Category Archives: Egyptian Didactic Tale

(c. 1937-1759 B.C.)

from Dialogue of a Man with His Soul


The didactic tale “Dialogue of a Man With His Soul,” also referred to as “A Debate Between a Man Tired of Life and His Soul” or “A Dispute over Suicide,” is believed to have been composed sometime during the 12th Dynasty (1937–1759 B.C.) of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt (2040–1759 B.C.), probably toward its end. The only copy of the papyrus scroll that survived is incomplete: the beginning of the text is missing and numerous lacunae make this text very difficult to translate, inviting sharp differences in interpretation. While scholars do not agree about the overall meaning of this masterpiece of the Egyptian literature, almost all, if not all, do agree that a man is tired of his life and is expressing his wish to go to the West, to the afterlife. His ba, most commonly translated as “soul,” is not willing to help him.

The Old Kingdom (c. 2700–2200 B.C.) had been under tight control by the pharaohs of the Fourth through the Sixth Dynasties and had seen Egypt reach the height of its material wealth and intellectual powers; earthly success and wealth were emphasized in its pragmatic, materialistic culture, and immortality could be assured with an imposing tomb, an ample mortuary endowment, the momentum of earthly success, and the favor of the divine king, the pharaoh. During that period, Egypt was subject to neither external threats from other groups nor internal instability, although after the end of the Fourth Dynasty the royal power had been gradually becoming more earthly than divine. However, with the death of Pepi II of the Sixth Dynasty, sometime around 2180—after what tradition claims was a 90-year reign—the Old Kingdom had begun to crumble, giving way to the anarchy of feuding warlords, ubiquitous violence, foreign incursion by displaced Asiatics (a focus of blame at the time), and above all intense internal strains. Responsible government had collapsed, and even the pyramids had been robbed of property belonging to the dead. Following this collapse, the First Intermediate Period had been an era of sudden and extreme disruption, its literature voicing bewilderment and despair as the stability of the Egyptian world was being overturned. This First Intermediate Period lasted until Egypt was reunited in the Eleventh Dynasty, about 2040 B.C. Whether the “Dialogue of a Man With His Soul,” stemming from the following dynasty, still reflects political anguish or is a largely personal document is not clear, but it does explore a way to escape troubles: ending one’s life.

In often obscure language, the Dialogue portrays an argument between a man and his ba; the beginning of the manuscript is lost, and the remaining portion of the dialogue opens with the man answering his soul. Plagued by misfortune, the man seems to contemplate suicide by fire. His ba, or soul, an essential element that would permeate the reanimation of the man’s living existence (akh) in another world through uniting with ka (“second self”) after the death of the physical body (khat), tries to dissuade the man. Since the concept of the ba itself is heavily disputed by Egyptologists, it is not very clear whether the man’s ba has already moved on to the West (as a separate non-physical element of its owner) or is still with the man. But it is clear what the ba fears: that if the man commits suicide as he seems to be planning, there will be no dwelling place left for it. Death by fire would mean that there could be no mummification, burial, tomb, or mortuary service. Egyptian belief held that only when a body was embalmed, given appropriate burial rites, and supplied with offerings for nourishment and other needs could its soul live on in the West, the land of the dead, and that the soul must return every night to its “house” in order to be renewed and reborn the following morning at sunrise. Thus to live eternally, the preservation of the corpse was essential.

The man, though, assures his soul that if it agrees, proper burial arrangements will be made. But the soul, concerned that these promises will soon be forgotten, says that his lot will be no better than that of a poor man, and suggests, instead of suicide, a life of wanton pleasure—perhaps a response to the political unrest that had been proposed in texts of the earlier First Intermediate Period.

The man replies with a four-part argument: (1) his name will be in evil odor if he follows the soul’s advice to adopt a life of pleasure; (2) the people of his day are wicked, goodness is rejected everywhere, and he has no true friend; (3) death will be welcome; and (4) the dead are among the gods. The soul, apparently convinced by this argument, says that whether the man chooses to remain alive or to commit suicide, it will remain with him, and that they “shall make a home together.”

John A. Wilson describes this text as “thoroughly un-Egyptian in spirit,” insofar as it abandons life and embraces death, gives up the customary funerary ceremony and psychology, and accords the individual the liberty to question the existing order. However, he acknowledges, the language of the text and its conception of the ba are purely Egyptian; the problem is that the text belongs to an atypical period of pessimism that is itself not characteristic of Egyptian culture or history.


“A Dispute Over Suicide,” from Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard, tr. John A. Wilson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950. Descriptive material in introduction from John A. Wilson, The Burden of Egypt, republished as The Culture of Ancient Egypt (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1951, 1956); Ahmed Okasha and Farouk Lotaief, “Egypt,” in Lee A. Headley, Suicide in Asia and the Near East (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1983), p. 335; and from Ewa Wasilewska.



I opened my mouth to my soul, that I might answer what it had said: “This is too much for me today, that my soul no (longer) talks with me. It is really too great to be exaggerated. It is like abandoning me. Let [not] my soul go away; it should wait for me because of. . . . There is no competent person who deserts on the day of misfortune. Behold, my soul wrongs me, (but) I do not listen to it, dragging myself toward death before I come to it and casting (myself) upon the fire to burn myself up. . . . May it be near to me on the day of misfortune and wait on that side. . . . My soul is stupid to (try to) win over one wretched over life and delay me from death before I come to it. Make the West pleasant for me! Is that (so) bad? Life is a circumscribed period: (even) the trees must fall. Trample down wrongs—(yet) my wretchedness endures. Let Thoth, who propitiates the gods, judge me. Let Khonsu, the scribe in truth, defend me. Let Re, who pilots the sun barque, hear my speech. Let Isdes. . .defend me. My wretchedness is heavy. . . . Pleasant would be the defense of a god for the secrets of my body.”

What my soul said to me: “Art thou not a man? Art thou. . .whilst thou livest? What is thy goal? Thou art concerned with [burial] like a possessor of wealth!”

I said: “I have not departed as long as these things are neglected. He who carries (men) off forcibly will take, without caring about thee, (like) any criminal saying: ‘I shall carry thee off, for thy (fate) is still death, (though) thy name may live.’  (But) yonder is a place for setting down, the guide of the heart; the West is home. . . . If my soul will listen to me, an in[noc‌]ent man, and its heart agrees with me, it will be fortunate. (Then) I shall make it reach the West like one who is in his pyramid, at whose burial a survivor has stood. I shall make a shelter [over] thy corpse, (so that) thou mayest scorn another soul as inert. I shall make a shelter—now it must not be (too) cool—(so that) thou mayest scorn another soul which is (too) hot. I shall drink at the watering place and shall. . ., (so that) thou mayest scorn another soul which is hungry. If thou delayest me from a death of this fashion, thou wilt not find a place where thou canst settle down in the West. (So) be [patient], my soul and my brother, until my heir has appeared, he who will make offerings and will stand at the grave on the day of burial, so that he may prepare the bed of the cemetery.”

My soul opened its mouth to me, that it might answer what I had said: “If thou art thinking of burial that is heart’s distress. It is a bringing of tears, making a man sad. It is taking a man out of his house, (so that) he is left on the hillside, (whence) thou shalt never go up above that thou mightest see the suns. They who build in granite and who hew out chambers in a pyramid, good men in good work, as soon as the builders have become gods, their offering-stones are as bare, for lack of a survivor, as (those of) the weary ones, the dead on the dyke—the waters take hold of an end of him, and the sunlight as well, and the fish of the water-banks talk to them. Listen to me. Behold, it is good for men to listen. Pursue the happy day and forget care!

“The poor man plows his plot of ground and loads his harvest into a ship’s hold.  He makes the journey by towing (the boat), (because) his feast day is approaching. When he sees the forthcoming of an evening of high water, he is vigilant in the ship when Re retires, (and so) comes out (safely), with his wife. (But) his children are lost on the lake, treacherous with crocodiles in the night. At last he sits down, when he can take part in speech, saying: ‘I am not weeping for that girl, (although) there is no coming forth from the West for her, for another (time) on earth. (But) I am concerned about her (unborn) children, broken in the egg, who saw the face of the crocodile-god before they had (even) lived!’

“The poor man asks for an afternoon meal, (but) his wife says to him: “It’s for supper!’ He goes out-of-doors to grumble for a while. If he comes back into the house and is like another man, his wife is (still) experienced in him: that he does not listen to her (but) grumbles, unresponsive to communications.” I opened my mouth to my soul, that I might answer what it had said:

Behold, my name will reek through thee
  More than the stench of bird-droppings
  On summer days, when the sky is hot.
Behold, my name will reek through thee
  (More than) a fish-handler
  On the day of the catch, when the sky is hot.
Behold, my name will reek through thee
  More than the stench of bird-droppings,
  More than a covert of reeds with waterfowl.
Behold, my name will reek through thee
  More than the stench of fisherman,
  More than the stagnant pools which they have fished.
Behold, my name will reek through thee
  More than the stench of crocodiles,
  More than sitting in the assembly among the crocodiles.
Behold, my name will reek through thee
  More than a (married) woman
  Against whom a lie has been told because of a man.
Behold, my name will reek through thee
  More than a sturdy boy of whom it is said:
  “He belongs to his rival!”
Behold, my name will reek through thee
  (More than) a treacherous town, which plots rebellion,
  Of which (only) the outside can be seen.


To whom can I speak today?
  (One’s) fellows are evil;
  The friends of today do not love.
To whom can I speak today?
  Hearts are rapacious:
  Every man seizes his fellow’s goods.
(To whom can I speak today?)
  The gentle man has perished,
  (But) the violent man has access to everybody.
To whom can I speak today?
  (Even) the calm of face is wicked;
  Goodness is rejected everywhere.
To whom can I speak today?
  (Though) a man should arouse wrath by his evil character,
  He (only) stirs everyone to laughter, (so) wicked is his sin.
To whom can I speak today?
  Men are plundering;
  Every man seizes his fellow’s (goods).
To whom can I speak today?
  The foul friend is an intimate,
  (But) a brother, with whom one worked, has become an enemy.
To whom can I speak today?
  No one thinks of yesterday;
  No one at this time acts for him who has acted.
To whom can I speak today?
  (One’s) fellows are evil;
  One has recourse to strangers for uprightness of heart.
To whom can I speak today?
  Faces have disappeared:
  Every man has a downcast face toward his fellows.
To whom can I speak today?
  Hearts are rapacious;
  No man has a heart upon which one may rely.
To whom can I speak today?
  There are no righteous;
  The land is left to those who do wrong.
To whom can I speak today?
  There is lack of an intimate (friend);
  One has recourse to an unknown to complain to him.
To whom can I speak today?
  There is no one contented of heart;
  That man with whom one went, he no (longer) exists.
To whom can I speak today?
  I am laden with wretchedness
  For lack of an intimate (friend).
To whom can I speak today?
  The sin which treads the earth,
  It has no end.

Death is in my sight today
  (Like) the recovery of a sick man,
  Like going out into the open after a confinement.
Death is in my sight today
  Like the odor of myrrh
  Like sitting under an awning on a breezy day.
Death is in my sight today
  Like the odor of lotus blossoms,
  Like sitting on the bank of drunkenness.
Death is in my sight today
  Like the passing away of rain,
  Like the return of men to their houses from an expedition.
Death is in my sight today
  Like the clearing of the sky,
  Like a man fowling thereby for what he knew not.
Death is in my sight today
  Like the longing of a man to see his house (again),
  After he has spent many years held in captivity.

Why surely, he who is yonder
  Will be a living god,
  Punishing a sin of him who commits it.
Why surely, he who is yonder
  Will stand in the barque of the sun,
  Causing that the choicest (offerings) therein be given to the temples.
Why surely, he who is yonder
  Will be a man of wisdom,
  Not hindered from appealing to Re when he speaks.

What my soul said to me: “Set mourning aside, thou who belongest to me, my brother! (Although) thou be offered up on the brazier, (still) thou shalt cling to life, as thou sayest. Whether it be desirable that I (remain) here (because) thou hast rejected the West, or whether it be desirable that thou reach the West and thy body join the earth, I shall come to rest after thou hast relaxed (in death).  Thus we shall make a home together.”

It has come (to its end), its beginning to its end, as found in writing.

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