Last Session


Friday 9th November 2018

Topic: The Value of Silence in ancient Egypt

Chair: Jen Turner

For this week’s Forum we had the pleasure of welcoming Dr Ilaria Cariddi from the Universita Ca’ Foscari Venezia, to discuss her doctorate research on ‘The Value of Silence in ancient Egypt’. The topic began by considering the characterisation of silence in various Egyptian literary genres including teachings, narratives and autobiographies. Within these contexts it was made clear that the value of being ‘silent’ or being described as a ‘silent one/silent man’ possessed a moral aspect that also represented respect and superiority. Within a wide range of sources such as the Teaching of Amenemope and Merikare, tales such as the Eloquent Peasant, lamentations, hymns and statue biographies from the Karnak cachette, the significance of silence was clearly emphasised. More atypical evidence such as compositions during intermediate periods of Egyptian history and the evidence found from Deir el-Medina also demonstrated the alternating value of silence and speech during certain phases of Egyptian culture. Other literary developments such as Harper’s songs, which allude to silence as a component of death’s finality and the oblivion, further adds to the perception of silence in ancient Egypt. The group also reflected on the connotations of silence in the modern world; while in some cases it may indicate powerlessness, repression or even cowardice, in ancient Egypt silence was clearly perceived as a virtue, and one that is consistently advocated throughout existing teachings, literary tales and biographies. Yet the ancient Egyptians did clearly recognise the potential disadvantages to silence, as the Eloquent Peasant in particular demonstrates the value of silence and simultaneously condemns its misuse, in addition to an appropriate and superior voice of the peasant. It is also clear that the potential damage or danger of speech, such as falseness, lies, and boasting were realised and negatively viewed.

It was stressed within the discussion that speech and the power of sound was clearly important not only as a method of communication within society, but also in establishing and preserving communication with intangible audiences such as the gods. Instances of temple inscriptions such as those found within the Ptolemaic temples of Philae and Edfu for instance, provide an interesting insight into sound as they request silence from those entering the temple space. This was considered in relation to modern silence or hushed tones when entering places of worship, for example. The idea of the contrast between ‘total silence’ and ‘acceptable silence’ was considered in this respect – particularly in these ancient temple complexes where the immediate vicinity consisted of residential and building areas for construction, how likely is it that these spaces were capable of having ‘total silence’? The group also considered the idea of silence referring to not necessarily the entire absence of the voice, but perhaps simply the absence of inappropriate language. The contrast of what is appropriate, for instance not lying or making false claims within the temple, was considered in contrast to unpreventable noises such as the reality of having domestic houses so close to the temples. Decorum  was also discussed at length not only in relation to advocating silence and its virtue, but also as an aspect of continuing to adhere to past traditions and practices in relation to speech and silence.

The power of the spoken word and voice was also made apparent through discussion of references to a ‘hot-headed one’ or the equation of speech with flames, fire or the description of a man as ‘burning’. It was noted that the allusion to fire and heat was also something that could have been paralleled with splendour and yet the potential for damage and destruction. This was a particularly interesting aspect which was discussed with reference to the wider ancient world; Mesopotamian inscriptions for example also equate speech with fire, though this is more typically in relation to the gods. The group also considered evidence of rituals such as the Eleusinian mysteries which includes a deliberate contrast within the acts of creating sound followed by a period of total silence and relates to the mythology of Demeter, and thus potentially alludes to her connection with the underworld. Similarly, the group considered the Osirian rituals and performances that also involved scheduled moments of speaking, singing or silence respectively.

Ultimately, it was recognised that silence was a reflection of ethical standards and ideals in Egyptian society, and as Dr Cariddi emphasised silence is a value that is consistently expressed via the same linguistic phrases and appears stable throughout pharaonic history. We thank Ilaria for her very interesting discussion of her research, and hope to hear more from her on this in the future!


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