Max McDowell is a Jungian analyst who has been in private practice in New York for the past 23 years. Here he analyzes a story from ancient Egypt.
Egyptian merchant ship. 2550 B.C.E.
Picture: Armament history
The island of the serpent
.. And the good Attendant1 said:
"Good news, Count! See, we have reached home! The mallet has been taken in hand and the mooring-stake driven in, the tying-up rope having been placed on land. They are giving praise, and thanking God; they are all embracing one another. Our crew has returned in good order; there is none missing from our expedition. We reached Lower Nubia, we have passed Bigah.2 See then, we have returned in peace, we have reached our own land.
"Listen to me, Count; I am not over-talkative. Wash yourself, pour water over your fingers. Then will you answer when you are addressed, and speak to the King with presence of mind; you will answer without hesitation. A man's mouth saves him: his speech obtains indulgence for him. But do as you wish; talking to you thus wearies you.
"I will relate to you, then, something similar which happened to myself when I went to the Mine-country for the Sovereign.
I went down to the sea in a ship of 120 cubits in length and 40 cubits in width,3 in which were 120 sailors, of the best of Egypt; whether they looked at the sky or whether they looked at the land, their hearts were stouter than lions'. They foretold a storm before it had come, and foul weather before it had arisen.
Picture: source unknown
Storm at sea
Photo: © free-slideshow.com, 2008
The ship perished, and of those that were in it not one survived except me. Then I was cast on an island by a wave of the sea.
I spent three days alone, with only my heart for my companion, lying within a shelter of wood, and I clung to the shade.6
''Then I got to my feet to find out what I could put in my mouth. I found figs and grapes there, and all kinds of fine vegetables; sycamore figs of two kinds were there, and cucumbers as though they were cultivated. Both fish and fowl were there; there is nothing that was not in that island. Then I ate my fill. I put food aside, because I had so much by me, and having shaped a fire-stick I kindled fire, and made a burnt-offering to the gods.
Photo: source unknown
''Then I heard a thunderous noise, which I felt sure was a wave of the sea: the trees were splitting, the earth was shaking. When I uncovered my face I found that it was a serpent that was coming. He was thirty cubits long, and his beard was more than two cubits long.7 His body was plated with gold, his eyebrows were of real lapis lazuli; he was extremely intelligent.
Cobra. Ancient Egypt
Photo: source unknown
"He addressed me, while I was on my belly before him, and said to me, 'What has brought you, what has brought you, little one, what has brought you? If you delay in telling me what has brought you to this island, I will cause you to find yourself burnt up, having become one who cannot be seen.' He went on speaking to me but I heard it not; I was on my belly before him and had become unconscious.
''Then he placed me in his mouth and carried me off to his resting-place. He set me down, and I was unscathed; I was safe and sound, not being overpowered. He addressed me while I was on my belly before him, and said to me,
''What has brought you, what has brought you, little one, what has brought you to this island of the sea, whose borders are in the waters?"
To understand the serpent's demand, it helps to look at an amplification from a Hungarian tale called Pretty Maid Ibronka.
Ibronka spies through the keyhole of a church door upon her suitor, the Devil. He is eating the brains of corpses. The Devil demands that she say what she saw. But she tells her story from her own human perspective, omitting what she saw through the keyhole. Again and again she tells her own version of her story and thus defeats and finally kills the Devil.
''Then I made answer to him, my arms being bent before him,8 and said to him, 'I went down to the Mine Country, on business of the Sovereign, in a ship of 120 cubits in length and 40 cubits in width, in which were 120 sailors, of the best of Egypt; whether they looked at the sky or whether they looked at the land, their hearts were stouter than lions'. They foretold a storm before it had come, and foul weather before it had arisen. Everyone of them was stouter of heart and stronger of hand than his fellow; there was no fool among them. The storm broke out while we were yet on the sea, before we could make the land. The wind arose and made a great noise, with waves eight cubits high. The wave even struck the mast. The ship perished, and of those that were in it not one survived except me, and here I am in your presence. I was brought to this island by a wave of the sea.'
"And he said to me, 'Do not fear, do not fear, little one, do not avert your face; you have reached me; see, God has preserved you that he might bring you to this island to please me. There is nothing that is not in it, it is full of all good things.
"'See, you will spend month upon month on this island until you have completed four months, and a ship will arrive from the Residence9 in which will be sailors who are known to you. You will go away with them to the Residence, and you will die in your city.'
'''How glad is he who relates what he has experienced, when painful things are past! Now I will relate to you something similar which happened in this island. I was in it with my kinsmen, and children were among them: we amounted to seventy-five serpents, my children and my kinsmen, without my mentioning to you the daughter whom I gained through prayer.10 Then a star fell, and these went up in fire through it. It chanced that I was not with them; they were burnt, and I was not in their midst. Then I died for them,11 when I found them to be a single heap of corpses.'
"'But if you have enough patience you will embrace your children, you will kiss your wife, and see your house, and these things are best of all; you will reach your home in which you were, in the midst of your kinsmen.'
Photo: © Bob Keck, 2002
"Crouching on my belly I touched the ground before him [with my forehead], and then said to him, 'I will describe your might to the Sovereign, and cause him to be acquainted with your greatness. I will send you fine oils and perfumes, and the incense of the temples wherewith every god is propitiated, and I will relate what has happened, having in mind what I have seen through his [the Sovereign's] might. Thanks shall be returned to you in the Capital, in the presence of the Council of the entire land. I will slaughter oxen for you as a burnt-offering, and wring the necks of fowl for you. And I will send you ships laden with all the luxuries of Egypt, as should be done for a god who loves men in a far country that men know not.'
'Then he laughed at me, and at this that I had said as being vanity in his opinion, and said to me, 'You have not much myrrh and every kind of incense12 but I am the Ruler of Punt,13 and myrrh belongs to me. And that fine oil which you said should be brought is the chief thing of this island. And it shall come about that when you depart from here, nevermore will you see this island; it will have become water.'
''That ship came, even as he had previously foretold. And I went and set myself on a high tree, and I recognized those who were in the ship. I went to announce the matter, but found that he knew it. And he said to me, 'Farewell, farewell, little one, to your house, that you may see your children. Let my repute be good in your city; see, that is all I require of you.'
''Then I cast myself on my belly before him, my arms bent. And he gave me a cargo of myrrh, fine oil, various gums, essences and perfumes, eye-paint, giraffes' tails, a great packet of incense, elephants' tusks, swift hounds, monkeys, apes, and all good and costly things. And I loaded them on to this ship.
Loading cargo: Ships of Hatsu
Drawing: source unknown
Loading cargo. Temple reliefs. Deir el-Bahri: 1473-1458 B.C.E.
Photo: source unknown
When I had cast myself on my belly to thank him, he said to me, 'See, you will reach the Residence within two months and will embrace your children and grow young again at the Residence, and be embalmed [there].'
''Then I went down to the shore, near this ship, and I called to the soldiers who were in it. I gave praise on the shore to the lord of this island, and those who were in the ship did likewise.
"We sailed away northwards to the Residence of the Sovereign, and we arrived at the Residence in two months, exactly as he had said. Then I entered in to the Sovereign and presented to him these gifts which I had brought from this island. And he thanked me in the presence of the Council of the entire land. Then I was made an Attendant, and was endowed with two hundred head of slaves.
Pharaoh Akhenaten, 1351-1337 BCE. Statue.
Photo: source unknown
"Behold me, after I had reached land, after I saw what I had experienced. Listen to my utterance. See, it is good to listen to people."
Then the Count said to him, "Do not play the virtuous man, friend. Does one give water to a bird the day before when it is going to be killed in the morning?"
It has been copied from beginning to end, according to what was found in writing. Written by the scribe with clever fingers, Amen'o (may he live, be prosperous and healthy!), son of Ameny.
Footnotes1. An Attendant of the King; see the end of the story.
2. A small island at the southern frontier of Egypt.
3. About 206 by 70 feet
4. 14 feet.
5. According to the interpretation of Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient E-gyptian Literature, vol. 1: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), p. 215 n. 1.
6. For fear of being seen?
7. 51-1/2 and 3-1/2 feet.
8. A deferential attitude.
9. Namely, the city where the King and his court reside, which is not necessarily the capital of the country.
10. According to the interpretation of Lichtheim, 1:213.
11. An exaggerated expression for grief.
12. According to the interpretation of Lichtheim, 1:214.
13. A country on the African side of the Red Sea, most probably in the central Sudan and Eritrea, and one of the principal sources of incense and other exotic African products. Punt and its products are vividly depicted in a famous set of reliefs in the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut (1478-1458 B.C.E.) at Deir el-Bahri.