The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor is an Ancient Egyptian poem which has been dated back to the Middle Kingdom (1940- 1640BC). The scribe was "Ameny, son of Amenyaa" (he calls himself "the scribe with clever fingers"), but the Tale's author is unknown.

The poem tells of a speech given by a "Follower" (servant) to cheer up a "Count". The "Count" is miserable on his way home from a trip, having failed a mission. The "Follower" spins a wacky yarn about a holy snake he met on a divine island paradise, who is so foolish as to not want worldly riches and splendour. Eventually, the "Count" is sick of the "Follower" and snaps at him, as evident in the following verse.

The whole poem wasn't reproduced here as it is a long tale, but here are some interesting verses:

I shall tell you something similar,
which happened to me myself.
I had gone to the Mining Region* of the sovereign,
I had gone down to the Sea**,
in a boat 120 cubits long, 40 cubits broad...

(A storm shipwrecks the sailor on an island filled with food and drink)

Then I heard a noise of thunder; I thought it was a wave of the sea,
for the trees were splintering,
the earth shaking;
I uncovered my face and found it was a serpent coming.
There were 30 cubits of him.
His beard*** was bigger than two cubits,
his flesh overlaid with gold,
and his eyebrows of true lapis lazuli.
He was rearing upwards.

(The serpent tells the follower about the history of the serpent's family, 75 in all...)

Then a star fell,
and because of it they went up in flames.
Now this happened when I wasn't with them;
they were burnt when I wasn't among them.
Then I died for them, when I found them as a single heap of corpses.
If you are brave, master your heart,
and you will fill your embrace with your children,
kiss your wife, and see your house!
This is better than anything.
You will reach home, and remain there,
amongst your kinsmen.

(The serpent further tells that happiness is to be found with family and friends, and not gold and riches. The "Follower" makes fun of the serpent's ideology, and eventually pisses the "Count" off:)

Look, it is good to listen to men.
Then he said to me, "Don't act clever, my friend!
Who pours water (for) a goose,
when the day dawns for its slaughter on the morrow?"

* The Mining Region is the Sinai peninsula
** The Sea spoken of is the Red Sea: the heavenly island must lay somewhere in this sea.
*** Oh, one of those serpents, with the beard. Right.

The snake tells of a utopia, but the man is too foolish to understand. The fact that the island has unlimited food, in vegetable and animal form, is indictative of the utopian ideal that people wouldn't have to farm or cultivate food. Instead, there would be food for all, without having to work for it.

The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, was written on a single papyrus sheet, and currently resides in St Petersburg.

This translation is from The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, ed by R.B Parkinson, Oxford University Press, 1997.

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