Egyptian Myths and Legends

Week 2: Ancient Near East - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

The Two Brothers

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 850 words.

The pages you have read so far cover Egyptian mythology (just scratching the surface, of course!). Now you will read some other stories that combine both mythological and folkloric materials. Of all the stories in this unit, the story of the Two Brothers is my favorite. If you are familiar with the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife from the Hebrew Bible, or with the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus from Greek mythology, you will recognize some of the plot motifs of this ancient Egyptian story!

THERE were once two brothers, and they were sons of the same father and of the same mother. Anpu was the name of the elder, and the younger was called Bata. Now Anpu had a house of his own, and he had a wife. His brother lived with him as if he were his son, and made garments for him. It was Bata who drove the oxen to the field, it was he who ploughed the land, and it was he who harvested the grain. He laboured continually upon his brother's farm, and his equal was not to be found in the land of Egypt; he was imbued with the spirit of a god.

In this manner the brothers lived together, and many days went past. Each morning the younger brother went forth with the oxen, and when evening came on he drove them again to the byre, carrying upon his back a heavy burden of fodder which he gave to the animals to eat, and he brought with him also milk and herbs for Anpu and his wife. While these two ate and drank together in the house, Bata rested in the byre with the cattle and he slept beside them.

When day dawned, and the land grew bright again, the younger brother was first to rise up, and he baked bread for Anpu and carried his own portion to the field and ate it there. As he followed the oxen he heard and he understood their speech. They would say: "Yonder is sweet herbage", and he would drive them to the place of their choice, whereat they were well pleased. They were indeed noble animals, and they increased greatly. The time of ploughing came on, and Anpu spake unto Bata, saying: "Now get ready the team of oxen, for the Nile flood is past and the land may be broken up. We shall begin to plough on the morrow; so carry seed to the field that we may sow it."

As Anpu desired, so did Bata do. When the next day dawned, and the land grew bright, the two brothers laboured in the field together, and they were well pleased with the work which they accomplished. Several days went past in this manner, and it chanced that on an afternoon the seed was finished ere they had completed their day's task.

Anpu thereupon spake to his younger brother saying: "Hasten to the granary and procure more seed."

Bata ran towards the house, and entered it. He beheld his brother's wife sitting upon a mat, languidly pleating her hair.

"Arise," he said, "and procure corn for me, so that I may hasten back to the field with it. Delay me not."

The woman sat still and said: "Go thou thyself and open the storeroom. Take whatsoever thou dost desire. If I were to rise for thee, my hair would fall in disorder."

Bata opened the storeroom and went within. He took a large basket and poured into it a great quantity of seed. Then he came forth carrying the basket through the house. The woman looked up and said: "What is the weight of that great burden of thine?"

Bata answered: "There are two measures of barley and three of wheat. I carry in all upon my shoulders five measures of seed."

"Great indeed is thy strength," sighed the woman. "Ah, thee do I contemplate and admire each day!" Her heart was moved towards him, and she stood up saying: "Tarry here with me. I will clothe thee in fine raiment."

The lad was made angry as the panther, and said: "I regard thee as a mother, and my brother is like a father unto me. Thou hast spoken evil words and I desire not to hear them again, nor will I repeat unto any man what thou hast just spoken."

He departed abruptly with his burden and hastened to the field, where he resumed his labour.

At eventide Anpu returned home and Bata prepared to follow after him. The elder brother entered his house and found his wife lying there, and it seemed as if she had suffered violence from an evildoer. She did not give him water to wash his hands, as was her custom. Nor did she light the lamp. The house was in darkness. She moaned where she lay, as if she were in sickness, and her garment was beside her.

"Who hath been here?" asked Anpu, her husband.

The woman answered him: "No one came nigh me save thy younger brother. He spoke evil words unto me, and I said: 'Am I not as a mother, and is not thine elder brother as a father unto thee?' Then was he angry, and he struck me until I promised that I would not inform thee. . . . Oh if thou wilt allow him to live now, I shall surely die."

The elder brother became like an angry panther. He sharpened his dagger and went out and stood behind the door of the byre with purpose to slay young Bata when he came nigh.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what special relationship did Bata have with the animals?
  • why did Anpu send Bata back to the house? what happened in the house?
  • what lies did the wife of Anpu tell about Bata?

Source: Egyptian Myth and Legend by Donald Mackenzie (1907). Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM