The Legend of Khnemu and a Seven Years Famine

The Legend of Khnemu and a Seven Years Famine is cut in hieroglyphs on a large rounded block of granite, which stands on the south-east portion of Sâhal, a little island in the First Cataract in Upper Egypt, two or three miles to the south of the modern town of Aswân, the ancient Syene.

The form of the Legend, and the shapes of the hieroglyphs, and the late spelling of the words, prove that the inscription is the work of the Ptolemaic Period, though it is possible that the Legend in its simplest form is as old as the period to which it is ascribed in the Sâhal text, namely, the third dynasty, about 4100 B.C.

The subject of the Legend is a terrible famine, which lasted for seven years, in the reign of King Tcheser, and which recalls the seven years' famine that took place in Egypt when Joseph was there.

This famine was believed to have been caused by the king's neglect to worship properly the god Khnemu, who was supposed to control the springs of the Nile, which were asserted by the sages to be situated between two great rocks on the Island of Elephantine.

The Legend sets forth that the Viceroy of Nubia, in the reign of Tcheser, was a nobleman called Meter, who was also the overseer of all the temple properties in the South.

His residence was in Abu, or Elephantine, and in the eighteenth year of his reign the king sent him a despatch in which it was written thus: "This is to inform thee that misery hath laid hold upon me as I sit upon the great throne, and I grieve for those who dwell in the Great House.

My heart is grievously afflicted by reason of a very great calamity, which is due to the fact that the waters of the Nile have not risen to their proper height for seven years.

Grain is exceedingly scarce, there are no garden herbs and vegetables to be had at all, and everything which men use for food hath come to an end.

Every man robbeth his neighbour. The people wish to walk about, but are unable to move.

The baby waileth, the young man shuffleth along on his feet through weakness.

The hearts of the old men are broken down with despair, their legs give way under them, they sink down exhausted on the ground, and they lay their hands on their bellies [in pain].

The officials are powerless and have no counsel to give, and when the public granaries, which ought to contain supplies, are opened, there cometh forth from them nothing but wind. Everything is in a state of ruin.

I go back in my mind to the time when I had an adviser, to the time of the gods, to the Ibis-god [Thoth], and to the chief Kher-heb priest Imhetep (Imouthis), the son of Ptah of his South Wall.

[Tell me, I pray thee], Where is the birthplace of the Nile?

What god or what goddess presideth over it? What kind of form hath the god? For it is he that maketh my revenue, and who filleth the granaries with grain.

I wish to go to [consult] the Chief of Het-Sekhmet, whose beneficence strengtheneth all men in their works.

I wish to go into the House of Life, and to take the rolls of the books in my own hands, so that I may examine them [and find out these things]."

Having read the royal despatch the Viceroy Meter set out to go to the king, and when he came to him he proceeded to instruct the king in the matters about which he had asked questions.

The text makes the king say: "[Meter] gave me information about the rise of the Nile, and he told me all that men had written concerning it; and he made clear to me all the difficult passages [in the books], which my ancestors had consulted hastily, and which had never before been explained to any king since the time when Râ [reigned]. And he said to me: There is a town in the river wherefrom the Nile maketh his appearance.

'Abu' was its name in the beginning: it is the City of the Beginning, it is the Name of the City of the Beginning.

It reacheth to Uauatet, which is the first land [on the south]. There is a long flight [85]of steps there (a nilometer?), on which Râ resteth when he determineth to prolong life to mankind. It is called 'Netchemtchem ânkh.'

Here are the 'Two Qerti,' which are the two breasts wherefrom every good thing cometh.

Here is the bed of the Nile, here the Nile-god reneweth his youth, and here he sendeth out the flood on the land. Here his waters rise to a height of twenty-eight cubits; at Hermopolis (in the Delta) their height is seven cubits.

Here the Nile-god smiteth the ground with his sandals, and here he draweth the bolts and throweth open the two doors through which the water poureth forth.

In this town the Nile-god dwelleth in the form of Shu, and he keepeth the account of the products of all Egypt, in order to give to each his due.

Here are kept the cord for measuring land and the register of the estates. Here the god liveth in a wooden house with a door made of reeds, and branches of trees form the roof; its entrance is to the south-east.

Round about it are mountains of stone to which quarrymen come with their tools when they want stone to build temples to the gods, shrines for sacred animals, and pyramids for kings, or to make statues.

Here they offer sacrifices of all kinds in the sanctuary, and here their sweet-smelling gifts are presented before the face of the god Khnemu.

In the quarries on the river bank is granite, which is called the 'stone of Abu.' The names of its gods are: Sept (Sothis, the dog-star), Ânqet, Hep (the Nile-god), Shu, Keb, Nut, Osiris, Horus, Isis, and Nephthys. Here are found precious stones (a list is given), gold, silver, copper, iron, lapis-lazuli, emerald, crystal, ruby, &c., alabaster, mother-of-emerald, and seeds of plants that are used in making incense.

These were the things which I learned from Meter [the Viceroy]."

Having informed the king concerning the rise of the Nile and the other matters mentioned in his despatch, Meter made arrangements for the king to visit the temple of Khnemu in person. This he did, and the Legend gives us the king's own description of his visit.

He says: I entered the temple, and the keepers of the rolls untied them and showed them [86]to me.

I was purified by the sprinkling of holy water, and I passed through the places that were prohibited to ordinary folk, and a great offering of cakes, ale, geese, oxen, &c., was offered up on my behalf to the gods and goddesses of Abu.

Then I found the god [Khnemu] standing in front of me, and I propitiated him with the offerings that I made unto him, and I made prayer and supplication before him.

Then he opened his eyes,[1] and his heart inclined to me, and in a majestic manner he said unto me: "I am Khnemu who fashioned thee. My two hands grasped thee and knitted together thy body; I made thy members sound, and I gave thee thy heart.

Yet the stones have been lying under the ground for ages, and no man hath worked them in order to build a god-house, to repair the [sacred] buildings which are in ruins, or to make shrines for the gods of the South and North, or to do what he ought to do for his lord, even though I am the Lord [the Creator].

I am Nu, the self-created, the Great God, who came into being in the beginning. [I am] Hep [the Nile-god] who riseth at will to give health to him that worketh for me.

I am the Governor and Guide of all men, in all their periods, the Most Great, the Father of the gods, Shu, the Great One, the Chief of the earth.

The two halves of heaven are my abode. The Nile is poured out in a stream by me, and it goeth round about the tilled lands, and its embrace produceth life for every one that breatheth, according to the extent of its embrace....

I will make the Nile to rise for thee, and in no year shall it fail, and it shall spread its water out and cover every land satisfactorily. Plants, herbs, and trees shall bend beneath [the weight of] their produce.

The goddess Rennet (the Harvest goddess) shall be at the head of everything, and every product shall increase a hundred thousandfold, according to the cubit of the year.

The people shall be filled, verily to their hearts' desire, yea, everyone. Want shall cease, and the emptiness of the granaries shall come to an end.

The Land of Mera (i.e. Egypt) shall be one cultivated land, the districts shall be yellow with crops of grain, and the grain shall be good.

The fertility of the land shall be according to the desire [of the husbandman], and it shall be greater than it hath ever been before."

At the sound of the word "crops" the king awoke, and the courage that then filled his heart was as great as his former despair had been.

Having left the chamber of the god the king made a decree by which he endowed the temple of Khnemu with lands and gifts, and he drew up a code of laws under which every farmer was compelled to pay certain dues to it.

Every fisherman and hunter had to pay a tithe. Of the calves cast one tenth were to be sent to the temple to be offered up as the daily offering. Gold, ivory, ebony, spices, precious stones, and woods were tithed, whether their owners were Egyptians or not, but no local tribe was to levy duty on these things on their road to Abu.

Every artisan also was to pay tithe, with the exception of those who were employed in the foundry attached to the temple, and whose occupation consisted in making the images of the gods.

The king further ordered that a copy of this decree, the original of which was cut in wood, should be engraved on a stele to be set up in the sanctuary, with figures of Khnemu and his companion gods cut above it.

The man who spat upon the stele [if discovered] was to be "admonished with a rope."

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