"When you sleep, guard your heart yourself,
For there are no servants for a man on the day of anguish…”
- The Instruction of King Amenemhat, IIIa-b (transcription after Helck, 1969). [Hieroglyphs and transliteration written with JSesh, by Serge Rosmorduc.]
The Instruction of King Amenemhat is one of the most important works of the Middle Kingdom literary canon, not only to the Egyptians themselves but to modern Egyptology as well.
The text purports to be the work of the king, instructing his son, Senusret, in the arts of kingship and exhorting him to take control. Throughout the text it is strongly suggested, though never outright stated, that Amenemhat has been murdered and speaks from beyond the grave. Much of the Instruction is given over to pessimistic reflexion on human nature, and one the behaviour of “plotters” in Amenemhat’s palace.
This, together with the suggestion of a difficult succession from Amenemhat I to Senusret I in the Story of Sinuhe has been taken by some Egyptologists to mean that Amenemhat was murdered in an attempted palace coup, though the idea is still disputed in part due to a lack of evidence apart from these two literary texts. The question of a possible coup is further complicated by the significant evidence for a ten-year co-regency between Amenemhat I and Senusret I, but which is not presented in either the Instruction and Sinuhe.
The Instruction of King Amenemhat was probably composed during the reign of Senusret I, and a New Kingdom poem attributes it to a scribe called Khety, who might also be the author of the Satire of the Trades.
Most of the surviving copies of the Instruction, however, date to the New Kingdom; the earliest, the now-lost Papyrus Millingen, from the 18th Dynasty, but other copies on papyrus, such as Pap. Sallier II date from the 19th Dynasty, and copies of the text survive from as late as the 4th century BC. The Instruction was also quoted in the ‘Victory Stela’ of the Nubian, 25th dynasty king Piye (c. 752-721 BC): the local ruler of Heracleopolis, Peftjaubast, begs the king for mercy, saying “I did not find a servant on the day of anguish”, clearly paraphrasing the section quoted above.
Hundreds of excerpts from the Instruction have been found on limestone sherds, called ‘ostraca’, dating from the New Kingdom. These principally come from the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina, where it seems to have been used as a school text to teach reading and writing in Middle Egyptian.
The large number of copies of the text from Deir el-Medina and elsewhere, and the long period over which it was read, demonstrate that Instruction, like Sinuhe, was regarded as an important classic of the literary canon.
The Instruction has remained important in modern Egyptology, too, and has the distinction of being the first text from ancient Egypt to be identified as literary: Champollion, the man who discovered how to read hieroglyphs, examined the Millingen papyrus, and described it as being literary and philosophical in nature.
The text’s central theme of the murder, or at least attempted murder, of a king, has provoked much modern commentary. Since the king was the divinely ordained ruler, whose duty it was to enforce Ma’at, his murder would not only be blasphemous but had potentially far-reaching consequences. The text has therefore been suggested alternately to be a piece of propaganda - eulogising Amenemhat as a great king, cut down in his prime - or else a politically subversive work undermining the king.
However, as each new king took on the role of the god Horus, and each dead king united himself with the god Osiris, the king’s murder might have a symbolic meaning, linking the still relatively new 12th Dynasty with the time of the gods.
Ultimately, the text cannot be easily reduced to either propaganda or subversion, but stands as a complex and somewhat ambivalent testament of Egypt’s self-conception.