The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor

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This tale from Ancient Egypt was written down in hieroglyphics 4000 years ago. It's one of the oldest stories to have come down to us. In fact, it is really several stories all framed within a story.

A ship returns to Egypt from a long voyage. The merchant owner of the shipper is afraid that the pharaoh will be angry with him because his business has not prospered. His attendant tells him a story of an earlier journey, in which he was shipwrecked and met a giant serpent. The attendant means to show that it's not so much what you do, but how you tell it that counts. The master is not so sure.

If you would like to hear the original in Ancient Egyptian - and read the hieroglyphics - you can listen to Orlando's rendition here on YouTube.

Read by Natasha. Duration 9.50
Proofread by Claire Deakin.

Four thousand years ago, a ship glided into its home harbour in the land of Egypt. A sailor jumped ashore with the rope and tied it to the mooring post. His comrades rejoiced and embraced one another, so glad they were to have survived their long journey at sea, and to know that soon they would be filling their arms with their children and kissing their wives. But as the ship’s owner stepped ashore, dark, anxious lines crossed his brow.

His business in the lands of Wawat and Biga had not prospered, and he feared the anger of the great pharaoh who ruled the land of Egypt. He had an attendant, a smart young fellow, who understood what was troubling his master’s mind. As they stepped off the boat, he tried to give his master words of assurance.

“Be satisfied, my lord, for we have returned in good health, and not a single one of us is lost. You may go and tell the tale of our journey to the pharaoh. Choose your words carefully, trust in your eloquence, and all will be well.”

But the master was only irritated by these words, and he spoke angrily to his attendant.
“You are home, but your mind is still wandering. A man’s mouth may save him, but so it may also get him into trouble. Do you always say out loud any thought that flies into your head? If you must babble such nonsense, pray say it quietly to yourself.”

The smart young man was not offended by this rebuke. Instead he replied to his master with a story about another adventure that he had once undertaken. And this is what he told him:

"I was on a journey across the great green sea to the mines of the pharaoh. We had 120 sailors, the best in Egypt, their hearts fiercer than lions. They had seen many skies, they had seen many lands, they could tell a storm before it came, and gale before it happened. As we approached the land the wind arose, and threw up enormous waves. Our ship split in two, and all the mortal souls within were at the mercy of the great green sea. I grabbed a plank of cedar wood and stayed afloat. A wave picked me up and placed me down on the shore of an island. After I had lain for three days, all alone in some bushes, I arose and looked for something for my mouth. I found it in abundance: Figs and grapes, all manner of good herbs, berries and grain, melons of all kinds, fishes and birds. Indeed, the island did not lack for anything good. After I had satisfied my hunger, I dug a pit, lit a fire, and made a burnt offering to the gods."

"Suddenly I heard a crashing sound, which I took to be a wave crashing against the land. The trees shook and the earth moved. I uncovered my eyes, and I saw that an enormous snake was slithering towards me. He was the size of a temple building. His face was that of a man, and he wore a beard as tall as a pillar. His skin was as blue as true Lapis Lazuli and he was overlaid with gold. I threw myself on my belly before him, before he he opened his mouth and said:

“Who brought you, who brought you? O commoner, who brought you? If you delay your reply it shall be the worse for you. Your life shall be extinguished like the flickering flame of a candle.”

I lay still, stunned, silent, my mouth full of sand. When the serpent saw that could get no reply out of me, he scooped me up in his mouth and carried me to his cave where he laid me down. Again he asked: “Who brought you, who brought you? O commoner, who brought you to this island of the great green sea whose two sides are lapped by waves?”

And then I, realising that my life depended on my words, replied to him:

“I was on a mission, sent by the pharaoh. We had a 120 sailors, the best in Egypt, their hearts fiercer than lions. They had seen many skies, they had seen many lands, they could tell a storm before it came, and gale before it happened. Each one was no less strong or fierce than his companion, and there was not a single fool among us. As we approached the land the wind arose, and threw up enormous waves. Our ship was split in two, and of all who were on board, I alone was saved. And behold, here I am at your side… I was brought to this island by a wave of the great green sea.”

It seemed that my words soothed the anger of the great man-serpent for he smiled gently and replied to me.

“Fear not, o commoner, do not be pale, for it is God who has let you live, and has brought you to me. You will spend four months on this island of the blessed, which does not lack for any good thing. At that end of that period a ship will arrive and take you home to your wife and family, and you shall live and finally die in your own town. Now since you have survived this accident, let me tell you of a tale of calamity that befell me. I once lived on this island with my family – 75 serpents in all without counting an orphan girl who was brought to me by chance and who was dear to my heart. One night a star came crashing down from heaven and they all went up in flames. Only I was spared, and behold, here I am, utterly alone.
- But you, if you are brave and overcome your fears, you will fill your arms with your children and kiss your wife, you will see your house and live among your family.”

When I heard this prophecy of my salvation, I wept and bowed and touched the ground before him, and said, “On my return I shall tell the pharaoh all about you and your greatness. I will bring you sacred oils and perfumes, and incense with which the gods are honoured in the temples. I shall slay animals for you in sacrifice, I shall bring you birds, and ships full of all kinds of treasures from Egypt and they shall speak of you in the councils and honour you throughout the land.”

And when he heard this he laughed and rebuked me, “Do not trouble yourself with incense, for you are not rich in perfumes. As for me, I am a prince of the land of Punt, and I have all the richest scents. You need not return, for after you depart, this island shall be covered by the sea.”

My rescue and salvation came true exactly as he said. After four months had gone by, I climbed a tall tree, and behold! I saw a ship on the horizon. It came to rescue me, and as I took my leave of my serpentine host, he said, “Go to your house. See your children. Spread my good name in your city. This my due from you.”

He gave me gifts of incense, myrrh and balsam, tails of giraffes, and elephant tusks. As I departed, I and all who were on board the ship gave our praises to the Serpent God. We sailed northwards, and two months later I came before the pharaoh and presented him with the tribute of gifts I had brought from the island. I told him of my adventures and he thanked me before the council and rewarded me with a position in his court.”

With these words the attendant finished his story of his shipwreck and survival. The master of the ship had waited patiently on the quay by the side of the ship, and had listened carefully. He was not pleased by the story, and he said, “Save your smart words my young friend. Such drops of hope do me no good. Who gives water to a goose in the morning when it is due to be slaughtered in the afternoon?”

That was the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor as written down by the cunning fingers of the scribe Imen-Ah, Son of Imeny, life, prosperity, and health.