The adventures of Sinuhe

Max McDowell is a Jungian analyst who has been in private practice in New York for the past 26 years. Here he illustrates a story from ancient Egypt.

Triad of King Menkaure. Graywacke: 96 cm. Fourth Dynasty, 2599-2571 B.C.E.
Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Grape harvesters. Tomb painting.
Source unknown

King Tutankhamun in battle. 1343-1325 BCE. Tomb painting.
Photo: source unknown

Nut and Geb. Tomb painting.
The stars are embedded in Nut’s body and the sun sails in a ship across her back every day. The Pharaoh’s Queen, by extension, is Sinuhe’s heaven.
Photo: source unknown


Pharaoh Akhenaten, 1351-1337 BCE. Statue.
Photo: source unknown

The adventures of Sinuhe: complete text with footnotes

Egypt, Middle Kingdom: 1800 B.C.E.

The hereditary prince and count, treasurer of the King of northern Egypt, sole Companion,6. provincial administrator of the domains of the Sovereign in the lands of the Bedouins, the real, beloved king’s acquaintance, the attendant Sinuhe, says:

I am an attendant who follows his lord, and a servant of the Princess greatly favored in the royal Harem, wife of King Sesostris [I] in the town Khnemiswet, daughter of King Ammenemes [I] in the town Kanefru, 7 the honored lady Nefru.

In the thirtieth year of his reign,8 the third month of the inundation season, the seventh day of the month, the god mounted to his horizon, the King of southern and northern Egypt, Sehtepyebre,9 ascended to heaven, uniting with the sun, the divine flesh being mingled with him who made it.10 The Residence11 was in silence, hearts were grief-stricken, the great Double Door [of the palace] was closed, the courtiers sat with head on lap, the people mourned.

Now his Majesty had sent a military expedition to the land of the Libyans, his eldest son being in command of it, the good god, King Sesostris;12 and he [Sesostris] was returning, having brought away captives of the Tehnu people13 and all kinds of herds and flocks without limit. The Companions of the Court had sent to the western side14 to inform the King’s son15 of the state of affairs that had come about in the Royal Apartments.16 The messengers found him on the road; they reached him in the evening-time. He did not delay a moment; the Falcon17 flew with his henchmen without letting his army know.

Now the King’s sons who were under him in this army had been sent for, and one of them had been summoned.18 Now I was standing still, and heard his voice while he was speaking afar off, while I was near [him who was addressing him]. My heart was distraught, my hands hung open, all my members fell to trembling. I ran leaping away to find somewhere to hide myself. I placed myself between two bushes, to sunder the road from him who was walking on it.19 I proceeded southwards; I did not plan to reach this20 Residence, for I expected that civil strife would break out, and I did not think to live after him.21

I crossed Lake Ma’ati, near Nuhet, and landed at the Island of Snefru, and spent the day on the edge of the river. I set forth when it was day. If I met a man standing in my path, he respected me, being afraid. When supper-time arrived, I reached the district of Gaw, and crossed over in a barge without a rudder, by means of a westerly breeze. I passed east of the quarry beyond the Lady of Red Hill.22I continued on foot northwards and touched the Walls of the Ruler,23 made to repel the Bedouins and crush the Sandfarers.24I took up a crouching position under a bush, in fear lest the watch for the day on top of the wall might be looking. I went on at eveningtime; when it dawned I reached Peten, and stopped at the Island of Kemwer,25 for an attack of thirst had overtaken me. I was parched, my throat was full of dust, and I thought, ”This is the taste of death!”

Then I lifted up my heart, to pull myself together, for I heard the sound of the lowing of cattle and caught sight of Bedouins. A sheikh among them, who had been in Egypt, recognized me. Then he gave me water, and boiled milk for me. I went with him to his tribe, and they treated me kindly.

One country passed me on to another. I set forth from Byblos,26 and turned back to Kedmi,27 where I spent half a year. Amem-nenshi, the king of Upper Retjenu,28 sent for me and said to me, ”You will be happy with me; you will hear Egyptian.” He said this, knowing my character and having heard of my capacities; the Egyptians who were there with him had borne witness to me.

Then he said to me, ”Why ever have you come all this way? Has anything happened at the Residence?”

And I said to him, “King Sehtepyebre has passed to the Horizon, and it is not known what may happen in consequence.” But I added, dissembling, “I returned from an expedition to the land of the Libyans, and something was reported to me; my mind grew faint, my heart was no longer in my body, it brought me along desert paths. I was not criticized, no one spat in my face, I heard no insulting phrase, my name was not heard in the mouth of the reporter.29 I do not know what brought me to this country; it is like a dispensation of God.”

Then he said to me, “How shall that land do without him, that beneficent god, the fear of whom used to pervade the countries like that of Sakhmet30 in a year of plague?”

And I said to him, answering him:

“But his son has entered the palace
and taken the heritage of his father.

And he is a god, without a rival:
No other such has existed before him.

He is a master of wisdom, perfect in plans, of beneficent commands:
Men move up and down [the land] according to his order.

It is he who subdued the foreign lands while his father was in his palace,
And reported to him when what he had ordained was done.

And he is a mighty man, achieving by his strength of arm:
A man of action without an equal,

Who is seen felling the barbarian host,
Throwing himself into the fray.

He is a curber of the horn,31 a weakener of hands:
His enemies cannot draw up their forces.

He is clear-sighted, a smasher of skulls:
None can stand up near him.

He is swift-stepped to destroy the fugitive:
He who turns his back to him has no bourne.

He is high-hearted in the moment of repulse:
He is one who puts to flight, and does not turn his own back.

He is stout-hearted when he sees a host:
He does not allow sloth about his heart.

He is eager when he sees the melee:
To strike down the barbarian horde is his joy.

He takes up his shield and tramples under foot:
He does not strike twice in order to kill.

There is none who can turn aside his arrow:
None who can draw his bow.

The barbarians flee before him
As before the might of the Great One.32

He fights, having foreseen the end:
He spares not, and there is no remainder.

He is a master of charm, of great sweetness:
He has conquered by love.

His city loves him more than itself:
It rejoices in him more than in its own god.
Men and women exult in him surpassingly now that he is king.

He conquered while yet in the egg:33
His face having been set toward it [conquest] since his birth

He increases those who were born with him:
He is unique, of God’s gift.

How does this land rejoice that he has come to rule!
He is one who widens boundaries.

He will conquer the southern countries:
He will despise the northern lands.

He has been created to strike down the Bedouins,
To crush the Sandfarers.

“Send to him, acquaint him with your name as that of an enquirer far from His Majesty. He will not fail to do good to a country that is submissive to him.”

And he said to me, ”Why then, Egypt is happy, for she knows that he flourishes. See, you are here, and so you shall live with me; I will treat you well.”

He placed me at the head of his children, and married me to his eldest daughter. He let me choose for myself some of his country, even of the best that he had on his boundary adjoining another country. It is a good land, Ya’a by name; figs and grapes are in it; it has more wine than water, it has much honey and olive oil in plenty; all fruits are upon its trees; limitless barley and spelt are there, and all kinds of herds and flocks.

Further, much accrued to me as a result of the love of me. He appointed me ruler of a tribe, the best in his country. Provisions were assigned to me as daily fare: wine for the day’s needs, boiled meat and roast fowl, over and above the game of the desert-for animals were snared for me and delivered to me, over and above the tribute of my hounds. Much date-wine was made for me, and milk was used in all cooking.

Thus I spent many years, and my sons became mighty men, each one controlling his tribe. The envoy who went north, or south to the Residence, stopped on my account;34 I entertained everybody. I used to give water to the thirsty, and set on the road him who had lost his way, and I rescued and robbed. When the Bedouins regrettably ventured to oppose the kings of the foreign lands, I devised their [the kings’] course of action. The King of Retjenu made me spend many years as commander of his army. Every country that I marched against, I conquered, and it was driven away from the pasture of its wells; I took its cattle as spoil, I brought back its inhabitants and took away their food, and killed people in it, by my strength of arm, by my bow, by my movements and by my effectual plans. He valued me, and loved me, for he knew that I was brave. He placed me at the head of his children, for he saw that my hands prospered.

A mighty man of Retjenu came to challenge me in my tent. He was a champion unequaled; he had beaten the whole of Retjenu, and intended to fight with me. He expected to plunder me and planned to take my herds and flocks as spoil, by the advice of his tribe.

That King [Amem-nenshi] took counsel with me, and I said, “I do not know him, indeed I am not an associate of his, one who walks freely in his camp. Is it the case that I have opened his door, or overleaped his walls? It is jealousy, because he sees me executing your business. But I am like a bull of a free-pasturing herd in the midst of another herd, whom a steer of the herd charges and a long-horned bull attacks.35

Is there a humble man who is loved when he becomes a superior? No barbarian becomes a friend of a man from the Egyptian Delta. What can fasten a papyrus plant to a rock? If a bull loves to fight, should a fierce bull turn his back in fear that he might be defeated? If he is minded to fight, let him say what he wants. Is God ignorant of what he has ordained? Does a man know how the matter stands?”

After my night’s rest I strung my bow and tried my arrows; I made my dagger easy in its sheath, and polished my weapons. When it dawned all Retjenu came. It had stirred up its tribes, and assembled the peoples on its borders; it had planned this fight. Then he came to me, while I waited; I had placed myself near him. Every heart burned for me; the women and even the men jabbered. Everyone was sorry for me, and said, “Is there another mighty man who can fight against him?”36 Then his shield, his axe and his armful of spears fell down before me, when I had escaped from his weapons and caused his arrows to pass by me, so that nothing remained. Each approached the other. He charged at me, and I shot him, my arrow sticking in his neck. He shrieked and fell on his nose. I dispatched him with his own axe, and sent forth my war-cry on his back, while every Asiatic shouted; and I gave praise to Montu,37 while his partisans mourned for him.

This King Amemnenshi took me to his bosom. Then I brought away his property; I took his herds and flocks as spoil. What he had planned to do to me, I did to him. I carried off what was in his tent, and stripped his camp. I became greater thereby: my wealth increased, my cattle became more numerous.

Thus has God done, to pardon him with whom he had been vexed when he strayed to another country! Today he is appeased.

A fugitive flees because of his affairs;
But my good repute is in the Residence.
A lingerer lingers because of hunger;
But I give bread to my neighbor.
A man leaves his land because of nakedness;
But I have white garments and fine linen.
A man runs about for lack of one whom he can send;
But I have many slaves.
My house is beautiful,
My seat is easy;
The memory of me is in the Palace.

O whatever god ordained this flight, do thou shew mercy and return me to the Residence! Perhaps thou wilt let me see the place in which my heart dwells! What is more important than that I should be buried in Egypt, since I was born there? This is an appeal for help. May good fortune befall, may God grant me peace, may he do thus to perfect the end of him whom he has afflicted, taking pity on him who he cast out to live Abroad! Is he now appeased? May he hear the prayer of one far away! May he turn away his hand from him whom he sent roaming the earth, back to the place whence he drew it forth.38 May the King of Egypt be gracious to me! One lives by his grace. May I salute the Lady of the Land39 who is in his palace, may I hear the affairs of her children! So shall my body grow young again, for now old age has descended and infirmity has overtaken me; my eyes are heavy”my hands are weak, my feet have slackened, my heart inclines to weariness. I am near to passing away, when they shall conduct me to the City of Eternity.40 May I serve the Mistress of All!39 Then may she tell me that it is well with her children. May she spend eternity over me!41

Now His Majesty, the King of southern and northern Egypt, Kheperkare42 had been told about these circumstances in which I was; and His Majesty kept sending to me with gifts of the royal bounty, that he might rejoice this servant like the king of any foreign country. And the King’s children, who were in his palace, let me hear of their affairs.

[A copy of the letter43 which was brought back to this servant to bring him back to Egypt]

Horus, Life of Birth; Two-Ladies, Life of Birth; King of southern and northern Egypt, Kheperkare; son of Re, Sesostris,44 may he live for ever and ever!

A royal letter to the attendant Sinuhe.

See, this letter of the King is brought to you to remind you that you have wandered about in foreign countries. You went forth from Kedmi to Retjenu. It was by your own heart’s device that one land passed you on to another. What had you done that you should be opposed? You had not uttered sedition, that your speech should be reproved. You had not condemned the policy of the Councillors, that your utterances should be gainsaid. This idea carried your heart away; it was not in my heart against you.”

This your Heaven,45 who is in the Palace, continues and flourishes still. Her head is covered with the royalty of the land. Her children are in the Royal Apartments; you shall heap up good things of their gift, you shall live by their bounty.

Return to Egypt, that you may see the Residence, in which you grew up. You shall kiss the ground at the great Double Door, you shall join the. Companions.

For now you have begun to grow infirm, you have lost your virile strength. Think of the day of embalmment, of passing to beatitude, when a night shall be appointed for you with cedar oil, and wrappings from the hands of Tayet;46 how a funeral cortege shall be made for you on the day of burial, with a gilded mummy-case and a head-piece47 [inlaid] with blue, a canopy over you, and you placed in a hearse, oxen drawing you and singers going before you. Funeral dances shall be performed at the door of your tomb, and the list of offerings shall be recited for you; beasts shall be slaughtered at the doors of your tombstones, the pillars of your tomb being built of limestone, among the tombs of the King’s ‘children. You must not die abroad. Asiatics shall not conduct you [to your burial-place]; you shall not be placed in a sheep-skin and a tumulus made for you.48 This is over-long to roam abroad. Consider [mortal] sickness, and come back.

This letter reached me while I was standing in the midst of my tribe. It was read to me, and I threw myself on my belly and touched the earth [with my forehead], and strewed it on my hair. I went round my camp rejoicing, saying, “How should this be done for a subject whom his heart has led astray to barbarous lands? The clemency is good indeed which has delivered me from death! Your good pleasure will allow me to meet my end, my body being in the Residence!”

[ A copy of the answer to this letter]

The servant of the Palace, Sinuhe, says:

In very fair peace! This flight which this servant made unwittingly is known to your spirit, O good god, Lord of the Two Lands, whom Re loves and whom Montu, Lord of Thebes, favors. Amun, Lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands, Sobk-Re, Horus, Hathor, Atum and his Nine Gods, Sopdu-Neferbau, Semseru, Horus the Eastern, the Lady of Yemet-may she enfold your head!-the Conclave upon the waters, Min-Horus amid the foreign lands, Wereret, Lady of Pwenet, Nut, Harwer-Re, all the gods of Egypt and the Islands of the Sea,49 may they give life and joy to your nostrils, may they endow you with their gifts, may they give you eternity without limit and everlasting without bounds; may the fear of you be noised abroad in lowlands and highlands-you have subdued all that the sun encircles! Such is the prayer of this servant for his Lord, who saves from the West.50

‘The lord of perception, who perceives the people, he perceived in the Court what this servant feared to say,51 being like something to report which is grave. O great god, peer of Re in making one who works for himself wise, this servant is in the care of one who takes counsel concerning him; I am placed under his guidance. Your Majesty is Horus the Conqueror; your hands are victorious over all lands.

Let now Your Majesty command that I be allowed to bring Meki from southern Kedmi, Yaush out of Keshu, Menus from the lands of the Phoenicians;52 they are kings of renowned names, who have grown up in the love of you. I will not mention Retjenu; it belongs to you like your very hounds.

This flight which your servant made, I did not foresee it, it was not in my mind, I did not plan it; I do not know what parted me from my place. It was like the condition of a dream, like a man of the Delta seeing himself in Elephantine, a man of the northern marshes in Nubia. I did not take fright, no one pursued me, I heard no reviling phrase, my name was not heard in the mouth of the reporter. But my flesh crept, while my feet scurried, my heart taking control of me, the god who ordained this flight urging me. I am not haughty …. 53

Re has set the fear of you throughout the land [of Egypt], the dread of you in every foreign country. Whether I am at the Residence or whether I am here it is you who veil this horizon, and the sun rises at your pleasure. The water in the rivers, it is drunk when you wish; the air of heaven, it is breathed at your bidding. This servant will hand over the Viziership which he has exer- cised here. Your Majesty will act as you please; one lives but by breath of your giving. Re, Horus and Hathor love those august nostrils54 of yours which Montu, Lord of Thebes, desires shall live forever.

[The story resumes:]

This servant was sent for; I was allowed to spend a day in Ya’a for handing over my property to my children, my eldest son being in charge of my tribe, all my property being in his possession – my serfs, all my herds and flocks, my fruit stores and every fruit-tree of mine. Then this servant came thence southwards. I halted at the Roads of Horus,55 and the commandant there in charge of the frontier-patrol sent a message to the Residence to report. Then His Majesty sent a competent overseer of peasants of the Royal Domain, followed by laden ships bearing the King’s bounty for the Bedouins who had come in charge of me, conducting me to the Roads of Horus. I presented each one by name. Every serving-man was at his task. I set forth and hoisted sail, and they kneaded and strained56 beside me, until I reached the vicinity of Yet-towe.57

And the next morning, very early, they came to summon me, ten men coming and ten men going, to conduct me to the Palace. I touched the ground with my forehead between the sphinxes;58 the King’s children were standing in the doorway to meet me, and the Companions, who had been admitted to the forecourt of the Palace, set me on the way to the Royal Apartments. I found His Majesty upon a gilded throne. Then I stretched myself upon my belly, and was quite overcome before him. This god greeted me kindly, but I was like a man carried off in the dust: my soul fainted, my flesh quaked, my heart was not in my body that I should know life from death. Then His Majesty said to one of the Companions, “Raise him up, let him speak to me.” And His Majesty said, “So you have returned after roaming foreign lands. Flight has conquered you; you have grown infirm, you have reached old age. It is no small matter that your body should be buried without your being escorted to your grave by barbarians. Don’t act against your own interests, silent one! You did not speak when your name was mentioned.”

I feared punishment, and I made answer with the answer of one afraid: ”What does my Lord say to me? [If I knew,] then I would answer it. There is nothing I can do. Dread is the hand of God; it is in my body like that which brought about the predestined flight. See, I am before you, life is yours. May Your Majesty do as you wish.” Then the King’s children were allowed to be brought in; and His Majesty said to the Queen, “See, Sinuhe has returned as an Asiatic whom Bedouins have formed.” She uttered a very loud cry, while the King’s children all shouted at once; and they said to His Majesty, “It is not really he, O Sovereign, my Lord?” And His Majesty said,

“It is really he.”

Now they had brought their necklaces and their sistra and their rattles59 with them, and they held them out to His Majesty:

Let your hands rest on what is beautiful, O enduring King,
On the adornments of the Lady of Heaven,

That the Golden One may give life to your nostrils,
That the Lady of the Stars60 may enfold you.

May the Crown of southern Egypt fare northwards,
The Crown of northern Egypt fare southwards,
And be united and joined by Your Majesty’s utterance.

Ujoyet61 is set upon your brow.
You have removed your subjects from evil.

May Re show you grace, O Lord of the Two Lands;
Hail to you, as to the Lady of All.62

Unstring your bow, put up your arrow,
Give breath to him who is stifling.

Give us our good festal expenses in this sheikh,63 a son of Mehyet,64
A barbarian born in Egypt!

He took to flight through fear of you,
He left the land through dread of you.

May the face of him who has seen your face not be turned away;
May the eye that has looked at you not be afraid.

And His Majesty said, “He shall not fear, he shall not fall into dread. He shall be a Companion among the Councillors, he shall be placed in the midst of the Courtiers. Go along to the apartments of purification, to wait upon him.”

Then I went forth from the interior of the Royal Apartments, the King’s children giving me their hands. Afterwards we went to the great Double Door. And I was placed in the house of a king’s son, in which were fine things, and in which was a bath-room, and images of the Horizon,65 and valuables from the Treasury, and garments of royal Iinen; and myrrh and fine oil of the King, and of the Councillors whom he loves, were in every room. Every servingman was at his task.

The years were made to pass away from my body; I was shaved, and my hair was combed. A burden was given back to the desert- my clothes to the Sandfarers. I was clothed in fine linen, and anointed with fine oil; I lay down at night upon a bed. I gave the sand to those who dwell on it, and wood-oil to him who would anoint himself with it. There was given to me the house of the lord of an estate, one that had been in the possession of a Companion. Many artisans restored it, all its woodwork being put into repair anew. Meals were brought to me from the Palace, three and four times a day, over and above what the King’s children gave, without a moment of cessation.

A pyramid was built for me66 of stone, in the midst of the pyramids. The stonemasons who fashion pyramids divided up its ground plan among them. The master-draftsmen drew in it, the master-sculptors carved in it, the master-builders who are on the desert occupied themselves with it. It was supplied with all the equipment which is placed in a tomb-chamber. I was given ka-servants,67 and a desert-garden was made for me, in which was land better than that of the town, like what is made for a Chief Companion. My statue68 was covered with gold, its kilt with electrum.

It is His Majesty who caused this to be done. There is no poor man for whom the like has been done. And I am enjoying the favors of the King’s bounty until the arrival of the day of “landing.”69

It has been copied from beginning to end, according to what was found in writing.


6. Honorific title of highest class of courtier.

7. Khnemiswet and Kanefru are the places in which the kings in question had built their pyramids.

8. In about the year 1970 B.C.E.

9. ‘Throne-name” of Ammenemes 1.

10. A poetical statement of King’s death.

11. City where King resides, not necessarily the capital.

12. Sesostris I had been co-regent with his father for about ten years.

13. Inhabitants of part of the Libyan Desert, west of Egypt.

14. On the west of northern Egypt, towards Libya.

15. The eldest, Sesostris.

16. The private part of the palace, the living-rooms of the royal family.

17. The King was identified with the falcon-god Horus.

18. Younger son summoned to court to usurp throne; a court conspiracy against Sesostris. Overhearing this may have driven Sinuhe to flee.

19. That is, as often as he saw anyone coming he hid by the roadside.

20. Where Sinuhe is at the time of writing his memoirs.

21. The dead King.

22. A temple of Hathor. Red Hill (still so called) is a little east of Cairo.

23. Built as a barrier to protect the north-east frontier of Egypt from invasion and infiltration.

24. A nickname for the nomads of the deserts of Sinai, Palestine and Arabia.

25. The modern Bitter Lakes, on the Isthmus of Suez.

26. About twenty miles north of Beirut, on the Syrian coast.

27. Probably the desert region east of Damascus.

28. The mountainous part of Palestine.

29. A military officer, who reports to higher authorities on deeds of bravery and the reverse, among other matters.

30. A terrible lioness-goddess, believed to cause plagues.

31. An image taken from hunting wild bulls.

32. The cobra (uraeus) on the king’s brow, which destroys his enemies.

33. The womb? Childhood?

34. To receive and deliver messages, presumably.

35. Sinuhe speaks of himself as an isolated alien in the land. The rest of his speech is very obscure. The translation reflects the interpretation of Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume 1: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), p. 227.

36. The challenger.

37. A warlike god.

38. May the god who stretched out a punitive hand to Sinuhe return it to his bosom.

39. The Queen.

40. The cemetery.

41. A reference to the Queen as Sinuhe’s “heaven”; see the King’s letter which follows.

42. ‘Throne-name” of King Sesostris I (about 1970-1936 B.C.E.)

43. Actually “decree”; kings’ letters are always so called.

44. These are the titles and names of King Sesostris.

45. The Queen. .

46. The oil and wrappings are for mummification; Tayet is the goddess of textile work.

47. A cover for the mummy’s head and shoulders, having for the hair and eyebrows inlaid blue glaze simulating lapis lazuli.

48. Which is how he would be buried in Asia.

49. The Greek islands.

50. The place of death.

51. His yearning to return to Egypt.

52. Nothing more is known about these kings.

53. An obscure phrase is omitted.

54. The nose was for the Egyptians the organ of life.

55.On the frontier between Palestine and Egypt, close to the modern E1-Kantarah.

56. Operations of beer-making, carried out in a boat beside that in which Sinuhe was traveling.

57. The Residence at the time, about forty miles south of Cairo.

58. At the great Double Door.

59. These are all emblems of Hathor, the goddess of love, beauty and joy.

60. Three epithets of Hathor.

61. The cobra or uraeus goddess of northern Egypt.

62.The Queen.

63. The children playfully ask for Sinuhe to be pardoned and given to them instead of something with which to celebrate the joyous day of his return.

64. A dolphin goddess of the north of Egypt.

65. Obscure.

66. The King was better than his word; previously only an ordinary “tomb” had been mentioned. Pyramids were usually reserved for the royal family.

67. Persons who maintain the cult of the dead with food offerings, recital of spells, and so on.

68. Placed in the tomb.

69. Dying, from a traveler by water reaching his journey’s end.