Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tale of the Eloquent Peasant

The Eloquent Peasant

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The Eloquent Peasant is an Ancient Egyptian story about a peasant, Khun-Anup, who stumbles upon the property of the noble Rensi son of Meru, guarded by its harsh overseer, Nemtynakht.[1][2] It is set in the Ninth/Tenth dynasty around Herakleopolis.[3]

Story Summary

The story begins with a peasant, Khun-anup, and his donkey stumbling on to the lands of the noble Rensi son of Meru.[4] Nemtynakht, the overseer of a noble's lands, was renowned for his misdeeds and tricked Khun-anup into causing damage to his master Meritensa's property by spreading a sheet across the road beside the farm, forcing Khun-anup and his donkey to trample over the crops. The donkey then began to eat the grain, whereupon Nemtynakht took custody of the donkey and started to beat Khun-anup, knowing that Rensi would believe the word of his overseer rather than any allegations of trickery and theft from Khun-anup.

Khun-anup searched for Rensi and found him near the riverside of the city. He addressed him with praises. Rensi and his judges heard his case and replied that witnesses to Nemtynakht's so called crime were needed for the case to continue. Khun-anup could find none, but the magnificent speech of the eloquent peasant convinced Rensi to continue to consider his case. Rensi brought the case before Pharaoh and told him of Khun-anup's rhetorical powers. The king was impressed, but ordered the peasant not be given justice just yet and his petitions to be put in writing.

For nine days Khun-anup complimented the high steward Rensi and begged for justice. After sensing that he was being ignored, Khun-anup insulted him and was punished with a beating. After one last speech, the discouraged peasant left, but Rensi sent for him and ordered him to return. But rather than being punished for his insolence, the peasant was given justice. Amenemhat, after reading Khun-anup's last speech, was impressed and ordered the donkey to be returned to Khun-anup and the peasant to be compensated with all the property of Nemtynakht, including his job, making Nemtynakht as poor as Khun-anup had been.


  1. ^ Parkinson, Richard (1991). The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant. Griffith Institute. ISBN 0900416602.
  2. ^ "The Eloquent Peasant (5)". AEL Email List. Retrieved 2007-12-17.
  3. ^ Parkinson, R B (1999), The Tale of Sinuhe and other ancient Egyptian poems, 1940-1640 BC, New York, ISBN 9780192839664,
  4. ^ Lichtheim, M (1973). Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol.1. p. 169–184.

External links

  • [1] – in hieroglyphs (includes literal translations by various contributors)
  • [2] – older translation
  • [3] – older translation

The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant

Papyrus containing the tale of the eloquent peasant; excerpt, Source: British Museum The pharaoh in this story is sometimes thought to have been Akhtoy II Nebkaure, the fourth king of the ninth dynasty ruling at Heracleopolis.
[Barton Introduction] A remarkable appreciation of the rights of the common people is revealed in this story, which has come down to us in copies made before 1800 B.C. The principle part of the story is given below.

There was a man, Hunanup by name, a peasant of Sechet-hemat, and he had a wife, ////// by name. Then said this peasant to his wife: "Behold, I am going down to Egypt to bring back bread for my children. Go in and measure the grain that we still have in our storehouse, ////////// bushel." Then he measured for her eight bushels of grain. Then this peasant said to his wife: "Behold, two bushels of grain shall be left for bread for you and the children. But make for me the six bushels into bread and beer for each of the days that I shall be on the road." Then this peasant went down to Egypt after he had loaded his asses with all the good produce of Sechet-hemat.
This peasant set out and journeyed southward to Ehnas (Herakleopolis). He came to a point opposite Per-fefi, north of Medenit, and found there a man standing on the bank, Dehuti-necht by name, who was the son of a man named Iseri, who was one of the serfs of the chief steward, Meruitensi.
Then said this Dehuti-necht, when he saw the asses of this peasant which appealed to his covetousness: "Oh that some good god would help me to rob this peasant of his goods!"
The house of Dehuti-necht stood close to the side of the path, which was narrow, not wide. It was about the width of a /////-cloth, and upon one side of it was the water and upon the other side was growing grain. Then said Dehuti-necht to his servant: "Hasten and bring me a shawl from the house!" And it was brought at once. Then he spread this shawl upon the middle of the road, and it extended, one edge to the water, and the other to the grain.
The peasant came along the path which was the common highway. Then said Dehuti-necht: "Look out, peasant, do not trample on my clothes!" The peasant answered: "I will do as you wish; I will go in the right way!" As he was turning to the upper side, Dehuti-necht said: "Does my grain serve you as a road?" Then said the peasant: "I am going in the right way. The bank is steep and the path lies near the grain and you have stopped up the road ahead with your clothes. Will you, then, not let me go by?" Upon that one of the asses took a mouthful of grain. Then said Dehuti-necht: "See, I Will take away your ass because it has eaten my grain."
Then the peasant said: "I am going in the right way. As one side was made impassable I have led my ass along the other, and will you seize it because it has taken a mouthful of grain? But I know the lord of this property; it belongs to the chief steward, Meruitensi. It is he who punishes every robber in this whole land. Shall I, then, be robbed in his domain?"
Then said Dehuti-necht: "Is it not a proverb which the people employ: 'The name of the poor is only known on account of his lord?' It is I who speak to you, but the chief steward of whom you think." Then he took a rod from a green tamarisk and beat all his limbs with it, and seized his asses and drove them into his compound.
Thereupon the peasant wept loudly on account of the pain of what had been done to him. Dehuti-necht said to him: "Don't cry so loud, peasant, or you shall go to the city of the dead." The peasant said: "You beat me and steal my goods, and will you also take the wail away from my mouth? O Silence-maker! Give me my goods again! May I never cease to cry out, if you fear!"
The peasant consumed four days, during which he besought Dehuti-necht, but he did not grant him his rights. Then this peasant went to the south, to Ehnas to implore the chief steward, Meruitensi. He met him as he was coming out of the canal-door of his compound to embark in his boat. Thereupon the peasant said: "Oh let me lay before you this affair. Permit one of your trusted servants to come to me, that I may send him to you concerning it."
Then the steward Meruitensi, sent one of his servants to him, and he sent back by him an account of the whole affair. Then the chief steward, Meruitensi, laid the case of Dehuti-necht before his attendant officials, and they said to him: "Lord, it is presumably a case of one of your peasants who has gone against another peasant near him. Behold, it is customary with peasants to so conduct themselves toward others who are near them. Shall we beat Dehuti-necht for a little natron and a little salt? Command him to restore it and he will restore it."
The chief steward, Meruitensi, remained silent - he answered neither the officials nor the peasant. The peasant then came to entreat the chief steward Meruitensi, for the first time, and said: "Chief steward, my lord, you are greatest of the great, you are guide of all that which is not and which is. When you embark on the sea of truth, that you may go sailing upon it, then shall not the /////////// strip away your sail, then your ship shall not remain fast, then shall no misfortune happen to your mast then shall your spars not be broken, then shall you not be stranded - if you run fast aground, the waves shall not break upon you, then you shall not taste the impurities of the river, then you shall not behold the face of fear, the shy fish shall come to you, and you shall capture the fat birds. For you are the father of the orphan, the husband of the widow, the brother of the desolate, the garment of the motherless. Let me place your name in this land higher than all good laws: you guide without avarice, you great one free from meanness, who destroys deceit, who creates truthfulness. Throw the evil to the ground. I will speak hear me. Do justice, O you praised one, whom the praised ones praise. Remove my oppression: behold, I have a heavy weight to carry; behold, I am troubled of soul; examine me, I am in sorrow."

[Barton: Meruitensi is so pleased with the eloquence of the peasant that he passed him on to another officer and he to still another until he came before the king. Altogether the peasant made nine addresses. His eighth address follows.]

This peasant came to implore him for the eighth time, and said: "Chief steward, my lord, man falls on account of ///////////. Greed is absent from a good merchant. His good commerce is /////////. Your heart is greedy, it does not become you. You despoil: this is not praiseworthy for you ////////. Your daily rations are in your house; your body is well filled. The officers, who are set as a protection against injustice,---a curse to the shameless are these officers, who are set as a bulwark against lies. Fear of you has not deterred me from supplicating you; if you think so, you have not known my heart. The Silent one, who turns to report to you his difficulties, is not afraid to present them to you. Your real estate is in the country, your bread is on your estate, your food is in the storehouse. Your officials give to you and you take it. Are you, then, not a robber? They plow for you //////// for you to the plots of arable land. Do the truth for the sake of the Lord of Truth.You reed of a scribe, you roll of a book, you palette, you god Thoth, you ought to keep yourself far removed from injustice. You virtuous one, you should be virtuous, you virtuous one, you should be really virtuous. Further, truth is true to eternity. She goes with those who perform her to the region of the dead. He will be laid in the coffin and committed to the earth; - his name will not perish from the earth, but men will remember him on account of his property: so runs the right interpretation of the divine word.
"Does it then happen that the scales stand aslant? Or is it thinkable that the scales incline to one side? Behold, if I come not, if another comes, then you host opportunity to speak as one who answers, as one who addresses the silent, as one who responds to him who has not spoken to you. You have not been ///////; You have not been sick. You have not fled, you have not departed. But you have not yet granted me any reply to this beautiful word which comes from the mouth of the sun-god himself: "Speak the truth; do the truth: for it is great, it is mighty, it is everlasting. It will obtain for you merit, and will lead you to veneration.' For does the scale stand aslant? It is their scale-pans that bear the objects, and in just scales there is no /////// wanting."

[Barton: After a ninth speech on the part of the peasant, the tale concludes as follows.]

Then the chief steward, Meruitensi, sent two servants to bring him back. Thereupon the peasant feared that he would suffer thirst, as a punishment imposed upon him for what he had said. Then the peasant said /////////.
Then said the chief steward, Meruitensi: "Fear not, peasant! See, you shall remain with me."
Then said the peasant: "I live because I eat of your bread and drink your beer forever."
Then said the chief steward, Meruitensi: "Come out here /////////."
Then he caused them to bring, written on a new roll, all the addresses of these days. The chief steward sent them to his majesty, the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neb-kau-re, the blessed, and they were more agreeable to the heart of his majesty than all that was in his land. His majesty said, "Pass sentence yourself, my beloved son!"
Then the chief steward, Meruitensi, caused two servants to go and bring a list of the household of Dehuti-necht from the government office, and his possessions were six persons, with a selection from his /////////, from his barley, from his spelt, from his asses, from his swine, from his /////////.

[Barton: From this point on only a few words of the tale can be made out, but it appears from these that the goods selected from the estate of Dehuti-necht were given to the peasant and he was sent home rejoicing.]

Something new 4,000 years ago

Only three fictional works from ancient Egypt remain in nearly full condition and they are all very different. "The Shipwrecked Sailor" is an adventure and fable. "The Tale
of Sinuhe"
is an early patriotic epic. "The Eloquent Peasant", from about the same time as "Sinuhe", is something else again. It's like a cross between a folk tale and the bulk of Egyptian non-fictional writing which is more meditative.

The narrative framework has to do with a peasant who is unjustly cheated out of his possessions by the serf of chief steward. The peasant takes his complaint to the steward, presenting his case quite eloquently. The steward who hears him reports to the king who is intrigued. The king asks the steward to ignore the peasant, requiring him to keep returning and making more of these wonderful pleas. The pleasant returns eight more times, each time imploring the rulers to adhere to Ma'at, an Egyptian concept variously translated as righteousness, order, justice or truth—not just in legalistic terms but as features of the universe. Each time he attacks the matter in a different way, delving deeper into the implications of this abstract concept. These parts of the story are usually translated into poetry. You may take them as precursors to the Greek dialogues, or to the moral sermons of the Bible: one passage, for instance, is rendered "Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do", nearly two millennia before Christ is reported to have delivered the Golden Rule.

In the end, the peasant gets justice and we see Ma'at restored from the top to the bottom of society. The story seems to work on several levels. It piques the interest of the common folks, showing someone at the lower-level of society who is able to use his golden tongue to outwit those who oppress him, while also demonstrating the wisdom of the king who recognizes the truth when he hears it. At the same time, we're quite aware that it's unlikely an ignorant peasant would have such a grasp of religious and philosophical principles, or of the language of such discourse. The monologues are really pitched to the educated classes, directing them to strive for the wise rule that would maintain the stability of their society and balance in the universe.

Something like that. I don't know enough about Egyptian society to understand the context completely. But I have been surprised to find the ruminations of the peasant interesting. The first reaction may be of disappointment—hey, where'd the story go? this is just speeches now—but once to accept this, you may see how profound this material must have been for the ancient Egyptians and for those who came after.

Two collections of ancient Egyptian works that include "The Eloquent Peasant" are The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Egyptian Poems, translated by R.B. Parkinson, and The Literature of Ancient Egypt, edited by William Kelly Simpson but with this story translated by Vincent A. Tobin. Parkinson's translation is the seminal translation that scholars seem to depend upon. Tobin's builds upon Parkinson's and is the easiest to read and understand in my experience. There are also several versions available for reading online but I find them too crude to get across the meaning of the peasant's monologues in any way that would impress a modern reader. Some of them also compress the story, leaving out most of the poetic speeches which are the heart of "The Eloquent Peasant".

— Eric

missing graphic

Win free books in Editor Eric's Great Literature Contest

1 comment:

  1. In all candor, while I'm keenly struck by this tale and by how very early in the history of social justice this tale comes, and while I'm very grateful to have found such a detailed page here on this ancient tale, I have to add that I'm bitterly, bitterly disappointed that in the excerpts you provide from it above, you do NOT include the key passage where the golden rule -- "Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do" -- is actually said!!!!!!!!!!!!! Oh sure, you reference it in your notes at the bottom. But that's no better than what I can find at Wikipedia or half a dozen other pages. You still don't provide the full passage in the excerpts higher up .......... WHY??!!

    What gives? You were my last hope. I've already Googled my eyes out for the whole story, and this is the most "complete" page on this tale on the Web.

    What gives? Is the golden rule copyrighted?! You've given us the equivalent of Hamlet without "To be or not to be". Thanks a lot. The chief claim to fame of this story is its earliest formulation of the golden rule -- and you don't even have the passage!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I thought I would eventually find the whole text on the Web. Didn't. Yours is the most "complete" one out there -- and it doesn't include the chief passage for which I and virtually all others would be interested in this tale in the first place!!!!!!!!!!

    Believe me, I am well aware of the bitter irony that in searching desperately for this earliest formulation of the golden rule, I am violating its tenets by being so profoundly disagreeable here. But I'm frankly shattered by this brick wall. Having Googled to distraction, I can assure you that you are definitely the last chance I had to find the whole text. There is no other page remotely like yours. That's it. Curtains.

    So thanks a lot. If you have a good reason for not including THIS KEY PASSAGE, for crying out loud, I really want to know.

    Devastated in Manhattan