Posts Tagged Egypt

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.”


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you shall go to the ball


Isn’t it amazing that there are Cinderella stories from all over the world? There is even a version from pre-Columban America.

(I recommend ‘Mufaro’s Beautiful Daugher’ from Africa, the very old ‘Yeh-Shen’ from China, and ‘The Talking Eggs’ from the American South.)

Update: see entry on Sapsorrow.

But the oldest scrap of the story we have is from Greece, and concerns a girl who was a slave with Aesop on Samos!

Rhodopis, ‘Rosy-Cheeks’, was taken as a slave from her native Thrace to Samos. There she worked for a man named Iadmon, as a fellow slave to Aesop the fabulist.

What stories did she hear?

Very beautiful, she was sold on to a trader named Xanthes who takes her to Naukratis in Egypt, the town that has been given over to the Greeks by Pharaoh Amazis.

What kind of journey was that?

She is bought by Charaxus, brother of the poet Sappho, who has come to Egypt with a shipload of wine from Lesbos (Sappho is thought to have writen a poem on the subject, calling the girl by her perhaps real name of Doricha).

What would that poem have been like?

And, from Wikipedia (not all of this is true to the sources):

She works in the household of her Egyptian master. Though kind, her master spends most of his time sleeping, and is therefore unaware of her harsh treatment at the hands of his other servant girls. Because Rhodopis is both fair-complexioned and a foreign slave, the other servants tease her and order her around.

After her master sees Rhodopis dancing skillfully by herself, he gives her a pair of rose-gilded slippers. The other servants resent this treatment and use Rhodopis more harshly than before.
One day, Pharaoh Ahmose I invites the people of Egypt to a celebration in Memphis. The other servants prevent Rhodopis from attending with them by giving her a long list of chores to complete.

While she is down by the river washing clothes, her slippers become wet and she places them in the sun to dry. Suddenly, the falcon Horus swoops down, snatches one of the slippers, and flies away with it. Rhodopis stores the other slipper in her clothing.

During the celebration in Memphis, the falcon drops the slipper in the Pharaoh’s lap. Realizing that it is a sign from Horus, he decrees that all the maidens of the kingdom must try on the slipper, and that he will marry the one whose foot it fits.

The Pharaoh’s search for the owner of the slipper eventually leads him to Rhodopis’ home. Though Rhodopis hides when she sees the Pharaoh’s barge, he sees her and asks her to try the slipper. After demonstrating that it fits her, she pulls out its mate, and the Pharaoh declares that he will marry her.

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