The Harpist’s Song at Saqqara: Transmission, Performance, and Contexts

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The harpists’ songs from the Saqqara New Kingdom necropolis come from a variety of dates and tomb-contexts. The texts of these songs show little direct intertextuality or quotation between one another, but borrow from a common stock of themes also found at Thebes. The data from Saqqara is limited, and therefore does not allow for a particularly detailed discussion of transmission of the harpists’ songs at this site by itself. The greater quantity of material from Thebes, however, does allow the discussion of compositional process in the harpists’ songs. In particular, the four songs published by Wente appear to be the result of a compositional process of assembling the text from common formulae and stock phrases, or through ‘cut-and-paste’. These are features more broadly attested in Egyptian literary composition, and result in the ‘fragmentation’ which Eyre describes as characteristic of Egyptian literature. At a broader level, this may be reflected in the use of compositional ‘building-blocks’ in the arrangement of texts and images within tombs as whole.

Although some of the harpists’ songs at Saqqara, in particular those found in the tombs of Nebnefer and Tatia, show some similarities in decoration, there does not appear to be a direct copying of motifs for this scene between tombs. The cosmetic box of Ipy, and its scene of musicians, shows clear overlaps in design with late Eighteenth Dynasty tomb scenes in Thebes, and particularly the tomb of Nakht (TT 52), and the banquet scene from the chapel of Ptahmay. The harpist’s song in the chapel of Paatenemhab is partially preserved, but appears to be the same text as the ‘harpist’s song in the tomb of Intef’ on p. Harris 500. The two copies of the text appear to show little variation, and may indicate that this harpist’s song had canonical status. The harpist’s scene in the tomb of Raia appears to be unique. Rather than depicting a harpist singing to Raia, it depicts Raia singing to the gods. Although the song is badly damaged and the single surviving phrase is not attested elsewhere, its selection of motifs and expressions clearly belongs to the genre of harpists’ songs. The scene is placed over scenes of the funeral cortege, and for these reasons appears to depict Raia singing to the gods in the afterlife, rather than performing his job in this world.

The harpist’s songs appear to have a ritual context in accompanying offering. This offering occurs at a transitional moment for the deceased, likely the end of the funeral, when their mummy has been ritually reactivated by the ‘Opening of the Mouth’, and they are free to journey into the Netherworld. This context would plausibly explain the variety of texts found in the harpists’ songs, both of an ‘optimistic’ variety which praise the netherworld, and those which praise ‘making holiday’ in this life, or which cast doubt on the efficacy of funerary monuments. The offering context also appears to be connected with feasts held at the tomb at other times. These were likely held during festivals. Such feasts have often been assumed to take place during the ‘Beautiful Festival of the Valley’ in Thebes, but this context is unlikely to have held at Saqqara. The Festival of Sokar was one of the most prominent festivals in the Memphite region, but feasts may have taken place in the necropolis on many occasions during the year. The harpists’ songs appear to be connected to the ‘laying down of provisions’ and the making of offerings not only as part of the funeral but also at subsequent festivals, which may have been accompanied by banqueting at the tomb. It may be futile to seek for a single context for the harpist’s song, of any of the types identified in prior literature on the topic, however, owing to the variety of possible contexts for the songs. This may relate to the ‘multiplicity of approaches’, much-referenced in discussions of Egyptian religion, and the high degree of variation between manuscripts of Egyptian literary works. There may also be a more direct cause, however, in the individual choices made in the decoration of particular tombs, and perhaps in the performance of funerary rituals, as individuals and groups continuously reappropriate religious practices for their own use, “weaving individual life-cycles into long-term histories” (Kolen/Renes 2015: 21).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPerspectives on Lived Religion
Subtitle of host publicationPractices - Transmission - Landscape
EditorsNico Staring, Huw Twiston Davies, Lara Weiss
Place of PublicationThe Netherlands
PublisherSidestone Press
Number of pages33
ISBN (Electronic)9789088907944
ISBN (Print)9789088907920, 9789088907937
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2019

Publication series

NamePapers on Archaeology of the Leiden Museum of Antiquities
PublisherSidestone Press
ISSN (Print)2034-550X


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