The Tablet of Seven Years of Famine

By P. le Page. Renouf

[Extracted from PSBA, 13, 443-4.]


Mr. RENOUF read a translation of the Tablet of the Seven Years of Famine, which the distinguished American Egyptologist Mr. Charles E. Wilbour discovered and photographed on the island of Sehel.

In this inscription a message is said to have been received by the governor of Nubia and of the cities of the south, at his residence at Elephantine, from king T'esor [cartouche], in the 18th year of his reign, describing the terrible condition of Egypt in consequence of the failure of the Nile during seven consecutive years, and asking for authentic information about the rising of the Nile and the gods who take part in the inundation. The governor supplied this information, and gave ample statistics as to the nature of the animal, vegetable, and mineral wealth of the country. The king, on receiving the report, made an offering to the gods and goddesses of Elephantine, and was rewarded with a vision during his slumbers from the great god Chnum, who complained that, from time immemorial, stones were ready, but no man turned them to use for building temples to the gods, or repairing those which were falling into ruin. But the god promised that henceforth the Nile should issue forth, and that not a year should fail; that the famine should cease, that corn should grow in plenty, according to the heart's desire, and more than ever had been heretofore. The king awoke, and his courage revived, and he issued a decree endowing the great god of the Cataracts with the cultivable land on the right and left banks of the Nile, 20 schoeni in all, and with dues to be paid by the inhabitants of the district, from the produce of all the barns, and of whatsoever the fisherman catcheth within his nets, and what the hunter taketh, of whatsoever the angler or the fowler acquireth; of all game and capture of wild animals upon the hills of all these I offer to thee a tenth part. Of all the calves born within the allotted distance, one tenth shall be destined for the daily service; and herewith shall be combined the payment of the tenth upon the gold, ivory, ebony and other mineral and vegetable articles of commerce. The tithe was to be paid by stonecutters and workers in metal as well as by the traders in the rare stones imported from the south and from the east. This decree is to set up in a conspicuous spot, and engraved with writing corresponding with what is written on the wooden tablets. [p.444] Although the inscription professes to record the decree of a king of the third dynasty, the style of it betrays a very late age, perhaps even the Roman. It has been published by Dr. Brugsch* with a translation and an introduction which deals very minutely with every point requiring illustration.

A number of texts, down to the time of Tiberius, are still extant, recording loyal decrees endowing the temples with 12 schoeni on each side of the river. In each of these the Dodekaschoinos is said to lie between Takomsit and Syene. Herodotos already speaks of the [Greek]. Now as this allotment always remained the same, it is natural to conclude either that the decree remained in form only during the reign of each sovereign and required renewing, or that the priesthood thought it best ex abundanti cautela to procure the renewal.

The inscription of the Seven Years of Famine is evidently a pious fraud, drawn up for the purpose of furnishing ancient precedent for recent practice.

It is not the less interesting, as showing that there was a tradition in Egyptian that there had, at some early date, been a period of severe distress through a famine which had lasted for seven years. The inscription of Baba, who lived shortly before the eighteenth dynasty, only speaks of a famine of many years. But Baba was really a historical personage and his inscription may be relied upon as authentically true. It is of course impossible to think of a synchronism between the time of King T'esor and that of the biblical seven years of famine.

* Die biblischen Sieben Jahre der Hungersnoth. Leipzig, 1891.