Translation of 3,000-Year-Old Egyptian Will Reveals Family Disputes Similar to Today
Unlike ancient Latin and Greek texts, Egyptian hieroglyphs have been mostly inaccessible for the average ancient history enthusiast. But this is beginning to change with a collection of texts that have been translated into English for modern readers and put into one volume for the first time. Stories and legal documents included in the work paint a clearer picture of what everyday life was like for the ancient Egyptians.
The new book, called Writings from Ancient Egypt is the work of Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson, a fellow of Clare College at Cambridge University. Wilkinson created the volume to enable the general public to witness the beauty and, as the Guardian says “rich literary tradition” that was created over 3,500 years, and covers countless papyri and tomb walls. Wilkinson told The Guardian, “What will surprise people are the insights behind the well-known facade of ancient Egypt, behind the image that everyone has of the pharaohs, Tutankhamun’s mask and the pyramids.”
Stele of Minnakht, chief of the scribes during the reign of Ay (c. 1321 BC). (Clio20/CC BY SA 3.0)
One of the interesting items included within the collection is a will suggesting that family disputes are not a new phenomenon. The document, called The Will of Naunakht, tells the story of a woman who decided only some of her eight children should be recipients of her estate and clearly disinherits others for not taking care of her in her old age.
Naunakht was a woman who lived in Thebes at the end of the New Kingdom period. Her last will and testament was drawn in November 1147 BC – the third year of the reign of Ramesses V. She was married twice – first to a scribe and then to a tomb workman. Like other women in pharaonic Egypt she had legal rights that equaled her male counterparts. She chose to exercise her ability to dispose of her wealth in a manner that suited her, probably while increasing the familial turmoil that would surround her death. The translated will states:
“As for me, I am a free woman of the land of Pharaoh. I brought up these eight servants of yours and gave them a household – everything as is customarily done for those of their standing. But, look, I am grown old and, look, they do not care for me in turn. Whichever of them has given me a hand, to him will I give of my property; whichever has not, to him will I not give my property.” (Wilkinson, 2016)
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Egyptian woman carrying goods. Figurine from an 11th dynasty offering. (Titi Sitria/CC BY SA 3.0)
Not only does Naunakht go against the general practice of dividing her property equally amongst her offspring, she also specifies even more explicitly why some of the children were unworthy (for example one had already received and spent his “fair share” of copper vessels). The document says:
“And as for my copper cauldron which I gave to him to buy bread for himself and the copper tool […] and the copper vase […] and the copper adze […] – they shall comprise his share. He shall not share in any further copper; it shall go to his brothers and sisters.” (Wilkinson, 2016)
Perhaps even more surprising, Naunakht breaks a modern mother’s rule and shares the secret that they do play favorites with their children! Her preferred child was given her most valued asset - a bronze washing-bowl). The translation says: “She said, ‘I have given him a bronze washing-bowl as a bonus over and above his fellow and ten sacks of emmer.’ (Wilkinson, 2016)
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Finally, Naunakht’s last will and testament declares that the whole family had to reunite for a second legal hearing one year later to confirm their acceptance of her final wishes. Those who contested the will in the future could be recipients of a severe punishment - “a hundred blows” and his property.
Family Group of Three. Middle Kingdom limestone. (c. 1850-1800 BC) (Public Domain)
Some of the other texts in Writings from Ancient Egypt include: a tale of a shipwrecked sailor, a story on a giant snake which rules a magical island, inscriptions referring to a natural disaster, songs, and letters stressing prominent concerns and interests.
The Smithsonian suggests that the new book is a groundbreaking work, saying that:
“Before this new volume, the Egyptian Book of the Dead has been the most widely available text from ancient Egypt. While that collection is interesting and includes spells that give instructions to the dead on how to make it to the afterlife, it’s not easy reading. Unlike Greek myths or Roman epics, it does not offer non-academic readers much insight into daily Egyptian life or thought.”
Weighing of the heart scene, with Ammit sitting, from the book of the dead of Hunefer. (Public Domain)
Wilkinson has pointed out that there are some translations already available of some of the documents included in his collection, however he said that those translations were made well over 100 years ago, so they are difficult for most modern readers. However, by translating the texts himself, he said that “he was struck by human emotions to which people could relate today.”
Top Image: Part of the Book of the Dead of the scribe Nebqed, under the reign of Amenophis III (1391-1353 BC), 18th dynasty. Followed by his mother Amenemheb and his wife Meryt, Nebqed is depicted meeting the Egyptian god of the dead. Source: Public Domain