Rhampsinitus, Setne Khamwas and the Descent to the Netherworld: Some Remarks on Herodotus II, 122, 1

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The purpose of this article is to analyse Pharaoh Rhampsinitus’ descent to the Underworld, briefly reported by Herodotus (II, 122, 1) and included by the Greek writer in the legendary history of Egypt. This short episode can be connected to the demotic cycle of Setne Khamwas, to be precise when this literary hero seizes a book of magic from a tomb after playing dice—the Egyptian senet—with the dead. These two stories share a common origin, arising possibly from the same folkloric tradition from the second half of the First Millenium B.C. But even if the adventure of Rhampsinitus is one of the many underworld motifs which occur in folklore throughout the world, it is important to note that the descent to hell is not a recurrent theme in Egyptian imagery. Here we are dealing possibly with a foreign topic, even an interpretatio graeca of the katabasis of Rhampsinitus, Herodotus being influenced by the echoes of the doctrines of the Orphics and the Pythagoreans, and trying to support the supposedly Egyptian belief in the transmigration of the soul, a clearly dubious statement.

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Board games are often used as a plot motif in modern genre fiction, especially in detective and adventure stories. In these types of narrative, a well-known pattern of storytelling or literary structure (e.g., the treasure hunt, the detection of serial crimes, the iniatory course, or the medieval tale collection) is reworked and adapted to the rules and phases of a board game such as chess, jeu de l’oie, or the tarot card pack. This literary practice is very ancient and may be traced back to a number of novelistic compositions of the ancient Near East, dating from the 1st millennium BC to late antiquity. In the Demotic Egyptian Tale of Setne Khaemwaset, from the Saite period, the protagonist Setne plays a board game (probably senet) with the mummy of a long dead and buried magician, in order to gain a powerful book of spells. The widespread Near-Eastern story-pattern of the magical competition is here superimposed on the procedure of a celebrated Egyptian game. In a late Hellenistic Greek novella inspired by the Odyssey (Apion of Alexandria, FGrH 616 F36) Penelope’s suitors play an elaborate game of marbles (petteia) in order to determine which one of them will marry the queen. This is a playful rewriting of the famous bow contest of the Homeric epic. A Sasanian novelistic work, the Wizārišn ī čatrang, adapts the age-old legend of the riddle contest of kings; the riddles are replaced with board games (chess and backgammon), which the opponents invent and propose to each other as difficult puzzles for solution. In all these texts the board game becomes a central symbol of the transformative and innovative power of literary narrative.
The second book of Herodotus' Histories on Egypt tells the story of the katabasis of the wealthy and happy pharaoh Rhampsinitus, who descended into Hades while still alive. In the Underworld the ruler played dice with Demeter: sometimes he won, sometimes he lost. Returning from Hades he brought back a small golden cloth as a gift from the goddess. According to Herodotus, the Egyptians celebrate the return of the king with a festival during which one of the priests is blindfolded and led to the road to the sanctuary of Demeter. From here on he is guided by two wolves that later take him back to the starting point. The elements of this story, and in particular the links between katabasis, kingship, game and prize, which can find other terms of comparison within the Mediterranean context, will be considered in the light of the Greeks' knowledge and representations of the Underworld.
Herodotus' story about Rampsinitus' journey to the Underworld (II 122, 1-3) stems from stories about Rameses II and the Sed Festival. Parallels between this anecdote and similar tales in Egyptian literature (e.g. the stories of Merire and Setne) shed light on the details of the structure and meaning of the former.
The story of the Shipwrecked Sailor is a complex work of written literature that is based partly on esoteric knowledge. Its superficial presentation looks to folk and oral models in style, situation, anonymity, and treatment of character, making play with traditional and proverbial wisdom. It is not allegorical in any simple sense. The conception of the seventy-four forms of the sun god is encapsulated within the folk/oral treatment, while the deviant wisdom that offerings to the gods are pointless is relativized by being put forward by a god. The core narrative of the end of things is a myth that is linked to moralizing on a modest, domestic scale; this pairing has parallels in religious texts. All these meanings are organized within a cyclical form which exploits first-person narration for ironical effect. The text is not didactic in any simple sense, but has the unifying theme of experience and how it is confronted.