Ancient Egypt has one of the world’s oldest literary traditions. Texts that emerged from ancient Egypt display a remarkable range of genres, styles and themes. It was not until the nineteenth century that European scholars deciphered the forgotten language and gradually recovered Egypt’s written heritage. It did not help that they used fragile papyrus for their writings.
The Oral and Written in Egyptian Literary Culture
Egyptian texts were mostly written in ancient Egyptian language, a member of the Afroasiatic language related to ancient Semitic languages. The classical form of the language is Middle Egyptian. Egyptian was written in two main scripts: hieroglyphic script and “hieratic” or “priestly writing.” Literacy was restricted to elites in ancient Egypt. Literature was not a medium for broad consumption by reading but was enjoyed through verbal storytelling. Skillful speech was highly valued. Egyptians saw written compositions as part of a culture of oral performance, taking delight in alliteration, repetition and wordplay. The earliest longer texts from the Old Kingdom (3rd millennium B.C.) are carved in tombs. They have metrical form and are the largest category of continuous composition. There are also Pyramid Texts carved in the burial apartments of kings and queens.
The Classical Periods of Egyptian Literature
Kings of the Middle Kingdom (1940-1650 B.C.) expanded writing and scribal schools. Thus came the production of complaints, dialogues, tales, and wisdom texts with complex imaginary settings, narrative frames and story cycles. This fiction set the standard for later times. The New Kingdom (1500-1000 B.C.) combined motifs from the Near East revealing their cosmopolitan life and relations with other countries. Some poems during this period began to critique old rituals.
The Late Period (C.A. 1000-30 B.C.)
Egypt lost its imperial power through foreign invasions. It became a province of the Roman Empire. This led some of its literature to explore more somber tones. The new form of writing was called Demotic (650 B.C. to 300 C.E.). Demotic developed new themes and longer tales.