Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor

The “Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor” is a Middle Kingdom story of an Ancient Egyptian voyage to “the King’s mines”.

Historical information

At least one source states that the papyrus having the story written upon it is located within the Imperial Museum in St. Petersburg,[1] but that there is no information about where it was originally discovered.[2] Alternatively it is stated that, in fact, Vladimir Golénishcheff discovered the papyrus in 1881 (also stated as a finding originating from the Middle Kingdom).[3]

The scribe who copied it, and who claimed to be “excellent of fingers” (cunning of fingers[4]) despite having made a few slips in the copying, is known as Amenaa,[5] or Ameni-amenna.[6]


The tale begins with a follower (sailor) announcing or stating his return from a voyage at sea.[7][8] He is returning from an apparently failed expedition and is anxious about how the king will receive him. An attendant reassures him,[9] advising him on how to behave before the king, and repeating the proverb, “The mouth of a man saves him”.[10] To encourage his master, he tells a tale of a previous voyage of his in which he overcame disaster, including meeting with a god and the king.

The sailor then describes how his ship, manned by 120 (some translations have 150) sailors, sank in a storm and how he alone survived and was washed up on an island. There he finds shelter and food (he says “there was nothing that was not there”).[11] While making a burnt offering to the gods, he hears thunder and feels the earth shake and sees a giant serpent approach him. The serpent asks him three times who had brought him to the island. When the sailor cannot answer, the serpent takes him to where it lives and asks the question three times more. The sailor repeats his story, now saying that he was on a mission for the king.

The serpent tells him not to fear and that god has let him live and brought him to the island, and that after four months on the island he will be rescued by sailors he knows and will return home. The serpent then relates a tragedy that had happened to him, saying that he had been on the island with 74 of his kin plus a daughter, and that a star fell and “they went up in flames through it”.[12] In some translations, the daughter survives; in others, she perishes with the rest. The serpent advises the sailor to be brave and to control his heart, and if he does so, he will return to his family.

The sailor now promises the serpent that he will tell the king of the serpent’s power and will send the serpent many valuable gifts, including myrrh and other incense. Laughing at him, the serpent says that the sailor is not rich, but that he (the serpent) is Lord of Punt and that the island is rich in incense, and that when the sailor leaves he will not see the island again as it will become water. The ship arrives and the serpent asks him to “make me a good name in your town” and gives him many precious gifts including spices, incense, elephants’ tusks, greyhounds and baboons.

The sailor returns home and gives the king the gifts he took from the island, and the king makes him an attendant and gives him serfs. The tale ends with the master telling the narrator, “Do not make the excellent (that is, do not act arrogant) my friend; why give water to a goose (literally, bird) at dawn before its slaughtering in the morning?”[13]

Commentary and analysis

For some, it is a transparent tale intended as a source of inspiration or reassurance for the noble mind, perhaps similar to something like a courtly creation intended for the royal ear or for the consideration of aristocrats.[14] Nevertheless, interpretation of the story has changed from the naive initial understanding of the story as a simplistic tale of the folk tradition, into a sophisticated analysis, in which the narrative is shown to have complexity and depth: a shipwrecked traveller engages upon a spiritual endeavour (or quest), journeying through the cosmos, to meet a primordial god, providing to the traveller a gift of moral vision with which to return to Egypt.[15] Further, Richard Mathews writes that this “oldest fantasy text contains archetypal narrative of the genre: an uninitiated hero on a sea journey is thrown off course by a storm, encounters an enchanted island, confronts a monster, and survives, wiser for the experience,” commenting additionally that the monster (snake) is the prototype for “the greatest fantasy monster of all time – the dragon, sometimes called the ‘wurm’.”[16]

The tale itself begins with a framing device in which an attendant or “follower” (conventionally—although not in the papyrus—referred to as “the sailor”) tries to comfort his master (“Mayor”, although it has been suggested that they might be of equal status[17]), who is returning from an apparently failed expedition and is anxious about how the king will receive him.


  1. ^ The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians by E. A. Wallis Budge retrieved 17:21 29.9.11
  2. ^ Lichtheim, Miriam Ancient Egyptian Literature University of California Press 1975 ISBN 978-0-520-02899-9 p211. [1]
  3. ^ The red land: the illustrated archaeology of Egypt’s Eastern Desert By Steven E. Sidebotham, Martin Hense, Hendrikje M. Nouwens retrieved approximately 16;16 29.9.11
  4. ^ Fordham University retrieved 16;36 29.9.11
  5. ^ Parkinson, Richard B.; Stephen Quirke Papyrus University of Texas Press 1995 ISBN 978-0-292-76563-4 p.29 [2]
  6. ^ Fordham University retrieved 16;36 29.9.11
  7. ^ University of St Andrews this reference address retrieved from external links-[The hieroglyphic of The Shipwrecked Sailor, following the transcription on pp. 41-48 of Blackman (1932)] at 19:37 29.9.11
  8. ^ Egyptian Literary Compositions of the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period[3]
  9. ^ Parkinson, R.B. The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940-1640 B.C. Oxford University Press 1999 ISBN 978-0-19-283966-4 p89. [4]
  10. ^ Baines, John “Interpreting the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 76 (1990), pp. 55-72 [5]
  11. ^ Lichtheim, Miriam Ancient Egyptian Literature University of California Press 1975 ISBN 978-0-520-02899-9 p212 [6]
  12. ^ Lichtheim, Miriam Ancient Egyptian Literature University of California Press 1975 ISBN 978-0-520-02899-9 p213 [7]
  13. ^ Rendsburg, Gary A. “Literary Devices in the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 120, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 2000), pp. 13-23
  14. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica online retrieved prior to 19:19 29.9.11
  15. ^ article by J. Baines interpreting the story of the shipwrecked sailor located at JStor retrieved approx 18:01 29.9.11
  16. ^ Mathews, Richard Fantasy: The Liberation of ImaginationRoutledge 2002 ISBN 978-0-415-93890-7 p6 [8]
  17. ^ Egyptian Literary Compositions of the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period[9]

Further reading

  • George Bass (2004). A History of Seafaring. Walker and Company. ISBN 0-8027-0390-9.
  • Bradbury, Louise. (1984–1985). “The Tombos Inscription: A New Interpretation.” Serapis, 8, 1–20.
  • Bradbury, Louise. (1996). “Kpn-boats, Punt Trade, and a Lost Emporium.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, 33, 37–60.
  • Kitchen, Kenneth A. (1993). “The Land of Punt.” In Thurstan Shaw et al. (eds.), The Archaeology of Africa. London: Routledge, 587–608.
  • Segert, Stanislav. (1994). “Crossing the Waters: Moses and Hamilcar.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 53, 195–203.
  • Redmount, Carol A. (1995). “The Wadi Tumilat and the ‘Canal of the Pharaohs’.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 54, 127–35.

External links

Source: Wikipedia

Categorie:B01.05- Letteratura dell'antico Egitto - Ancient Egyptian literature


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