The Royal Instruction of Khety to Merikare
IXth Dynasty - ca.2160 - ? BCE

the royal testament
of a departing king to his son

by Wim van den Dungen

The translation of The Royal Instruction to Merikare is part of my Ancient Egyptian Readings (2016), a POD publication in paperback format of all translations available at These readings span a period of thirteen centuries, covering all important stages of Ancient Egyptian literature. Translated from Egyptian originals, they are ordered chronologically and were considered by the Egyptians as part of the core of their vast literature.

The study of the sources, hieroglyphs, commentaries and pictures situating the text itself remain on the website at no cost.

1. Sources : Papyrus St.-Petersburg 1116A, P.Moscow 4658 & P.Carlsberg 6.
2. King Khety III and his son Merikare.
3. The text of the Instruction to Merikare.
4. Notes.
5. Egyptian sacred literature.
6. Egyptian wisdom literature.

1. The Sources


The text of the Instruction to Merikare was preserved in three fragmentary papyri. The oldest, dating from the second half of the XVIIIth Dynasty (ca. 1539 - 1292 BCE), the so-called "Papyrus St.-Petersburg 1116A", is the most complete, but also the most corrupt, with numerous lacunae and many scribal errors. Papyrus Moscow 4658 dates from the end of the XVIIIth Dynasty, while Papyrus Carlsberg 6 may even be later.

An English translation was made by Gardiner (1914) & Erman (1927). A new comparative study of the available sources was done by Volten (1945). Lichtheim (1976), Helck (1977), Brunner (1991) & Parkinson (1997) made recent translations. Regarding Papyrus St.-Petersburg, Volten remarks :

"Dieser Papyrus ist auf der Vorderseite mit Geschenklisten beschrieben, die es möglich machen, die Rückseite mit unsrem Text zur Zeit des Amenophis II zu datieren."
Volten, 1945, p.3.

The following temporal layers may be discerned :

  • extant papyri : in the XVIIIth Dynasty, unknown (student ?) scribes made copies from earlier sources - Papyrus St.-Petersburg dates from the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep II (ca. 1426 - 1400 BCE), and was copied in Memphis by "the scribe Khaemwaset for himself, the truly quiet, good of character, patient, loved by people ... for his dear brother whom he loves ... the scribe Mahu." ;

  • the actual literary composition : contemporary egyptologists assume the work to be composed in the XIIth Dynasty (ca. 1938 - 1759 BCE). But Lichtheim argues the work to be pseudepigraphic and actually composed in the reign of king Merikare, for the text shows compositional weaknesses suggesting experimentation. This is in conflict with the established literary canon of later Dynasties (like the XIIth) ;

  • the person of Merikare : king Merikare ("mrii-kA-ra" - dates unknown), was one of the rulers of the Herakleopolitan IXth Dynasty (ca.2160 - ? BCE). He appears to have been middle-aged when Khety III bequeathed him the throne of the North. He died before the armies of Mentuhotpe II advanced upon his capital. Ity was his successor, but the latter lost the throne.

literary features

In the First Intermediate Period (ca. 2198 -1938 BCE), the stela became the carrier of a short autobiography, and equipped with an offering scene and its adjacent prayer. This was a memorial, the repository of a person's life, a succinct summary of achievement. The royal instruction was the second literary legacy of this transitional period :  the testament of a departing King to his son and successor. The Instruction to Merikare mentions the instruction of an earlier King Khety. It is therefore only the earliest preserved work of this type.

The work has no "fully sustained compositional coherence as found in comparable works of the Twelfth Dynasty" (Lichtheim, p.98). Indeed, the same topic reappears in different places and a buildup is deflected. However, an overall plan is present, although it is loose. Compared with that of Ptahhotep, Khety's instruction has a compositional structure which is less "constructed". On the one hand, the sentences do not "bind" in the same way and although the orational style is used, the author introduces spontaneous associations which are secundary and move away from the main stream of the mindset. On the other hand, the address is more personal and apparently in tune with the psychology of his son, whereas the Maxims of Good Discourse are a general, more standardized treatise on wisdom, expressing the teachings of any (noble) father to his (accomplished) son. Does this suggest the work is indeed a composition made by the King himself ?

The salient literary features are :

  • the literary form : the orational style is used, a rhythmic style marked by symmetrical sentences, but the text turns into prose when specific events are told (as in the assassination scene in the Instruction of Amenemhat) ;

  • the literary aim : the King bestows his insights on kingship in a literary genre : the speculum regnum - apparently this was not the first instruction of this kind, although the earlier work by the hand of a member of the "house of Khety" is lost. This speculum regnum is in reality a sort of inaugural address of Khety's son Merikare, clothing political intentions with a literary mantle ;

  • the historical section : the King describes his accomplishments and gives his advise on how to continue them. As far as authorship is concerned, the work is pseudepigraphic, but genuine as a text describing historical facts, probably contemporary with the events to which it refers ;

  • the definition and workings of magic : the Sun-god Re created magic as a weapon to ward off the blows of evil events, a power watching over the good leaders of men day and night. The limitations of this power are also given : magic can not hold back the soul of the justified deceased, returning to the place it knows and cares for ;

  • the section of justice : the justice of the god is all-comprehensive, for he sees all and nobody can resist him. He wants us to do justice, to uphold the correct order (Maat). Men are to work for the god, and then the latter will work for them. The instruction is a witness to the growing importance of the Judgment of the Dead, the guarantee for the next life ;

  • the Hymn to the Sun-god : the Sun-god has created men as his cattle, and he tends it well. He made mankind after his image, and made daylight for their sake. He knows every name and has slain the traitors, namely those who made rebellion.

2 King Khety III and his son Merikare

At the end of the Old Kingdom, the stable pharaonic system slowly broke down. During the nine decades of the reign of the last Pharaoh of the VIth Dynasty, Pepi II (ca.2246 - 2152) -the longest reign in history- the way was paved for the collapse of the Old Kingdom under the pressure of internal weakening. A folk tale of the New Kingdom depicts Pepi II as a weak personality with abnormal tendencies ...

No serious dangers threatened Egypt from Western Asia or Nubia, although attacks on Egyptian expeditions seems to have been more frequent. One important factor was the increase in the number of cults freed by royal decree from taxes and other obligations, placing a burden on the royal treasury, diminishing is power and majesty (cf. the number of buildings built). Low Nile floods are also to be noted, as well as a climate change ca. 2200 BCE (probably a world-wide small ice age). 

"But the decisive factor was that the archaic, patriarchal structure of the adminstration was no longer adequate to meet the more specialized demands of the era and thus not suited in all respects to the tenor of the times." -
Hornung, 1999, p.41.

The weak administration was no longer able to run the country as a whole and the consequences were economical difficulties, famine and struggle for life itself (while Pharaoh made enormous gifts to the temples). Economic need occupied the center of attention in biographical inscriptions which emerged in this period. This situation triggered two important phenomena :

  1. objective : local potentates acquired the necessary goods for themselves and their subjects. Raids on neighboring regions and the peasants were common. The latter therefore formed armed bands. Safety was lost. Art sank to a provincial level. In the walled homes of the rulers of the nomes (the nomarchs) an urban middle class was formed, focused on the accumulation of private property. These "nedjes" (a pejorative word for "small") designated these new "bourgeois" who made the cities into political centers ;

  2. inter-subjective : the struggle against the terrible experience of returning to the banished chaos triggered a flowering of literature such as Egypt had never produced before. With the decline of the monarchy, the identification of Maat with the will of Pharaoh broke up. So the questions : What is good ? What is evil ? became all important. For the intellectual elite of the First Intermediate Period, the divine shepherd had forsaken his human flock. Even the blessed afterlife was questioned. New ways of formulating their thoughts were sought, especially to break away from the formulaic & archaic literary style of the mortuary cults. The power of the individual was found ...

After Pepi II, the construction of pyramids stopped and in rapid successions at least a dozen Pharaoahs resided in Memphis and nominally ruled the entire land. What exactely happened is unknown (for this period is obscure), but at the end Egypt was divided between the "kings" of two major nomes : Heracleopolis (IXth & Xth Dynasty) in the North (Fayum & Lower Egypt) & Thebes (XIth Dynasty) in the South (Upper Egypt and Nubia). The unity broke up and no great monuments were erected to consolidate the power of the state. The Theban ruling family assumed the royal titulary at about the same time as the nomarchs of Herakleopolis. This fundamental political division initiates the First Intermediate Period, which would last for about a century (ca. 2198 -1938 BCE). The "House of Khety" ruled Lower Egypt. In general, the southern kingdom was more vital than the northern, but the latter excelled in cultural refinement.

"Statues of the Theban rulers were set up in the temple of Heqaib on the island of Elephantine, and we must assume that because of this tie with the south, the Thebans had at their disposal, from the very beginning, seasoned Nubian soldiers who would lend considerable combat strength to the Theban army in the warfare that ensued to reunite the land." -
Hornung, 1999, p.45.

After some years of peace Mentuhotpe I initiated the decisive battle with Lower Egypt, ruled by Merikare. This attempt was thwarted, and his successor lost the throne. Although the correct sequence of rulers is unknown, the following list of rulers is the reconstruction by Hornung (1999), who's chronology was followed :

Southern Kings (Thebes - IXth & Xth Dynasties) :

  • Inyotef I (Sehertawy) : 2081 - 2065 BCE 

  • Inyotef II (Wahankh) : 2065 - 2016

  • Inyotef III (Nakhtnebtepnufer) : 2016 - 2008

  • Mentuhotpe I (Nebhepetre) : 2008 - 1957

  • Mentuhotpe II (Sankhkare) : 1957 - 1945

  • Mentuhotpe III (Nebtawyre) : 1945 - 1938

Northern Kings (Herakleopolis - between 2160 - 1980 BCE - XIth Dynasty) :

  • Khety I (Meribra)

  • Khety II (Nebkare)

  • Khety III (Wahkare)

  • Merikare

  • Merikare's unknown successor, probably Ity

the beginning of the Middle Kingdom

The last Pharaoh of the XIth Dynasty was Nebtawyre Mentuhotpe III (ca. 1945 - 1938 BCE). He probably usurped the throne, for he is missing from the king-lists. His mother was a commoner. It is possible he was not a member of the royal family. Of his seven year reign, little is known. He undertook building projects and dispatched his vizier Amenemhat to head an army of workers at the quarries of the Wadi Hammamat for his intended royal tomb. There is a consensus that this is the same Pharaoh Amenemhat who founded the XXIIth Dynasty, although there is no reliable information available. Around 1980 BCE, Egypt was again in the grasp of a single ruler after a century of disunity.

The Instruction of Khety to Merikare
IXth Dynasty - ca.2134 - ? BCE

(...) : additions in English
{...} : fragmentary, uncertain or corrupt but restored
(------) : long lacunae or section with a lot of lacunae
(---) : short lacunae or no restoration possible

Titles in bold were added. To facilitate future comments, the numbering is done anew, but the numbering of Papyrus St.-Petersburg (P) is also maintained. This new translation is based on all mentioned translations, as well as on the hieroglyphic transcription of the available sources by Volten (1945). The Prologue and the section on rebellion are fragmentary and have been omitted from the main body of the text, except for the latter's concluding stanza's.

The translation of The Royal Instruction to Merikare is part of my Ancient Egyptian Readings (2016), a POD publication in paperback format of all translations available at These readings span a period of thirteen centuries, covering all important stages of Ancient Egyptian literature. Translated from Egyptian originals, they are ordered chronologically and were considered by the Egyptians as part of the core of their vast literature.

The study of the sources, hieroglyphs, commentaries and pictures situating the text itself remain on the website at no cost.

Prologue (P1)

"{The beginning of the Teaching made by the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Khety} for his son Merikare.

On Rebellion (P2 - P35)


May You be justified before the god,                                                        (P30)

05  (but) the cursing of the {furious} of heart is painful.
06  If You are skilled in speech, You will win.                                                   (P32)

Dealing with officals & commoners (P35 - P68)

16  Copy your fathers, your ancestors,                                                             (P35)

24  (and) the god will be praised for the donations,

28  Respect the officials, sustain your people,                                                  (P38)

41  just as he leaves who indulged himself.
42  Make your officials great, so that they act by your laws.                            (P42)

The front of the house puts awe in the back.
55  Do justice, then You endure on Earth.                                                       (P46)

with free striding feet in the place of secrets !

74  it comes to those who give it water.
75  The court that judges the needy,
7                                                              (P53)

free-striding like the Lords of Eternity !

Advice on raising troops and religious duties (P57 - P68)

Raise your young soldiers and the residence will love You.                        (P57)

Make your great ones great, and promote your {soldiers}.

108  Make {many} monuments for the god,                                                    (P63)

112  visit the temple, {be discreet} concerning the secrets,

116  It is good for him who does it.

The historical section (P68 - P108)

123  Diseased and deprived is he who imprisons the evil gang (of rebels),         (P68)

130  as is done to one who strays from the path of the god ...
131  Do not deal evilly with the Southland,                                                       (P71)

142  You stand well with the Southland,                                                           (P75)

152  (using) what had been made for what is to be made.
153  Behold, the King is the Lord of Joy !                                                         (P79)
154  May You rest, sleep in your strength,

159  From Hetshenu to {Sembaqa, and its southern border at Two-Fish Channel.}
160  I pacified the entire West as far as the coast of the Lake.

165  The middle islands are turned back,

168  Look, the land they had ravaged has been made into nomes,                    (P85)

175  and Hapy will not fail to come.

178  from Hebenu to The Ways of Horus.

185  But this should be said to the bowmen :                                                   (P91)

196  But as I live and shall be what I am,                                                    (P94-95)

207  Medenyt has been restored to its nome,                                              (P98-99)
208  its one side is irrigated as far as Kem-Wer.

221  It has acted as a dyke as far as Heracleopolis !

225  If your southern border is attacked,                                                       (P106)

The glory of kingship (P109 - P123)

237  one will not bring him on one's water on the day of woe.20

244  The Lord of the Two Shores is one who knows,                                      (P115)

253  Look, a shameful deed occured in my time :                                          (P119)

divine justice (P123 - P130)

265  One cannot resist the Lord of the Hand,21

268  made of costly stones, fashioned of bronze.

272  So also, the Ba goes to the place it knows,                                            (P127)

283  The god thinks of him who works for him !

hymn to the creator-god (P130 - P138)

284  Well tended is mankind - the cattle of the god :                               (P130-131)

286  he subdued the water monster,

293  when they thought of making rebellion.

epilogue (P138)

306  Do no ill (against) my speech,
307  which lays down all the laws of kingship,
308  which instructs You, that You may rule the land !
309  And may You reach me with none to accuse You !
310  Do not kill one who is close to You,
311  whom You have favored, the god knows him.
312  He is one of the fortunate ones on Earth ...
313  (for) divine are they who follow the King !
314  Make yourself loved by everyone,
315  (for) a good character is remembered.
316  {When time} has passed,
317  may You be called : 'He who ended the time of trouble'
318  by those who come after the House of Khety,

319  {in thinking} of what has come today.
  Look, I have told You the best of my thoughts !
321  Act by what is set before You !"                                                                (P144)

4. Notes

(1) the "heart" is the vehicle of all mental, intentional, volitional states - Ptahhotep speaks of the "hot of heart" (cf. the Lexicon of the Maxims) ;
"the god" and "god" may be used interchangeably and the definite article has no bearing on meaning but is a matter of style - here we have systematically written "the god" (cf. the Lexicon of the Maxims) ;
(3) the righteous person is not stopped by the tribunal of Osiris and may enter the sky, while the one who was not prudent and endulged himself (in heavy drinking, brawling and conflict) is left by the Foremost of the Westeners ;
(4) the "back of the house" is the rear, the quaters of the women, children and servants ;
(5) the "place of secrets" is that part of the temple where only the priest were allowed to enter ;
(6) those who proffer libations, for water is the source of all purity & life ;
(7) "sArii" has been translated as "oppressed" (Bear), "der Bedrängte, Notleidende, Bedürftige" (Hannig), and "wD" as "providing justice" to the aggrieved - I go along with Lichtheim, who interprets the passage as envisaging an overall judgment ;
(8) these are the spirits of light (the "AX" or "Akh") : the justified deceased, the justified ancestors, the gods and goddesses ;
(9) Volten remarks that the "old men" mentioned suggest that "Der Vater Merikares hat also etwas mehr als 20 Jahre regiert" (Volten : 32) - for Ptahhotep, "Swt" means "neighbors, friends, helpers", but here "recruits" (Wilson) is more appropriate ;
(10) "kfA Hr sStA" has been translated as "reveal the mysteries", except by Gardiner who is followed here - Lichtheim has "observe" ;
(11) it is profitable for him ;
(12) Khety confesses that he too strayed from the path of god, i.e. the way of righteousness ;
(13) "Two-Fish Channel" also occurs in Papyrus Westcar (IX, 16) and is the name of the Nile branch in the nome of Letopolis, i.e. the soutern-most part of the Canopic branch. Here it denotes the southern boundary of the western Delta ;
(14) "the Lake" (like the "great green") is another word for the Mediterranean sea ;
(15) or inner islands ; 
(16) the Nile will not fail to inundate the land ;
(17) Kees insists that Hebenu was a metropolis of the sixteenth nome of Upper Egypt - "Horusway, Horusways, the Ways of Horus" are synonymous with the border fortress of Sile, where the road to Palestine began ;
(18) the east bank of the twenty-second nome was recovered by the Heracleopolitans and brought under cultivation up to the Fayum ;
(19) Lichtheim understands "dyke" as a metaphor for "protection", for a real dyke from Heracleopolis to the Delta is deemed impossible ;
(20) "to be on someone's water" means to be loyal to someone ;
(21) Re in his aspect of creator ;
(22) the cult statues of the gods carried in procession during the festivals ;
(23) god is aware of what people do, he is near, witnesses one's actions and repays one likewise ;
(24) the primordial monster defeated when creation emerged in the first time (zep tepi) ;
(25) refers to the story of the destruction of mankind which was inscribed on three royal tombs of the XIXth Dynasty (the Book of the Heavenly Cow) ;
(26) those that remain in the following of Pharaoh are gods themselves ;
(27) considering what the king has done stimulates his son to emulate and surpass him.

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