| SETNAKHT AND THE CLASSIC MEMORY
By Marianne Luban (c) 2003
| Much of our data about the rulers of ancient Egypt we have gleaned from their
monumental inscriptions. The ancients were in the same situation, no doubt just as
intrigued by the mixture of facts, hints and distortions chiseled onto the more accessible
stone-works such as statuary and stelae. Nothing, outside of a lucky find like the Great
Harris Papyrus, is as edifying as a pharaonic stela. Although only single copies of many
of these monuments have survived, it is likely that most were duplicated and erected in
various parts of the realm in their time. By the time that the Greek travelers, like
Herodotus, came to Egypt, the lore of the stones was well-engraved in the minds of the
Egyptians, who were not loathe to pass on the information, embellished by imaginative
generations. Of course, there were learned men who could easily read the texts, written in
Middle Egyptian, but it would seem that the historians of antiquity frequently asked the
wrong priests what the monuments said and got the "popular version" instead of a literal
Egyptology confidently recites the kingly succession of the 19th Dynasty through
the reign of Merneptah, the son of Ramesses the Great, but suddenly seems to stutter
and mutter until it reaches the accession of Setnakht and his son, Usermaare Ramesses III.
Abruptly after that, the relationships of the successors to one another once again becomes unclear.
However, if truth be told, this state of affairs already began in the twilight years of the 18th Dynasty.
Just what was happening in those days when Akhenaten turned the Two Lands topsy-
turvy with his religious zealotry? When he finally said farewell to Egypt's throne, who
remained to take his place? And how many stood by as candidates, waiting for the
natural or unnatural process of selection to occur? While the annals of Egypt are silent
regarding much of the intrigue and strife, the Hellenes, ironically, offer all sorts of
tantalizing rumors about the monarchs of Egypt in the form of dramas and "histories".
The names are changed to Greek ones, but the characters are far from unrecognizable.
Yet the dilemma remains--how much history is embedded in the histrionics? How much
truth lurks behind the hearsay?
The Great Harris Papyrus seems to take a dim view of the entire process that led to the
founding of the 20th Dynasty. Long years of turbulence and strife are described, probably
correctly and certainly aptly. An "Irisu", reportedly a Syrian, is mentioned as having
"raised himself among them to be prince" and this upstart has been conjectured to be
Chancellor Bay. However, this is not necessarily the case. There is always room for one
more opportunist--including possibly the first 20th Dynasty king, Setnakht, himself, of
whose origins we know nothing. However, it was said in antiquity that a certain Proteus was
the son of Aegyptus, the rival of Danaus.
There was an Egyptian king, otherwise remembered by the Classic authors as
someone "whose name in the Greek language was Proteus" and who was reputed to have
entertained Helen of Troy at his court. Diodorus Siculus states that this "Proteus" was
also called "Ketes", by which, of course, he means "Khenti", this Egyptian word having
the same meaning as the term "proteios" does in Greek, which is to say "first and
foremost". Proteus was supposed to have been judged by the god, Hermes, to be the most
virtuous man alive and, indeed, the Greeks considered Proteus to be rather a saintly type,
quite the opposite of his son, Theoclymenos.
The son of Proteus, Theoclymenos ("He who is illustrious on account of a god"),
fell in love with Helen of Troy and wished to marry her. This was the theme of a drama
by Euripides, "Helen", in which the beauteous woman of Sparta finds herself languishing by
the Nile, having been spirited there by Paris, also called "Alexander". Her protector, the noble
pharaoh, Proteus, having died, Helen seems doomed to become the wife of the repulsive Theoclymenos,
but her husband, Menelaus, is shipwrecked on Egypt's shores and makes his way to her.
The couple is aided by Proteus's daughter, Theonoe, called "Eido" (Wadjet) in her younger
days due to her "blooming" beauty, and manages to escape.
HELEN: Geography first: the river is the Nile
Beautiful, and undefiled.
The soil of Egypt depends on it;
We get no water from the sky:
Ours comes from pure white snow,
Which melts and floods the Egyptian plain.
History: king of this land was Proteus. Now dead.
He ruled from his palace on the isle of Pharos.
He married one of the "girls from the deep" -
A sea-nymph, Psamathe - when Aeacus had finished with her.
She gave him two children, born here in the palace:
A boy, Theoclymenus (who did not live up to
The theological promise of his name), and
A girl, the princess Eido, named for her beauty,
Her mother's darling - as long as she was a child.
When she was grown up - sexually mature -
They changed her name to Theonoe:
Theonoe, "the mind of god", because she turned out
The theological one. She knows all the gods' plans
Past, present and yet to come.
A useful talent inherited from her grandfather Nereus
(translation: Andrew Wilson)
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