In this paper, I argue for the previously unacknowledged influence of an Egyptian tale, “Tales of Wonder from the Court of King Khufu,” on Greek stories of the birth of Apollo, especially as told in the major Homeric Hymn to Apollo. While the Egyptian tale has many significant themes found in Greek mythology—disguised gods impregnating women, fear of succession, jealousy surrounding a birth, etc.—I focus here on the births of three sons of the sun god, Re, and thematic and narrative parallels found in Apollo’s birth story.
“Tales of Wonder” is a multi-part Egyptian story preserved on the Westcar Papyrus (P. Berlin 3033), which is dated to the Hyksos Period (Lichtheim 2006). In the last preserved tale on the papyrus, the narrative transitions to the story of a divine birth. Ruddjedet, the wife of a priest of Re, is pregnant not by her husband, as she thinks, but instead carries three children of Re. The current pharaoh, Khufu (popularly known as Cheops), the very same historical king of the Great Pyramid, learns of her pregnancy and worries for the future of his dynasty.
I first introduce “Tales of Wonder,” before turning to parallels in the two stories. Like Leto in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, Ruddjedet in “Tales of Wonder” is struggling with a difficult labor until she receives divine assistance and then gives birth surrounded by divinities (in “Tales of Wonder” Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, Heket, and Knum, 9.23; the Homeric Hymn names Dione, Rhea, Themis, Amphitrite, and eventually, Eilithyia. 92-95). In addition to a difficult birth aided by gods, both stories involve the gift of a necklace, a multiple birth (unmentioned in the Homeric Hymn, but a prominent part of Apollo’s birth story elsewhere), the spectacular appearance of offspring, and the reaction of the natural world to the birth. The fact that Apollo is associated with the sun only brings him closer to the children of Re, the Egyptian sun god.
“Tales of Wonder” is often considered the beginning of popular literature in Egypt, starting a new trend in the composition of narrative tales written as entertainment (Lepper 2008; Lichtheim 2006; Loprieno 1996). Only one copy exists today, but allusions to it in other stories show how highly influential it was in in its time (Lepper 2008). The tale was written down in the Second Intermediate period (14th to 17th dynasties, c. 1665–1555 bce), by which it has long been established there was direct and indirect contact between Egypt and Crete and the Aegean, and possibly mainland Greece (Mumford 2001).
With few exceptions, Egyptian influence on Greek mythology and literature is often added as an afterthought to the more widely studied Near Eastern influence (e.g., West 1997). I think it is high time to give Egyptian influence its due attention. We can see the influence of Egyptian stories of the birth of the sun god’s miraculous children on Greek stories of the birth of Apollo and that influence is reflected in the texts we have today.
Early Greek Poetry