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Sebayit: Ancient Egypt’s Timeless Wisdom Literature

December 25, 2023
Photo credit: The Oriental Institute.

The ancient Egyptians pioneered many things from agriculture and astronomy to math and engineering. Notably, their invention of the hieroglyphic writing system allowed a glimpse into one of the world’s oldest civilizations. With came literature, and among the enduring forms is wisdom literature.

Ancient Egypt left behind a legacy of wisdom writings that continues to resonate. Referred to as Sebayit, these instructional texts provide a window into the cultural values and principles cherished mainly by Egypt’s upper classes or the literate elite.

These writings offer practical guidance for virtuous living, in both public and familial spheres. Through vivid scenarios, these texts articulate ethical standards and offer practical advice for shaping one’s character. Emphasizing honesty in commercial dealings, preserving one’s reputation and advocating respect for authorities, they highlight the importance of measured speech and fairness in financial transactions.

Framed as paternal advice from father to his son, Sebayit , often attributes the maxims to distinguished Egyptian officials. This serves to enhance the text’s authority and credibility, particularly among the esteemed upper classes. By associating wisdom literature with respected figures, the advice gains added weight, making it more likely to be heeded and respected.

Similar to wisdom literature in various cultural contexts, the core objective of is character formation. Sages aim to instill proper behavior in both family and public spheres, guiding individuals toward the correct “way of life”. Egyptian wisdom literature carries a didactic quality, with a primary focus on young individuals at an impressionable stage. These teachings cater to those whose critical-thinking skills are still developing and who may be susceptible to negative influences. It is highly likely that these instructions were incorporated into school curricula, serving as a means to impart character, literacy, and writing skills.

Thousands of years later, these wisdom teachings are still relevant to today’s society. For example take the maxim from the Instruction of Amenemope, which was written during the time of the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE).

“Do not be covetous for a single cubit of land, Nor encroach upon the boundaries of a widow. One who transgresses the furrow shortens a lifetime, One who seizes it for fields And acquires by deceptive attestations, Will be lassoed by the might of the Moon.”

“The might of the Moon” is a reference to Thoth, the Egyptian scribal god. Thoth is entrusted with overseeing all measurements and acts as a vigilant guardian, apprehending anyone involved in deceptive transactions.

The text comprises thirty chapters offering advice for a prosperous and meaningful life, purportedly scribed by Amenemope, the son of Kanakht. The wisdom is presented as a legacy, imparted from a father to his son, reflecting a timeless desire for passing down valuable guidance through generations.

“Do not set your heart upon seeking riches, for there is no one who can ignore Destiny and Fortune.”

“Set your good deeds throughout the world, that you may greet everyone.”

“Do not unbalance the scale nor make the weights false, nor diminish the fractions of the grain measure”

In all of these examples, Amenemope passes on his wisdom to his son, in the clear, concise format that is characteristic of sebayit.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Foundation.

Another important example is The Maxims of Good Discourse, or the Wisdom of Ptahhotep, which was written in the Old Kingdom (2649-2130 BCE):

 “He who listens is beloved of god. He who does not listen is hated by god. (It is) the heart (which) makes of its owner a listener or a non-listener.”

Here, Ptahhotep, a vizier who lived during the reign of King Djedkare Isesi of the Fifth Dynasty, around the years 2375–2350 BCE, advises his son on the importance of listening to others. 

In another maxim, the ancient Egyptian official again directs his son to be more composed in council.

“If you are a man / of trust, One who sits in the council of his lord, Direct your attention toward excellence. Your silence will be more profitable than babbling, So speak only when you know you are qualified (to do so). It is (only) the proficient who should speak in council, For speech is more difficult than any craft, And only the competent can endow it with authority.”

The tradition stands out for its remarkable continuity throughout the different ages. Scribes played a crucial role in perpetuating the teachings, consistently imparting maxims on righteous living, maintaining honesty, and achieving social prominence. 

The enduring appeal of these instructions is evident in the cross-cultural exchange extended beyond Egypt, spanning the ancient Near East and reaching into the Hellenistic period. 

Nowhere else in history can the world observe such a sustained and vibrant exchange of concise observations on how to conduct oneself.