The Westcar Papyrus and the Miracle Stories of the Old Kingdom
The Westcar Papyrus has afforded us the earliest series of wonder tales known to exist in the world; but it has also yielded the hint of a sudden revolution in Egyptian history. So writes James Baikie in a 1913 article for the National Geographic Magazine at a time when public interest in Ancient Egypt was surging (nine years later, Howard Carter would discover King Tut’s tomb). While a great deal more has been revealed about Ancient Egypt and about the rest of the world in the 100+ years since the article was published, Baikie’s words still speak to the marvel this artifact evokes. Believed to have been written during the Hyksos period of Ancient Egypt- a chaotic time between the end of the Middle Kingdom and the start of the New Kingdom – the document is at least 3,500 years old.
The Westcar Papyrus contains five miracle stories written in twelve columns of hieratic script. According to the text, the stories were told before the royal court of Pharaoh Cheops by his sons. The tales are thus set during the 4 th dynasty of Ancient Egypt- the so-called ‘golden age’ of the Old Kingdom. The document has been used as a literary resource for understanding court live during the 4 th dynasty, as is suggested in Baikie’s article. The five tales of the Westcar Papyrus are The Story of Imhotep; The Story of the Wax Crocodile; The Story of the Turquoise Pendant; The Story of Khufu and the Magician; and The Story of the Birth of the Three Pharaohs.
Statue of Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops) in the Cairo Museum ( public domain )
Given the artifact’s age, it should come as no surprise that some of the stories are incomplete. In addition to the wear and tear of time, the document was further worsened by the shoddy lamentation it underwent in the 1800s by archeologists who applied rudimentary techniques to try and preserve it. For instance, the first story, The Story of Imhotep, only has a few lines. They relate the tale of a miracle performed by a priest during the 3 rd dynasty, possibly Imhotep himself (Imhotep was the chancellor to the 3 rd dynasty Pharaoh Djoser and is considered the designer of the Step Pyramid of Djoser):
“Then his majesty the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Khufu said ‘let an offering be made of a thousand loaves of bread, a hundred jars of beer, one ox and two balls of incense to the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Djoser, justified, and let there be given one cake, one jug of beer, a large portion of meat and one ball of incense to the chief lector priest [Imhotep], as I have seen an example of his learning’. One did as everything as his majesty had ordered.” (Hill, 2016)
The famous step pyramid of Djoser ( public domain )
Due to the inferior quality of the handwriting and the numerous mistakes, some researchers believe the Westcar Papyrus to be a practice copy done by a student. This would dovetail the theory that the five stories were propaganda pieces created by the early priest-kings of the New Kingdom to legitimize their rule.
A good deal has been puzzled out about the origin and purpose of the Westcar Papyrus and yet the nature of its unearthing remains a mystery. The artifact was discovered in the 1820s by the British adventurer Henry Westcar during his travels in Egypt. Oddly, he did not note the circumstances of his discovery nor did he advertise his remarkable find.
Segments from the Westcar papyrus ( public domain )
A Prussian man named Karl Richard Lepsius, an Egyptologist, claims to have been given the document in 1838 by Westcar’s niece after recognizing the script as Hieratic (this is the story National Geographic briefly mentions in its article). Lepsius claims to have displayed the artifact in the Oxford Bodleian Library. However, there is no recording of Lepsius’ name in any of the Library’s documents. Moreover, the Westcar Papyrus, as it became known, was never seen by the public. Indeed, it was found shortly after Lepsius’ death stashed away in his attic. Historians believe that Lepsius stole the papyrus from the Westcars and tried to cover his tracks. In any case, a German Egyptologist, Adolf Erman, bought the artifact in 1886 from Lepsius’ son and subsequently donated it to the Museum of Berlin. It was displayed as a curiosity until interest in Ancient Egypt reemerged in the early 20 th century.