Love Poems from the New Kingdom of AncientEgypt

Study Guide for 'Love Poems from the New Kingdom of AncientEgypt'

These poems are taken from John L. Foster: Love Songs of the New Kingdom (New York: Scribner, 1974).

However, other editions are available. Barbara Hughes Fowler: Love Lyrics of Ancient Egypt (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
Ezra Pound and Noel Stock: Love Poems of Ancient Egypt (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions,1962).

The New Kingdom of ancient Egypt is still quite ancient; it began after the fall of the invadingHyksos around 1575 BCE and lasted until 1087 BCE. The numerous love poems from thisperiod illuminate many of the attitudes of the Egyptians and seem to have been powerfullyinfluential on other peoples, notably the Hebrews, whose own love poetry bears some strikingresemblances to them. As is the case with most ancient verse, none of the authors' names areknown. They lack titles, and are referred to here by their first lines.

Sometimes we think of the Egyptians as a gloomy, death-obsessed people; but that is onlybecause we interpret them through the distorted lens of their tombs. The nobles among them atleast yearned for an afterlife because they enjoyed this life too much to want to leave it. Theirpainting and poetry celebrates the pleasures of food, music, dance, and love.

'Once more you pass her house, deep in thought'
This poem strongly resembles a number of Roman poems in which the lover, preventedfrom being with his beloved for some reason, speaks to the door, blaming it for his plight. Eachpart of the door, threshold, frame, latch, etc. was thought to have its own divine spirit whichone could pray to. In this poem it is not clear who has locked the door, but it may well be thewoman's parents. As in the Roman poetry, none of this is taken very seriously; these arehumorous complaints. Note the passage in the Song of Songs in whichthe frustrated lover similarly has to deal with a locked door. The poem is addressed by the poetto the lover, who then speaks. The longhorn is a cow which the lover is offering as a sacrificeto the doorlatch, if it will only give way. The other sacrifices include suet (grease) for the hingesockets. Why is this a useful substance to give a socket? What kind of door does he suggestshould replace the sturdy wooden one barring his way? What evidence is there that the loverthinks it is not his beloved who has locked him out? The last stanza returns to the narrativevoice that began the poem and then quotes the beloved, confirming the lover's belief.

'Your love, dear man, is as lovely to me'
What senses are involved in the similes used to express what the man's love (lovemaking)is like? Can you categorize them into a couple of groups? Can you find any similar metaphorsin the Song of Songs? Note that white bread was a luxury in antiquity, too expensive for thepoor. The speaker here (and perhaps the poet) is a woman. What evidence is there that this is apoem to either her husband or would-be husband? 'Lord' here has thenon-religious sense of 'master' or 'husband.' Based on what you knowof ancient civilizations, is this woman more submissive or more assertive than women inother cultures?

'If I could just be the washerman'
It's difficult to tell whether this slightly kinky poem is serious, or slightly self-mocking, like alot of Egyptian love poems. Note that he is not entirely fixated on his beloved'sunderwear.

'I just chanced to be happening by'
Another poem by a woman. How can we tell that she does not have an illicit affair in mind?What is preventing the two of them from getting together? Again, assess her assertiveness vs.her submissiveness. The 'Golden Lady' is probably the cow-goddess Hathormentioned below; she played a role in Egyptian mythology very similar to that of Aphrodite orVenus. Why does she feel that the night is shuddering? Can you find a passage in the Song ofSongs where a woman boldly searches through the streets after her beloved?

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