Dancing Egyptian girls from the Nebamun tomb (source)
Some years ago, I stumbled into an Italian translation of the tale of Wenamon, written around the 11th century BCE. The story of the epic of this Egyptian priest made a strong impression on me; so much that I wrote the piece that I reproduce below. Reviewing what I wrote at that time, I think that my interpretation of the story was correct, but it is also true that, today, the Epic of Wenamon (or Wenamun) tends to be seen as a fantasy tale rather than the chronicle of a real travel. That might be, but this little known document remains a milestone of literature. It is, simply, a world apart from anything that was written before (at least for what has arrived to us). Wenamon's story is primarily the story of a human being who - even though a priest - is not a toy for Gods's battles, as, for instance, the protagonists of the near contemporary Iliad are. Wenamon is one of us. And here is what I wrote, trying to retell the story from the viewpoint of the Egyptian dancer whom I call "Tanetnot" here, even though the correct term would be Tentno (tjnt-nw.t). You can find a readable version of the whole story on reshafim.
The story of Tanetnot, the dancing girl
by Ugo Bardi
Of the men of the past, we remember kings, warriors, conquerors, builders, prophets, saints. People of great power, or of great wisdom, or of great riches, or of sanctity. Of those who were not powerful, not wise, not rich and not saints not much is left. Their memory has faded away as their bones crumbled away in some forgotten tomb. But, sometimes, the vagaries of the world and the weirdness of fortune bring to us traces of some were not kings or queens, not warriors, not builders, not prophets. One of them is an Egyptian dancing girl whose name survived the years and was brought to us as "Tanetnot".
She lived long ago, in an age when Pharaohs still ruled the land. We don’t know in which town she was born, nor how she became a dancer. We know nothing about her aspect, and we can only imagine her as one of those figures painted in the walls of ancient tombs. Girls with black hair, large eyes, and sometimes fancy hairdo and makeup. But maybe her blood was not wholly Egyptian, as it is said that at that time in Egypt, as everywhere and in every age, people fancied exotic beauties from far away.
For whom Tanetnot performed, we cannot say. Perhaps it was for the travelers of the barges that went along the Nile; or perhaps for the rich men of Memphis, or perhaps for the foreign seamen of the port of Tanis. At her time, Egypt was no more as great as it had been once. Past were the proud builders of the pyramids and past was the glory of the Pharaohs who had routed the armies of the shepherd kings from the East and of those who had crushed the invasion of the peoples of the sea. Of all this, Tanetnot probably knew nothing, or if she did likely she did not care. But she was perhaps curious to see new things and people, and we know that she traveled. Perhaps she liked to travel, and she must have used a boat, maybe a swift galley, or more likely a slow merchant ship, to leave Egypt. We know that she went to a town that at that time people called Byblos, in Lebanon.
Byblos was a merchant town, a crossroad of trade. At that time it was a rich town, and it may have attracted dancers and performers of all sort. We know that Tanetnot danced for the local ruler, someone whose name has been passed to us as Zakar-Baal. We do not know whether she was a concubine, a slave, or a passing performer for this man who was maybe a king, or maybe just a small warlord. We know, however, that in Byblos Tanetnot met a man coming from Egypt, Wenamon his name, the envoy from the Hall of the House of Amon in far away Thebes.
Now, this Wenamon was a very important man, or at least he thought himself as such. He was there to buy something that was impossible to find in Egypt: lumber for building a ceremonial barge for his temple. His task had not been easy: times were hard and seas not anymore so peaceful and safe as they had been when the great Pharaohs ruled. So, Wenamon had been delayed by storms, robbed by pirates, had to turn pirate himself, and finally had to plea and bargain for months to get the load of wood he needed. Wenamon himself had found all that quite unseemly for an important man as he thought he was. And, as the wood was finally loaded and the ship ready to go, there had come the news that pirate galleys had been seen at the horizon, most likely waiting to pounce on that fat merchant ship as she would leave the harbor. That evening, perhaps as part of the deal that had been worked out, or perhaps to cheer up the worried Egyptian envoy, the ruler of Byblos, Zakar-Baal, sent to him the gift of a ram, some jars of wine, and a dancing girl, Tanetnot.
We do not know how much Wenamon could enjoy his dinner, his wine, and his dancing girl that evening, for he may very well have been worried about the return trip. Nor we know how Tanetnot enjoyed dancing for this priest of Amon, so worried and so self-important. But if she danced, how should we imagine her? In an Egyptian scroll of long ago we can see dancing women. Sometimes, they are dressed in rich attires: transparent linen dresses with ostrich feathers, blue agate bracelets, and golden jewels around their arms and necks. But, sometimes, the dancers are nearly naked, wearing only belts and headbands. How was Tanetnot dressed that night? And what tune did she dance at? Perhaps the envoy watched the dance, or perhaps he paced nervously along the piers instead. We do not know what happened the day after, nor how the Egyptian merchant ship managed to avoid those sleek galleys. But we know that eventually Wenamon made it back to Thebes; otherwise we wouldn't be able to read his report. Most likely, we can imagine, he came back feeling much more self important than before.
And Tanetnot? We do not know whether the gift was intended as a one night lease or more than that. Perhaps she sailed with Wenamon for that uncertain trip back to Egypt. Or perhaps the morning after she just bid farewell to the Egyptian envoy, sure that she would not see him ever again. But when Wenamon was back to Egypt he wrote down a report of his trip to Lebanon. So self important and meticulous he was that he included such details as the ram, the jar of wine, and the name of that girl who had danced for him on the last evening of his stay in Byblos. Later on, he may have remembered Tanetnot once in a while, but quite possibly not very often. As for Tanetnot she, too, may have remembered at times the Egyptian envoy she had spent a night with. Maybe it had been her only chance to get back to Egypt, and she had missed it. But we may be sure that her career during the later years of her life was far from being as brilliant as that of Wenamon. Life is not gentle with fading courtesans.
So, Tanetnot became old and died. She was buried somewhere, her memory forgotten, her tomb lost in the sand, and her bones scattered away. Byblos itself was buried forever in the sand and forgotten, too. And Wenamon, too, important as he was, died. He was buried in some important tomb, but even that tomb was lost in the sand, and with it the memory of that important priest buried in it. But there was that report, a papyrus roll that remained in the temple of Amon in Thebes for many years, perhaps centuries. Then the temple crumbled down, its priests died and disappeared, and the papyrus was thrown away, somewhere in the desert, where it stayed buried for a long time. There, some three millennia afterwards, someone found it. Someone else translated it and published the text it in a book that ended on my desk.
I forget so many names and things that I read. By all means I should have forgotten the story of Tanetnot as well. And indeed I did forget it after a few days. But, this time, something strange happened. One night, while I was traveling in a night train, the name of Tanetnot came to my mind. Maybe it was because the compartment was hot, or because of the noise of the train, or because of something else, but that name lingered in my mind until day came and I found that I had not slept a minute. I had spent the whole night awake thinking of what Tanetnot was like and how she might have danced. It is hard to say how it happened that Tanetnot's ghost came to haunt a compartment of a train of the Swiss railroads going through the Alps three thousands of years after she had died in Lebanon. But maybe, as I said, it was because she liked to travel.