Diversity is one of our culture’s favorite buzzwords. We hear about the need for racial diversity, gender diversity, and class diversity. This is all good and useful. But there’s another kind of diversity that’s just as important, and which we rarely mention: era diversity. We should get to know people who lived a long time ago. That’s why I read Ancient Egyptian love poems.
When most of us think of Egypt, we imagine sand swept pyramids, mummies, faded hieroglyphics. We picture Egyptians like the paintings in their tombs: two-dimensional, stylized, and detached. They hardly seem real—until you read their poetry
The following poems are from the Ramesside period, between 1300 BC and 1100 BC. They were found on scraps of papyrus and shards of pottery. What’s particularly remarkable about them isn’t their age—it’s how normal they are.
By normal I mean how relatable their romantic love is for us today. Take the poem “My love is one and only” for example. It’s the simplest subject in all of poetry. A man describes a woman he’s in love with in the most elevated terms possible:
My love is one and only, without peer,
lovely above all Egypt’s lovely girls
On the horizon of my seeing,
see her, rising,
Glistening goddess of the sunrise star
bright in the forehead of a lucky year
So there she stands, epitome
of shining, shedding light . . .
The best part of the poem is the line describing the stares of the male teenagers as she walks through the town, “Schooling the neck of each schoolboy male/ to swing on a swivel to see her move.” Apparently, high school boys haven’t changed much through the centuries.
These details are why the poem, “I was simply off to see Nefrus my friend” is my favorite. It has such a mundane subject: a woman who has gone to visit her friend, only to bump into the man she secretly loves. The poem is charming, romantic, and painfully awkward. Anyone who’s ever gone to middle school will sympathize:
I was simply off to see Nefrus my friend,
Just to sit and chat at her place
When there, hot on his horses, comes Mehy
(oh god, I said to myself, it’s Mehy!)
Right over the crest of the road
wheeling along with the boys.
Oh Mother Hathor, what shall I do?
Don’t let him see me!
Where can I hide?
Make me a small creeping thing
to slip by his eye
(sharp as Horus’)
Oh, look at you, feet—
(this road is a river!)
you walk me right out of my depth!
Someone, silly heart, is exceedingly ignorant here—
aren’t you a little too easy near Mehy?
If he sees that I see him, I know
he will know how my heart flutters (Oh, Mehy!)
I know I will blurt out,
“Please take me!”
No, all he would do is brag out my name,
just one of the many . . . (I know) . . .
Mehy would make me just one of the girls
for all of the boys in the palace.
When I was sixteen, seeing my crush had the same affect on me. I wanted to turn into “a small creeping thing“ to slip her eye. I didn’t want to talk to her because I thought I’d blurt out something embarrassing.
And that’s the magic of reading old love poetry. Under all the layers of differences, the speaker and I still have a common humanity. We are different genders, different races, and different religions. We were raised in different societies separated by over three millennia.
But when it comes to young love, we understand each other.
By Matthew Mellema. Image via Wikimedia Commons.