Have you ever wondered how expressions of love in past civilizations were like?
Let’s throw it back way further to an ancient civilization:
Yes, we're talking about love in ancient Egypt!
You most likely had no idea, but Egyptian poetry expert Richard Parkinson once proclaimed:
"Poetry is perhaps the greatest forgotten treasure of ancient Egypt!"
And with good reason too! What better way to really understand a society and its culture than through their art? Looking into Egyptian love poetry allows us a way more intimate glimpse into the lives and times of ancient Egyptians. Take our word for it.
Like many past and present civilizations, love in ancient Egypt was exceedingly passionate: YES, not even the ancient Egyptians were free from what we perceive to be modern-day ailments of ‘love sickness’ and ‘heartbreak’. Although we can be certain that passion in the past was not expressed through cryptic blog posts or Instagram pictures with oh-so-subtle hashtags (#inlove #lovestruck #heartbroken) throwing shade at one’s crush or ex-lover, ancient Egyptians were definitely expressive about their feelings. Oftentimes as seen in ancient Egyptian poems, Egyptians lament about their inability to function as a wholesome individual when they are not able to give or receive love.
Egyptian love poetry offers historians an intimate glimpse into the many facets of Egyptian culture and day-to-day lives, such as their practices, gender status and roles, and relationships. This blog post seeks to explain the emergence of Egyptian love poetry and how it developed over time. To make more sense of Egyptian love poetry, we then compare two renowned literary works of ancient Egyptians. Lastly, we seek to learn more about how the ancient Egyptians lived, their thought processes, and how they viewed love on a personal level, and in doing so answer the underlying question of “Why is this topic important to history”.
How did love poetry come about?
Although it is suggested that love poetry came about in Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt (2649 - 1800 BCE), no substantial evidence can be used to back the claim up. Before the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE), stories about love, life or tragedy was mainly restricted to oral forms. Through the generations, folklore was commonly told in tales, songs and quotes. Hence, love poetry was initially passed down through oral memorization, and only subsequently preserved on papyrus. The first notable proof of love poetry came into play in the New Kingdom, where early evidence of written language survived on papyrus and inscriptions on pottery shards; subsequently, love poetry has been found in many Egyptian excavations, from ruins of common people to tombs of the rich. This is an indication that written literature strongly revolved around love and romance in New Kingdom Egypt.
Egyptian Love Poetry and Culture
Egyptian poetry consistently implements imagery and symbolism to portray feelings of love. In “The Crossing”, an Egyptian love poem, the writer depicts a scenario of fishing in the Nile river to express her romantic longing for her lover. Throughout the poem, the writer addresses her lover in first-person. She also narrates her ongoing thought process, suggesting how this whole experience is happening concurrently as she speaks. 1
- Almost like a conversation, although no actual dialogue takes place. ↩
The Crossing is also symbolic. The writer’s endearment is personified in the form of a “lotus flower” 1 . This brings forth an interesting unconventionality: a woman characterizing a man as a lotus flower. A lotus, being delicate, refined and beautiful, tends to depict more feminine traits as opposed to masculine ones. To an extent, this reflects a reversal of the conventional gender roles we are more accustomed to.
- a metaphor used to symbolize how desirable she depicts her lover to be. ↩
In the context of the poem, the mention of a “red fish” actually refers to the heart of a boy 1. Nonetheless, this choice of metaphor serves to be somewhat symbolic of a trophy, as she proceeds to urge her lover to pay attention to her and the fish: what she 2deemed to be a symbol of attraction.
“The Crossing” utilizes daily tasks – in this case, fishing in the Nile river – as depictive scenarios to convey feelings of love. The reference to the Nile river informs us about the Egyptian cultural context. It illustrates how this sacredly-regarded river was the central environment in which everything from daily routine to intimate interactions took place.
As compared to “The Crossing”, “Wishes” takes on a less symbolic approach. It does, however, give us a more practical glimpse into the Egyptian societal standards. In the poem, the boy mentions that he wants to become the girl’s “seal ring”1. As such, the possession of a seal ring by an Egyptian lady suggests that women in general had the ability to make authoritative decisions. In addition, as evident when the writer expresses his wish to be the woman’s “Nubian maid”, we can infer that women were well-pampered, having maids to serve them. This indicates the modern concept of gender discrimination was not really pervasive within Egyptian culture – as compared to that of Mesopotamia discussed in lecture.
- A seal ring is generally regarded as a symbol of non-replicable identity, usually held by people who have a certain level of social authority. ↩
In “Wishes”, the man continuously laments and proclaims his love for the woman. Throughout the poem, the man’s intense infatuation towards the woman is made evident given his immense desire to always be close to her. However, a slightly sexual connotation is evident in saying that he wants to indulge in her clothes or her body by being her “washer” or “mirror”. Hence reflecting his intention of love – one that is perhaps slightly more lustful than it is purely unadulterated.
Love Poetry in relation to socio-cultural context
Both "The Crossing" and "Wishes" serve as useful indicators of gender roles and cultural context. They illustrate a relatively more empowering role for females, as well as they do depict the environments in which these events happened. “The Crossing” illustrated how women too were allowed to express their longing for their partners through poetry. Additionally, the reference to the Nile river reflects the setting of these very interactions. “Wishes” elaborates on women’s societal status. It reveals their level of societal authority: being allowed the luxury of maids to serve them in addition to having seal rings which reflect their level of societal importance.
The narrative style, use of visual language and symbolic choice of metaphors therefore reflect Egyptian poetry’s most characteristic traits. The writer’s experience is very literally enacted with the use of a first-person perspective. The symbolic metaphors, provide a unique historic perspective of the Egyptians. Moreover, these traits also reflect the pictorial nature of the Egyptian language – how the world of the writer is recreated entirely through his or her words, in a manner as raw and as unfiltered as possible.
Egyptian love poetry was a vibrant, open, and daring one regarding passions such as love. From excerpts, the poets used events from daily life and the natural world as metaphors to describe love. With a rich use of imagery and symbolism in describing feelings, this allows the words to figuratively paint a ‘picture’. Poems tend not to have an exchange of dialogue, but rather a sensual narrative about the situation exploring individual feelings of love and lust. This ‘direct transfer’ from thoughts in the mind to something vividly written indicates Egyptians perceive love as an intense emotion.
It is interesting to note that although the Egyptians refer to their lovers as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’, rather than implying incestuous relations, the pronouns are used more so as to indicate endearment for their loved ones. Sounds familiar?
Why is it important to study Egyptian love poetry?
In summary, poetry has been a way for humankind to recall things such as oral history, genealogy, and law; humans are just creative creatures like that. The study of Egyptian love poetry in particular, is significant to historians because of its capacity to deepen our historians’ understanding of the social context and literature in Ancient Egypt. While pyramids, mummies, tombs, and other icons of aristocracy and the afterlife dominate our images of ancient Egypt, love poems from ancient times arguably provide a more intimate glimpse of the lives of everyday ancient Egyptians. In a similar vein, language employed in ancient Egyptian poetry can inform us about culture of the time period and place among those involved in the creative scene (poets, etc.). Thus, by analyzing Egyptian love poetry, historians can learn about how the Ancient Egyptians lived their lives.
By: Amelia, Jasmine, Renette, Tim Loi
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