Sunday, December 4

A patient debating with his soul: the Egyptian papyrus ‘hidden’ in Mallorca that contains a pioneering philosophical text

Papyrus fragments written 4,000 years ago have spent more than a century unnoticed in the humble Biblical Museum of Mallorca until the Egyptologist Marina Escolano-Poveda has discovered that, in addition to being the oldest in Spain, they form an essential part of the first philosophical text of The humanity.

Pasted on a red cardboard, covered by glass within a frame, pieces of the beginning of “The debate between a man and his ba” are preserved in Palma, a dialogue between a dying man and his soul in which the benefits of life and death.

“It has been considered the first philosophical text in history,” explains Escolano-Poveda (Alicante, 1986) from Liverpool, at whose university he teaches ancient Greek and classical Egyptian, the ancient language of “The debate between a man and his ba”, embodied on papyrus in hieratic writing, a synthetic form of hieroglyphics.

The bulk of the only copy of this text is kept in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin and is part of what is known as Papyrus 3024, which also contains the largest fragment of “The Shepherd’s Tale”, another essential piece of Middle Kingdom narrative writing. Egyptian (2000-1650 BC), the first documented literature along with which originated in parallel in Mesopotamia 40 centuries ago.

“These texts are very rare. The literary compositions of that time do not exceed twenty and most are very fragmentary. Relatively complete narrative stories there are around ten. Discovering new fragments was something very important”, points out the specialist.

These texts are very rare. The literary compositions of that time do not exceed twenty and most are very fragmentary. Relatively complete narrative stories there are around ten. Discovering new fragments was something very important

Marina Escolano-Poveda

A sick man, the shepherd and the goddess

In the text that was known until the discovery of the Mallorcan Papyri, the dialogue between man, who has no name, and his ba, a concept that has been translated as soul, but “had been discussed for a century” which It was the trigger for that debate, he highlights.

The new fragments provide two essential elements: firstly, the protagonist is identified as “the sick man”, which explains his dialogue with death, and secondly, it places the framework of the narration, which is the story that this man He makes third parties, among whom is a woman, Ankhet.

Escolano-Poveda, who published the first results of his research in academic media in 2017, then advanced that in the Mallorca fragments there were also relevant elements from the other piece of papyrus, “The Shepherd’s Tale”, and continued to delve into the work with new findings that he develops in an article due out in December.

In this second, older and shorter account of the scroll preserved in the German capital, the protagonist is a shepherd frightened in the marshes by a female deity who makes him a proposal before which he protects the cattle and who on the following day is seen tempted again by the goddess, in the form of a woman.

In the fragments from Majorca, the Egyptologist has discovered the transformation of the goddess into a woman, who initially showed the shape of an animal, possibly with leonine features, and who asks the shepherd for the number of his cattle with the intention of appropriating some of them. They also include a poetic description of the feminine beauty of the goddess.

On a stela preserved in the Louvre museum and dated a millennium after the papyrus, the description of the goddess is reproduced with identical words and in the language of the Middle Kingdom, suggesting a continuity in the literary tradition that could be related to the papyrus preservation.

Regarding the adventures of the shepherd, he has found a medieval story with a similar story referring to Alexander the Great, which suggests that the tale of the Berlin and Majorca papyrus may be part of the propaganda literature of Pharaoh Senusret I, identified in traditions. later with the Macedonian king.

The hidden origin

Escolano-Poveda now has as a priority to take the papyri from Majorca to the Egyptian Museum in Berlin with two objectives: to guarantee their correct conservation before returning them to the island and to complete the study of the location of these fragments in the ensemble.

In addition, taking them out of the frame and studying the newsprint on which the papyri support is mounted would shed information on one of the mysteries that these pieces still hold: how they got to Mallorca.

The torn scrolls, found in Egypt in the 1830s, are known to have been auctioned in London in 1837 and added to the Berlin collection in 1843, but nothing about how the missing pieces of the puzzle ended up in the Biblical Museum. de Mallorca, an entity of the Bishopric that since 1913 has brought together elements of the historical environment in which the Scriptures were composed.

The manager of the commission responsible for the Majorcan museum, Gerardo Jofre, a lover of Egyptology, was the one who put the then student Marina Escolano-Poveda in front of those pieces of papyrus, years before one day she called him to announce: “I think that We have discovered something important.” “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” he proudly emphasizes.

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