Saturday, February 16, 2019

Hiddenness and Darkness in Ancient Egyptian Love Songs - Nile Scribes

Hiddenness and Darkness in Ancient Egyptian Love Songs

Valentine's Day was celebrated on February 14 in many parts of the world this week. In celebration, this week's topic revolves around Egyptian Love Songs. The Nile Scribes welcome back our guest blogger Carla Mesa Guzzo to shed some light on aspects of hiddenness and darkness and their meanings within these love songs.

Guest Scribe: Carla Mesa Guzzo

The ancient Egyptian love songs of the New Kingdom (1,550-1,069 BC) are known from a variety of sources including ostraca and papyri. These are, for the most part, written in Late Egyptian Hieratic and should be understood within a broader trend of recording genres which may have only existed as a part of the Egyptian oral tradition prior to this period. In fact, while often referred to as "poems", it is quite possible that these compositions were meant to be sung aloud.

The love songs employ a rich array of imagery and allusion in order to create a highly sensual atmosphere within each composition. Scholars have observed numerous recurring themes within the corpus as a whole, both in terms of structure and perspective, as well as references to the religious sphere. Among these recurring motifs, references to hiddenness and darkness abound. In some cases, this can be a matter of creating a private setting for a pair of lovers. In other cases, however, these references to hiddenness and darkness can play an important role in building the atmospheric quality of many of these songs.

Papyrus Harris 500 which is housed today in the British            Museum (photo: © Trustees of the British Museum)
Papyrus Harris 500 which is housed today in the British Museum (photo: © Trustees of the British Museum)

Privacy and The Songs of the Orchard

With that in mind, let's turn to one of the more seemingly mundane or practical aspects of these themes, namely privacy. There seems to be a general agreement within the songs that dictates that amorous matters should be carried out in private. While the importance of privacy may seem obvious from a modern North American perspective, this has not always been the case in all cultures, times, or situations. This emphasis on privacy can be seen in many works, including in what Vincent Tobin has labelled "The Songs of the Orchard", due to the prominence of trees and gardens in these compositions (1). The trees here take on a kind of sentience and sometimes act as secret keepers. In one of these songs, the tree says:

H[er] secrets are under me,
The sister (i.e. female beloved) in her excursion.
I am a discreet one, in order not to say that I saw them speak.
(Papyrus Turin 1966)

Garden with pond from the Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of            Nebamun in Thebes (photo: WikiMedia)
Garden with pond from the Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of Nebamun in Thebes (photo: WikiMedia)

While it may be safe to assume that the lovers here are engaged in more than simply speaking, that the tree also ensures discretion about their words is significant. It may indicate that privacy may have been desired for romantic exchanges of all kinds, not just sexual ones. The tree here provides that private space, and seemingly safeguards the lovers' union through its discretion.

Hiddenness and connotations of love

Although simple privacy may be one facet of what makes references to hiddenness and darkness so prominent in these poems, it is not the only one. It has been observed that these compositions achieve meaning primarily through connotation. References to sexual acts are not direct, but alluded to through imagery and wordplay. Atmospheric quality is thus of the utmost importance. These works use privacy and hiddenness as a means of creating a rich, sensual atmosphere that allows for the cultivation of intimacy. And it is in this respect that ideas of hiddenness and darkness become intimately and inextricably linked, often in subtle ways.

The interplay with aspects of hiddenness to create a sense of intimacy and sensuality can be found in one of the poems in Papyrus Chester Beatty I which reads:

Now, you shall bring it to the house of the sister (i.e. female beloved),
So that you may storm against her cave.
Her gate will be raised. Her lady of the house shall prepare it.
You shall provide her with songs and dancing, wine and strong ale, (in) her pavilion.
So that you may intoxicate her senses,
And so that you may complete her in her night.
Now she will say to you "put me in your embrace."
The land will have been made bright and they are as one.
(Papyrus Chester Beatty I)

Feasting scene showing musicians and dancers from the            Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of Nebamun in Thebes (photo:            WikiMedia)
Feasting scene showing musicians and dancers from the Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of Nebamun in Thebes (photo: WikiMedia)

The element of hiddenness here is established by the reference to the beloved woman's"gate". The possibility of this word being used as a euphemism for female genitalia has been explored by Michael V. Fox. It has also suggested that "it" and "cave" here are references to genitalia. Regardless of potential sexual implication, there is no reason why the idea of a gate need be rejected as a literal reference to an architectural element; it could easily work both ways. We can reasonably read this situation as the male lover being invited into his beloved's home where they engage in sexual intercourse. That the woman's (literal) gate is open to her lover draws him in to the private, hidden space of her home, away from the prying eyes. Night in this passage has significance as well. It works in conjunction with this sense of privacy and strengthens it. If the "completion" mentioned here is, as Fox suggests, an allusion to "sexual satisfaction", it is clear that the act of intercourse implied by all these allusions and innuendoes is taking place "in her night", which is to say, in darkness.


If we turn our attention to Papyrus Harris 500, we find a poem that brings the atmospheric quality of darkness fully to the fore:

The voice of the dove is speaking,
It is saying "The land has been made bright, what is your path?"
May you, bird, not scold me.
It was in his bed that I found my brother (i.e. male beloved),
My heart is exceedingly glad.
We said (to each other):
"I will not be far (from you)".
(Papyrus Harris 500)

Bird amid papyrus stalks from a facsimile of a painting            from the North Palace at Amarna (Eighteenth Dynasty - photo:            WikiMedia)
Bird amid papyrus stalks from a facsimile of a painting from the North Palace at Amarna (Eighteenth Dynasty – photo: WikiMedia)

Interestingly, there is no direct mention of "night" or "darkness" in this passage, only to the "land being made bright", which is to say, "dawn". It is clear, however, that the woman in the poem has just spent the night with her lover. Yet it is night and the termination of night rather than the brightening of dawn in and of itself, which lend this passage its rich and sensual atmosphere. Fox notes that the coming of the dawn and the bird's announcement shift the focus of the poem backward and "leads the girl to a recollection of the preceding night and to thoughts of the permanence of her love". This work, it must be said, has no direct reference to hiddenness that I can discern. And yet the intimacy of the passage is so striking. The bird is, in many respects, an intruder on this intimacy. But the bird, and therefore the intrusion, only come with the end of night.


  1. Tobin, V.A. "The Love Songs and the Song of the Harper." The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry. Ed. W.K. Simpson, 307-333. London: Yale University Press, 2003 – page 319.

Further Reading

  • Darnell, John C. "A Midsummer Night's Succubus—The Herdsman's Encounter in P.Berlin 3024. The Pleasures of Fishing and Fowling, The Songs of the Drinking Place, and the Ancient Egyptian Love Poetry." Opening the Tablet Box: Near Eastern Studies in Honor of Benjamin R. Foster. Ed. Sarah C. Melville and Alice L. Slotsky, 99-140. Leiden: Brill, 2010.
  • Fox, Michael V. The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
  • Landgráfová, Renata. "Breaches of Cooperative Rules" Metaphors and Parody in Ancient Egyptian Love Songs." Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt: 'Don your wig for a joyful hour.' Ed. Carolyn Graves-Brown, 71-82. Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2008.
  • Mathieu, Bernard. La poésie amoureuse de l'Egypte ancienne: recherches sur un genre littéraire au Nouvel Empire. Cairo: Institut français d'archéologie orientale, 1996.

Carla G. Mesa Guzzo is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Toronto's Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations
--   Sent from my Linux system.

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