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The Triumph of Horus  | HowlRound Theatre Commons

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Nabra Nelson: Salam Alaikum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, and SWANA, or Southwest Asian/North African, theatre from across the region.

Marina Johnson: I am Marina.

Nabra: I’m Nabra.

Marina: We’re your hosts.

Nabra: Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how: with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea or, in Arabic, shay.

Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in Arab world, you’ll find kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA and SWANA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

Nabra: In our fourth season, we focus on classical and historical theatre, including discussions of traditional theatre forms and in-depth analysis of some of the oldest and most significant classical plays from 1300 BC to the twentieth century.

Marina: Grab your tea. The shay is just right. In this episode, we’ll be talking about the oldest surviving full play, which, of course, is from Egypt. It’s called The Triumph of Horus, and we’ll be telling you all about it and sharing a bit about theatre in ancient Egypt more generally.

Nabra: First, let’s talk about the play. I read it with absolutely no context and actually understood a lot of it, including gathering some of the subtext from the basic info I know about ancient Egyptian culture and customs. The plot is very simple. It tells the story of the god Horus defeating a hippopotamus, which I thought was just a regular hippo, which made a lot of it seem very silly, but turns out the hippo is actually the god Seth who killed Horus’s father, Osiris.

So, the play tells the story of Horus slaying the hippo and becoming king, which in this context means that the god Horus essentially merges with the existing king to make that king the embodiment of Horus on earth, AKA Pharaoh. Without the background info, it would just be the story of a guy who kills a hippo and then becomes king, but of course, audiences would all know the context that makes the play highly symbolic and politically significant. We will get into all of that, but let’s give you a more full rundown of the happenings in the play first.

Marina: Most of what we’ll be quoting today is from The Triumph of Horus: An Ancient Egyptian Sacred Drama, which was published in 1974, and the contextual information from the translator and editor H. W. Fairman, who’s a professor of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool.

So, here is a scene-by-scene synopsis of the play. The play starts with a brief prologue. As H. W. Fairman summarizes very succinctly, “The prologue has as its main object praise of the king and the happy days of the festival and triumph and the anticipatory declaration of the results of the whole play, the defeat of Seth and the triumph of Horus and the king.”

It’s worth noting you all that Set, which was how we’re saying this person’s name, is written “Seth,” which does change things and makes it funny if you are reading it differently. So, Nabra and I have had fun with that on our own. Anyway, at the end of the prologue, the reader, who is very similar to the chorus but seems to essentially be in charge of introducing characters, says, “Here begins the bringing to pass of the triumph of Horus over his enemies when he hastened to slay the foes after the sallying forth to battle.” In the accompanying relief, the reader is depicted reading from a papyrus scroll. So, he seems to take on the role of the primary narrator.

Nabra: So back to Fairman: “The five scenes of act one embody somewhat formally and in a combination of mime and drama, the ancient harpoon ritual. In each scene, two forms of Horus representing Lower and Upper Egypt each thrust a harpoon into the body of a hippopotamus, which represents the Seth, the enemy of Horus.” So at this point, I’m thinking, “I guess this could just be a regular hippo that represents Seth or it could be Seth himself.” I’m still unsure. The thing that made me really think he was a regular hippo is when Horus gives a lot of measurements relating to the battle for some reason, and he says, “I cast at the cows of the hippopotami in water of eight cubits.” That just seems to be referring to regular hippos in regular water.

Regardless, it would’ve been understood to be symbolic of Seth either way. There’s a moment after the hippo is defeated when Isis refers to the hippo “standing with feet on dry land,” which seems to imply that it is not really dead or that the corpse has some type of mystical property, but then they dismember the corpse and the gods eat it. So, it’s definitely dead in some way. Still unclear as to whether this is the god Seth or a normal hippo at this point, but again, it doesn’t seem to matter that much at this point in the play from a modern reader’s perspective.

“Scene 4 in this Act is interrupted by a brief interlude in which another ancient ritual—the killing of multi-coloured snakes (sabet-snakes, probably cobras) in Letopolis—is mimed: in dumb show the snakes are killed, their flesh eaten and their blood swallowed, the whole representing the destruction of the enemy,” also from Fairman. This part seems very random in the script but must have been very cool staged. Act I ends with much rejoicing again. From my notes while reading it: “They describe the ten harpoons stuck in the hippo and are just really excited about the whole thing.”

Marina: I love being privy to your notes, Nabra. Something to note is that in each scene, it ends with the chorus going, “Hold fast, Horus, hold fast.” This seems to be very similar at the time to “Long live the king,” but it takes on different meanings at different times. Like when Horus is fighting the hippo, it’s like, “Keep going,” and then when he’s transporting the hippo, it’s like, “You’re almost at the finish line,” and then at the coronation later, it’s very much “Long live the king.”

Nabra: On to Act II, which is entitled the “Rejoicing Over the Victory.” From Fairman, “In scene one, Isis still apparently carried away by excitement, though Seth is already defeated, continues to incite her son’s supporters and recites a very fine poem to the war gallery of Horus.” This description helps understand the scene since it was quite confusing when a group of characters called the young harpooners show up and Isis keeps telling them to “vanquish the foe” and yet it is quite obvious that the foe was vanquished in the previous act. I like the idea of Isis just getting carried away and being like, “Kill him, everyone. Kill him!” This is one of those moments that almost seem tailor-made to confuse modern audiences.

“In scene two, Horus having first mimed on land, the killing of the hippopotamus, embarks on his ceremonial bark, is invested with the insignia of kingship and crowned as king of Upper and Lower Egypt and a double chorus representing the women of Upper and Lower Egypt sing antiphonically a hymn of rejoicing over the victory.”

Marina: Most of this last scene of act two is the coronation, and it is a very specifically a pharaoh coronation. Up until this point, there has been a character called the King who played quite a minor part and just commented on the happenings sometimes like many of the other characters. There were also two Horus characters, Horus Lord of Mesen and Horus the Behdetite, who represent Lower and Upper Egypt respectively. At this coronation, all three of these characters merge into one, the Pharaoh.

In the caption about the relief that accompanies this scene, it says, “The King is not depicted, nor is any speaking part assigned to him. This is because the King is now the living Horus on earth. The triumph of Horus is his coronation.” That is the difference between a pharaoh and most kings is that he is considered the living embodiment of a god on Earth.

Act III, the final act is entitled the “Celebration of the Victory,” which mostly involves dismembering the hippo. In the first scene, the flesh of the hippo is divided among different gods to eat. “This did not merely demonstrate that the enemy was defeated and dead. It ensured by eating the flesh, the absorption of his peculiar powers.”

In Act III, Scene Two labeled “An Interlude,” there’s another what they call “dumb show” in which Horus thrusts the harpoon into the back of a small model of a hippopotamus. Simultaneously, the King who is facing Horus, harpoons the buttocks of a somewhat larger figure of a bound human captive, and the chorus, Isis, and the King all rejoice. Then, in the final scene, there is a second dismemberment of Seth. This is because “every ritual concerned with kingship, every right or episode, because of the symbolism of the two lands, had to be performed twice, first for Lower Egypt, then for Upper Egypt.”

In the scene, a model of a hippo made of cake is brought out and cut up by the butcher. As the butcher dismembers the cake hippo, the reader recites from a papyrus, which basically just states how very annihilated Seth is. He’s like, “Thou shalt not exist and thy soul shall not exist. Thou shalt not exist and thy body shall not exist,” et cetera.

Nabra: This seems to serve as a final banishment ritual and also seems to serve as a reenactment of the real dismemberment of Seth where the people of the city get to be there instead of the gods. It feels like the people’s time to celebrate, and it is thought that there would be a hippo cake that would be distributed to audience members during this part of the play. There is much rejoicing, especially through call-and-response between the reader and the chorus, like “Triumphant over his enemies is Horus the Behdetite, great god, lord of the sky!” Then this is repeated by the chorus. This is my favorite exchange, which is between the reader and the chorus, and so that we will reenact. Marina is going to be the reader and I’ll be the chorus.

Marina: Oh, my goodness. Okay.

Mayest thou perish. May thy name perish. Fall upon thy face. Be felled!

Nabra: Felled!

Marina: Be crushed!

Nabra: Crushed!

Marina: Be annihilated!

Nabra: Annihilated!

Marina: Be cut to pieces!

Nabra: To pieces!

Marina: Be cut up!

Nabra: Cut up!

The end. That’s not the actual end of the play, but the play ends with an epilogue in which the reader “formally declares that Horus, certain divinities and places, and lastly the King himself are triumphant over their enemies.” The reader is insistent how on how very overthrown Horus enemies are and much very long naming of Horus ensues for a couple of pages, the end.

So, let’s talk about some of my impressions while reading it. I was surprised at how much I understood of the plot and even ritual details. There’s enough in there to understand it as a modern audience with little context. It also has some resonances with how other ancient texts are written, especially reminding me of the Bible.

For instance, there are long descriptions of who people are, with what their lineage is and what they’ve done, and just a lot of titles. One of the many instances of that is one of the times the reader introduces Horus by saying, “Horus Lord of Mesen, preeminent in Pe and Mesen. Great God, preeminent in Wetjeset-Hor. The Lion preeminent in Khant-labet, who drives Seth into the wilderness. Goodly Warden of the Two Lands and the Riverbanks. Protector who protects Egypt.”

Part of it would be performed on boats in the water and part of it on land. So, that’s very cool to imagine. It shares lots of info about the gods Horus, Isis, and Osiris and mentions others, especially Ra, the sun God.

Marina: It should be noted however that many of the long titles in the script that we read were not in the original carvings. They were added by the translators or interpreters from other reliefs about those figures, since it is thought that those titles would likely be included to introduce the characters in the performance of the play, but that there was not enough space on the temple wall to repeat them in the play text. There’s a lot that went into translating the text from the wall of the temple on which it was carved to a modern script format in English, including drawing from other texts and sources and making informed assumptions about certain details.

So, we chose to take the script mostly as is and trust that what we read was as close as Egyptologists could get us to experience of the play as it was performed in that time.

Nabra: Another archaic-feeling element of this play is that they give very strange specifics like the amount of cubits in the water that he speared and the length of his weapons. Horus says, “I have cast at the lower Egyptian bull in water of twenty cubits, a harpoon blade of four cubits, a rope of six cubits,” et cetera. Overall, there is a lot of tell-don’t-show, which seemed to be the meta for classical plays for quite a while, but there would’ve been parts that were mimed on top of these descriptions, especially the harpoonings and the dismemberments. Then there are the dumb shows which are very cool with lots of action. There would’ve also been music at times throughout the production and possibly even to underscore climactic moments.

It’s pretty fun to read and short compared to many contemporary plays. The descriptions of the battle with the hippo are action-packed, and there’s a lot of epic language. From my notes: “The demon just says epic shit and Isis is clearly a boss bitch,” which brings me to a quick tangent about the demon because he is such a fun character, but I have no idea why he is there. This character just says hardcore stuff about how vicious he is in battle and what he will do to his enemies. He seems to be the bodyguard of Horus describing himself as the “first demon of thy crew,” but Horus does not seem to need a bodyguard. The demon declares titles for himself, and they are pretty amusing, especially since they’re written as one long hyphenated word.

My favorite are: “I am his-speech-is-fire,” “I am he-loves-solitude,” “I am death-in-his-face-loud-screamer.” Epic. I can imagine this play being highly entertaining to audiences at the time and also religiously educational. It almost feels like literature in the way it’s written, also since the vast majority of people were illiterate at the time. It’s also very positive and celebratory. So, it would be a real mood booster for folks. Part of it would be performed on boats in the water and part of it on land. So, that’s very cool to imagine. It shares lots of info about the gods Horus, Isis, and Osiris and mentions others, especially Ra, the sun God, who is also the great-great-great-grandfather of Horus. It also depicts how pharaohs are the living embodiment of the royal god Horus

Mythology and the great annual rituals and festivals of kingship provided priests with ideal tools in their political nationalistic propaganda.

Marina: Amazing. So, before we get to the next section, Nabra, I do want to mention something that I think because you’re Egyptian that you have been… not glossing over necessarily, but that maybe is not obvious to everybody because it was not obvious to me. When I went to Egypt, Nabra and her family were going to be there. I was like, “Yes, I’m going to go and hang out before, and then I’ll go see Nabra’s family.” But when I was there, people would talk about Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. I’m so used to thinking about upper being on a map like North, but Upper Egypt actually refers to the Southern parts of Egypt because it’s where the Nile is flowing. Nabra, can you just say more about that? Because “the two lands” is continually referenced in this play.

Nabra: Yes, that’s because the Nile flows North. Upper Egypt is closer to the source. So, a lot of times those were two kingdoms, and then many pharaohs would unify the two kingdoms and become both the kings, the pharaohs of Upper and Lower Egypt. So, in this play, they are talking about one of the pharaohs who was the king of both Upper and Lower Egypt. They’re very proud of that and hence why they have to do things for both the rituals for both Upper and Lower Egypt and do them twice.

Marina: That makes sense, and I love that the ritual that we ended with is like the cake ritual that feels like I would like to be from the place that gets the cake ritual.

Nabra: Yes, we should have our own hippo cake ritual to celebrate one of these seasons. Will you make me a hippo cake?

Marina: I’d make you hippo basbousa using your grandma’s recipe.

Nabra: Hippo kunafa.

Marina: Yeah, I feel like that would be very hard to shape the cheese, but okay, back to The Triumph of Horus. So, a little bit about the history of the play. The Triumph of Horus is Myth C in the five texts of Edfu, which is the myth of Horus. So, these texts are all carved into the Temple of Edfu in hieroglyphs, and each scene of The Triumph of Horus has a corresponding relief depicting the events. It should definitely be noted that each of the placement of each of the scenes was calculated and significant, but the lack of wall space in the temple suggests that the version of the play depicted on the walls may be abridged from what would’ve typically been performed at the time.

The play was performed at the temple to a public audience as part of the annual Festival of Victory, which commemorated the wars between Horus and Seth and the coronation of a king of a unified Egypt and was celebrated at the new year. The actors would’ve been members of the temple priesthood. This carving is thought to be completed in approximately 110 BC during the reign of Ptolemy IX, but it is certain that the play was not composed at that time. It’s just not clear exactly when the play would’ve first appeared, but there is strong evidence to suggest that it was compiled at the latest in the late New Kingdom or around 1300 to 1200 BCE.

Nabra: There is significance, however, to its performance during the Ptolemaic period or when the Greeks ruled over Egypt and when the existing carving was created. Symbolically Seth was seen as a god of evil and symbolic of foreign lands, especially enemies of Egypt, and Horus as the royal god was highly symbolic of Egypt itself. So, performing this during the Ptolemaic reign would certainly be understood by native Egyptians as nationalist political propaganda, and the Ptolemaic rulers wouldn’t understand the symbolism or really the play as a whole since they didn’t understand the Egyptian language with the exception of Queen Cleopatra VI—yes, that Cleopatra—who was basically a genius and knew a bunch of languages, including Egyptian.

Remember she was ethnically Greek, not Egyptian. So, most Greeks, most Ptolemaic rulers did not know the Egyptian language. She is really the exception. For the powerful Egyptian priests, “Inwardly, very many of them must have resented foreign domination. There’s abundant evidence that the native temples were in reality centers of nationalism, and that one of the main tasks of the priesthood was to preserve and to fan the spirit of national pride of nationalism until the day came when once more the true Horus would sit on the throne. Mythology and the great annual rituals and festivals of kingship provided priests with ideal tools in their political nationalistic propaganda. Every Egyptian knew that in reality, Ptolemy was a foreigner, an enemy.” So the play would have been a political act that was fully understood by the Egyptian audience. That was a pretty epic quote, honestly, from Fairman, in my opinion. What’s further awesome is that there would have been very intentional audience participation that engaged the Egyptians in this political protest essentially. The call-and-response and the eating of the hippo cake, they were all big middle fingers to the colonizing rulers.

Marina: We imagined that the audience would’ve been incredibly invested in general because this play was staged as part of what was essentially the huge New Year’s Festival. So, there would be all types of festival activities occurring for five days. When the play came around, people were pumped. “All knew the story, all understood its significance, all were intensely excited and evolved. Hence, the greater audience of townsfolk did not simply watch and listen. They did not merely join and supplement the chorus. They were completely uninhibited and spontaneous.”

Everyone would’ve been drunk and feasting. They would be cheering on Horus and cursing Seth. Can I go to more plays with that vibe? So to stage this play today, “It’s essential that some attempt should be made to create the feeling that the audience and actors are one, that all are actors and participants, that all are deeply involved for only in this way can something of the atmosphere of the original play be recaptured.”

Nabra: As a practitioner of Theatre of the Oppressed and a playwright who’s really intentional about audience interaction and breaking the fourth wall and a director whose focus is community engagement, this whole concept really resonates with me. Interestingly, the language of the play was Middle Egyptian, which would have been archaic to audiences of the time, except for the elite priest actors, of course. It would’ve been even more foreign to them than Middle English is to us. For comparison, take for example, the first two line of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in as best as I can approximate, the original Middle English. “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote.”

We can understand the gist, but many of the words and pronunciations are too far from modern English to understand, but this would not be a problem for audiences since the story was so familiar to them. Today, The Triumph of Horus is significant because it’s a full play and because it’s an example of theatre being developed beyond liturgical or purely ritual drama, which is what we see for most other examples of ancient Egyptian drama.

Marina: I’m still impressed that she managed to work Middle English into this podcast today.

Nabra: That’s the extent of my Middle English. I don’t even know why I know those first two ones, but I try.

Marina: That was beautiful. Yeah, no, thank you. I mean, I don’t even really have a context for what Egyptian sounds like, let alone Middle Egyptian. So, it is just helpful to be able to think in our own ways about this.

Nabra: Apparently, the pronunciations in The Mummy movies are pretty accurate. They really consulted with an Egyptologist, fun fact.

Marina: What? That’s a wild fact. I have not yet seen The Mummy movies, because by the time that I would’ve seen them, I understood enough about orientalism to not want to.

Nabra: But they’re so fun though. They’re so fun.

Marina: From an Egyptian. You heard it here first.

Nabra: They’re so bad, but they’re so fun.

Marina: Amazing. I will check them out only to hear the Middle Egyptian in them, or just regular Egyptian.

Nabra: I don’t know what moment in Egyptian dialectical history it is, but it’s apparently pretty good.

All I’m saying is Horus and Osiris is the Christmas Carol of ancient Egypt, and I think that’s a pretty good parallel.  I stand by it

Marina: So while we have focused on one particular play up to this point, we now want to zoom out and give you an idea of ancient Egyptian theatre more broadly. Theatre in ancient Egypt was very different from what theatre looks like today. To begin with, there is nothing that an archeologist would identify as a theatre venue found in ancient Egypt. There are accounts of Egyptian ceremonial theatre, especially having to do with Osiris, recounted by classical authors. Herodotus, a Greek historian from the fifth century BCE, described a ceremony he observed thusly:

When the sun is getting low, a few only of the priests continues occupied about the image of the God, while the greater number armed with wooden clubs take their station at the portal of the temple. Opposite to them is drawn up a body of men in number above a thousand armed like the others with clubs. Consisting of persons engaged in the performance of their vows, the image of the god, which is kept in a small wooden shrine covered with plates of gold, is conveyed from the temple into a second sacred building the day before the festival begins. The few priests still in attendance upon the image place it together with the shrine containing it on a four-wheeled car and begin to drag it along. The others stationed at the gateway of the temple oppose its admission. Then the votaries come forward to espouse the quarrel of the God and set upon the opponents who are sure to offer resistance. A sharp fight with clubs ensues in which heads are commonly broken on both sides.

Apparently, no one would die in this ritualistic theatrical fight, although the “heads commonly broken on both sides” does give me pause, but it’s fascinating to hear a firsthand account of an example of ceremonial theatre in ancient Egypt.

Nabra: As with that example, there’s much debate about what in ancient Egypt was theatre versus ceremony versus ritual and when and if these distinctions are useful. From Fairman, “It has also been claimed that there must have been drama in ancient Egypt because so many rituals, festivals, and even the daily temple ritual itself incorporated so many dramatic elements. But there is nowhere any hint that these daily services were themselves conceived, planned, or acted as dramas. They were dramatizations of the episodes of daily life, but in no way were they plays.” Of course, this brings up the question more generally, what is theatre or drama or a play? We won’t get too far into that here, but I think you can certainly take these ceremonies to be drama in some form.

Fairman, in an attempt to describe one of the most ancient Egyptian dramatic texts discovered called the [Dramatic] Ramesseum Papyrus, which is more arguably not a play than The Triumph of Horus is, says, “It may possibly be better and cautiously defined as a politico-mythological compilation, incorporating certain dramatic elements which may perhaps have been derived from a drama now lost, or perhaps merely employing dialogue to reinforce the main argument.” If that is not the most academia-inspired definition you have ever heard, I don’t know what is. I’m sure it’s accurate. It just sounds ridiculous.

Marina: Nabra takes on the academy in one sentence.

So, how do we know what is a play in hieroglyphs? Well, there is simply some conjecture. In the Memphite theology, AKA the Shabaka Stone from the 700 BCE, arrows below names are thought to indicate dialogue between characters. So, for instance, there’s an arrow above the name Geb pointing to the right and an arrow above the name Horus pointing to the left, indicating that Geb said to Horus. This is a small tangent, but the Shabaka Stone is also political propaganda “in favor of Ptah of Memphis in opposition to the rising power and influence of Ra and the priesthood of Heliopolis.” So that gives you an idea of what political dramas were like back in the day.

Nabra: In some cases, we know it is a play because vertical lines and columns break up the text. In the Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus from the Middle Kingdom, the whole text is written in 138 vertical columns, and there are thirty-one vignettes below the text. The Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus, which we keep mentioning, is a ritual play for the jubilee of Senusret I. This text also mentions Osiris and Horus. That story is the most popular of ancient Egyptian myths and was told over and over again. I was trying to think of an equivalency today. Since I was writing the first draft of this episode on Christmas Eve and I had just been reading Christopher Durang’s play Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge, the first example that came to mind was A Christmas Carol.

Marina: What a sentence, Nabra. Really putting disparate things in conversation here.

Nabra: All I’m saying is Horus and Osiris is the Christmas Carol of ancient Egypt, and I think that’s a pretty good parallel. I stand by it.

Marina: I love that.

So, other ancient Egyptian texts that could be considered as dramas are the Ritual of the Opening of the Mouth, which is a ritual drama with seventy-five scenes accompanied by relief vignettes.

Nabra: The Unas Ritual, a part of the pyramid texts found in the pyramid of King Unas of the Fifth Dynasty at Saqqara. This is a single ritual which can be described as a ritual drama carried out in the pyramid at night with only six officiants. It basically depicts the burial of the king and then his soul ascending to the sky.

Marina: The Abydos passion play was written on the Ikhernofret Stela, which is a stone carving written by the priest with the same name and was another ritual play, but this time depicting the slaying of Osiris by Seth and Osiris’s resurrection. It is from the nineteenth century BCE. and would’ve been staged at the Great Temple of Abydos during the annual festival associated with Osiris, which marked the time to plant new crops. I have to say, this play is taught at Stanford in one of the world theatre history classes as the oldest play that exists.

Nabra: In Étienne Drioton’s book, Le Théâtre dans l’Ancienne Egypte, he claims a series of other texts are fragments of dramas. He also made his own criteria for identifying dramatic works, saying, “The placing of the name of a speaker at the head of a speech, the presence of stage directions in the midst of dialogue, the general nature of the text, grammar, dialogue, and in general, a non-narrative style.” It seems reasonable to me and pretty well in line with contemporary drama, but of course this criteria is heavily argued by scholars, and there are examples of exceptions of course.

Marina: I mean, I personally like to think of performance capaciously. So, I think that we can really think of all of these things in different styles. But again, neither Nabra or I are Egyptologists, so we’re really also relying on different sources here for ourselves. So, here are some of the names of fragments of popular dramatic texts that were found, and there are some very clearly popular characters that you’ll notice here.

The Misfortunes of a Messenger of Horus, The Defeat of Apopis, Isis and The Seven Scorpions—Horus is bitten by a scorpion, which there are two of those—The Return of Seth, The Flight between Tut and Apopis, earlier versions of The Triumph of Horus, Horus Burning in the Desert, A Nightmare of Horus. So, all of those are possible dramas are in some way religious. This resonates with much ancient Greek theatre where gods were present in some way in those dramas as well.

Nabra: The nature of ancient Egyptian theatre certainly expands and questions modern concepts of what theatre is. There’s clearly much debate in the world of Egyptology as to what is or is not a play. Even The Triumph of Horus is debated. Although Fairman outlines a very robust argument as to why it is a play. He says, “First, in many places, the names of actors are placed before the words they have to speak. Second, the whole text is a series of speeches and songs without any narrative. Third, the presence of indubitable stage directions, which in grammatical form and in content differ from the rest of the text.” He even refers to competing hypotheses about the play as “brilliant and ingenious examples of mental gymnastics.” So, I think we can all just go ahead and consider The Triumph of Horus as theatre, although that is not the point of this podcast episode.

It’s been produced more than once. You can look up production images and information about the few modern productions, but a modern production will never capture the ritualistic aspects, the religious significance, or the important political undertones that the play had in its time. It’s a fascinating play that still entertains and educates today, and I recommend you give it a read or at least look into the reliefs that are incorporated into the script now that you have an idea of the plot and context of the piece.

I’m proud that Egyptians, who pioneered almost everything to be honest, were also pioneers of the theatre form, using it for entertainment, for community engagement, and for subversive political commentary.

Marina: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of Kunafa and Shay and other HowlRound podcasts by searching HowlRound, or wherever you find podcasts. If you loved this podcast, please post a rating and write a review on your platform of choice. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on the website. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit and contribute your ideas to the Commons.

Nabra Nelson and Marina: Yalla, bye!

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