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The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor

Author:R Kay Ologist
Date: 2015-03-02 02:51:30
Tags:The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor

When the word ‘hieroglyphs’ is mentioned, most people think of the pretty pictures that are seen on the walls of temples and tombs, but the ancient Egyptian language was not just retricted to these places. Ancient Egyptian was a proper language with grammar, tenses, gender, and every other ways of communicating that we take for granted nowadays. Many books, stories, tales, myths, poems and lists were written down, quite often on papyrus, and some of these have survived, allowing Egyptologists to translate them to help us understand more about the ancient peoples.

One ancient book was called ‘The Tale of Sinuhe’ and it became a Hollywood movie, called ‘The Egyptian’ in 1954, after first being adapted into a book called ‘Sinuhe the Egyptian’ by Mika Waltari nine years earlier. ‘The Tale of Sinuhe’ dates back to about the 12th Dynasty and is considered the best, surviving, ancient Egyptian book.

‘The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor‘ dates back to the Middle Kingdom and the best copy can be found at the Imperial Museum in St. Petersburg, though other copies, or parts of copies, are in other museums. It has been translated many times, by many different people, but the version below is the one translated by William Kelly Simpson in his book ‘The Literature of Ancient Egypt’.

“Then the able retainer spoke:
Be of good cheer, commander;
We have now reached home.
The mallet has been taken off, the mooring post driven in,
The bowline cast ashore.
Praise has been offered, and God has been thanked.
Every man embraces his comrade.
Our shipmates have returned safe
Without loss to our expedition.
After we reached the limits of Wawat,
We passed the island of Senmet.
See us now, we are returning safely,
And we are reaching our land.

Listen now to me, commander,
I do not exaggerate.
Wash up, place water on your fingers
So you can reply when you are questioned,
So you can speak to the king with confidence,
So you can answer without stammering.
The speech of a man can save him,
And his words can cause indulgence for him.
Yet do only as you wish; for speaking to you is tiresome.

Now I shall tell you something similar
Which happened to me myself.
I went to the mining region for the Sovereign.
I went down to the Great Green
In a ship 120 cubits long and 40 cubits wide.
120 sailors were aboard from the best of Egypt.
Whether they looked at the sky or looked at the land,
Their hearts were braver than lions.

They could tell a storm before it came
And a tempest before it happened.
But a storm came up while we were on the Great Green,
Before we could touch land,
And the wind picked up and howled.
A wave of 8 cubits was in it.
As for the mast, I grasped it.
Then the ship died, and of those who were in it
There did not remain a single one.
I was placed on an island by a wave of the Great Green,
And I spent 3 days alone, my heart as my companion.
I lay down within a shelter of wood,
And I embraced the shade.
Next I stretched my legs
To find what I could put in my mouth.

There I found figs and grapes
And all kinds of good vegetables.
Sycamore figs were there together with notched ones,
And cucumbers as if they were cultivated.
Fish were there with fowl.
There was nothing that was not in it.
Then I gorged myself, and I put some on the ground
Because of the abundance in my hands.
I removed the fire drill when I had lighted a fire,
And I made a burnt offering to the gods.

Next I heard the sound of thunder,
And I thought it was a wave of the Great Green.
The trees were shaking and the ground quaking.
When I uncovered my face,
I found it was a serpent about to come.
He was 30 cubits long,
And his beard was larger than 2 cubits.
His body was covered with gold,
His eyebrows were of real lapis lazuli,
And he was coiled up in front.

He opened his mouth toward me,
While I was on my belly in front of him.
He said to me:
Who has brought you, who has brought you, citizen,
Who has brought you?
If you delay in telling me
Who has brought you to this island,
I shall have you know yourself as ashes,
Turned into someone invisible.
You spoke to me, but I could not hear.
While I was before him,
I did not know myself.
Then he set me in his mouth
And took me off to his resting place.
He set me down without touching me.
I was intact without his taking anything from me.

He opened his mouth toward me,
While I was on my belly before him.
Then he said to me:
Who has brought you, who has brought you, citizen,
Who has brought you to this island of the Great Green,
The two sides of which are under water?
Then I answered him,
My arms bent before him.

I said to him:
It was I who came down to the mining country
On a mission of the Sovereign
In a ship 120 cubits long and 40 cubits wide.
120 sailors were in it from the best of Egypt.
Whether they looked at the sky or looked at the land,
Their hearts were braver than lions.
They could tell a storm before it came,
Each one of them, his heart was braver,
And his arm more valiant than his companions.
There was no fool among them.

Then a storm came forth while we were on the Great Green,
Before we could set to land.
The wind picked up and kept on howling.
A wave of 8 cubits was in it.
As for the mast, I grasped onto it.
Then the ship died, and of those who were in it
Not a single one remained except for me.
See me now at your side.
Next I was placed on this island
By a wave of the Great Green.

Then he said to me:
Do not fear, do not fear, citizen,
Do not turn white, for you have reached me.
See, God has allowed you to live:
He has brought you to this island of the spirit.
There is not anything which is not in it.
It is filled with all fine things.
See, you shall spend month after month
Until you complete 4 months within this island.
A boat shall return from the Residence,
Sailors in it whom you know.
You shall go with them to the Residence,
And you shall die in your town.
How joyful is one who relates what he has experienced
After painful matters have passed by.
I shall now relate to you something similar
Which took place on this island
When I was on it with my siblings,
Children among them.
We amounted to 75 serpents,
Including my children and my brothers and sisters.
Without my mentioning to you a little daughter
Brought to me through wisdom.

Then a star fell,
And because of it these went up in fire.
It happened utterly.
But I was not with them when they burned;
I was not among them.
Then I died for them
When I found them as a single heap of corpses.

If you would be brave, and your heart strong,
You will fill your arms with your children,
You will kiss your wife, you will see your house.
It is better than anything.
You will reach home where you were
Among your siblings!
I was stretched out on my belly,
I touched the ground in his presence.

But I say to you:
I shall relate your might to the Sovereign,
I shall have him learn of your greatness.
I shall have brought to you ladanum, oil,
Spice, balsam, and incense of the temples
With which every god is pleased.
I shall tell what has happened to me
And what I have seen of his fame.
You will be thanked in the city
In the presence of the officials of the entire land.
I shall slaughter oxen for you as a burnt offering.
I will have the necks of fowl wringed for you.
I shall have barges brought to you
Laden with all the products of Egypt,
As should be done for a god who loves men
In a far-off land which men do not know.

Then he laughed at me for what I had said
In his opinion foolishly.
He said to me:
You do not have much myrrh,
Although you have become an owner of incense.
I am, sir, the Prince of Punt.
Myrrh belongs to me.
That oil which you said will be brought,
It is the main product of this island!

Now it shall happen
When you separate yourself from this place,
You will never see this island again,
Since it will be submerged under waves.

Then that boat returned, as he had predicted before.
I went and set myself on top of a tall tree,
And I recognized those who were in it.
Then I went to report it,
And I found him knowing it already.

He said to me:
In good health, in good health, citizen, off to your house.
You shall see your children.
Make a good reputation for me in your city.
This is my only request from you.

I placed myself upon my belly,
My arms bent in his presence.
He gave me a load of myrrh, oil, ladanum, spice,
Cinnamon, aromatics, eye-paint, giraffe tails,
Large cakes of incense, ivory tusks,
Hounds, apes, baboons, and all fine products.
Then I loaded them onto the boat,
And I was placed on my belly to thank him.

He said to me:
You shall reach the Residence in 2 months,
You shall fill your arms with your children.
You will become young again at home, until your burial.

Then I went down to the shore in the vicinity of this boat,
And I called out to the expeditionary force which was in the boat.
I gave praise upon the shore to the lord of this island,
And those who were in it likewise.

We sailed north to the Residence of the Sovereign,
And we reached the Residence in 2 months,
According to everything he had said.
Then I entered before the Sovereign
And I presented him with these gifts
Which I had brought from within this island.
Then he thanked me before the officials of the entire land.
I was appointed retainer, and granted 200 servants.

See me after I landed,
After I have seen what I experienced.
Listen to my words. It is good for men to hearken.
Then he said to me:
Do not be so proper, friend.
What is the use of giving water to the fowl at daybreak
When it is to be killed in the morning?

It has come from beginning to end as found in writing,
In the writing of the scribe, skilled with his fingers,
Ameny’s son Amen-aa, may he live, prosper, and be in health.”


  • A quarrying, mining, or maybe even a military expedition, has just returned from the south, up the Nile, and the commander seems to be depressed at the thought of facing the king after a mission that was unproductive. His ‘able retainer’, or chief aide, attempts to pacify him.
  • Wawat is northern Nubia.
  • Senmet is the island of Biggeh, in the area of the First Cararact, just south of Aswan.
  • A cubit is about 20.6 inches or .523 meters, so therefore the ship would have been about 204 feet long and 68 feet wide The length being three times the breadth is usual in the ancient past.
  • The repetition that often occurs is common in all ancient literature.
  • The ‘Island of the Spirit’ is an enchanted island.
  • Egyptians would never consider being buried in a foreign land: it was totally repugnant to them.
  • The picture, at the top of the page, shows the first 7 lines of the story in hieroglyphs.


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