, music, dancing, and fertility. Tomb scenes from the New Kingdom show images of women playing musical instruments and dancing, such as that of Nebamun and Djeserkareseneb. In the latter, four women play the harp, lute, lyre, and double reed flute, while a young girl dances between them. The accompanying inscription reveals that this is part of a larger banquet. Such an ensemble could well have accompanied the poem’s reciters, or perhaps the women sang the poem as they played – as one poem among many showing the different facets of love.
With their lack of identity, the two young lovers of the poem could be anybody – any performer could embody these roles.
Provenance: Western Thebes, southern Egypt.
Date: New Kingdom, ca. 1160 BCE.
Language: Egyptian (Late Egyptian; written in hieratic)
Collection: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (Papyrus 1; verso).
Designation: Papyrus Chester Beatty I
Bibliography: Alan H. Gardiner, The Library of A. Chester Beatty. Description of a Hieratic Papyrus with A Mythological Story, Love-Songs, and Other Miscellaneous Texts. The Chester Beatty Papyri, No. I (Oxford University Press, 1931), pp. 27–38 and pls 16–17, 22–26, and 29–30 [available here]; Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature II: The New Kingdom (University of California Press, 1976), pp. 182–6 [translation]; Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (Wisconsin, 1985), pp. 51–64 [translation and commentary]; Vincent A. Tobin in William Kelly Simpson (ed.), The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry (Yale University Press, 2003), pp. 322–7 [translation]; Bernard Mathieu, La poesie amoureuse de l’Egypte ancienne (Ifao, 1996).
Renata Landgráfová and Hana Navrátilová, Sex and the Golden Goddess: I. Ancient Egyptian Love Songs in Context (Czech Institute of Egyptology, 2009).
Renata Landgráfová and Hana Navrátilová, Sex and the Golden Goddess: II. The World of the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (Czech Institute of Egyptology, 2015).