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The Origins of Consciousness versus Self-consciousness as Expressed in a 4000 Year Old Ancient Egyptian Tale

During the course of writing a piece (not yet posted) on Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s essay, “On Translating Sanskrit Myth,” in The Translator’s Art, edited by William Radice and Betty Reynolds, I mentioned The Tale of Sinuhe. Some themes from a book I had read many years previously resonated within me with what I was saying about The Tale of Sinuhe. I have previously posted an entirely different piece on Sinuhe:  The Teller and Tale United.

The Tale of Sinuhe is an Ancient Egyptian narrative surviving in many incomplete fragments from around the early 20th century BC.

The story that Sinuhe tells us in first person is as follows. He overhears a conversation connected with the death of King Amenemhet I of Egypt and, perhaps for political reasons, flees his native land to what we now call Canaan where he becomes the son-in-law to the local chief, Ammunenshi. He defends Ammunenshi against various rebellious tribes and, singlehandedly, defeats a powerful opponent. Shortly after he has made a prayer calling for a return to his homeland, the King of Egypt, Senwosret I, invites him back. He lives out the rest of his life in the service of Senwosret I and is laid to rest in a tomb he has built for himself.

The full text of the tale is here: (

So I thought I would go back and revisit the book,  The Origins of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes, published by Houghton Mifflin, 1976, to explore those resonances and see if there was any substance in them.

Reviews of  Origins are at:

Many readers on that site,, have written excellently on Origins (or TOoCitBotBM as one reviewer coins it, which, if you are English and enjoy word plays, sits nicely in the mind) so there is little point in discussing here what Jaynes says, or is trying to say.

It seems sufficient to say that Jaynes’ book remains controversial (which I was quite unaware of at the time when I read it).

Over the years there have been many controversial psychiatrists and psychologists. Jaynes occupied a field that seems to thrive on the stuff. His ideas are substantial enough, though, for a Julian Jaynes Society to survive him.

What I am concerned to do is to go back to Jaynes and see if his thoughts throw any light on the language that Sinuhe uses (or on the thoughts Sinuhe used to frame the language, to borrow from Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty in “On Translating Sanskrit Myth” ).

We can do no better, in an effort to capture the sense of Sinuhe’s language, than look to Parkinson’s translation of  The Tale of Sinuhe.

In his Introduction to  The Tale of Sinuhe, Parkinson says,

“Egyptian literary texts exhibit various distinctive features: .. they are self-conscious and concerned with self-definition and expression … they are fictional.” [p3]

and, again, the extant literature:

” … provides a unique record from Ancient Egypt of man’s self-consciousness and his exploration of the problematic reality that faced him.” [p17]

Parkinson then goes on to observe that this is what makes Ancient Egyptian literature attractive to the modern (he means present day) reader.

If you are familiar with The Origins of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, you will have already spotted what caused the resonances in my mind with Jaynes’ book and Sinuhe’s writing.

Yes, it is that word, “self-conscious”.

When I first read  The Tale of Sinuhe I was certainly struck by the writer (Sinuhe)’s self-consciousness. But there are so many strange elements to cope with on a first reading of the book: place names and people’s names, for example, that one keeps thinking, “This, after all, was written 4000 years ago, what do you expect?”

Parenthetically, one might add, that the atmosphere one gets from reading Sinuhe is of an alien place and of an alienness. Just the atmosphere that good science fiction writers strive to attain.

Anyway, diving back, after all these years since I first read it, into Jaynes’s book, who has thoughtfully provided us with two excellent indices, one on Places and the other on Subjects, off we go.

Before we look at what Jaynes’ says about literature, which is why we are here in his book, let’s quickly look at what he says about consciousness. After all, he is bound to say something, no?

“Conscious mind is a spatial analogue of the world (he means physical world) and metal acts are analogues of bodily acts.” [p66]

You don’t have to be a non-Lockean to pick holes in that, but this is not the place to do it.

He then goes on to claim that consciousness is based on language, “Consciousness comes after language.” [p66]

That may be the case, but what Sinuhe tells us, loudly and clearly, is that consciousness absolutely predates writing. Why do we say that? Because there it is on the page. No translation difficulties, no transliteration problems mask that.

Alright, if you are perverse you can say, “but he is writing and he has consciousness, how do you know that his consciousness does not postdate writing?”

Because, in developmental terms, writing is about 4 hours old, and there is no way that Sinuhe developed his consciousness during those 4 hours. The pace of development of writing compared to the pace of evolution is supersonic jet to tortoise. Sinuhe’s predecessors (and ours) had to have developed consciousness a considerable length of time before writing was developed.

Put it this way. To give some sense of the difference of time scales we are considering here, consider how long it takes to learn how to ride a bicycle compared to the time taken for us to have evolved from quadrupeds to bipeds.

The point is that, like learning to ride a bicycle, writing, even the development of it, is an acquired skill. The evolution of consciousness is of a whole different order. This may be what is wrong with Jaynes’ thesis, but I don’t know for sure.

Putting all of Jaynes aside to return to the world of Sinuhe, what is left to consider?

However alien is the world that Sinuhe describes, the one thing we have no doubt about whatsoever is that Sinuhe is human (even in spite of his name).

In the chapter subsequent to that just quoted from, Jaynes examines his thesis with regard to The Iliad of Homer.

I think it is very interesting to have Jaynes’ comments on The Iliad (and on the Odyssey, though we won’t get to them) at hand because his comments apply to a work which most knowledgeable people agree was written around 800 BC.

In other words, The Iliad was written long after Sinuhe had committed his composition with brush to papyrus, or had a scribe use a stylus to inscribe on a clay tablet.

What’s more, by every measure, The Iliad is the written record of an oral precursor. Sinuhe composed his from his mind onto the page. No oral precursor. Sinuhe tells us he writing what he says directly on the page.

Let’s see what Jaynes says.

Well, dear readers, we are going onto thin ice at this point. The section in Jaynes I am looking at is, “The Language of the The Iliad.” [p69]

Jaynes was a psychologist not a scholar of Archaic Greek, the language of The Iliad. By what authority does he challenge generations of Greek scholars in the understanding of the Archaic Greek of the text?

I certainly don’t have that authority but I will look at the Greek terms he challenges and see how they stand up, always bearing in mind that the language we are considering, Ancient Egyptian, that of Sinuhe’s, is of considerably greater antiquity than Archaic Greek.

Consider, for brevity’s sake, one example from Jaynes.

The first word Jaynes considers is ψυχή [p69] (we will for ignore the utter irony of him, a psychologist, talking unselfconsciously about this term).

Now, even if we are unpracticed at this, we can take the individual syllables and transliterate them.

The first letter of ψυχή is psi, the second is upsilon, the third is chi, the final letter is eta.  We can render this as psyche.

Perfect! You all did very well! We have rendered a word from 800 BC intelligible to us.

OK, this does not make us translators of Archaic Greek (after all, the Greek I have shown is, strictly, modern demotic Greek) but what it does show is that the Greek, however old it is, is deeply embedded in our language. Psyche is readily understandable to you and me.

Now, what ancient Greeks understood by the term and what we do, aye, there is the rub. But let’s persevere.

A glance at the reproduction in the link below will illustrate for us the final eight lines of  The Tale of Sinuhe.

The quick look is sufficient to illustrate the point.

Ancient Egyptian is a whole order of difference away from us than Archaic Greek.

Here is an illustration of line 2 from the hieroglyphs for The Tale of Sinuhe.

Illustration: Line 2 hieroglyphics from The Tale of Sinuhe  (from JJ Hirst)

We have just transliterated the Greek into English. Here is an example of transliteration from the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics:

ink Smsw Sms nb.f bAk n ipt nswt  –  “I was a follower who followed his lord, a servant of the family- quarters of the king,” line 2 of  The Tale of Sinuhe, see:

I might comment, to give it some context, that this, “I was a follower of my lord, servant of the king,” held widespreadly through the Middle Ages. Only with the rise of City States such as Venice, and the emergence of professional and merchant classes in the Renaissance, does it begin to breakdown. It still holds true to this day in Royal courts, where absolute obedience to the reigning monarch is a condition of employment.

Now, the illustration  is simply an example. But this example from  The Tale of Sinuhe illustrates perfectly what Egyptologists do to the hieroglyphics before translating the transliteration into English.

So what point am I making? That the language of Homer (whether he existed or not) is incomparably closer to us than the language of Sinuhe.

Yet Jaynes denies to the Greeks of  The Iliad what Sinue clearly has more than a thousand years before them, consciousness.

This is like saying: birds lost their ability to fly but later recovered it.

Now we are not engaged in an exercise whereby we determine how many legs of a thesis you have to destroy before it collapse. Rather what I set out to do was to examine the resonances I experienced in a previous discussion of The Tale of Sinuhe with regard to Jaynes’ obviously seminal work.

Can I tie the resonances I experienced to my reading of  The Tale of Sinuhe? No, I can not.

So what I, we, have learned is that my previous understanding of his thesis does not stand up to scrutiny as viewed from the present time. The failure is mine not Jaynes’, or anybody else’s.

But I wouldn’t have embarked on the exercise if I hadn’t thought it was worthwhile.

After all, not all thought experiments are going to be successful. Better luck next time.

What we have ended up with, dear reader, is a deeper understanding of the nature of translation and of the transliteration of culture.

We are deeply connected to the language and ideas of The Iliad and The Odyssey. They are implanted within our culture. We are surely dislocated from the world and culture of Sinuhe, 4000 years ago. That we are able to make any kind of leap at all to an understanding of Sinuhe’s world is cause for joy and celebration.

Where this tiny pip of understanding will lead us to next, I cannot say. With bated breath I say, stay posted.

Books mentioned in this discussion are:

“On Translating Sanskrit Myth,” by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, in The Translator’s Art, edited by William Radice and Betty Reynolds, published by Penguin, 1987.

The Tale of Sinuhe: and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940-1640 BC, Anonymous, translated by R B Parkinson, published by Oxford University Press, 1997.

The Origins of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes, published by Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer (no particular editions)


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