The Kemyt: Towards a contextualized view of an Ancient Egyptian literary letter

Written Document. Ostracon. Head of a deity, inscribed. Inscription from Book of Kemit. Production Place/Find Spot: Egypt. Limestone, length 0.2 m, width 0.15 m. New Kingdom. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.


The Kemyt (‘the compilation’) is a letter-like composition made up of texts from different literary genres. It is a unique source unveiling the Ancient Egyptian perception of ‘literary genres’. The composition date is unknown but it was widely copied in excerpts on ostraca, and also on papyri, tablets, and walls during the New Kingdom (1552 – 1069 BC). The text was first identified in 1948 (W. C. Hayes, ‘A much-copied letter of the early Middle Kingdom’, in Journal of Near Eastern Studies 7 (1948), 4-6 and B. van de Walle, La transmission des textes littéraires égyptiens, avec une annexe de G. Posener, Brussels, 1948) and was published as a parallel text edition in 1951 (G. Posener, Catalogues des ostraca hiératiques littéraires de Deir el Médineh: II (Nos 1109 à 1167), Cairo (Documents de Fouilles de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale 18/1), 1951), but despite several studies, there is no full analysis (see for instance B. Mathieu & V. Ritter, ‘Les sections finales du manuel scolaire Kémyt (§ XV-XVII)’, in Chr. Gallois, P. Grandet, & L. Pantalacci (eds), Mélanges offerts à François Neveu: par ses amis, élèves et collègues à l’occasion de son soixante-quinzième anniversaire, Cairo (Bibliothèque d’Étude 145), 2008, 193-238 for previous bibliography): Petersmarck’s recent synoptic edition (E. Petersmarck, Die Kemit. Ostraka, Schreibtafel und Papyrus, Göttingen (Göttinger Miszellen Beihefte 12), 2012) is incomplete (only 84 out of the 190 published pieces). Other previous studies touch on aspects of the text but do not provide a fully contextualized overview. I will make the first comprehensive study, and use an innovative approach by integrating three main research axes:

1) Epigraphy, including scribal practices and palaeography
2) Ancient Egyptian textual philology
3) Genre theory

I have already inventoried 464 witnesses; 277 witnesses in England, Egypt, France, Germany, and in the USA, still await proper publication.
I will address the distinctive materiality of this corpus. The known copies were spread countrywide, including Nubia and the Egyptian oases. They were, however, mostly found in Thebes (Deir el-Medina and Ramesseum) during the New Kingdom. Kemyt was part of the scribes’ training at that period to teach an unusual linear script, used usually only in ritual and funerary manuscripts, and written in columns. This exceptional corpus shows specific paratextual annotations (e.g. dates, colophons, corrections, and punctuation). Some pertain to the literary genres while others, like punctuation, may relate to teaching practices. The 277 new witnesses are expected to help clarify the basic meaning of the text and shed light on the social context. Comparisons with other known training practices will be made. I will relate the Kemyt to the reconfiguration of classic literary texts as excerpts used as training texts at the start of the New Kingdom. I will also devote my attention to the scribe’s handwritings and highlight teacher and/or apprentice hands.
Though the composition date is uncertain, I aim to analyse Kemyt’s materiality, paratext, language, and intertext to offer a plausible composition date. In the process I will stress language variations (Middle and/or Late Egyptian features). I will examine the generic criteria exposed in Kemyt using the framework of the literary theorist Gérard Genette (b. 1930), according to which the identity of any texts can be defined. This theory has already fruitfully been applied to Ancient Egyptian texts. I will then compare it to the more anthropologically based approaches of English Egyptologists, as well as to the Ancient Egyptian approach(es).
In short, my project will offer the first fully contextualized and interdisciplinary approach of this Middle Egyptian text at the crossroads of Ancient Egyptian textual philology, epigraphy (including scribal practices and palaeography), and genre theory.


A. Motte (in press), "Kemit, writing-boards, and palaeographic studies", in: Ägyptologische “Binsen”-Weisheiten IV. Hieratisch des Neuen Reiches.

18/11/2020-19/11/2020 "The Kemyt: Towards a contextualized view of an Ancient Egyptian literary letter", Virtual Network Meeting of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation 2020

Vorträge (Auswahl)
21/01/2021 "The Kemyt-book, a work in progress", Kolloquium für Examenskandidatinnen und -kandidaten
09/12/2019-11/12/2019 "The Kemyt-book, a relevant study-case for a better understanding of New Kingdom cursive scripts?", „Binsen“-Weisheiten IV: Hieratic of the New Kingdom
03/11/2019-08/11/2019 "The Kemyt: Towards a contextualized view of an Ancient Egyptian literary letter", 12th International Conference of Egyptologists, Cairo