Sebayt (Manuel de Codage transcription: sbA.yt) is the ancient Egyptian term for a genre of pharaonic literature. The word literally means 'teachings' or 'instructions' and refers to formally written ethical teachings focused on the "way of living truly".
Most Sebayt are preserved on papyrus scrolls that are copies of earlier works. Four important examples of sebayt are preserved in the Papyrus Prisse, two papyrus scrolls in the British Museum, the Insinger Papyrus and the Canarvon Tablet 1 in Cairo. This genre has much in common with sapiential literature in other cultures, and is for example comparable with the Old Testament Book of Proverbs which has in part been connected to the Instructions of Amenemopet.
Many of the earliest Sebayt claim to have been written in the third millennium BC, during the Old Kingdom, but it is now generally agreed that they were actually composed later, beginning in the Middle Kingdom (c.1991-1786 BC). This fictitious attribution to authors of a more distant past was intended to give the texts greater authority.
Sebayt were a long lived genre, with new compositions continuously appearing well into the Roman era. Some individual teachings, such as the 'Teaching of Amenemhat I' (written c. 1950 BC) were continuously copied and transmitted for over 1500 years.
Perhaps the best-known sebayt is the one which claims to have been written by Ptahhotep, the vizier to the Fifth Dynasty monarch Djedkare Isesi who ruled from 2388-2356 BC. Ptahhotep's sebayt is often called "The Teaching of Ptahhotep", or the "Maxims of Good Discourse" (the latter being a phrase used as a self-description in the sebayt itself). The teaching appears on the 12th-dynasty Prisse Papyrus along with the ending of the Instructions of Kagemni. Another well known sebayt was attributed to the Fourth dynasty of Egypt ethicist named Hardjedef. Only a few fragments survive of his Instruction.
Two sebayt are attributed to Egyptian rulers themselves. The first of these is entitled the Teaching for King Merykare, who lived during the troubled First Intermediate Period (2150-2040 BC). The document claims to be written by Merykare's father, the preceding monarch. However, since Merykare and his father were kings of the unstable periods of the Ninth through Tenth Dynasties, almost nothing else is known of them, and it is quite likely that the text was composed at a later period.
The other royal teaching is the Instructions of Amenemhat. This sebayt was reputedly authored by Amenemhat I, the founder of the Twelfth dynasty of Egypt who ruled from 1991-1962 BC, but was probably composed after his death. Although not attributed to a pharaoh, the Loyalist Teachings stress the virtues of remaining obedient and respectful to the ruler of Egypt.
- Grapow & Ermann, op.cit., vol.4, pp. 85, 86
- A further meaning is, interestingly, 'punishment', cf. Grapow & Ermann, op.cit., vol.5, 288.2-289.23
- Lichtheim, p146-163.
- Lichtheim, op.cit., pp.61ff.
- Simpson (1972), p. 177; Parkinson (2002), pp. 313-315.
- Lichtheim, op.cit., pp.58ff.
- Lichtheim, op.cit., pp.97ff.
- Lichtheim, op.cit., pp.135ff.
- Bruneer, H. Die Weisheitbuecher der Aegypter, Artemis, 1991.
- Lichtheim, Miriam. ”Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume II: The New Kingdom”, University of California Press, 1976, ISBN 0-520-03615-8
- Shaw, Ian. Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Lichtheim, Miriam, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I, 1973
- Adolf Erman, Hermann Grapow, Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache, Berlin 1963
- Parkinson, R.B. (2002). Poetry and Culture in Middle Kingdom Egypt: A Dark Side to Perfection. London: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-5637-5.
- Simpson, William Kelly. (1972). The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry. Edited by William Kelly Simpson. Translations by R.O. Faulkner, Edward F. Wente, Jr., and William Kelly Simpson. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-01482-1.