Tuesday, July 28, 2009

There was once a man

Al Ahram Weekly (Jenny Jobbins)

It has recently been making something of a comeback, but generally speaking the performance art of storytelling has been on a slow decline ever since the invention of the printing press and the consequent rise in literacy enabled the average person to grow closer to the written word. Yet storytelling, the art of retelling an often well known and much loved poem, fable, cautionary tale, love story or heroic epic, has enthralled and entertained audiences in every corner of the globe since mankind first realised the profound power and consequence of imagination.

English folk and fairy tales begin with the words, "Once upon a time..." In ancient Egypt, a phrase commonly used was "There was once a man..." Egyptologists have discovered many of the stories, often written in poetic form, that were widely known in ancient Egypt. How, though, were these tales disseminated amongst a population of which few knew how to read?

Fortunately, history has bequeathed to us a rich literary heritage that includes not only the poems and stories themselves but also visual descriptions, most of them from coffin paintings and tomb models and reliefs, of private and public recitals. Most of these images -- but by no means all -- are of recitals being given by lector priests whose sacred words were suitable for the after world. The reciters were professionals, whether these lector priests reciting liturgical texts or entertainers called in to perform at public festivals or private banquets. Presumably many of them were the celebrities of their day, and like actors in our time they knew how to pull a crowd.

When and where were these recitals performed, and who made up the audience? R. B. Parkinson conjours the scene in his erudite and entertaining book Reading Ancient Egyptian Poetry: Among Other Histories, published this Spring by Wiley-Blackwell and available through the American University in Cairo Press. Parkinson invites us to imagine a recital at the Middle Kingdom garrison town of Abu, on the edge of Lower Nubia, which is taking place at the palace of Sarenput, the mayor of the town and the "Confidant of the king".

See the above page for the full story.

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