Study Guide for "Love Poems from the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt"


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These poems are taken from John L. Foster: Love Songs of the New Kingdom (New York: Scribner, 1974).

However, other editions are available. Barbara Hughes Fowler: Love Lyrics of Ancient Egypt (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
Ezra Pound and Noel Stock: Love Poems of Ancient Egypt (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions,1962).

The New Kingdom of ancient Egypt is still quite ancient; it began after the fall of the invading Hyksos around 1575 BCE and lasted until 1087 BCE. The numerous love poems from this period illuminate many of the attitudes of the Egyptians and seem to have been powerfully influential on other peoples, notably the Hebrews, whose own love poetry bears some striking resemblances to them. As is the case with most ancient verse, none of the authors' names are known. They lack titles, and are referred to here by their first lines.

Sometimes we think of the Egyptians as a gloomy, death-obsessed people; but that is only because we interpret them through the distorted lens of their tombs. The nobles among them at least yearned for an afterlife because they enjoyed this life too much to want to leave it. Their painting and poetry celebrates the pleasures of food, music, dance, and love.

"Once more you pass her house, deep in thought"
This poem strongly resembles a number of Roman poems in which the lover, prevented from being with his beloved for some reason, speaks to the door, blaming it for his plight. Each part of the door, threshold, frame, latch, etc. was thought to have its own divine spirit which one could pray to. In this poem it is not clear who has locked the door, but it may well be the woman's parents. As in the Roman poetry, none of this is taken very seriously; these are humorous complaints. Note the passage in the Song of Songs in which the frustrated lover similarly has to deal with a locked door. The poem is addressed by the poet to the lover, who then speaks. The longhorn is a cow which the lover is offering as a sacrifice to the doorlatch, if it will only give way. The other sacrifices include suet (grease) for the hinge sockets. Why is this a useful substance to give a socket? What kind of door does he suggest should replace the sturdy wooden one barring his way? What evidence is there that the lover thinks it is not his beloved who has locked him out? The last stanza returns to the narrative voice that began the poem and then quotes the beloved, confirming the lover's belief.

"Your love, dear man, is as lovely to me"
What senses are involved in the similes used to express what the man's love (lovemaking) is like? Can you categorize them into a couple of groups? Can you find any similar metaphors in the Song of Songs? Note that white bread was a luxury in antiquity, too expensive for the poor. The speaker here (and perhaps the poet) is a woman. What evidence is there that this is a poem to either her husband or would-be husband? "Lord" here has the non-religious sense of "master" or "husband." Based on what you know of ancient civilizations, is this woman more submissive or more assertive than women in other cultures?

"If I could just be the washerman"
It's difficult to tell whether this slightly kinky poem is serious, or slightly self-mocking, like a lot of Egyptian love poems. Note that he is not entirely fixated on his beloved's underwear.

"I just chanced to be happening by"
Another poem by a woman. How can we tell that she does not have an illicit affair in mind? What is preventing the two of them from getting together? Again, assess her assertiveness vs. her submissiveness. The "Golden Lady" is probably the cow-goddess Hathor mentioned below; she played a role in Egyptian mythology very similar to that of Aphrodite or Venus. Why does she feel that the night is shuddering? Can you find a passage in the Song of Songs where a woman boldly searches through the streets after her beloved?

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