Westcar Papyrus

The Westcar Papyrus (inventory-designation: P. Berlin 3033) is an ancient Egyptian text containing five stories about miracles performed by priests and magicians. Each of these tales are being told at the royal court of the King (Pharaoh) Cheops (4th dynasty) by his sons. The story in the papyrus is usually rendered in English as "King Cheops and the Magicians" and "The Tale of King Cheops' Court". In German language, in which the text of the Westcar Papyrus was first translated, it is rendered as “Die Märchen des Papyrus Westcar” (the fairy tales of Papyrus Westcar).

The surviving material of the Westcar Papyrus consists of twelve rolls. Miriam Lichtheim dates the document to the Hyksos period (18th to 16th century BC), but the tales appear to have originated some time in the 12th dynasty of the Middle Kingdom (ca. 20th century BC). Linguist and Egyptologist Verena Lepper thinks it may be possible that the Westcar Papyrus was already written during the 13th dynasty. The papyrus has been used by historians as a literary resource for reconstituting the history of the 4th dynasty. The papyrus is now on display under low-light conditions in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin.


In 1823 or 1824 a British adventurer, Henry Westcar apparently discovered the papyrus during travels in Egypt. For unknown reasons he didn't note the exact circumstances under which he obtained the artifact.

In 1838 or 1839 German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius claimed to have received the papyrus from Westcar's niece. As Lepsius was able to read some signs of Hieratic, he recognized some of the royal cartouche names of the kings and so he dated the text to the old kingdom. There are however inconsistencies about the true nature of the acquisition and the subsequent whereabouts of the Westcar Papyrus.

Lepsius writes that the document was on display in the Oxford Bodleian Library, but public exhibitions are documented there since the early 1860s and Lepsius' name doesn't appear in any lists or documents. Furthermore Lepsius never made the text of the Westcar Papyrus public; he stored the papyrus at home in the attic, where it was found a little later after Lepsius' death. The inconsistencies led to numerous speculation and it was even thought by British historians that Lepsius may have stolen the papyrus.

In 1886 German Egyptologist Adolf Erman bought the papyrus from Lepsius' son and left it to the Museum of Berlin. As the hiratic signs were still insufficiently investigated and translated, the Westcar Papyrus was displayed as some kind of curiosity. Since Erman's first attempt at a complete translation in 1890, the Westcar Papyrus has been translated numerous times, resulting in different outcomes. The dating of the text also varies.

Material Description

Papyrus Westcar is a re-used papyrus made of the plant Cyperus papyrus. The scroll of Westcar has been separated into three parts. During the lifetime of Lepsius and Erman it was in two parts; it's not known when and why the scroll was severed into three fragments. The text written on the papyrus includes twelve columns in all. The first part contains on the recto (the front) columns one to three, the second part contains on its recto columns four and five and the third part contains on the verso (the back) columns six to nine.

On the recto the third part contains the final columns, ten to twelve. The papyrus textile is grainy, of garyish-yellow color and very fragile. Part one was fixed onto linen and placed between two glass panes. At five spots the papyrus was fixed to the glass with methyl cellulose.

Part two was fixed to a cardboard and wooden plate and is covered by a glass pane. Part three was simply placed between two glass panes and was completely glued to them. The adhesive used for this has partially lost its transparency and a whitish haze has appeared.

The edges of all three parts were left free for air circulation. Because of the paper lamination during the 18h century all the papyrus fragments are partially damaged; at several spots the material is torn, distorted and squashed. Some of the fibers are now lying over the inscription. All of the artifact shows large gaps and the rim of the scrolls is badly frayed. Because of the gaps many parts of the text are now missing.

The text itself is completely written in black iron gall ink and carbon black ink and divided by rubra into ten paragraphs. Between the neatly written sentences red traces of an older text are visible. It looks like Papyrus Westcar is a Palimpsest; the unknown ancient Egyptian author obviously tried but partially failed to wipe the older text off. The clean and caligraphical handwriting shows that the author was a highly educated professional.

Tales of the Westcar Papyrus

The first story, told by an unknown son of Khufu (possibly Djedefra), is missing everything but the conclusion, in which Khufu orders blessed offerings to king Djoser. It seems to have been a text detailing a miracle performed by a lector priest in the reign of king Djoser, possibly the famous Imhotep himself. The second story, told by Khafra, is set during the reign of one of Khufu's predecessors. King Nebka's chief lector Ubaoner finds that his wife is having a love affair with a townsman of Memphis, and he fashions a crocodile in wax. Upon learning that his unfaithful wife is meeting her lover, he spells the figurine to come to life at the contact with water, and sets his caretaker to throw it in the stream by which the townsman enters and leaves the lector's estate undiscovered. Upon catching the townsman, the crocodile takes him to the bottom of the lake, where they remain for seven days as the lector entertains the visiting pharaoh. When he tells Nebka the story, and calls the crocodile up again, the king orders the crocodile to devour the townsman once and for all. Then he has the adulterous wife brought forth, set on fire and thrown in the river.

The third story, told by another son named Baufra, is set during the reign of his grandfather Sneferu. The king is bored and his chief lector Djadjaemankh advises him to gather twenty young women and use them to sail him around the palace lake. Sneferu orders twenty beautiful oars made, and gives the women nets to drape around them as they sail. However, one of the girls loses an amulet - a fish pendant made of malachite so dear to her that she will not even accept a substitute from the royal treasury, and until it's returned to her neither she nor any of the other girls will row. The king laments this, and the chief lector folds aside the water to allow the retrieval of the amulet, then folds the water back.

The fourth story, told by Hordjedef, concerns a miracle set within Khufu's own reign. A townsman named Dedi apparently has the power to reattach a severed head onto an animal, to tame wild lions, and knows the number of secret rooms in the shrine of Thoth. Khufu, intrigued, sends his son to invite this wise man, and upon Dedi's arrival at court he orders a goose, a undefined waterbird, and a bull beheaded. Dedi reattaches the heads. Khufu then questions him on his knowledge on the shrine of Thoth, and Dedi answers that he does not know the number of rooms, but he knows where they are. When Khufu asks for the wheres and hows, Dedi answers that the one who can give Khufu access is not him, but the first of the three future kings in the womb of the woman Rededjet. This is a prophecy detailing the beginnings of the Fifth dynasty, starting with Userkaf.

The final story, breaks from the format and moves the focus to Rededjet's giving birth to her three sons. Upon the day of her children's birth, Ra orders Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, Heket and Khnum to aid her. They disguise themselves as musicians and hurry to Reddedet's house to help her with the difficult birth. The three children are born, each described as strong and healthy, with limbs covered in gold and wearing headdresses of lapis lazuli. The maid servant of Rededjet later has an argument with her mistress, receives a beating and flees, vowing to tell king Khufu what had happened. But on the way, she meets her brother and tells the story to him. Displeased, he beats her, too, and sends her going to the water's edge where a crocodile catches her. The brother then goes to see Rededjet, who is crying over the loss of the girl. The brother starts to confess what has happened and at this point the papyrus ends.

Analysis and Interpretations

Papyrus Westcar is of the highest interest to historians and Egyptologists, since it's one of the oldest Egyptian documents that contains such a complex novel. Unfortunately the name of the author is lost. The most recent translations and linguistic investigations by Miriam Lichtheim and Verena Lepper reveal interesting writing and spelling elements hidden in the text of the Papyrus, which has led them to a new evaluation of the individual stories.

The first story is lost due to the damage to the papyrus. The preserved sentences merely reveal the main protagonist of the story, King Djoser. The name of the hero, who is said to have performed the miracle, is completely lost, but Liechtheim and Lepper think it possible, that the Papyrus was talking about the famous architect and high lector priest Imhotep.

Linguistic Stilistics and Changing Tenses

The second and third story are written in a conspicuous flowery, old-fashioned style, the author has obviously tried to make the novels sound long time handed but fantastic at the same time. He picked up quainted phrases and makes the heroes acting stilted and ceremonious. All three first stories are written in past tense and all kings are addressed with the salutation justified (egypt. maa'-cheru), which was typical in Ancient Egypt when talking about a deceased king. The heroes are addressed in the preserved stories II. and III. alike.

Curiously, all kings are addressed with their birth name, notwithstanding that this was actually unusual in author's lifetime. Deceased kings were normally always called by their personal name, living kings were called by their horus name. But king Khufu is called by his birth name yet in story IV., where he is threatened as being still alive and being himself the main actor. And even the future kings Userkaf, Sahure and Neferirkare-Kakai are called by their birthname. Verena Lepper thinks, that the reason may be some kind of spelling reform due the lifetime of the author: he tried to fix the spelling rule for naming a deceased king at all costs to show that even the future kings are long since dead during his own lifetime. For this reason Verena Lepper doubts that the novel of pWestcar is based on documents originating from the Old Kingdom itself.

Have story II. and III. been written in past tense, story IV. and V. are written in present tense now. The unknown author moves the timeline and also changes his mode of expression from old-fashioned into a contemporary term. So he clearly divides from long time passed to most recently, without cutting the timeline too fast. The encountering speech of prince Hordjedef builds the decisive transition:

Hordjedef is sick of hearing old, dusty tales that cannot be proven in any way. He explains that a now-happening wonder would be more rich in content and instructive and so he brings up the story of Dedi. The last sequel of the forth story, in which the magician Dedi gives a prophecy to king Khufu, moves to the future tense for a short time, then is moving back to present tense again. The latter tense is retained until the end of the Westcar-story.

Depictions of the Kings

Papyrus Westcar contains also hidden allusions and puns to the characters of the kings Nebka, Sneferu and Khufu. An evaluation of the character description of Djoser is impossible due the great loss of his story.

In story II. king Nebka plays the key-role. He is depicted there as a strict, but lawful judge, who doesn't allow mischief and misbehavior to happen. The adulterous wife of the story's hero is punished by being burnt alive and her secret lover, busted thanks to the loyal caretaker, is eaten alive by a summoned crocodile. Caretaker and crocodile are playing the role of justice, whilst king Nebka plays the role of the story-ending destiny. Lepper and Liechtheim evaluate the depiction of king Nebka as being pretty positive. A strict but lawful pharaoh was a ideal for the people of author`s lifetime.

In story III. king Sneferu becomes a victim of the author's courage to criticize the monarchy as such. He depicts Sneferu as a fatuous fool, who is easily pleased with superficial entertainment and who is unable to resolve a dispute with a little rowing maid. Sneferu must extra get a priest to come to get rid of his trouble. With this course of the narrating and the embarrassing depiction of a pharaoh the author of Westcar dares to criticize the pharaohs of Egypt as such and makes story III. become some sort of satire. Lepper points out, that the critics are hidden cleverly though - no wonder since the author had to be careful, for the Westcar Papyrus was possibly made for public entertainment, or, at least, made for public studying.

In story IV. king Khufu is characterized in a difficult-to-assess way. At one side he is depicted as ruthless when deciding to have a condemned prisoner become decapitated to test the said-so magical powers of the magician Dedi. At the other side Khufu is depicted as inquisitive, reasonable and generous: He accepts the outrage and following alternative offer of Dedi for the prisoner, questions the circumstances and contents of Dedi's prophecy and rewards the magician generously after all.

The contradictory depiction of Khufu is object of great disputes between Egyptologists and historians up to this day. Especially earlier Egyptologists and historians such as Adolf Erman, Kurt Heinrich Sethe and Wolfgang Helck evaluated Khufus character as heartless and sacrilegious.

They lean on the ancient Greek traditions of Herodot and Diodor, who described an exaggerated negative character image of Khufu, ignoring the paradoxical (because positive) traditions the Egyptians themselves always taught. But other Egyptologists such as Dietrich Wildung see Khufu`s order as an act of mercy: the prisoner would have received his life back if Dedi actually had performed his magical trick. Wildung thinks that Dedi's refusal was an allusion to the respect which Egyptians showed to human life.

The ancient Egyptians were of the opinion that human life should not be misused for dark magic or similar evil things. Lepper and Liechtheim suspect that a difficult-to-assess depiction of Khufu was exactly what the author had planned. He wanted to create a mysterious character.

The fifth and last story tells about the female hero Rededjet (her name is also often read as Ruddedet) and her difficult birth of three sons. The sungod Ra orders his companions Isis, Meskhenet, Hekhet, Nephthys and Khnum to help Rededjet, to ensure the birth of the triplets and the beginning of a new dynasty.

Lepper and Liechtheim both evaluate the story as some kind of narrated moral which deals with the theme of justice and what happens to traitors. Lepper points out, that the story of Rededjet might have been inspired by the historical figure of queen Khentkaus I, who lived and maybe ruled at the end of the Fourth dynasty.

Khentkaus I is demonstrably entitled as 'mother of two kings' and for a long time it has been thought that she may have borne Userkaf and Sahure. But new evidence shows that at least Sahure had a different mother (Queen Neferhetepes), the implication of the Westcar Papyrus that the first three kings of the fifth dynasty had been siblings, is therefore incorrect.

Since in the Westcar Papyrus Rededjet was concerned with the role of a future king's mother, the parallels between the biographies of the two ladies aroused special attention. The role of the maidservant is evaluated as being a key figure for a modern phrasing of indoctrinations about morality and betrayal. The maidservant wants to run her mistress down and is punished by destiny.

The destiny is depicted here as a crocodile which snatches the traitor. The whole purpose of the whole happening is to ensure the beginning of a new dynasty and by making the only danger disappear, the author of the Westcar Papyrus artfully creates some kind of happy ending.

The Ending

Since first translations of the Westcar-Papyrus historians and Egyptologists dispute whether the story was finished or unfinished. Earlier evaluations seemed to show an abrupt ending after the death of the traitorous maid servant. But more recently linguistic investigations made by Verena Lepper and Miriam Liechtheim (especially by the first one) strengthen the conclusion, that the novel of pWestcar is definitely over after the story of the maid servant's death. Lepper points out, that the sequence about the crocodile and its acting is repeated several times, just like some kind of a refrain, which was a typical writing element in similar novels (and also it was in official documents) to close a report or novel. Furthermore Lepper argues that the papyrus leaves lots of free space after the ending, enough for a further short story,

Influences in later Egyptian Tales

Verena Lepper and Miriam Lichtheim point out that the tales of Papyrus Westcar obviously inspired later authors to compose and write down similar novels. They refer to multiple and somewhat later ancient Egyptian writings in which magicians perform very similar magic tricks and make prophecies to a king. According to Lepper and Lichtheim, their stories are obviously inspired by the tale of Dedi.

Descriptive examples are the papyri pAthen and The prophecy of Neferti. These novels show how popular the theme of prophesying already was during the Old Kingdom - just like in the story of the Westcar Papyrus. And they both talk about subalterns with magical powers similar to those of Dedi's.

The Papyrus pBerlin 3023 contains the novel The Eloquent Peasant, in which the following phrase appears: "See, these are artists who create the existing anew, who even replace a severed head", which can be interpreted as an allusion to the Westcar Papyrus. pBerlin 3023 contains another reference which strengthens the idea that many ancient Egyptian novels were influenced by Westcar Papyrus: column 232 contains the phrase sleeping until dawn, which appears nearly word-by-word in the Westcar Papyrus.

A further descriptive example appears in The prophecy of Neferti: Just like in pWestcar, a subaltern is addressed by a king with 'my brother' and the king himself is depicted as being acostable and simple-minded. And both novels talk about the same king: pharaoh Sneferu.

The Papyrus pAthen contains the phrase: "... for these are the wise who can move waters and make a river flow at their mere will and want...", which clearly refers to the wonder that the magicians Djadjaemankh and Dedi in pWestcar had performed.

Since pAthen, pBerlin 3023 and The prophecy of Neferti show the same manner of speaking and quaint phrases, equipped with numerous allusions to the wonders of Papyrus Westcar, Lepper and Lichtheim hold that Dedi, Ubaoner and Djadjaemankh must have been known to Egyptian authors for a astonishing long time.