The Story of Wenamun

When we began to discuss the third intermediate period in ancient Egypt in class on Tuesday, the brief explanation of The Story (or Misfortune) of Wenamun seemed to spark my interest. This is the first time I have come across a fictional story from ancient times (in this case, 1100 BC) and was incredibly curious to delve further into the background of the story. The Story of Wenamun is a literary text, written in the Late Egyptian language on papyrus paper. It is only known because of a discovery of an incomplete copy in 1890. It was then purchased by Russian Egyptologist Vladimir Goleniscev in 1891 during his time in Cairo, Egypt. Upon its discovery, many believed that this story was an actual account of Wenamun’s life and travels, written by him. Literary analysis since then has indicated that it is actually a work of historical fiction, composed during the 21st Dynasty, which is now the general consensus. Research has also pointed to two different hands, showing that this may not be the original document – it may be possible that this copy may have been written as long as 150 years after the original. This conclusion came from two observations: post-script it used (which was often used in the 22nd Dynasty) and where the document was found (in al-Hibah, Egypt). al-Hibah did not become a prominent city in Egypt until the reign of Pharaohs in the 22nd Dynasty. The Story of Wenamun is often used as a primary literary source for the study of Late New Kingdom and the Early Third Intermediate Period – many scholars perceive this story to be “the most vivid and descriptive narrative of Pre-Classical times”. The story describes Wenamun’s journey to the city of Byblos (sent by the High Priest of Amun) to acquire cedar wood to build a ship for transportation of a cult artifact of Amun. Though this is a fictional story, it is clear to see the crumbling Egyptian power in this time, dealing with the Eastern Mediterranean states. From this document, one can see “common attitudes toward religion (especially the cult of Amun), the state of Mediterranean shipping practices, and even attitudes of foreign princes to Egyptian claims of supremacy in the region”. This knowledge is unparalleled in other period of ancient Egyptian history. Since this is a work of historical fiction, it may be based on actual events, especially since research has shown how this story is almost identical to what was happening in Egypt during this period of decline.

“Egypt’s former greatness abroad has now collapsed and the difficulties which Wenamun encountered with foreign Princes and officials illustrate all too vividly that Egypt was no longer feared or respected by other peoples of the Near East”