Tale of Two Brothers

For the German fairy tale, see The Two Brothers. For the 1910 film directed by D. W. Griffith, see The Two Brothers (film). For the video game, see Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
Sheet from the Tale of Two Brothers, Papyrus D'Orbiney, British Museum

The Tale of Two Brothers is an ancient Egyptian story that dates from the reign of Seti II, who ruled from 1200 to 1194 BC during the 19th Dynasty of the New Kingdom.[1] The story is preserved on the Papyrus D'Orbiney,[2] which is currently preserved in the British Museum.[3]


The story centers around two brothers: Anpu (Anubis), who is married, and the younger Bata. The brothers work together, farming land and raising cattle. One day, Anpu's wife attempts to seduce Bata. When he strongly rejects her advances, the wife tells her husband that his brother attempted to seduce her and beat her when she refused. In response to this, Anpu attempts to kill Bata, who flees and prays to Re-Harakhti to save him. The god creates a crocodile-infested lake between the two brothers, across which Bata is finally able to appeal to his brother and share his side of the events. To emphasize his sincerity, Bata severs his genitalia and throws them into the water, where a catfish eats them.

Bata states that he is going to the Valley of the Cedar, where he will place his heart on the top of the blossom of a cedar tree, so that if it is cut down Anpu will be able to find it and allow Bata to become alive again. Bata tells Anpu that if he is ever given a jar of beer that froths, he should know to seek out his brother. After hearing of his brother's plan, Anpu returns home and kills his wife. Meanwhile, Bata is establishing a life in the Valley of the Cedar, building a new home for himself. Bata comes upon the Ennead, or the principal Egyptian deities, who take pity on him. Khnum, the god frequently depicted in Egyptian mythology as having fashioned humans on a potters' wheel, creates a wife for Bata. Because of her divine creation, Bata's wife is sought after by the pharaoh. When the pharoh succeeds in bringing her to live with him, she tells him to cut down the tree in which Bata has put his heart. They do so, and Bata dies.

Anpu then receives a frothy jar of beer and sets off to the Valley of the Cedar. He searches for his brother's heart for more than three years, finding it at the beginning of the fourth year. He follows Bata's instructions and puts the heart in a bowl of cold water. As predicted, Bata is resurrected.

Bata then takes the form of a bull and goes to see his wife and the pharaoh. His wife, aware of his presence as a bull, asks the pharaoh if she may eat its liver. The bull is then sacrificed, and two drops of Bata's blood fall, from which grow two Persea trees. Bata, now in the form of a tree, again addresses his wife, and she appeals to the pharaoh to cut down the Persea trees and use them to make furniture. As this is happening, a splinter ends up in the wife's mouth, impregnating her. She eventually gives birth to a son, whom the pharaoh ultimately makes crown prince. When the pharaoh dies, the crown prince (a resurrected Bata) becomes king, and he appoints his elder brother Anpu as crown prince. The story ends happily, with the brothers at peace with one another and in control of their country.

Context and themes

There are several themes present in the Tale of Two Brothers that are significant to ancient Egyptian culture. One of these is kingship. The second half of the tale deals largely with Egyptian ideas of kingship and the connection between divinity and the pharaoh. That Bata's wife ultimately ends up pregnant with him is a reference the duality of the role of women in pharaonic succession; the roles of wife and mother were often simultaneous. Also, the divine aspect of his wife's creation could be seen to serve as legitimacy for the kingship of Bata, especially since he was not actually the child of the pharaoh. Beyond this, Bata's closeness with the Ennead in the middle of the story also serves to legitimize his rule; the gods bestowed divine favor upon Bata in his time of need.

There are also several references to the separation of Egypt into two lands. Throughout ancient Egyptian history, even when the country is politically unified and stable, it is acknowledged that there are two areas: Lower Egypt, the area in the north including the Nile Delta, and Upper Egypt, the area to the south. In the beginning of the story, Bata is referred to as unique because there was "none like him in the entire land, for a god's virility was in him."[4] Additionally, whenever one of the brothers becomes angry, they are said to behave like an "Upper Egyptian panther," or, in another translation, like "a cheetah of the south."[5]

Interpretation and analysis

There are several issues to consider when analyzing ancient Egyptian literature in general, and the Tale of Two Brothers is no different. It should be noted that one difficulty of analyzing the literature of ancient Egypt is that "such scarcity of sources gives to the observation of any kind of historical development within Ancient Egyptian literature a highly hypothetical status and makes the reconstruction of any intertextual networks perhaps simply impossible."[6] Loprieno notes that the euhemeristic theory is often successfully employed in the analysis of ancient Egyptian literature; this the historiocentric method of analyzing literature as it pertained to political events.[7]

With relation to the Tale of Two Brothers, Susan Tower Hollis also advocates this approach, saying that the story might "contain reflexes of an actual historical situation."[8] Specifically, Hollis speculates that the story might have had its origins in the succession dispute following Merneptah's reign at the beginning of the 13th century BC. When Merneptah died, Seti II was undoubtedly the rightful heir to the throne, but he was challenged by Amenmesse, who ruled for at least a few years in Upper Egypt, although Seti II ultimately ruled for six full years.[9]

Biblical parallels

Because of the Egyptian location wherein the scene is staged, it is not impossible to detect in the biblical tale of Joseph and Potiphar's wife a more recent echo of the very old Egyptian fable of the two brothers Bata and Anpu.[10][11]

Source of the text

See also


Wikisource has original text related to this article:


  1. Jacobus Van Dijk, "The Amarna Period and the Later New Kingdom," in "The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt" ed. Ian Shaw. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 303
  2. https://archive.org/stream/papyrusdorbineyb00britrich#page/n5/mode/2up
  3. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/s/sheet_from_the_tale_of_two_bro.aspx
  4. William Kelly Simpson, "The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) p. 81
  5. Gaston Maspero, "Popular Stories in Ancient Egypt" (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) p. 6
  6. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, "Does Egyptology need a 'theory of literature'?" in "Ancient Egyptian Literature" ed. Antonio Loprieno. (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1996) p. 10
  7. Antonio Lopreino, "Defining Egyptian Literature: Ancient Texts and Modern Theories" in "Ancient Egyptian Literature" ed. Antonio Lopreino. (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1996) p. 40
  8. Susan T. Hollis, "The Ancient Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers: The Oldest Fairy Tale in the World" (Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996)
  9. Jacobus Van Dijk, "The Amarna Period and the Later New Kingdom," in "The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt" ed. Ian Shaw. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 303
  10. Encyclopedia Britannica, Joseph (biblical figure)
  11. http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/texts/anpu_and_bata.htm
  12. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol.2, 1980, p.203
  13. Lewis Spence, An Introduction to Mythology, Cosimo, Inc. 2004, ISBN 1-59605-056-X, p.247


External links

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