A story about today written three thousand years ago
Plague is everywhere. Rivers have turned to blood.
The sky rained burning hail. All the crops are in flames.
The heart of every animal weeps. Darkness envelops the land.
In every house, the firstborn child has died.
Pillars of fire reach up to the sky and guide us through the night.
Former slaves now wear all the gold.
— Principal exclamations from the Ipuwer Papyrus,
or, The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage
from a Hieratic Papyrus in the Leiden Museum (1909)
You have told lies,
and the land is a weed which destroys men,
and none can count on life.
— Ipuwer to the Egyptian king, c. 1800 BC
It was its relationship to the Exodus story that kept interest alive in an obscure ancient Egyptian papyrus which remained untranslatable for almost a century in a Netherlands museum. But it was not until Egyptology evolved to its present level of expertise that the full import of this legendary but tattered fragment recounting the horrible demise of ancient Egypt's Middle Kingdom could finally be heard.
The Ipuwer papyrus first gained notice as the historical confirmation of the remark attributed to Moses in Exodus 7:20 about "rivers of blood." The Old Testament version gently defers to the reader's imagination; the Ipuwer papyrus chronicles every agonizing act of desperation in the long lasting torture of a civilization torn to pieces by human jackals after unprecedented natural catastrophes had rocked the whole world.
The actual connection of the two stories, however, has been discounted by most scholars as not the same version of plagues described by Moses in the Old Testament. Thus, while written in likely proximity in terms of centuries, the observations of Moses and Ipuwer were not simultaneous in time, though the words of both rank among the most important statements in the world's early literature.
The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage from a Hieratic Papyrus was ultimately translated by famed Egyptologist Alan Gardiner in 1909 after almost century of detective work by a devoted cadre of scholars.
Henry Zecher's 1997 refutation of the conclusions of Velikovsky about the Ipuwer papyrus reveals how interest in the strange story was rekindled when the maverick cosmologist Immanuel Velikovsky went looking for it for its descriptions of a period of celestial catastrophes in the 2nd millennium BC, and Ipuwer furnished firsthand evidence. Zecher's opinion was that Moses and Ipuwer were close in time but not simultaneous, and that Velikovsky took liberties with his interpretations.
But the intriguing buzz about this obscure document is nothing compared to the document itself, a stark description of the agony of a society devolving in blood, injustice and cruelty right before your eyes. In a work of macabre beauty, it hits way too close to home. Listen . . .
Behold, it has befallen that the land
has been deprived of the kingship by a few lawless men.
Behold, a man is slain beside his brother,
who runs away and abandons him to save his own skin.
. . . whoever or whatever he was, one thing is clear: "Ipuwer was no dispassionate onlooker at the evils which he records. He identifies himself with his hearers in the question what shall we do concerning it? evoked by the spectacle of the decay . . . the occupation of the Delta by foreigners, and the murderous hatred of near relatives for one another . . . ."
Ipuwer is the first sage on record to directly confront the king with the misery he may have caused. After describing rebellion and loose tongues all around him, "the Sage Ipu-wer himself takes advantage of the freedom of speech he notices as a bad symptom in the maidservants. He blames the king. He compels him to defend himself and concludes by saying that what the King has done, though perhaps good, is not good enough."36
Finally, Ipuwer blames the overthrow of his kingdom on both Asiatics and Egyptians alike. Egyptians in the Middle Kingdom hired foreigners to serve as frontier police. It apparently worked well on Egypt's southern frontier, but in the north the frontier police appear to have collaborated with the Asiatics in that Asiatics had assumed greater and greater administrative control over the northern regions and used Egyptian officials.4
The Egyptian priest Manetho is quoted by Zecher:
" . . . for what cause I know not, a blast of God smote us; and unexpectedly, from the regions of the east, invaders of obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land. By main force, they easily seized the rulers of the land, they then burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of the gods, and treated all the natives with a cruel hostility, massacring some and leading into slavery the wives and children of others."50
My judgment is that Western scholars down through time have bent over backwards to make their reports on ancient events conform to the acceptable religious orthodoxy of their time, so that when these essays belittle or deride pagan sources for their ignorance, what is being seen is xenophobic sarcasm generated by orthodox Christian propaganda.
What follows is my redaction of this ancient document, reduced to simple contemporary language from the archaic structures of the hieratic (which is a shorthand hieroglyphic) text. For sheer enjoyment and to verify my condensation, I highly recommend reading the whole text. It's not long, but very vivid.
THE IPUWER PAPYRUS
Condensed 21st century AD version
of a 2nd millennium BC document
1. Society is falling apart. Everyone says 'steal while we can'. A man regards his son as an enemy. The virtuous man mourns as strangers arrive. The plunderer is everywhere and the servant takes what he finds. The women are barren. The land will not support life.
2. Poor men are now rich. Hearts are violent, pestilence is throughout the land, blood is everywhere. Many dead are in the river. Every town says: "Kill the powerful." The river is blood, yet men drink of it.
3. Barbarians from abroad have come to Egypt. Servants wear jewels, the dead wear rags. Those who were in the sacred bark (religious vessel) are now yoked to it. The palace is spoiled. Laughter has perished.
4. Every corpse was a hard worker. It was the noise, years of noise, no end of noise. Now everyone's hair falls out. Rich and poor wish to die. Children wish they had not been born. Everyone slaves at the grindstones. Trees are felled and branches stripped off.
5. All envy the food of others. . . . . the children of princes are dashed against walls . . . A man strikes his brother. The roads are being watched. People are being robbed and murdered. The hot tempered man says, 'If I knew where God was, I would serve him.'.
6. Food is stolen from the mouths of pigs. Everyone is naked. Society is in shambles. All is stolen from the government. [scribes] are killed and their writings are taken away. The legislature is now a tourist attraction.
7. The fire has gone up high. The rabble have destroyed the king. The pyramids have been plundered.
Egypt is fallen to pouring of water, [this is the story of The Flood] and he who poured water on the ground has carried off the strong man in misery. Behold, the land has knotted itself up with confederacies, and the coward takes the brave man's property.
8. The poor have become rich. Self-serving men rule. New gods arrive. Righteous women trade their children for beds. Priests steal cattle. Leaders flee.
9. Those who had beds now sleep on the ground. Pirates grow fat. All are adversaries. Friends are enemies.
10. Commoners beg for food. Lower Egypt weeps. Men come and tell us to leave.
11. Remember to remember the good life we had. The sun once rose in the West. The frightened man is not distinguished from the violent one.
12. He brings coolness upon heat; men say: "He is the herdsman of mankind, and there is no evil in his heart." Though his herds are few, yet he spends a day to collect them, their hearts being on fire.
Would that he had perceived their nature in the first generation; then he would have imposed obstacles, he would have stretched out his arm against them, he would have destroyed their herds and their heritage. Men desire the giving of birth, but sadness supervenes, with needy people on all sides. So it is, and it will not pass away while the gods who are in the midst of it exist. Seed goes forth into mortal women, but none are found on the road.
13. Does a herdsman desire death? Then may you command reply to be made, because it means that one loves, another detests; it means that their existences are few everywhere; it means that you have acted so as to bring those things to pass. (This is Ipuwer talking to the king.)
You have told lies, and the land is a weed which destroys men, and none can count on life. All these years are strife, and a man is murdered on his housetop even though he was vigilant in his gate lodge. Is he brave and saves himself? It means he will live.
14. It is better to be a slave, and have a place to lay your head. But in this position, men cannot defend themselves. In this state is the end of them.
15. How does a man kill his brother? These Asiatic troops we hired are eating all our food.
16. What Ipuwer said when he addressed the Majesty of the Lord of All: [. . .] all herds. It means that ignorance of it is what is pleasing to the heart. You have done what was good in their hearts and you have nourished the people with it. They cover their faces through fear of the morrow.
That is how a man grows old before he dies, while his son is a lad of understanding; he does not open [his] mouth to speak to you, but you seize him in the doom of death [. . .] weep [. . .] go [. . .] after you, that the land may be [. . .] on every side.
17. This broken tablet only warned of future plunderers breaking into the tombs and desecrating the corpses of the nobles.
And there the Ipuwer papyrus breaks off. Zecher writes:
What became of our friend the scribe is not known. That the Admonitions ended with this last verse was argued by Gardiner on the grounds that, like the Dispute Over Suicide, it ends with the question of "whether life or death is preferable..." And Gardiner's comment on verse 16,1 is poignant:
"The concluding words of Ipuwer, if such they be, are by no means so clear as we could wish.
"The Egyptians are apparently likened to cattle, for whom ignorance is bliss. The sage now turns to the king: thou hast done what is good in their hearts. Thou has nourished them with it(?).
"These words can hardly be understood otherwise than ironically; the king has fostered misery and without will or intelligence to better their condition. The last sentence may perhaps be guessed to mean: they veil their faces(??) because of the fear of tomorrow, that is, they fear to look the future in the face.
"At all events the phrase fear of tomorrow touches the keynote of the book, and may very appropriately be its last utterance: today sorrow is everywhere; unless people mend their ways, what hope can they have for tomorrow?"87
References and endnotes:
The Admonitions of Ipuwer
The Payrus Ipuwer, Egyptian Version of the Plagues — A New Perspective
The Ten Plagues of Egypt
Exodus 9: How Moses sent the plagues to Egypt
Note on stanzas 11 and 12 (from Zecher):
Gardiner's interpretation of the Ipuwer verse might be favored over Velikovsky's, but there are the Magical Papyrus Harris, the inscription in Horemhab's tomb, and the panel in Senmut's mortuary, to consider. It is also worth noting that ancient literature abounds with references to the sun reversing its direction in the sky. Plato in Statesman and Laws, Euripides in Electra and Orestes, Senaca in Thyestes, and Caius Julius Solinus in Polyhister, among others, all mention a time when the sun rose in the west before changing its direction to rise in the east.
Thus, after the king, the scribe was perhaps the single most important person in Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt. This makes Roberts' last point compelling: "'The Satire of the Trades,' a poem written several hundred years after the fall of the Old Kingdom, tells how the scribes lorded themselves over barbers, potters, arrow makers, and other rival tradesmen... 'There's nothing better than books!/It's like a boat on water.' 'See, there's no profession without a boss,/Except for the scribe; he is the boss.'"78
One must wonder if retribution brought on by such arrogance is not part of the reason why Ipuwer now fears for his life: "Indeed, scribes are killed and their writings are taken away. Woe is me because of the misery of this time" (6,8).
It is at this point that Ipuwer utters his "Messianic" longing for the ideal king who will rule with benevolence and justice. This is the section, appearing out of the large lacuna on page 11, that [Egyptologist James Henry] Breasted called "the most important passage in the entire speech of the sage, and one of the most important in the whole range of Egyptian literature."84
"Behold, why does he seek(?) to fashion men? The frightened man is not distinguished from the violent one. He [the supreme god] brings coolness upon heat; men say: 'He is the herdsman of mankind, and there is no evil in his heart.' though his herds are few, yet he spends a day to collect them, their hearts being on fire(?). Would that he had perceived their nature in the first generation; then he would have imposed obstacles, he would have stretched out his arm against them, he would have destroyed their herds and their heritage. Men desire to give birth(?), but sadness intervenes, with needy people on all sides. So it is, and it will not pass away while the gods who are in the midst of it exist. Seed goes forth into mortal women, but none are found on the road. Combat has gone forth, and he who would be a redresser of evils is one who commits them; neither do men act as pilot in their hour of duty. Where is he today? Is he asleep? Behold, his power is not seen" (11,11-12,6)
The ancient words of Ipuwer tell all.
So it is, and it will not pass away while the gods who are in the midst of it exist.