Tale of the Eloquent Peasant
What is so lovely about the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant is that it describes how ancient Egyptian law was like for the commoner. So much of what we know about ancient Egypt comes to us from the tombs of elites and other great monuments – which are more of a testament of the lives of the rich and powerful.
The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant was written on hieratic script on papyri that are now held in the British Museum and the Royal Library in Berlin.
The pharaoh in the story is thought to be King Nebkaure Khety of the Fourth Dynasty. The story itself is thought to have come later, sometimes around the Twelfth Dynasty, and is set in the town of Herakleopolis, near modern day Beni Suef.
Tale of the Eloquent Peasant
The peasant Hunanup decided to go down to Egypt to bring back bread for his children. He asked his wife to divide up the grain, keeping some for her and the children and preparing the rest as beer and bread to sustain Hunanup on his travels.
He loaded up his donkeys and left his town to go to Herakleopolis.
On his journey, he crossed the path of a man named Dehuti-nekht, a serf of the chief steward Meruitensi.
Dehuti-nekht, seeing the donkeys loaded with these goods, felt the temptation to rob the peasant Hunanup.
Dehuti-nekht’s house was nearby, and the narrow path the peasant had to cross had water to one side and the estate’s grain crops on the other side.
Dehuti-nekht shouted to one of his servants to get him a shawl, which he spread on the middle of the road, from the edge of the water up until the pile of grain, blocking the way.
As the peasant came up close to it, Dehuti-nekht said to him “Look out, peasant, do not trample on my clothes!” The peasant Hunanup steered away from the shawl and found himself on top of the grain crops, where his donkey ate a mouthful of it.
Then Dehuti-nekht said “See, I will take away your donkey because it has eaten my grain.”
Hunanup understood what Dehuti-nekht was trying to do, and objected by saying that the chief steward Meruitensi punishes all thieves – implying that Dehuti-nekht is trying to rob him. Angered by this, Dehuti-nekht took the donkeys and beat Hunanup until he wept.
After four days of crying and pleading with Dehuti-nekht to give him back his donkeys and goods, Hunanup decided to seek out the chief steward Meuitensi. He managed to get a message through to him recounting the whole ordeal.
Meuitensi and his officials reviewed the case, with the peasant Hunanup in their presence. After some time of silence, the peasant decided to speak up for himself:
“Chief steward, my lord, you are greatest of the great, you are guide of all that which is not and which is. When you embark on the sea of truth, that you may go sailing upon it, then shall not the (?) strip away your sail, then your ship shall not remain fast, then shall no misfortune happen to your mast then shall your spars not be broken, then shall you not be stranded – if you run fast aground, the waves shall not break upon you, then you shall not taste the impurities of the river, then you shall not behold the face of fear, the shy fish shall come to you, and you shall capture the fat birds. For you are the father of the orphan, the husband of the widow, the brother of the desolate, the garment of the motherless. Let me place your name in this land higher than all good laws: you guide without avarice, you great one free from meanness, who destroys deceit, who creates truthfulness. Throw the evil to the ground. I will speak hear me. Do justice, O you praised one, whom the praised ones praise. Remove my oppression: behold, I have a heavy weight to carry; behold, I am troubled of soul; examine me, I am in sorrow.”
Meruitensi found the peasant’s speech so eloquent that he passed him onto another officer, who passed him onto another and another. Hunanup began to grow tired, making speech after speech, and during his eighth speech, he insulted the chief steward.
Meruitensi punished Hunanup, who had left after trying to undo his insults with a ninth speech that was much more pleasing.
But Hunanup was sent for again, and he feared that he was being brought back to be punished, but Meruitensi assured him this wasn’t the case.
Meruitensi had the speeches and tale of the Eloquent Peasant Hunanup from the entire nine days written on scrolls. He sent them to the pharaoh, King Nebkaure. The king found them so beautiful that he sent word back to the chief steward Meruitensi to pass the sentence himself. Meruitensi decided to take goods selected from Dehuti-nekht’s possessions and give them to Hunanep, who then went home rejoicing.
This was my adaptation of George A. Barton’s translation of the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant. An original translation can be found here. http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/1800egypt-peasant.asp
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