Egyptian Letters to the Dead

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Given by Dedi to the priest Antef, born of Iwnakht.

As for this serving maid Imiu who is sick, thou dost not fight for her night and day with every man who is doing harm to her and every woman who is doing harm to her. Wherefore dost thou wish thy threshold to be desolated? Fight for her today as (though it were something) new (?), so that her household may be established, and that water may be poured out for thee. If there be no (help) from thee, then is thy house destroyed. Can it be (?) thou dost not recognize that it is this serving maid who makes thy house among (?) men? Fight for [her]! Watch over herr Save her from all men and women who are doing harm to her! Then shall thy house and thy children be established. Good be thy hearing!2

The resort to the dead and the querulous tone of the communications are the same among the Bantu and the Egyptians, but in this case also the practice may go back to a common Hamitic heritage.

Language changes are one of the available means of tracing the contacts of peoples and inferring the accompanying diffusion of influence. Meinhof3 has traced the diffusion of Hamitic language forms from the north southward and westward into all portions of Africa. They are prominent, in pure or vestigial forms, in equatorial East Africa, parts of French West Africa, and even the Name language of the Hottentots is basically Hamitic.

To the presence of a Hamitic tongue and Hamitic physical features in the extreme southern portions of Africa may be added cattle, which are certainly of Hamitic origin, and which, as yon Luschan points out, did not wander that far alone but were carried along with human migrations, and it is thus plain that no part of the continent has remained aboriginal.

At a later period culture traits were exchanged between Arabian settlements on the east coast and African populations. The Arabs founded settlements toward the end of the seventh century (about 689) and began to intermarry with the natives, with the result that a language developed (Swahili) which is purely Bantu in structure while containing many Arabic words, and in the same connection there was an extensive interchange of Arabian tales and Bantu folklore.1 Whether the story of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to the court of King Solomon is history or legend, the official language of Ethiopia is Semitic, derived apparently from Arabia at an unknown date.

The adoption of the practice of circumcision by tribes to whom it had been unknown is perhaps the most notable example of the rapid spread of a practice in present-day Africa. Among the marks left on the body, either voluntarily and for ornament or as result of cuttings during puberty ceremonies, circumcision has shown a marked tendency to diffusion both as a spontaneous fashion and as a symbol of social and political unity, and, far from disappearing, the custom is spreading at present among numerous populations. Codrington2 reports that it is moving, as a social distinction, into Melanesia from the east and south. Gifford3 says the introduction of Christianity among the Tongans has produced no more than a tendency to change from incision to the more serious form of Jewish circumcision. In Africa, the Reik (a division of the Dinka) have learned the practice from the Arabs during the last few years, and their women approve the custom.

2Gardiner, A.H.n/an/an/an/a, and K.Sethen/an/an/an/an/a, , 7–8.

[The authors add the following explanation: "The situation is perfectly clear. The household of the dead priest Antef had a serving maid who has now fallen ill, and the widow upbraids her late husband for neglecting to look after this mainstay of their home. The few doubtful points in our translation are due to the scribe’s carelessness—a carelessness characteristic of this whole class of documents. The novelty here is that intervention is sought against disease, not against some palpably human act of malice. . . . Magical incantations or prayers to the gods were usual methods of warding off illness that arose in this way. That letters to dead relatives could be employed for the same purpose we learn here for the first time."]

3 Meinhof, op. cit., 1–256.

1 Werner, A., "Some Notes on East African Folklore," Folklore, 25: 457–475; 26: 60–78; "The Bantu Element in Swahili Folklore," Folklore, 20: 432–56.

2 Codrington, R. H., The Melanesians: Studies in Their Anthropology and Folk-lore, 234 (Clarendon Press. By permission).

3 Gifford, E. W., "Tongan Society," Bernice P. Bishop Mus., Bull., 61: 187.

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Chicago: Egyptian Letters to the Dead in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed October 16, 2019,

MLA: . Egyptian Letters to the Dead, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 16 Oct. 2019.

Harvard: , Egyptian Letters to the Dead. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 16 October 2019, from