The Tale of Two Brothers


The Tale of Two Brothers, Anpu and Bata, is preserved on a papyrus in the British Museum which a while ago (1203 BC – 1197 BC) belonged to Prince Seti II.

That may well make it the oldest ‘folk tale’ we have written down. It’s written in hieroglyphics of course.

It’s got some similarity to the Joseph and Potiphar story in the Bible.

And it also has things in common with the ancient Egyptian / Greek of ‘Cinderella’, Rose-Eyes: it tells of a token that mysteriously and improbably finds its way to Pharaoh and arouses his desire for the unknown woman it belongs to.

And like Cinderella, the hero, Bata, when trouble comes, must appear in a different guise to escape and be to make a proper new beginning.

It’s a fairly long tale, and it’s on a number of websites, such as this.

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I first came across this story in Idries Shah’s indispensable collection ‘World Tales’, a book I have read and re-read. (The illustrations in the hardback version are beautiful.) I should own up and admit that I owe a fair bit to Shah’s many books. One of the things I owe is some appreciation of the value of folk stories and fables, along with the habit of trying to get to know them and slowly chewing them over, allowing meanings to emerge, being cautious of premature ‘final’ meanings, appreciating other people’s perspectives.

One of the side-effects of this is that you start to see all sorts of relationships between stories. Cinderella links clearly to Allerleirauh, but, look: it’s a bit like King Lear. Oh, and the incest element, that reminds me of Oedipus… What then does incest mean, beyond the literal…? And this confusion of identities, that’s there in Shakespeare a lot, but also here, back in this ‘oldest’ folktale…

It’s a paradox that many stories – Aesop’s fables, Cinderella, Joseph (with his amazing technicolour dreamcoat) – have become children’s stories. But it’s also a good thing, because kids can enjoy them and appreciate them. In the meantime adults are missing out.

I envy people who grew up with tales told to them. Nelson Mandela for instance says in his book Long Walk to Freedom:

“Whereas my father once told stories of historic battles and heroic Xhosa warriors, my mother would enchant us with Xhosa legends and fables that had come down from numberless generations. These tales stimulated my childish imagination, and usually contained some moral lesson. I recall one story my mother told us about a traveller who was approached by an old woman with terrible cataracts on her eyes. The woman asked the traveller for help, and the man averted his eyes. Then another man came along and was approached by the old woman. She asked him to clean her eyes, and even though he found the task unpleasant, he did as she asked. Then, miraculously, the scales fell from the old woman\’s eyes and she became young and beautiful. The man married her and became wealthy and prosperous. It is a simple tale, but its message is an enduring one: virtue and generosity will be rewarded in ways that one cannot know.”


1 Comment »

  1. queencyannmanceras said

    one upun a time the two brothers are so helpfull

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