Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happiness as 'Open of Heart. All senses sharp. Stripped of Unsavory.'

In a way we as species invented 'happiness'. The oldest definition on what a 'happy' life is, is the Homeric (3rd century BCE) definition of 'happiness' as 'luck'. More 

We do not know how our pre-historic ancestors defined happiness. Why not? Because they did not write down what they thought. How about other groups of our ancient ancestors who used written words, sentences, letters and books for nailing down what they thought important: record inventories, raising taxes or changing information with others? Did the ancient Egyptians have a word (or words) for 'happiness'? How did they define 'happiness'? After all they invented an alphabet (the oldest?) around 2700 BCE. That's more than 2,400 years before Homer! 

This year I invested time to find out what ancient Egypt's definition (or definitions?) of 'happiness'. I wrote a couple of e-mails to Egyptologists - never got a serious answer. Searching on the internet. Read three books for background information: Toby Wilkinson/ The rise and fall of ancient Egypt (2010), J. Vergote/ De godsdienst van het Oude Egypte (1987) and John Romer/ Ancient lives: the Story of the Pharaoh's Tombmakers (1991). 

The 'Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae' gives only one hit on 'happiness' or 'happy': pxA-jb. I checked out the three short references. Most interesting is Wilson, A Ptolemaic Lexikon (1997), page 364:  
Here 'pxA-jb' is translated as 'open of heart', a heart that is 'happy' or 'cheerful'. The earliest example of 'pxA-jb' is used by Thutmosis I (footnote). His reign dated from 1506 to 1493 BCE. He was a pharaoh - 18th dynasty - from the Ancient Egyptian's New Kingdom

Intermediate. Ancient Egyptian's definition of 'happiness'? 
  • Old Kingdom. No written word for 'happiness' 
  • Middle Kingdom. No written word for 'happiness' 
  • New Kingdom. 'pxA-jb' = Open of heart. A heart that is happy, cheerful, joyful, without sadness, all faculties sharpened. Perhaps brought by drinking wine or beer. A state where someone has all faculties sharpened, before he loses control. 
Wilson's addition (better: translation or interpretation) of "without sadness" fits with the ancient Egyptian concept of paradise. For them 'paradise' were the 'eternal reed fields' (Aaru). Fields very much like those of the earthly Nile. Ideal hunting and fishing ground. A place where the deceased was entertained by beautiful and perfect women, sailing trips, music and merriment with friends. And the 'sadness'? Work was done by serfs!

Hypothesis. Ancient Egypt's definition of 'happiness' = Open of Heart. All senses sharp. Stripped of all the Unsavory Aspects.

Question: Do you have better information on ancient Egypt's definition of happiness? Or is it just another stupid question?

Footnote. 'Urk IV 267,7' = Book IV, page 267, line 7 from 'Urkunden des ägyptischen Altertums'. Source

1 comment:

  1. Dear Jean,

    Very interesting. I had thought that we at the [E] had given you a serious answer (although unhelpful I’m sure!).

    As I said before, this subject (and philology in general) is not my strong point though your research is very interesting and does currently point towards your hypothesis. Searching for specific words and their meanings can be difficult as, I think, “emotions” are a very tricky thing to pin down in literature. This is often because a feeling is not described in one word but can be presented as the sense of an emotion through a phrase. Other problems arise when using a wide range of volumes as the word “happiness” may not be used as much in earlier translations of the word as “joy” or “joyfulness”.

    I would say that if you wanted to look at the different meanings of “happiness” in ancient Egypt you should look at mortuary texts such as the Book of the Dead which obviously describe the journey and judgement of the individual in the underworld as well as the attainment of contentment or happiness in death. Although outdated (and always frowned upon when referenced) Wallis Budge produced a “Vocabulary to the Book of the Dead” in the 1800’s onwards and there are a couple of different references to happiness in there which include:

    uas = contentment, happiness
    bu nefer = prosperity, happiness
    tepi = the greatest happiness

    Perhaps using this (outdated) source as a starting point for additional research and then tracking such words or phrases to more contemporary volumes such as Gardiner, Faulkner or Allen might allow you to expand your research into this subject. Alternatively, my colleague [C], suggests looking at other literary sources such as the “Laments” or “Tales of Woe”. There is an anthology of writings from the Middle Kingdom called “Voices from Ancient Egypt” that might give you further sources for research.