Letters to the Dead in Ancient Egypt

One of the more interesting genre of ancient Egyptian literature comprises the so-called ‘Letters to the Dead.’  These letters were not affairs of the heart, to commune socially with the deceased, but were pragmatically employed by the living to a dead relative in order to seek assistance in addressing a particular wrong or problem.

The letters were usually written in hieratic (a cursive form of hieroglyphic) on the inside of a bowl, which probably contained an offering, and was placed at or in the deceased tomb.  There must have been thousands written, because the few remaining are dated from the Old Kingdom (about 2686-2181 BC)  to the late New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC) – spanning over 1500 years.

When studying Egyptology I found them to be amongst the most interesting of the texts remaining from Pharaonic times.  They are personal, immediate, and open a small window to the kinds of problems of a personal, family nature of the time.  No doubt, too, their composition and placement at the tomb of the addressee would have helped ease the frustration or anger of the person writing the letter.

Another genre that I liked working on was from the so-called Strike Papyrus, which was written during the Reign of Ramses III,  12th Century BCE (c.1198-1166 BCE)., as part of the daily Theban Diaries.   See  Food strikes in Ancient Egypt – The Turin Strike Papyrus, etc.

As for the letters to the dead, they were probably written onto the bowls by professional scribes  – a cadre of scribes who would have also sold their services in writing various kinds of letters to the living.  The fact that the remaining letters extend over a considerable period of time, over 1500 years, means that, as a corpus, they are written in the three major forms of ancient Egyptian – Old, Middle, and Late.  Each is characterized by its own grammar and hieratic script.  The differences can be considerable, as that between Chaucerian and modern English, or medieval and modern French.

Below are transcribed a couple of the letters – at the time I studied the bowls there was no internet, which now is a great aid in obtaining background, translations and photos.  We were given photocopies of pictures of the bowls, having to seek any additional help from the library ‘stacks’ – which at Berkeley are extensive.  Nevertheless, the writing (as you can see) is very faint…

Shepsi writes to his dead parents for help in a dispute over property. He writes on the inside of the bowl to his father, with a shorter message on the outside to his mother.

Letter to the Dead Parents of Shepsi, at Qau - Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology,University College London


(1) Shepsi speaks to his father Iinekhenmut.
(2) This is a reminder of your journey to the dungeon (?), to the place where Sen’s son Hetepu was, when you brought (3) the foreleg of an ox*, and when this your son came with Newaef, and when you said, Welcome, both of you. Sit and eat (4) meat! Am I to be injured in your presence, without this your son having done or said anything, by my brother ? (And yet) I was the one who buried him, I brought him from the dungeon (?), (5) I placed him among his desert tomb-dwellers, even though thirty measures of refined barley were due from him by a loan, and one bundle of garments, six measures of fine barley, (6) one ball (?) of flax, and a cup- even though I did for him what did not (need) to be done. He has done this against this your son evilly, evilly (7) – but you had said to this your son, ‘All my property is vested in my son Shepsi along with my fields’. Now (8)Sher’s son Henu has been taken. See, he is with you in the same city. (9) You have to go to judgement with him now, since your scribes are with (you) in the same city. (10) Can a man be joyful, when his spears are used [against his own son (??)] ?

* ‘Foreleg of an ox’ – A foreleg or a haunch were traditional gifts as well as offerings to the deceased.


(1) Shepsi speaks to his mother Iy.
(2) This is a reminder of the time that you said to this your son ‘Bring me quails for me to eat’, and when this your son brought to you (3) seven quails for you to eat. Am I to be injured in your presence, so that the children are badly discontent with this your son? (4) Who then will pour out water for you? If only you would judge between me and Sobekhotep! I brought him from another town, and placed him in his town (5) among his male and female dead, and gave him burial cloth. Why then is he acting against this your son, when I have said and done nothing, evilly, evilly? (6). Evil-doing is painful for the gods!

Source:  http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/qau/tombs/7695trans.html






About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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4 Responses to Letters to the Dead in Ancient Egypt

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