December 11, 2018

The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor

        “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor” is the earliest known story of a castaway on a magical island, dating from some time around 2000-1800 BCE, during the Middle Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt.  It includes many of the elements that are very familiar from a host of legends and folktales of the same type: it is framed as a tale within a tale, related by one man to encourage another.  The man (whom the story itself never actually calls a sailor) is thrown off course by a storm, shipwrecked, and is the only one from the boat to survive.  On the island he finds every kind of food in superabundance.   After three days he encounters a monstrous, magical serpent, who takes him back to his (the serpent’s) palace and hears his adventure.  The serpent then recounts a short tale of his own.  The serpent foretells that another ship will arrive and the castaway will return home safely.  The castaway promises to send the serpent gifts fit for a god, but the serpent smiles and points out that he already has fantastic wealth, and besides, once the castaway departs, the island will disappear so that he will never see it again.  When the ship arrives as predicted, the serpent loads the castaway with precious gifts and sends him home to a life of honor.  All of these plot points and story elements are archetypal, and I’m sure the self-proclaimed cunning-fingered scribe Amny son of Amen wasn’t the first to tell a tale like this, but it is interesting to see in it the roots of so many of the elements that have comprised a good fantasy traveller’s tale ever since.
        You can read one translation of the story in its entirety here, and another here.  In addition to the archetypal story elements I related above, there are some interesting details in this particular story.  The arrival of the serpent is excellent: I heard a sound as of thunder, which I thought to be caused by a wave of the sea, and the trees rocked and the earth quaked, and I covered my face. And I found that a serpent was coming towards me. It was thirty cubits (45 feet) in length, and its beard was more than two cubits in length, and its body was covered with scales of gold, and the two ridges over its eyes were of pure lapis-lazuli; and it coiled its whole length up before me.  Also, the serpent’s own tale is quite strange, regarding the destruction of all his 75 siblings and children, including a mysterious girl brought to him by prayer or chance, by a falling star which burnt them all to death while the serpent was away.
        Keep in mind that translating ancient Egyptian is not without its controversies, and there are variations in the details of different versions.  Nevertheless, it is clear to see that four thousand years ago humans were telling some of the same stories with some of the same themes of adventure, mystery, and wonder.  Maybe there’s nothing new under the sun, but maybe there are reasons we keep coming back to the same themes.

[Pictures: The Inquiry, illustration by Tristram Ellis from Egyptian Tales, 1899 (Image - and yet another translation -  from Project Gutenberg);
A page of the original Hieratic text of The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, “Papyrus Leningrad 1115” (Image from here).]

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