Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Note on The Instructions of Ptahhotep

Kemet successfully managed to transmit a considerable portion of its high cultural and national identity through the active process of copying ancient manuscripts. Ayi Kwei Armah's book "The Eloquence of the Scribes" captures the seriosness of this process. The creation and transmission of the genre of texts the Egyptians referred to as sebayet "wisdom teachings," were important because they maintained much of their essential relevance in reflecting some of the traditional core ideals and values of the nation. The prominent sebayet of Ptahhotep was important not only because it attained the high status as a classical sebayet, but also because it represented an established experiential approach to understanding and ordering human life and activity. Regardless of issues of reception and audience, the unifying purpose of sebayet was primarily edification, i.e. the propagation and transmission of moral ideals, knowledge, and practical advice. Sebayet is a genre that allows latitude in structure and content, but essentially communicates a kind of philosophy teaching by life experiences and example. Sebayets like Ptahhotep rose to a transpersonal level and embodied some of the most collective, enduring, and cherished values of the nation. The Sebayet of Ptahhotep was copied over and over again by Egyptian scribes for over 1000 years and this long cultural tradition of transmission largely accounts for its ability to be not only copied, but sometimes altered in subtle, yet complex ways. Changing social and poltical reality invevitably exerts pressure on the continuity of accepted tradition. These historical changes sometimes precipitate the creation of new kinds of literary motifs, expressions, and themes, but also it generates the imperative to extend ancient texts of cultural significance like Ptahhotep by intentional alterations in an attempt to make it conform to new linguistic and sometimes social and historical realities. This dynamic process is difficult for you to see because your reading is based upon the most complete, well-known version of Ptahhotep puplished as the Prisse Papyrus. There are other versions of the text (i.e. the wooden Carnavorn tablet, the British Museum papyrus 10509, a Turin manuscript, and two ostraca from Deir el-Medina) that complicate our examination. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize to you that Kemetic scribal copyists were often engaged in a active and complex interpretive activity to make the past live in the present through uniting the ancient attributed author Ptahhotep and the contemporary reader/hearer into a single collective entity.

In Maat,

Dr. Mario Beatty
Chair, African American Studies
Chicago State University

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