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Tale of the shipwrecked sailor

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The tale of the shipwrecked sailor is a Middle Kingdom account of an Ancient Egyptian voyage to "the King's mines" (location unspecified). The papyrus containing the story was found in the Imperial Museum in St. Petersburg and there is no information about where it was originally found.[1] In this case we know the name of the scribe (Amenaa) who copied it and who claimed to be "excellent of fingers" despite a few slips in the copying.[2]

It is the first in the tradition of castaway stories, of which the best-known are the stories of Sinbad and Robinson Crusoe. The tale expresses the fears castaways experience, the loneliness and the fear of dying in a foreign country, a recurrent theme in Egyptian literature.


The tale itself begins with a framing device in which an attendant or "Follower" (conventionally—although not in the papyrus—referred to as "the sailor") tries to comfort his master ("Mayor", although it has been suggested that both might be of equal status[3]), who is returning from an apparently failed expedition and is anxious about how the king will receive him. The attendant reassures him,[4] advising him on how to behave before the king, and repeating the proverb, "The mouth of a man saves him".[5] To encourage his master, he tells a tale of a previous voyage of his in which he overcame disaster, including meeting with a god and the king.

The sailor then describes how his ship, manned by one hundred and twenty (some translations have one hundred and fifty) sailors, had sunk in a storm and how he alone had survived and was washed up on an island. There he finds shelter and food (he says "there was nothing that was not there").[6] While making a burnt offering to the gods, he hears thunder and feels the earth shake and sees a giant serpent approach him. The serpent asks him three times who had brought him to the island. When the sailor cannot answer, the serpent takes him to where it lives and asks the question three times more. The sailor repeats his story, now saying that he was on a mission for the king.

The serpent tells him not to fear and that god has let him live and brought him to the island, and that after four months on the island he will be rescued by sailors he knows and will return home. The serpent then relates a tragedy that had happened to him, saying that he had been on the island with seventy-four of his kin plus a daughter, and that a star fell and "they went up in flames through it".[7] In some translations, the daughter survives; in others, she perishes with the rest. The serpent advises the sailor to be brave and to control his heart, and if he does so, he will return to his family.

The sailor now promises the serpent that he will tell the king of the serpent's power and will send the serpent many valuable gifts, including myrrh and other incense. Laughing at him, the serpent says that the sailor is not rich, but that he (the serpent) is Lord of Punt and that the island is rich in incense, and that when the sailor leaves he will not see the island again as it will become water. The ship arrives and the serpent asks him to "make me a good name in your town" and gives him many precious gifts including spices, incense, elephants' tusks, greyhounds and baboons.

The sailor returns home and gives the king the gifts he took from the island, and the king makes him an attendant and gives him serfs. The tale ends with the master telling the narrator, "Do not make the excellent [that is, do not act arrogant] my friend; why give water to a goose [literally, bird] at dawn before its slaughtering in the morning?"[8]

Commentary and analysis

John Baines writes that the interpretation of the story has moved from seeing it as a simple folk tale to "one of a complex, many-layered narrative in which the traveller moves in space and time to the limit of the cosmos, to a mythical place where he encounters a primordial god who relates to him a moralized vision of the end of the cosmos, and then returns to Egypt." Richard Mathews writes that this "oldest fantasy text contains archetypal narrative of the genre: an uninitiated hero on a sea journey is thrown off course by a storm, encounters an enchanted island, confronts a monster, and survives, wiser for the experience." He also points out that the monster is the prototype for "the greatest fantasy monster of all time - the dragon, sometimes called the 'wurm'."[9]


  1. Lichtheim, Miriam Ancient Egyptian Literature University of California Press 1975 ISBN 978-0-520-02899-9 p211. [1]
  2. Parkinson, Richard B.; Stephen Quirke Papyrus University of Texas Press 1995 ISBN 978-0-292-76563-4 p.29 [2]
  3. Egyptian Literary Compositions of the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period[3]
  4. Parkinson, R.B. The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940-1640 B.C. Oxford University Press 1999 ISBN 978-0-19-283966-4 p89. [4]
  5. Baines, John "Interpreting the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor" The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 76 (1990), pp. 55-72 [5]
  6. Lichtheim, Miriam Ancient Egyptian Literature University of California Press 1975 ISBN 978-0-520-02899-9 p212 [6]
  7. Lichtheim, Miriam Ancient Egyptian Literature University of California Press 1975 ISBN 978-0-520-02899-9 p213 [7]
  8. Rendsburg, Gary A. "Literary Devices in the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor" Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 120, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 2000), pp. 13-23
  9. Mathews, Richard Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination Routledge 2002 ISBN 978-0-415-93890-7 p6 [8]

Further reading

  • George Bass (2004). A History of Seafaring. Walker and Company. ISBN 0-8027-0390-9. 
  • Bradbury, Louise. (1984–1985). "The Tombos Inscription: A New Interpretation." Serapis, 8, 1–20.
  • Bradbury, Louise. (1996). "Kpn-boats, Punt Trade, and a Lost Emporium." Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, 33, 37–60.
  • Kitchen, Kenneth A. (1993). "The Land of Punt." In Thurstan Shaw et al. (eds.), The Archaeology of Africa. London: Routledge, 587–608.
  • Segert, Stanislav. (1994). "Crossing the Waters: Moses and Hamilcar." Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 53, 195–203.
  • Redmount, Carol A. (1995). "The Wadi Tumilat and the 'Canal of the Pharaohs'." Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 54, 127–35.

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Tale of the shipwrecked sailor. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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