Egyptian Society during the Ramesside period, Dynasties XIX and XX

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Cultural life

5.2 Writing and literature: love poetry, The Tale of the Two Brothers, Horus and Seth, The Report of Wenamun

See also Emily's presentation for this topic


The Egyptian writing system used three types of script, as outlined below.

  • Pictures representing objects or sound values.
  • Used for inscriptions on papyrus, wood and stone.
  • Generally employed for formal or religious purposes.

  • A cursive form of hieroglyphs.
  • Each character represented a simplified hieroglyphic sign.
  • Used on papyrus, wood, leather or ostraca.
  • Employed for religious or magical texts, letters and administrative documents.

  • Derived from hieratic script but with different vocabulary and grammar.
  • Used for business, legal and literary documents.

See examples of hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic writing.

Role of the scribes

Only the educated scribal class could read and write Egyptian hieroglyphs. They were employed in all areas of administration, for example:
  • Collecting taxes.
  • Keeping accounts and army records.
  • Controlling the law courts.
  • Composing and copying religious texts.
  • Teaching in temple schools.

The main writing materials and tools of the scribe included:
  • Papyrus, ostraca or pieces of wood.
  • Wooden pen case.
  • Reed pens.
  • Palette with black and red paint.
  • A water flask for mixing.

The significance of writing

Once the Egyptians had developed their writing system, they began to assign the written word with magical powers, for example:
  • Concepts or events could be made to happen by committing them to writing.
  • Texts on tomb walls ensured safe passage of the deceased to the next world.
  • Texts on temple walls ensured perpetuation of proper rituals.
  • Personal objects were inscribed to ensure eternal ownership.


Like most ancient civilisations, the Egyptians explained their origins and beliefs through myths and legends.

Many of these were invented early in their history and were added to over the course of time. There were three main types:
  • Solar myths, describing the cycle of the sun.
  • Creation myths, describing the creation of the world.
  • Osirian myths, recounting the death and resurrection of Osiris and the conflict between Horus and Seth.

Literature in the Ramesside period
  • Wisdom texts e.g. ‘Instruction of Amenemope’
  • Myths and legends e.g. 'The Destruction of Mankind'
  • Love poetry e.g. Papyrus Chester Beatty I
  • Factual texts e.g. ‘The Ramesseum Onomastica’
  • School texts e.g­. ‘Immortality of Scribes’
  • Legal documents e.g. ‘The Will of the Lady Naunakhte’
  • Funerary texts e.g. ‘The Book of the Dead’
  • Popular stories e.g. ‘The Story of Wenamun’
  • Monumental inscriptions and narrative poems, e.g. ‘The Battle of Kadesh’
  • Religious texts, e.g. Hymns to Osiris

Examples of Ramesside literature

Papyrus Chester Beatty 1

  • Three collections of love poems
  • Cycle of seven stanzas introduced by title
  • Possibly sung
  • Narrated by a young man or woman
  • Take the form of monologues addressed to the speaker's own heart
  • Alternation of male and female speakers
  • Lovers referred to as 'brother' or 'sister'

The Tale of Two Brothers

  • Central characters of Bata and Anubis
  • Based on a myth traditionally told in Upper Egypt
  • Written by the scribe Ennana
  • Dated late Dynasty XIX
  • Story recounts how Anubis' wife tries to seduce Anubis' brother Bata
  • When he rejects her, she falsely accuses him of beating her
  • Anubis tries to kill his brother, but Bata escapes
  • Anubis kills his brother's wife instead
  • Bata remarries but is murdered by his new wife
  • Bata is reincarnated as a bull but is slain
  • His blood helps the soil to produce two persea trees, a splinter of which causes his wife to become pregnant with the future king

The Report of Wenamun

  • On behalf of King Smendes, Wenamun is sent with linen, oils and other goods to purchase timber from Byblos for the sacred barque of Amun
  • While there he is robbed, mistreated and imprisoned
  • Wenamun complains to the king, demanding compensation
  • The story illustrates the decline of Egypt's prestige and power in the Near East during the late New Kingdom

Horus and Seth

  • Osiris and Seth were the sons of Geb and Nut
  • Osiris was popular because he taught the Egyptians how to farm
  • In a jealous rage, Seth tricked Osiris by locking him in a chest and throwing it into the Nile
  • Osiris was rescued by his wife Isis, but Seth found his body
  • Seth cut the body into pieces and scattered them throughout Egypt
  • Isis and her sister Nepthys found his remains and, with the help of Anubis, mummified him and brought him back to life
  • Osiris then became king of the underworld
  • Horus, his son, avenged his father's death and became king of Egypt