Poetry from Egypt & Mesopotamia (Forerunners)

Eventually the usual suspects will fill the Forerunners section, everybody from the Beowulf poet forward. But I also hope to include a great deal of ancient and obscure poetry, translated into English by scholars who should have a larger audience.

To start, it seemed best to present some of the oldest surviving poetry at all, from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. While both civilizations provide an immensely rich literature that we should all take the time to explore, I think the initial experience of a long dead culture, its vastly different religious beliefs, and the precariously fragmentary nature of the poetry that survives, can also serve as a lesson to all that we consider obvious about our own poetry.

 


The Egyptian pharaoh Unis died c. 2323 BC, and his pyramid was the first to include liturgical texts, now known as the Pyramid Texts, carved into its walls. The text below comes, as can be said with a specificity I love, from the south side of the burial chamber and passageway. It concerns the resurrection of Unis and his journey into the sky. Two recent translations are given here:

The king as a star fades at dawn with the other stars

I have come to you, O Nephthys;
I have come to you, O Night-bark;
I have come to you, O Mr-hr-trwt;
I have come to you, O Msht-kw;
Remember me.
Orion is swallowed up by the Netherworld,
Pure and living in the horizon.
Sothis is swallowed up by the Netherworld,
Pure and living in the horizon.
I am swallowed up by the Netherworld,
Pure and living in the horizon.
It is well with me and with them,
It is pleasant for me and for them,
Within the arms of my father,
Within the arms of Atum.
– from the translation of R. O. Faulkner, 43-44

 


Commendation of the Nightboat at Dusk

Someone has come to you, Nephthys;
someone has come to you, Nightboat;
someone has come to you, Pilot covered in gore;
someone has come to you, Place where kas are remembered:
may you remember him, this Unis.

Orion has become encircled by the Duat, as the Living One became clean in the Akhet;
Sothis has become encircled by the Duat, as the Living One became clean in the Akhet;

This Unis has become encircled by the Duat, as the Living One became clean in the Akhet.
He has become akh for them, he has grown cool for them, inside the arms of his father, inside the arms of Atum.
– from the translation of James P. Allen, p. 32-33

 

For those interested, I’ve also written about the Pyramid Texts here as well.

 


The following come from the archaic period of Akkadian literature, c. 2300-1850 BC. Here are two fragmentary poems, to the sun and to a star:

The Valorous Sun

Imposing doorbolt of the sky,
Most exalted of the gods, whom heaven relies on,
Shamash, the sun, who holds in his hand the life of the land,
He is the king’s right arm …,
The beloved of Ea the leader.

God of joyful occasions,
Shining light, fiery radiance,
Awe-inspiring splendor of the depths,
Vanguard of the Anunna-gods,
He it is who gives overpowering strength and fierce weaponry to young men.

Daylight, chief herald on the mountain ranges,
Herald of the brightening sky…,
God of gods, imposing light, he makes his rounds,
Keeping watch over the land by day and by night,
The lands of Ea.

He sustains the campaigners and traveling merchants in foreign lands,
The foreign lands render up lapis and silver to the traveling merchant,
The cedar forest yields unworked timber, boxwood, cyprus, standing tall like splendid standards,
Fit for a nobleman to adorn his house.
He loads his barge with aromatics, oils, honey, the goods that merchants bring,
And incense of the gods, juniper, almond, and … -oil.

Awe-inspiring splendor lights up the bison of the sun,
His radiance he sheds afar.
The joy of Enlil, the great courtyard,
He fills with copper, gold, silver, lapis,
The wide courtyard of his temple. (remainder of text mostly untranslatable)
– from Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, edited by Benjamin R. Foster, 50-51

 


Star Incantation

(According to the editor, this is among the earliest known spells to be found in the Ancient Near East, and its rendering here “could be disputed in nearly every word,” and seems to involve a star acting “as intermediary for a sufferer,” possibly a woman having a difficult childbirth.)

I have bound my Demon,
I have bound his tongue,
I have bound the points of his teeth!

I have bound you to a black stone,

I have bound you to seven hoes of the Mighty One,
I have bound you to the tail of the Sun, to the horns of the Moon.

Seven youths, seven maidens are carrying,
The woman…
Whom will they…

The brickmaker will make the brick at the gate of Enlil, father of the gods,
Then Star, the emissary, has brought him to Enlil, father of the gods,
“Let me put down my burden I bear,
He (the sufferer) will live life granted him by Enlil, father of the gods.”
– from Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, edited by Benjamin R. Foster, 52

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