Writings on the Turin Papyrus and the Hidden Meaning of Lamentations

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

Written on papyrus, the Turin Papyrus listed 300 kings. Unfortunately, it was badly damaged, and so the study of the First Intermediate Period could not be reconstructed. What other ways were there to dig into the details of that period?

Scripture by an unknown creator of a papyrus, which contained lists of kings.
The Turin Papyrus containing the kings’ list was damaged, so the way out was to look at the fiction written during the Middle Kingdom, called the Lamentations. (Image: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden/Public domain)

Turin Papyrus

As the Turin Papyrus containing a list of several kings was damaged, turning to literature was considered the way out, even though this was not written during the First Intermediate Period. Looking at the fiction written during the next period, the Middle Kingdom, was a body of literature called ‘Lamentations’. It was where people were complaining, a process known as lamenting. It was a large genre with plenty of papyri, giving an insight into what was going on in the First Intermediate Period.

The Meaning of Ka and Ba

The best example of ‘Lamentation’, was a papyrus called ‘The Report of a Dispute between a Man and His Ba’. The Egyptians believed that a person was made up of many physical parts, but there was also a soul which had lots of different aspects. One was called the ka, like a physical double, and there could even be a ka statue.

Image of a manuscript of the Book of the Dead written on papyrus paper.
The Book of the Dead included the head of a man and the body of a bird with an idea that the ba, considered the personality of a person, would fly until its resurrection. (Image: Hunefer/Public domain)

However, the most important part was the ba which was one’s personality, represented by drawing on tomb walls and in papyri, in Books of the Dead. It had got the head of a man, the deceased, and the body of a bird, with the idea that the ba could flit in and out of the tomb until it was time to resurrect. There were other parts, too, but the important ones were the body, the ka, and the ba.

‘The Report of a Dispute’ Conversation

The papyrus, ‘The Report of a Dispute between a Man and His Ba’, talked about an unhappy man who was about to commit suicide. It was probably during the First Intermediate Period, and he lamented, “There is no justice in the world. Things are terrible.” He continued, “I have no one to talk to, and brothers kill each other,” and, “I’m going to kill myself.” The ba stepped in and talked to him. That is why it was a report of a dispute between a man and his ba. The ba said, “Don’t kill yourself. It’s wrong.”

It was a philosophical discussion, about whether suicide was justified. And the man said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do, ba. I’m going to kill myself.” The ba replies, “I’ll tell you what happens. If you kill yourself, I’m going to desert you. You’re not going to have me in the west in the next world, and then you can’t resurrect.” And the man says to the ba, his soul, “Listen, I will make for you a tomb that will make every ba envious of you. You’re going to have the best tomb ever. Just don’t desert me.” And the ba says, “No. If you kill yourself, you’re out of immortality.”

The papyrus ended and broke off as it was damaged. No one knows what happened in the end. But a man lamenting, complaining, thinking about suicide, is personalized, and there was a whole genre.

Learn more about the birth of Egyptology and the role of ushabtis.

No Change for the Egyptians

A lament written in the Middle Kingdom had got some funny things in it, for example, somebody complaining about how bad things were in the First Intermediate Period says, “Foreign bowmen have come into Egypt.” For the first time since the unification of Egypt, since Narmer, Egypt was invaded and ‘bowmen’ was a negative way to describe foreigners. Soon after the building of the Great Pyramid, Egypt was invaded, and foreigners were roaming. Then the lament said something much more telltale, “Lo, gold, lapis lazuli, silver, turquoise, carnelian, strung around the necks of slave girls.”

What was wrong with slave girls having lapis and carnelian, was that the divine order was upset. The Egyptians were the most conservative of all people who didn’t want change.

Learn more about the role of the creator god Ptah in Egyptian religion.

Business Deals of the Priests

They believed that there was a divine order that the gods established, meaning Egypt was at the top, ruling the Middle East. It also meant that lords had good things and slaves had not much. The pharaoh was responsible for making sure that divine order was established. By making offerings to the gods, in the temples, the pharaoh would make sure that the gods were pleased, and the divine order remained.

It was like a business deal where a priest interceded for someone to the gods. The pharaoh was a businessman carrying out the transaction—making sure that his country was getting its fair share. When the pharaoh went into battle, he would come back with a lot of booty, and would give a share to the temple, which would look on Egypt, and the divine order would be restored.

Learn more about the mortuary temple of Ramses III.

Everything Had its Place

In Elizabethan times, during the time of Shakespeare, there was a belief in the great chain of being, that everything had its place, and long diagrams were drawn up of how the world was structured according to God’s plan. At the top, of course, was God, and beneath were angels. There were seraphim and cherubim, orders of angels. Beneath them, there was man, and there was a hierarchy there. At the top, was the king and, beneath him, the lords and then the peasants, going all the way down to plants and animals.

Divine Order

There was a hierarchy in the animal world, and the plant world, too. Beneath the plants, there were minerals. So there was a sense of everything in its place. There was a divine order, and that is also what the Egyptians believed in. They called it maat, who was a goddess representing truth, justice, and order. She was often shown with a feather on top of her head, the hieroglyph for ‘true’. It meant truth and justice. So, they were upset about the divine order which was turned upside down.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Need for the Good Old Days of Sneferu

Continuing, in the Lamentation, the man said, “None, indeed, sail north to Byblos today. What shall we do for pine trees for our mummies?” This meant he wanted the great old days of Sneferu, when Sneferu sent out expeditions to Byblos, Lebanon. ‘Pines for mummies’ referred to the fact that pine trees were the source of resin, used to make a good mummy. After dehydrating it, the face was covered with tree sap to seal it in, and resin would stick it together.

Picture shows the reused building material thought to depict the Sed festival for Sneferu.
Sneferu in his days sent out expeditions to Byblos, Lebanon, to get pine trees to be used for mummies. (Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art/CC0/Public domain)

So when he said, “None, indeed, sail north to Byblos today,” he meant, it was not like the good old days of Sneferu, the days that he wanted. Things were really bad and he said in a Lamentation, “What shall we do about it? All is in ruin.” He said, “Lo, every have-not is one who has.” There was no more sense than the poor were supposed to be poor. That was what they were there for.

Common Questions about the History of Egypt

Q: What is Egyptian papyrus?

Egyptian Papyrus is a wild plant, used in different things including in writing materials.

Q: What do ba and ka mean?

The Egyptians believed that a person was made up of many physical parts but there was also a soul with different aspects. One was called the ka, like a physical double. But the most important part was the ba. The ba was one’s personality, represented in a curious way by drawing on tomb walls and in papyri, in Book of the Dead.

Q: What is the background of Lamentations?

The fiction written during the period of the Middle Kingdom was called ‘Lamentations’. This was a body of literature where people complained, a process known as lamenting. It was a large genre and an insight into what was going on in the First Intermediate Period.

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