The Westcar Papyrus (inventory-designation: P. Berlin 3033) is an ancient Egyptian text containing five stories about miracles performed by priests and magicians. In the text, each of these tales are told at the royal court of Pharaoh Cheops (4th dynasty) by his sons. The story in the papyrus is usually rendered in English as "King Cheops and the Magicians" and "The Tale of King Cheops' Court". In German, in which the text of the Westcar Papyrus was first translated, it is rendered as Die Märchen des Papyrus Westcar ("the fairy tales of Papyrus Westcar").
The surviving material of the Westcar Papyrus consists of twelve columns written in hieratic script. Miriam Lichtheim dates the document to the Hyksos period (18th to 16th century BC) and states that it is written in classical Middle Egyptian. Linguist and Egyptologist Verena Lepper thinks it may be possible that the Westcar Papyrus had already been written during the 13th dynasty. The papyrus has been used by historians as a literary resource for reconstituting the history of the 4th dynasty.
In 1823 or 1824, a British adventurer, Henry Westcar, apparently discovered the papyrus during travels in Egypt. For unknown reasons he didn't note the exact circumstances under which he obtained the artifact.
In 1838 or 1839, German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius claimed to have received the papyrus from Westcar's niece. As Lepsius was able to read some signs of Hieratic, he recognized some of the royal cartouche names of the kings and dated the text to the old kingdom.
There are inconsistencies about the true nature of the acquisition and the subsequent whereabouts of the Westcar Papyrus. Lepsius writes that the document was on display in the Oxford Bodleian Library, but public exhibitions have been documented there since the early 1860s and Lepsius' name does not appear in any lists or documents. Furthermore, Lepsius never made the text of the Westcar Papyrus public; he stored the papyrus at home in the attic, where it was found later after his death. These inconsistencies led to wide speculation; Many British historians speculate that Lepsius may have stolen the papyrus.
In 1886, German Egyptologist Adolf Erman purchased the papyrus from Lepsius' son and left it to the Museum of Berlin. As the hieratic signs were still insufficiently investigated and translated, the Westcar Papyrus was displayed as some kind of curiosity. Since Erman's first attempt at a complete translation in 1890, the Westcar Papyrus has been translated numerous times, resulting in different outcomes. The dating of the text also varies.
Papyrus Westcar is a reused papyrus made of the plant Cyperus papyrus. The scroll of Westcar has been separated into three parts. During the life of Lepsius and Erman it was in two parts; it is not known when and why the scroll was separated into three fragments. The text written on the papyrus includes twelve columns in all. The first part contains on the recto (the front) columns one to three, the second part contains on its recto columns four and five and the third part contains on the verso (the back) columns six to nine and on the recto, the final columns, ten to twelve. The papyrus textile is grainy, of greyish-yellowish colour and very fragile. Part one was fixed onto linen and placed between two glass panes. At five spots the papyrus was fixed to the glass with methyl cellulose. Part two was fixed to a cardboard and wooden plate and is covered by a glass pane. Part three was simply placed between two glass panes and was completely glued to them. The adhesive used for this has partially lost its transparency and a whitish haze has appeared. The edges of all three parts were left free for air circulation. Because of the paper lamination during the 18h century, all the papyrus fragments are partially damaged; at several spots the material is torn, distorted and squashed. Some of the fibres are now lying over the inscription. All of the artifact shows large gaps and the rim of the scrolls is badly frayed. Because of the gaps, many parts of the text are now missing.
The text itself is completely written in black iron gall ink and carbon black ink and divided by rubra into ten paragraphs. Between the neatly written sentences red traces of an older text are visible. It looks like Papyrus Westcar is a Palimpsest; the unknown ancient Egyptian author obviously tried but partially failed to wipe the older text off. The clean and calligraphical handwriting shows that the author was a highly educated professional.
The tales of Papyrus Westcar
The first story, told by an unknown son of Khufu (possibly Djedefra), is missing everything but the conclusion, in which Khufu orders blessed offerings to king Djoser. It seems to have been a text detailing a miracle performed by a lector priest in the reign of king Djoser, possibly the famous Imhotep himself.
The second story, told by Khafra, is set during the reign of one of Khufu's predecessors. King Nebka's chief lector Ubaoner finds that his wife is having a love affair with a townsman of Memphis, and he fashions a crocodile in wax. Upon learning that his unfaithful wife is meeting her lover, he casts a spell for the figurine to come to life upon contact with water, and sets his caretaker to throw it in the stream by which the townsman enters and leaves the lector's estate undiscovered. Upon catching the townsman, the crocodile takes him to the bottom of the lake, where they remain for seven days as the lector entertains the visiting pharaoh. When he tells Nebka the story, and calls the crocodile up again, the king orders the crocodile to devour the townsman once and for all. Then he has the adulterous wife brought forth, set on fire and thrown in the river.
The third story, told by another son named Baufra, is set during the reign of his grandfather Sneferu. The king is bored and his chief lector Djadjaemankh advises him to gather twenty young women and use them to sail him around the palace lake. Sneferu orders twenty beautiful oars made, and gives the women nets to drape around them as they sail. However, one of the girls loses an amulet - a fish pendant made of malachite so dear to her that she will not even accept a substitute from the royal treasury, and until it is returned to her neither she nor any of the other girls will row. The king laments this, and the chief lector folds aside the water to allow the retrieval of the amulet, then folds the water back.
The fourth story, told by Hordjedef, concerns a miracle set within Khufu's own reign. A townsman named Dedi apparently has the power to reattach a severed head onto an animal, to tame wild lions, and knows the number of secret rooms in the shrine of Thoth. Khufu, intrigued, sends his son to invite this wise man to the court, and upon Dedi's arrival he orders a goose, an undefined waterbird, and a bull beheaded. Dedi reattaches the heads. Khufu then questions him on his knowledge on the shrine of Thoth, and Dedi answers that he does not know the number of rooms, but he knows where they are. When Khufu asks for the wheres and hows, Dedi answers that the one who can give Khufu access is not him, but the first of the three future kings in the womb of the woman Rededjet. This is a prophecy detailing the beginnings of the Fifth dynasty, starting with Userkaf.
The final story breaks from the format and moves the focus to Rededjet giving birth to her three sons. Upon the day of her children's birth, Ra orders Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, Heket and Khnum to aid her. They disguise themselves as musicians and hurry to Reddedet's house to help her with the difficult birth. The three children are born, each described as strong and healthy, with limbs covered in gold and wearing headdresses of lapis lazuli. The maid servant of Rededjet later has an argument with her mistress, receives a beating and flees, vowing to tell king Khufu what had happened. But on the way, she meets her brother and tells the story to him. Displeased, he beats her too, and sends her path to the water's edge where a crocodile catches her. The brother then goes to see Rededjet, who is crying over the loss of the girl. The brother starts to confess what has happened and at this point the papyrus ends.
Analysis and interpretations
Papyrus Westcar is of the highest interest to historians and Egyptologists, since it is one of the oldest Egyptian documents that contains such a complex novel. Unfortunately, the name of the author has been lost. The most recent translations and linguistic investigations by Miriam Lichtheim and Verena Lepper reveal interesting writing and spelling elements hidden in the text of the Papyrus, which has led them to a new evaluation of the individual stories.
The first story is lost due to the damage to the papyrus. The preserved sentences merely reveal the main protagonist of the story, King Djoser. The name of the hero, who is said to have performed the miracle, is completely lost, but Liechtheim and Lepper think it possible that the Papyrus was talking about the famous architect and high lector priest Imhotep.
Linguistic stylistics and changing tenses
The second and third story are written in a conspicuous, flowery, old-fashioned style, and the author has obviously tried to make the novels sound as if handed down from a long time ago but fantastic at the same time. He uses quaint phrases and makes the heroes' acting stilted and ceremonious. All three initial stories are written in past tense and all the kings are addressed with the salutation "justified" (Egyptian: maa´-cheru), which was typical in Ancient Egypt when talking about a deceased king. The heroes are addressed in the preserved stories II. and III. alike. Curiously, all kings are addressed with their birth name, notwithstanding that this was actually unusual in the author's lifetime. Deceased kings were normally always called by their personal name; living kings were called by their horus name. King Khufu is nevertheless called by his birth name yet in story IV., where he is treated as being still alive and being himself the main actor. And even the future kings Userkaf, Sahure and Neferirkare-Kakai are called by their birthname. Verena Lepper thinks, that the reason may be some kind of spelling reform which occurred in the lifetime of the author: he tried to fix the spelling rule for naming a deceased king at all costs to show that even the future kings are long since dead during his own lifetime. For this reason Verena Lepper doubts that the novel of Westcar is based on documents originating from the Old Kingdom itself.
Story IV. and V. are written in present tense. The unknown author moves the timeline and also changes his mode of expression from "old-fashioned" into a contemporary term. He clearly distinguishes "long time passed" from "most recently" without cutting the timeline too quickly. The speech of prince Hordjedef builds the decisive transition: Hordjedef is sick of hearing old, dusty tales that cannot be proven in any way. He explains that a now-happening wonder would be richer in content and more instructive, and so he brings up the story of Dedi. The last sequel of the fourth story, in which the magician Dedi gives a prophecy to king Khufu, moves to the future tense for a short time, before moving back to present tense again. This present tense is maintained until the end of the Westcar-story.
Depictions of the kings
Papyrus Westcar contains hidden allusions and puns to the characters of the kings Nebka, Sneferu and Khufu. An evaluation of the character description of Djoser is impossible due to the great deterioration of his story.
In story II. king Nebka plays the key-role. He is depicted there as a strict, but lawful judge, who doesn't allow mischief and misbehaviour to occur. The adulterous wife of the story's hero is punished by being burnt alive and her secret lover, revealed thanks to the loyal caretaker, is eaten alive by a summoned crocodile. Caretaker and crocodile are playing the role of justice, whilst king Nebka plays the role of the destiny. Lepper and Liechtheim evaluate the depiction of king Nebka as being fairly positive. A strict but lawful pharaoh was ideal for the people of the author's lifetime.
In story III. king Sneferu becomes a victim of the author's courage to criticize the monarchy. He depicts Sneferu as a fatuous fool, who is easily pleased with superficial entertainment and who is unable to resolve a dispute with a little rowing maid. Sneferu must go to the extent of having a priest solve the problem. With this narration and embarrassing depiction of a pharaoh, the author of Westcar dares to criticise the pharaohs of Egypt as such and makes story III. a sort of satire. Lepper points out that the critics are hidden cleverly throughout. It is no wonder, since the author had to be careful—the Westcar Papyrus was possibly made available for public entertainment, or at least, for public study.
In story IV. king Khufu is difficult to assess. At one side he is depicted as ruthless: deciding to have a condemned prisoner become decapitated to test the alleged magical powers of the magician Dedi. On the other side Khufu is depicted as inquisitive, reasonable and generous: He accepts the outrage and alternative offer of Dedi for the prisoner, questions the circumstances and contents of Dedi's prophecy; he rewards the magician generously. The contradictory depiction of Khufu is an object of controversy between Egyptologists and historians up to this day. Earlier Egyptologists and historians in particular, such as Adolf Erman, Kurt Heinrich Sethe and Wolfgang Helck evaluated Khufu's character as heartless and sacrilegious. They lean on the ancient Greek traditions of Herodot and Diodor, who described an exaggerated negative character image of Khufu, ignoring the paradoxical (because positive) traditions the Egyptians themselves always taught. But other Egyptologists such as Dietrich Wildung see Khufu's order as an act of mercy: the prisoner would have received his life back if Dedi had actually had performed his magical trick. Wildung thinks that Dedi's refusal was an allusion to the respect Egyptians showed to human life. The ancient Egyptians were of the opinion that human life should not be misused for dark magic or similar evil things. Lepper and Liechtheim suspect that a difficult-to-assess depiction of Khufu was exactly what the author had planned. He wanted to create a mysterious character.
The fifth and last story tells about the female hero Rededjet (her name is also often read as Ruddedet) and her difficult birth of three sons. The sun god Ra orders his companions Isis, Meskhenet, Hekhet, Nephthys and Khnum to help Rededjet, to ensure the birth of the triplets and the beginning of a new dynasty. Lepper and Liechtheim both evaluate the story as some kind of narrated moral which deals with the theme of justice and what happens to traitors. Lepper points out, that the story of Rededjet might have been inspired by the historical figure of queen Khentkaus I, who lived and maybe ruled at the end of the Fourth dynasty. Khentkaus I is demonstrably entitled as the "mother of two kings" and for a long time it has been thought that she may have borne Userkaf and Sahure. But new evidence shows that at least Sahure had a different mother (Queen Neferhetepes), the implication of the Westcar Papyrus that the first three kings of the fifth dynasty had been siblings, is therefore incorrect. Since in the Westcar Papyrus Rededjet was concerned with the role of a future king's mother, the parallels between the biographies of the two ladies aroused special attention. The role of the maidservant is evaluated as being a key figure for a modern phrasing of indoctrinations about morality and betrayal. The maidservant wants to run her mistress down and is punished by destiny. The destiny is depicted here as a crocodile which snatches the traitor. The whole purpose would be to ensure the beginning of a new dynasty and by making the only danger disappear. The author of the Westcar Papyrus artfully creates some kind of happy ending.
The ending of Papyrus Westcar
Since the first translations of the Westcar-Papyrus historians and Egyptologists dispute whether the story was finished or unfinished. Earlier evaluations seemed to show an abrupt ending after the death of the traitorous maid servant. But more recently linguistic investigations made by Verena Lepper and Miriam Liechtheim (especially by the first one) strengthen the theory that the novel of pWestcar is definitely over after the story of the maid servant's death. Lepper points out that the crocodile sequence is repeated several times, like a kind of refrain, a typical writing element in similar stories and documents. Furthermore, Lepper argues that the papyrus leaves a lot of free space after the ending, enough for a further short story.
Influences of Papyrus Westcar in later Egyptian tales
Verena Lepper and Miriam Lichtheim postulate that the tales of Papyrus Westcar inspired later authors to compose and write down similar novels. They refer to multiple and somewhat later ancient Egyptian writings in which magicians perform very similar magic tricks and make prophecies to a king. Descriptive examples are the papyri pAthen and The prophecy of Neferti. These novels show the popular theme of prophesying used during the Old Kingdom – just like in the story of the Westcar Papyrus. They also both talk about subalterns with magical powers similar to those of Dedi's. The Papyrus pBerlin 3023 contains the novel The Eloquent Peasant, in which the following phrase appears: "See, these are artists who create the existing anew, who even replace a severed head", which could be interpreted as an allusion to the Westcar Papyrus. pBerlin 3023 contains another reference which strengthens the idea that many ancient Egyptian novels were influenced by Westcar Papyrus: column 232 contains the phrase "sleeping until dawn", which appears nearly word-by-word in the Westcar Papyrus.
A further descriptive example appears in The prophecy of Neferti. Like in pWestcar, a subaltern is addressed by a king with "my brother" and the king himself is depicted as being accostable and simple-minded. Furthermore, both novels talk about the same king: pharaoh Sneferu. The Papyrus pAthen contains the phrase: "...for these are the wise who can move waters and make a river flow at their mere will and want...", which clearly refers to the wonder that the magicians Djadjaemankh and Dedi had performed in pWestcar.
Since pAthen, pBerlin 3023 and The prophecy of Neferti use the same manner of speaking and quaint phrases, equipped with numerous allusions to the wonders of Papyrus Westcar, Lepper and Lichtheim hold that Dedi, Ubaoner and Djadjaemankh must have been known to Egyptian authors for a long time.
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