The Wisdom of Amenemope



In ancient Egyptian literature Instructions in Wisdom are directed to the living and illustrate some of the humanistic values of ancient Egyptian society. The basic format of these instructions is that of a father passing on his wisdom to his son. The Instruction of Amenemope comes from the period of the Rameses kings, probably around 1100 BCE. In the extracts given here, the ideal man is described as tending towards silence and tranquility and is contrasted to the heated man—a hot-headed agitator who has a lot to say.
Amenemope was a resident of Akhim, a town in Upper Egypt on the east side of the Nile. This instruction can be compared with the earlier one by Ptahhotep and the later one by Jesus Ben Sirach. A similar instruction can be found in Cervantes, as Don Quixote advises Sancho Panza how to govern.

Respect the Weak, Reject the Evil

1  Beware of robbing a wretch,
Of attacking a cripple;
Don't stretch out your hand to touch an old man,
Nor open your mouth to an elder.
Don't let yourself be sent on a mischievous errand,
Nor be friends with him who does it.
2   Don't raise an outcry against one who attacks you,
Nor answer him yourself.
He who does evil, the shore rejects him,
Its floodwater carries him away.
The northwind descends to end his hour,
It mingles with the thunderstorm.
The storm cloud is tall, the crocodiles are vicious,
You heated man, how are you now?

Time Changes All

3   Do not say: "Today is like tomorrow",
How will this end?
Comes tomorrow, today has vanished,
The deep has become the water's edge.
Crocodiles are bared, hippopotami stranded,
The fish crowded together.
Jackals are sated, birds are in feast,
The fishnets have been drained.

Act with Rectitude

4   Do not move the markers on the borders of fields,
Nor shift the position of the measuring-cord.
Do not be greedy for a cubit of land,
Nor encroach on the boundaries of a widow.
5   Recognize him who does this on earth:
He is an oppressor of the weak,
A foe bent on destroying your being,
The taking of life is in his eye.
His house is an enemy to the town,
His storage bins will be destroyed;
His wealth will be seized from his children's hands,
His possessions will be given to another.
Beware of destroying the borders of fields.
Lest a terror carry you away . . .
6   Do not set your heart on wealth,
There is no ignoring Fate and Destiny;
Do not let your heart go straying,
Every man comes to his hour.
Do not strain to seek increase,
What you have, let it suffice you.
If riches come to you by theft,
They will not stay the night with you.
They made themselves wings like geese,
And flew away to the sky.
7   Do not rejoice in wealth from theft,
Nor complain of being poor.
If the leading archer presses forward,
His company abandons him;
The boat of the greedy is left on the mud,
While the bark of the silent sails with the wind.
8   Set your goodness before people,
Then you are greeted by all;

Avoid Trouble-Making

9   Guard your tongue from harmful speech,
Then you will be loved by others. . .
10   Do not befriend the heated man,
Nor approach him for conversation.
Keep your tongue from answering your superior,
And take care not to insult him.
Let him not cast his speech to catch you,
Nor give free rein to your answer.
Converse with a man of your own measure,
And take care not to offend him.
11   Swift is the speech of one who is angered,
More than wind over water.
He tears down, he builds up with his tongue,
When he makes his hurtful speech.
He gives an answer worthy of a beating,
For its weight is harm.
He hauls freight like all the world,
But his load is falsehood.
He is the ferryman of snaring words,
He goes and comes with quarrels.
When he eats and drinks inside,
His answer is heard outside.
The day he is charged with his crime
Is misfortune for his children.
12   He runs before every wind like clouds,
He dims the radiance of the sun;
He flips his tail like the crocodile's young,
He draws himself up so as to strike
His lips are sweet, his tongue is bitter,
A fire burns in his belly.
Don't leap to join such a one,
Lest a terror carry you away. . .
13   Do not bear witness with false words,
So as to brush aside a man by your tongue.
Do not assess a man who has nothing,
And thus falsify your pen.

Be Generous towards Others

14   If you find a large debt against a poor man,
Make it into three parts;
Forgive two, let one stand,
You will find it a path of life.
After sleep, when you wake in the morning,
You will find it as good news.
Better is praise with the love of men
Than wealth in the storehouse;
Better is bread with a happy heart
Than wealth with vexation . . .
15   Do not confound a man in the law court,
In order to brush aside one who is right.
Do not incline to the well-dressed man,
And rebuff the one in rags.
Don't accept the gift of a powerful man,
And deprive the weak for his sake . . .
16   If you see one greater than you outdoors,
Walk behind him respectfully;
Give a hand to an elder sated with beer,
Respect him as his children would.
The arm is not hurt by being bared,
The back is not broken by bending it.
A man does not lose by speaking sweetly,
Nor does he gain if his speech bristles.
The pilot who sees from afar,
He will not wreck his boat . . .


1-16  Ancient Egyptian Literature -- A Book of Readings Volume II: The Old and Middle Kingdomsby Miriam Lichtheim. The University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 1976. pp 150-161. Copyright ©1973-80 The Regents of the University of California. Published by permission of the University of California Press.

Web Page: Wisdoms from Amenope by Rik Den Herder