This text is reproduced solely for the limited academic use of students in Webster University MNGT 5590.

Samples of Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom Literature

  1. Babylonian Counsels of Wisdom
The selections presented here are those with the fewest lacunae. This text is similar to Egyptian Instructions. The text is taken from W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1960), pages, 101-105 and is used by permission of Oxford University Press.
Let your mouth be controlled and your speech guarded:
Therein is a man's wealth—let your lips be very precious.
Let insolence and blasphemy be your abomination;
Speak nothing profane nor any untrue report.
A talebearer is accursed.
Do not frequent a law court,
Do not loiter where there is a dispute,
For in the dispute they will have you as a testifier,
Then you will be made their witness
And they will bring you to a lawsuit not your own to affirm.
When confronted with a dispute, go your way; pay no attention to it.
Should it be a dispute of your own, extinguish the flame!
Disputes are a covered pit,
A strong wall that scares away its foes.
They remember what a man forgets and lay the accusation.
Do not return evil to the man who disputes with you;
Requite with kindness your evil-doer,
Maintain justice to your enemy,
Smile on your adversary.
Give food to eat, beer to drink,
Grant what is asked, provide for and honour.
In this a man's god takes pleasure,
It is pleasing to Shamash, who will repay him with favour.
Do charitable deeds, render service all your days.
Do not honour a slave girl in your house;
She shall not rule [your] bedroom like a wife.
[.] . . [. . slave] girls you shall not go yourself,
[If she] ascends your . [….] you will not go down.
Let this be said [to you among] your peoples,
"The house which a slave girl rules, she disrupts."
Do not marry a prostitute, whose husbands are legion,
A temple harlot who is dedicated to a god,
A courtesan whose favours are many.
In your trouble she will not support you,
In your dispute she will be a mocker;
There is no reverence or submissiveness with her.
Even if she dominate your house, get her out,
For she has directed her attention elsewhere.
Variant: She will disrupt the house she enters, and her partner will not assert himself
My son, if it be the wish of the prince that you are his,
If you attach his closely guarded seal to your person,
Open his treasure house, enter within,
For apart from you there is no one else (who may do this).
Unlimited wealth you will find inside,
But do not covet any of this,
Nor set your mind on double-dealing.
For afterwards the matter will be investigated
And the double-dealing of which you are guilty will be made [known.]
The prince will hear, and will . [. .]
His smiling countenance will . [. . .]
Then you will render account . [. . . . .]
. . . . by popular repute [ . . . . . . . .]
[.] . . contempt [. . . . .]
Do not utter libel, speak what is of good report.
Do not say evil things, speak well of people.
One who utters libel and speaks evil,
Men will waylay him with his debit account to Shamash.
Beware of careless talk, guard your lips;
Do not utter solemn oaths while alone,
For what you say in a moment will follow you afterwards.
But exert yourself to restrain your speech.
Every day worship your god.
Sacrifice and benediction are the proper accompaniment of incense
Present your free-will offering to your god,
For this is proper toward the gods.
Prayer, supplication, and prostration
Offer him daily, and you will get your reward.
Then you will have full communion with your god.
In your wisdom study the tablet.
Reverence begets favour,
Sacrifice prolongs life,
And prayer atones for guilt.
He who fears the gods is not slighted by . [. .]
He who fears the Anunnaki extends [his days.]
With a friend and comrade do not speak . . [. . .]
Do not speak hypocrisy, [utter] what is decent.
If you have promised, give . [. .]
If you have created trust, you must [. .]
[And perform] the wish of a comrade.
[If] you have created trust in a friend [. . . . .]
[In] your wisdom [study the tablet.]
  1. Instructions of Ptahhotep
This text dates from the Middle Kingdom, the second millennium B.C. The text has a prologue, 37 stanzas and a lengthy epilogue. The prologue and the first 11 stanzas are presented here. The text is from Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol I. (Los Angeles: U of California P, 1975) and is used by permission of the publisher.

Instruction of the Mayor of the city, the Vizier Ptahhotep, under the Majesty of King Isesi, who lives for all eternity. The mayor of the city, the vizier Ptahhotep, said:

O king, my lord!
Age is here, old age arrived,
Feebleness came, weakness grows,
Childlike one sleeps all day.
Eyes are dim, ears deaf,
Strength is waning through weariness,
The mouth, silenced, speaks not,
The heart, void, recalls not the past,
The bones ache throughout.
Good has become evil, all taste is gone,
What age does to people is evil in everything.
The nose, clogged, breathes not,
Painful are standing and sitting.
May this servant be ordered to make a staff of old aged
So as to tell him the words of those who heard,
The ways of the ancestors,
Who have listened to the gods.
May such be done for you,
So that strife may be banned from the people,
And the Two Shores may serve you!
Said the majesty of this god:
Instruct him then in the sayings of the past,
May he become a model for the children of the great,
May obedience enter him,
And the devotion of him who speaks to him,
No one is born wise.

Beginning of the formulations of excellent discourse spoken by the Prince, Count, God's Father, God's beloved, Eldest Son of the King, of his body, Mayor of the city and Vizier, Ptahhotep, in instructing the ignorant in knowledge and in the standard of excellent discourse, as profit for him who will hear, as woe to him who would neglect them. He spoke to his son:

1. Don't be proud of your knowledge,
Consult the ignorant and the wise;
The limits of art are not reached,
No artist's skills are perfect;
Good speech is more hidden than greenstone,
Yet may be found among maids at the grindstones.
2. If you meet a disputant in actions
A powerful man, superior to you,
Fold your arms, bend your back,
To flout him will not make him agree with you.
Make little of the evil speech
By not opposing him while he's in action;
He will be called an ignoramus,
Your self-control will match his pile (of words).
3. If you meet a disputant in action
Who is your equal, on your level,
You will make your worth exceed his by silence,
While he is speaking evilly,
There will be much talk by the hearers,
Your name will be good in the minds of the magistrates.
4. If you meet a disputant in action,
A poor man, not your equal,
Do not attack him because he is weak,
Let him alone, he will confute himself.
Do not answer him to relieve your heart,
Do not vent yourself against your opponent,
Wretched is he who injures a poor man,
One will wish to do what you desire,
You will beat him through the magistrates' reproof.
5. If you are a man who leads,
Who controls the affairs of the many,
Seek out every beneficent deed,
That your conduct may be blameless.
Great is justice, lasting in effect,
Unchallenged since the time of Osiris.
One punishes the transgressor of laws,
Though the greedy overlooks this;
Baseness may seize riches,
Yet crime never lands its wares;
In the end it is justice that lasts,
Man says: "It is my father's ground."'
6. Do not scheme against people,
God punishes accordingly:
If a man says: "I shall live by it,"
He will lack bread for his mouth.
If a man says: "I shall be rich,"
He will have to say: "My cleverness has snared me."
If he says: "I will snare for myself,"
He will be unable to say: "I snared for my profit."
If a man says: "I will rob someone,"
He will end being given to a stranger.
People's schemes do not prevail,
God's command is what prevails;
Live then in the midst of peace,
What they give comes by itself.
7. If you are one among guests
At the table of one greater than you,
Take what he gives as it is set before you;
Look at what is before you,
Don't shoot many glances at him,
Molesting him offends the ka. [Ka is "vital force" or "personality"]
Don't speak to him until he summons,
One does not know what may displease;
Speak when he has addressed you,
Then your words will please the heart.
The nobleman, when he is behind food,
Behaves as his ka commands him;
He will give to him whom he favors,
It is the custom when night has come
It is the ka that makes his hands reach out,
The great man gives to the chosen man;
Thus eating is under the counsel of god,
A fool is who complains of it.
8. If you are a man of trust,
Sent by one great man to another,
Adhere to the nature of him who sent you,
Give his message as he said it.
Guard against reviling speech,
Which embroils one great with another;
Keep to the truth, don't exceed it,
But an outburst should not be repeated.
Do not malign anyone,
Great or small, the ka abhors it.
9. If you plow and there's growth in the field,
And god lets it prosper in your hand,
Do not boast at your neighbors' side,
One has great respect for the silent man:
Man of character is man of wealth.
If he robs he is like a crocodile in court.
Don't impose on one who is childless,
Neither decry nor boast of it;
There is many a father who has grief,
And a mother of children less content than another;
It is the lonely whom god fosters,
While the family man prays for a follower.
10. If you are poor, serve a man of worth,
That all your conduct may be well with the god.
Do not recall if he once was poor,
Don't be arrogant toward him
For knowing his former state;
Respect him for what has accrued to him,
For wealth does not come by itself.
It is their law for him whom they loved.
His gain, he gathered it himself;
It is the god who makes him worthy
And protects him while he sleeps.
11. Follow your heart as long as you live,
Do no more than is required,
Do not shorten the time of "follow-the-heart,"
Trimming its moment offends the ka.
Don't waste time on daily cares
Beyond providing for your household;
When wealth has come, follow your heart,
Wealth does no good if one is glum!
  1. Instructions of Amenemope
This text dates from the New Kingdom, very late in the second millennium B.C. The text has a prologue and 30 chapters. The text bears a striking similarity to the Hebrew book of Proverbs chapters 27 and 28. The prologue and the first 10 chapters are presented here. The text is from Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol II. (Los Angeles: U of California P, 1975) and is used by permission of the publisher.
Beginning of the teaching for life,
The instructions for well-being,
Every rule for relations with elders,
For conduct toward magistrates;
Knowing how to answer one who speaks,
To reply to one who sends a message.
So as to direct him on the paths of life,
To make him prosper upon earth;
To let his heart enter its shrine,
Steering clear of evil;
To save him from the mouth of strangers,
To let (him) be praised in the mouth of people.
Made by the overseer of fields, experienced in his office,
The offspring of a scribe of Egypt,
The overseer of grains who controls the measure,
Who sets the harvest-dues for his lord,
Who registers the islands of new land,
In the great name of his majesty,
Who records the markers on the borders of fields,
Who acts for the king in his listing of taxes,
Who makes the land-register of Egypt;
The scribe who determines the offerings for all the gods.
Who gives land-leases to the people,
The overseer of grains, [provider of] foods,
Who supplies the granary with grains;
The truly silent in This of Ta-wer,
The justified in Ipu,
Who owns a tomb on the west of Senu,
Who has a chapel at Abydos,
Amenemope, the son of Kanakht,
The justified in Ta-wer.
(For) his son, the youngest of his children,
The smallest of his family,
The devotee of Min-Kamutef,
The water-pourer of Wennofer,
Who places Horus on his father's throne,
Who guards him in his noble shrine,
Who ———
The guardian of the mother of god,
Inspector of the black cattle of the terrace of Min.
Who protects Min in his shrine:
Hor-em-maakher is his true name,
The child of a nobleman of Ipu,
The son of the sistrum-player of Shu and Tefnut,
And chief songstress of Horus, Tawosre.
He says: Chapter 1
Give your ears, hear the sayings,
Give your heart to understand them;
It profits to put them in your heart,
Woe to him who neglects them!
Let them rest in the casket of your belly,
May they be bolted in your heart;
When there rises a whirlwind of words,
They'll be a mooring post for your tongue.
If you make your life with these in your heart,
You will find it a success;
You will find my words a storehouse for life,
Your being will prosper upon earth.
Chapter 2
Beware of robbing a wretch,
Of attacking a cripple;
Don't stretch out your hand to touch an old man,
Nor open your mouths to an elder.
Don't let yourself be sent on a mischievous errand,
Nor be friends with him who does it.
Don't raise an outcry against one who attacks you,
Nor answer him yourself.
He who does evil, the shore rejects him,
Its floodwater carries him away.
The northwind descends to end his hour,
It mingles with the thunderstorm.
The storm cloud is tall, the crocodiles are vicious,
You heated man, how are you now?
He cries out, his voice reaches heaven,
It is the Moon who declares his crime.
Steer, we will ferry the wicked,
We do not act like his kind;
Lift him up, give him your hand,
Leave him (in) the hands of the god;
Fill his belly with bread of your own,
That he be sated and weep.
Another thing good in the heart of the god:
To pause before speaking.
Chapter 3
Don't start a quarrel with a hot-mouthed man,
Nor needle him with words.
Pause before a foe, bend before an attacker.
Sleep (on it) before speaking.
A storm that bursts like fire in straw,
Such is the heated man in his hour.
Withdraw from him, leave him alone,
The god knows how to answer him.
If you make your life with these (words) in your heart,
Your children will observe them.
Chapter 4
As for the heated man in the temple,
He is like a tree growing indoors;
A moment lasts its growth of shoots,
Its end comes about in the woodshed;
It is floated far from its place,
The flame is its burial shroud.
The truly silent, who keeps apart,
He is like a tree grown in a meadow.
It greens, it doubles its yield,
It stands in front of its lord.
Its fruit is sweet, its shade delightful,
Its end comes in the garden.
Chapter 5
Do not falsify the temple rations,
Do not grasp and you'll find profit.
Do not remove a servant of the god,
So as to do favors to another.
Do not say: "Today is like tomorrow,"
How will this end?
Comes tomorrow, today has vanished,
The deep has become the water's edge.
Crocodiles are bared, hippopotami stranded,
The fish crowded together.
Jackals are sated, birds are in feast,
The fishnets have been drained.
But all the silent in the temple,
They say: "Re's blessing is great."
Cling to the silent, then you find life,
Your being will prosper upon earth.
Chapter 6
Do not move the markers on the borders of fields,
Nor shift the position of the measuring-cord.
Do not be greedy for a cubit of land,
Nor encroach on the boundaries of a widow.
The trodden furrow worn down by time,
He who disguises it in the fields,
When he has snared (it) by false oaths,
He will be caught by the might of the Moon.
Recognize him who does this on earth:
He is an oppressor of the weak,
A foe bent on destroying your being,
The taking of life is in his eye.
His house is an enemy to the town,
His storage bins will be destroyed;
His wealth will be seized from his children's hands,
His possessions will be given to another.
Beware of destroying the borders of fields,
Lest a terror carry you away;
One pleases god with the might of the lord
When one discerns the borders of fields.
Desire your being to be sound,
Beware of the Lord of All;
Do not erase another's furrow,
It profits you to keep it sound.
Plow your fields and you'll find what you need,
You'll receive bread from your threshing-floor.
Better is a bushel given you by the god,
Than five thousand through wrongdoing.
They stay not a day in bin and barn,
They make no food for the beer jar;
A moment is their stay in the granary,
Comes morning they have vanished.
Better is poverty in the hand of the god,
Than wealth in the storehouse;
Better is bread with a happy heart
Than wealth with vexation.
Chapter 7
Do not set your heart on wealth,
There is no ignoring Fate and Destiny;
Do not let your heart go straying,
Every man comes to his hour.
Do not strain to seek increase,
What you have, let it suffice you.
If riches come to you by theft,
They will not stay the night with you.
Comes day they are not in your house,
Their place is seen but they're not there;
Earth opened its mouth, leveled them, swallowed them,
And made them sink into dat.
They made a hole as big as their size,
And sank into the netherworld;
They made themselves wings like geese,
And flew away to the sky.
Do not rejoice in wealth from theft,
Nor complain of being poor.
If the leading archer presses forward,
His company abandons him;
The boat of the greedy is left (in) the mud,
While the bark of the silent sails with the wind.
You shall pray to the Aten when he rises,
Saying: "Grant me well-being and health";
He will give you your needs for this life,
And you will be safe from fear.
Chapter 8
Set your goodness before people,
Then you are greeted by all;
One welcomes the Uraeus,
One spits upon Apopis.
Guard your tongue from harmful speech,
Then you will be loved by others.
You will find your place in the house of god,
You will share in the offerings of your lord.
When you're revered and your coffin conceals you,
You will be safe from the power of god.
Do not shout "crime" against a man,
When the cause of (his) flight is hidden.
Whether you hear something good or evil,
Do it outside where it is not heard.
Put the good remark on your tongue,
While the bad is concealed in your belly.
Chapter 9
Do not befriend the heated man,
Nor approach him for conversation.
Keep your tongue from answering your superior,
And take care not to insult him.
Let him not cast his speech to catch you,
Nor give free rein to your answer.
Converse with a man of your own measure,
And take care not to offend him.
Swift is the speech of one who is angered,
More than wind over water.
He tears down, he builds up with his tongue,
When he makes his hurtful speech.
He gives an answer worthy of a beating,
For its weight is harm.
He hauls freight like all the world,
But his load is falsehood.
He is the ferryman of snaring words,
He goes and comes with quarrels.
When he eats and drinks inside,
His answer is (heard) outside.
The day he is charged with his crime
Is misfortune for his children.
If only Khnum came to him,
The Potter to the heated man,
So as to knead the faulty heart.
He is like a young wolf in the farmyard,
He turns one eye against the other,
He causes brothers to quarrel.
He runs before every wind like clouds,
He dims the radiance of the sun;
He flips his tail like the crocodile's young,
He draws himself up so as to strike,
His lips are sweet, his tongue is bitter,
A fire burns in his belly.
Don't leap to join such a one,
Lest a terror carry you away.
Chapter 10
Don't force yourself to greet the heated man,
For then you injure your own heart;
Do not say "greetings" to him falsely,
While there is terror in your belly.
Do not speak falsely to a man,
The god abhors it;
Do not sever your heart from your tongue,
That all your strivings may succeed.
You will be weighty before the others,
And secure in the hand of the god.
God hates the falsifier of words,
He greatly abhors the dissembler.

Samples of Early Greek Wisdom Literature

  1. Sayings of the Seven Sages
These are some of the sayings collected by John Stobaeus in the fifth century A.D. and included in Diels-Krantz section 10. There is no English translation of these sayings. The sayings are arranged by each of the Seven Sages as they are in Diels-Kranz. What is included here is a partial listing of my own translations.
a. Cleoboulos
Eat in moderation.
Honor thy father.
Have a strong mind and a strong body.
Genius or ignorance.
Let virtue feel at home and vice be a stranger.
Hate injustice, but follow piety.
It is better to advise the citizens.
Restrain pleasure
Teaching is an art.
Break up enmity.
To consider combat is the enemy of the people.
b. Solon
Nothing in excess.
Flee from pleasure, for it brings forth sorrow.
Lie not, but be truthful.
Do not speak evil.
Love piety.
Appear silent.
Be gentle to your own.
g. Chilon
Know thyself
Marriage makes for a good end.
Happy is the one who is mature.
Fear the assembly.
Hate the one who is a busybody about the things of strangers.
Your tongue should not encourage your mind.
Arrest passion.
Do not desire what is powerless.
The laws convince.
d. Thales
Abandon laziness.
Indulgence is harmful.
Stupidity is a burden.
Do not be lazy or you will never be rich.
Don't believe everything.
Rulers should put themselves in order.
e. Pittakos
Know the time.
The land is faithful, but the sea unfaithful.
Own your own.
Care for piety, education, temperance, understanding, truth, faith, experience, -, friendship, diligence, stewardship, skill.
j. Bias
Do not wait for ignorance.
Understand what is lovely.
Listen long.
Say what is timely.
Take hold of persuasion, not force.
z. Periander
Be careful in all things.
Silence is beautiful.
Recklessness is dangerous.
Dishonest gain is shameful.
Democracy is better than tyranny.
Pleasure is mortal, but virtue never dies.