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Funerary literature in ancient Egypt was created primarily through scribal copying. However, the appearance of a new Demotic composition in the Roman Period contained features unaccounted for in assessments of the ways in which ancient writings were replicated. Concepts pioneered in the study of how orality and memory influenced the production of the Hebrew Bible and Zoroastrian Avesta can be profitably applied to specific philological criteria within the Demotic funerary corpus in order to establish that in certain cases the texts may have been composed from memory as preserved in an oral tradition.

In 57/56 BCE, the Demotic script was first employed for composing Egyptian funerary literature (e.g., pLouvre E 3452). The language used in the first (and many subsequent) Demotic funerary manuscripts was a variety of Spätmittelägyptisch, a form of the language that employed archaizing features from earlier linguistic phases. Contemporary hieratic funerary works from the Ptolemaic and early Roman periods made similar use of Spätmittelagyptisch, although a certain amount of grammatical variation existed between those in hieratic and Demotic. Considering that this literary language was far removed from the spoken idiom, most scholars reconstructing the redaction of such texts have for good reason relied heavily on the model of scribal copying. Although transmission through memorization and dictation must have occurred, there is a consensus that the circulation of funerary compositions in ancient Egypt relied primarily on copying, supplemented by emendation, correction, and commentary, forming a concept of “authorship” that would last until the end of the Middle Ages.

In the late first and early second century CE a new Demotic funerary work was flourishing, referred to by its opening phrase “May the soul live.” This composition, known from fifty exemplars on papyrus, linen, and coffins mostly from the Theban region, consists of a series of short formulaic phrases, typically less than ten lines, repeated in various combinations throughout the corpus. All versions are written in Demotic grammar, lacking the archaizing features present in Spätmittelägyptisch and the hieraticisms common in other Demotic priestly material from the period (e.g., the magical papyrus of London and Leiden). A close examination of the entire corpus reveals that, while elements of the formulae are repeated throughout, no two specimens are identical with respect to which phrases were included or the order of the phrases. If copying were the primary means of producing these manuscripts, why would such short texts show so much variation? Potential answers to this question require a new evaluation of how funerary literature was produced in the Roman Period.

When a scribe made copies in a temple scriptorium, the end product reflected the context and manner of its composition. However, a convergence of several features suggests that more factors were involved in producing these documents than typical replication or preservation. Vignettes appear on some of the papyri, and the scenes reflect a similar variation as the textual content, for no two appear to be derived from the same source. In addition, the images and text were most probably produced at the same time, by the same scribe, unlike other illustrated funerary papyri for which artists have been assumed to be involved. The presence of irregular phonetic orthographies, some of which are unknown outside of this corpus, for select Demotic words implies composition from memory (or dictation), raises questions of how these new orthographies developed, and places the use of the Demotic vernacular (along with the appearance of documentary hands) in a new light. Furthermore, the formulae themselves are often voiced in the third person, and the addition of “at the request of Isis” in several instances indicates recitation on behalf of the deceased, perhaps alluding to the ritual context in which the oral tradition was fostered.

By discussing these lines of evidence, I will attempt to demonstrate that orality and memory played a role in composing the formulaic Demotic funerary texts.