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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 1 - Epic Poetry  


An Egyptian Tale from the l5th Century B. C.

Egyptian folktales are likely to be the first of their kind to be written down, because of the Egyptians' theory of the hereafter, which they imagined as a precise extension of this world, but without its attendant vices. Consequently, the burial rites of ancient Egypt included enclosing with the dead body the means of perpetuating the pleasures of this world in the next, often including a written tale to be savored in the hereafter. These short tales ultimately provided models for later full-scale epics.

Recorded Egyptian history begins around 2700 B.C., reaching a height of influence in the era known as the 18th Dynasty, between 1500 and 1400 B. C., when the pharoah Menkheperre Thut-mose III (c. 1502-1448) colonized Canaanite and Syrian territories in the Near East while collecting tribute from cities of the Aegean as well. One commemoration of this era of conquest is the tale of the capture of Joppa (modern Jaffa, on the Israeli coast), which employs a motif that spread abroad and eventually reappeared not only in the literature of antiquity but also in the great medieval collection of Arabic stories, the tales of A Thousand and One Nights.

Scholars do not know if this tale is historically accurate, part of a general's biography written to glorify his deeds, or pure fiction, composed to amuse the king and his entourage in the palace. Clearly, however, the wide-ranging military campaigns of Egypt in the 18th Dynasty provided the setting for "The Capture of Joppa." The story is about Thoth, here called Djehuty, the Egyptian general of Thut-mose III, who, unable to penetrate the walled city of Joppa by conventional means, had to resort to subterfuge.

The story begins outside the walls of the city with the Egyptian general entertaining his host, the Prince of Joppa, who apparently wanted to see the great staff of the Egyptian Emperor. Thoth not only showed him the staff, but also struck him with it. Next, he filled two hundred baskets, each one with a soldier and his equipment. By deceitfully convincing the authorities of the city that Djehuty had surrendered to the Prince of Joppa and the baskets were the tribute to the prince's wife, the concealed soldiers were brought into the city. Once the Egyptians were behind the fortifications, the city was captured for the great glory of the Egyptian Emperor.

Because of its great age, the papyrus manuscript of this story is difficult to decipher. Modern translators have therefore had to make many guesses and fill in many gaps. That accounts for the occasional bracketed phrases and ellipses in the story as presented here, which has been translated and prepared for student use by Professor Sharon R. Keller.

The Taking of Joppa (1)

. . . Moreover, after an hour they were drunk, and Djehuty said to [the Rebel (2) of Joppa: I will surrender] myself together with my wife and my children to your town for yourself. Allow the charioteers to have the chariot-horses enter (the city) and give them sustenance lest one of the Apyr may pass by . . . (3) So the chariot-horses were protected, and they gave them fodder . . . .

The Rebel of Joppa said to Djehuty: It is my heart's desire to see the great scepter of the King Menkheperre--life, prosperity, health--by the soul of King Menkheperre, it will be yours today. You bring it to me, and he did so. He brought the scepter of King Menkheperre [in] his apron. He stood upright and said: Look at me Rebel of Joppa, here (4) is the King Menkheperre--life, prosperity, health. The Courageous Lion, The Son of Sakhemet, Amon has given him his strength. He raised up his hand and hit the Rebel of Joppa upon his temple so he fell prostrate before him. He put him in manacles, and a clamp of copper was attached to his feet.

He had the 200 baskets which he had made brought, and he caused 200 soldiers to descend into them. They took arms full of ropes and manacles and were sealed shut into them. (Others) were supplied with sandals and carrying-poles and the best soldiers were carrying them, totaling 500 men. They were told: When you enter the town release your companions and seize all the people who are in the town, and put them in ropes immediately.

Someone came out to say to the charioteer of the Rebel of Joppa: Thus says your Lord, "Go tell your mistress 'Let your heart be glad Seth has given us Djehuty, together with his wife and his children. See, here is the start of their servitude.' Say this to her with regard to the 200 baskets which were filled with people, manacles and ropes."

Then he went ahead of them to gladden the heart of his mistress saying: We have captured Djehuty! The gates of the city were opened before the soldiers. They entered the city, they released their companions. Thus they seized the city, the young and the old. They immediately put them in ropes and manacles. So the powerful arm of the Pharaoh captured the city.

That night, Djehuty sent to Egypt, to the King Menkheperre--life, prosperity, health--his Lord saying: Gladden your heart, Amon, your good father, gave to you the Rebel of Joppa together with all of his people and likewise his city. Send people to take them captive so you may fill the domain of your father Amon-Re, King of the Gods, with both male and female slaves who have fallen under your two feet for ever and ever.

It comes to its end happily.

Questions for Discussion

  1. The murder of a host by his invited guest is not customary for any people of the ancient world. Since "The Taking of Joppa" tells a story so contrary to the rules of hospitality, it became an important addition to the treasury of the epic repertoire. What other violations of the host-guest relationship have you encountered in your study of epic poetry?
  2. "The Taking of Joppa" demonstrates that even before the Assyrians introduced equipment for penetrating fortified places, walled cities were not invincible. A famous Homeric use of the stratagem of conquering an enemy city by introducing concealed warriors may hint at the early influence of Egyptian sources on Greek culture. How would you compare the conduct of Odysseus in engineering the entry of the Trojan Horse into Troy with this fragmentary account of Thoth's action?
  3. What is the effect of the repetition of the formula "life, prosperity, health!" after references to the pharoah?
  4. Why would the pharoah send his scepter with a general on a mission?
  5. This ancient tale anticipates a specific episode in the medieval Arabic collection of stories called A Thousand and One Nights. The locale is different since the latter occurs in a certain town of Persia, but the theme is the same. What does this suggest about the way literary influences traveled throughout the East Mediterranean region?


1. This text was prepared from the heiroglyphic transcription found in A. H. Gardiner, Late Egyptian Stories, 1932.

2. According to the conventions of the Egyptian text, the ruler of the opposing city is referred to as "Rebel" rather than "Prince."

3. With the intention of stealing one of the horses.

4. The scepter stood as the representation of the king's presence in battle.


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