A Legend of Old Egypt

"A Legend of Old Egypt" (Polish: "Z legend dawnego Egiptu") is a short story by Bolesław Prus, originally published January 1, 1888, in New Year's supplements to the Warsaw Kurier Codzienny (Daily Courier) and Tygodnik Ilustrowany (Illustrated Weekly).[1] It was his first piece of historical fiction and later served as a preliminary sketch for his only historical novel, Pharaoh (1895), which would be serialized in the Illustrated Weekly.[2]

"A Legend of Old Egypt" and Pharaoh show unmistakable kinships in setting, theme and denouement.[3]


"A Legend of Old Egypt"
AuthorBolesław Prus
Original title"Z legend dawnego Egiptu"
TranslatorChristopher Kasparek
Genre(s)Historical short story
Published inKurier Codzienny, and Tygodnik Ilustrowany (Warsaw)
Media typePrint
Publication date1 January 1888

The centenarian pharaoh Ramses is breathing his last, "his chest... invested by a stifling incubus [that drains] the blood from his heart, the strength from his arm, and at times even the consciousness from his brain." He commands the wisest physician at the Temple of Karnak to prepare him a medicine that kills or cures at once. After Ramses drinks the potion, he summons an astrologer and asks what the stars show. The astrologer replies that heavenly alignments portend the death of a member of the dynasty; Ramses should not have taken the medicine today. Ramses then asks the physician how soon he will die; the physician replies that before sunrise either Ramses will be hale as a rhino, or his sacred ring will be on the hand of his grandson and successor, Horus.

Ramses commands that Horus be taken to the hall of the pharaohs, there to await his last words and the royal ring. Amid the moonlight, Horus seats himself on the porch, whose steps lead down to the River Nile, and watches the crowds gathering to greet their soon-to-be new pharaoh. As Horus contemplates the reforms that he would like to introduce, something stings his leg; he thinks it was a bee. A courtier remarks that it is fortunate that it was not a spider, whose venom can be deadly at this time of year.

Horus orders edicts drawn up, ordaining peace with Egypt's enemies, the Ethiopians, and forbidding that prisoners of war have their tongues torn out on the field of battle; lowering the people's rents and taxes; giving slaves days of rest and forbidding their caning without a court judgment; recalling Horus' teacher Jethro, whom Ramses had banished for instilling in Horus an aversion to war and compassion for the people; moving, to the royal tombs, the body of Horus' mother Sephora which, because of the mercy that she had shown the slaves, Ramses had buried among the slaves; and releasing Horus' beloved, Berenice, from the cloister where Ramses had imprisoned her.

Meanwhile, Horus' leg has become more painful. The physician examines it and finds that Horus has been stung by a very poisonous spider. He has only a short time to live.

The ministers enter with the edicts that they have drawn up at his bidding, and Horus awaits the death of Ramses so that he may touch and thus confirm his edicts with the sacred ring of the pharaohs.

As death approaches Horus, and it becomes increasingly unlikely that he will have time to touch every edict with the ring, he lets successive edicts slip to the floor: the edict on the people's rents and the slaves' labor; the edict on peace with the Ethiopians; the edict moving his mother Sephora's remains; the edict recalling Jethro from banishment; the edict on not tearing out the tongues of prisoners taken in war. There remains only the edict freeing his love, Berenice.

Just then, the high priest's deputy runs into the hall and announces a miracle. Ramses has recovered and invites Horus to join him in a lion hunt at sunrise.

Horus looked with failing eye across the Nile, where the light shone in Berenice's prison, and two [...] sanguineous tears rolled down his face.

"You do not answer, Horus?" asked Ramses' messenger, in surprise.

"Don't you see he's dead?..." whispered the wisest physician in Karnak.

Behold, human hopes are vain before the decrees that the Eternal writes in fiery signs upon the heavens.


The inspiration for the short story was investigated in a 1962 paper by the foremost Prus scholar, Zygmunt Szweykowski.[4]

What prompted Prus, erstwhile foe of historical fiction, to take time in December 1887, in the midst of writing ongoing newspaper instalments of his second novel, The Doll (1887–89), to pen his first historical story? What could have moved him so powerfully?

Szweykowski follows several earlier commentators in concluding that it was contemporary German dynastic events. In late October 1887, Germany's first modern emperor, the warlike Kaiser Wilhelm I, had taken cold during a hunt and soon appeared to be at death's door; by November 2 a rumor spread that he had died. He rallied, however. Meanwhile, his son and successor, the reform-minded Crown Prince Friedrich (in English, "Frederick"), an inveterate smoker, had for several months been undergoing treatment for a throat ailment; the foreign press had written of a dire situation, but only on November 12 did the official German press announce that he in fact had throat cancer.

Prince Frederick had been an object of lively interest among progressive Europeans, who hoped that his eventual reign would bring a broad-based parliamentary system, democratic freedoms, peace, and equal rights for non-German nationalities, including Poles, within the German Empire.

Szweykowski points out that the "Legend's" contrast between the despotic centenarian Pharaoh Ramses and his humane grandson and successor Horus was, in its historic German prototypes, doubled, with Prince Frederick actually facing two antagonists: his father, Kaiser Wilhelm I, and the "Iron Chancellor", Otto von Bismarck. In a curious further parallel, a month after Kaiser Wilhelm's illness, Bismarck suffered a stroke.

Bolesław Prus, who in his "Weekly Chronicles" frequently touched on political events in Germany, devoted much of his December 4, 1887, column to Prince Frederick and his illness. The latest news from Germany and from San Remo, Italy, where the Prince was undergoing treatment, had been encouraging. Prus wrote with relief that "the Successor to the German Throne reportedly does not have cancer." By mid-December, however, the politically inspired optimism in the Berlin press had again yielded to a sense of despair.

"It was then [states Szweykowski] that Prus wrote 'A Legend of Old Egypt,' shifting a contemporary subject into the past. Prus must have found this maneuver necessary in order to bring to completion what had not yet been completed, avoid sensationalism, and gain perspectives that generalized a particular fact to all human life; the atmosphere of legend was particularly favorable to this.

"In putting Horus to death while Prince Frederick still lived, Prus anticipated events, but he erred only in details, not in the essence of the matter, which was meant to document the idea that 'human hopes are vain before the order of the world.' Frederick, to be sure, did mount the throne (as Frederick III) in March the following year (Kaiser Wilhelm I died on March 9, 1888) and for a brief time it seemed that a new era would begin for Germany, and indirectly for Europe."[5]

But it was not to be. Frederick III survived his father by only 99 days, dying at Potsdam on June 15, 1888, and leaving the German throne to his bellicose son Wilhelm II, who a quarter-century later would help launch World War I.

The connection between the German dynastic events and the genesis of Prus' "Legend of Old Egypt" was recognized in the Polish press already in 1888, even before Frederick's accession to short-lived impotent power, by a pseudonymous writer who styled himself "Logarithmus."[6]

As Szweykowski observes, "the direct connection between the short story and political events in contemporaneous Germany doubtless opens new suggestions for the genesis of Pharaoh."[7]


In addition to the German elements, there were other influences on the composition of the short story. These included:

  • the use of a device inspired by the ancient Greek chorus, in this case stating at the opening and at the end, and repeating once in the course of the text, a sentiment about the vanity of human hopes before the decrees of heaven;
  • astrological echoes from Prus' own newspaper account of the solar eclipse that he had witnessed at Mława, north of Warsaw, four months earlier, on August 19, 1887;[8]
  • the history of Pharaoh Ramses II ("the Great"), who had lived nearly as long as the "Legend's" "hundred-year-old Ramses" (who is also referred to in Prus' story as "great Ramses") and had outlived dozens of his own potential successors;
  • and the Roman poet Horace's sentiment, "Non omnis moriar" ("I shall not die altogether"), which Prus cites in Polish in the "Legend" and will cite in the original Latin at the end of The Doll, which he is also writing just then.


For Prus it was axiomatic that historical fiction must distort history. Characteristically, at times, in historical fiction, his choices of characters' names show considerable arbitrariness: nowhere more so than in "A Legend of Old Egypt."[9]

  • The protagonist is assigned the name of the hawk-headed Egyptian god Horus;
  • Horus' mother, the Greek variant of the name of the Biblical Moses' wife, Sephora (Exodus 2:21);
  • Horus' teacher, the name of Moses' father-in-law, Jethro (Exodus 3:1); and
  • Horus' beloved, a Greek name that means "bearer of victory", Berenice (there were several Egyptian queens of that name in the Ptolemaic period).


"A Legend of Old Egypt," published in 1888, shows unmistakable kinships in setting, theme and denouement with Prus' 1895 novel Pharaoh, for which the short story served as a preliminary sketch.[10]

Both works of fiction are set in ancient Egypt — the "Legend," at some indeterminate time, presumably during the 19th or 20th Dynasty, when all the Ramesside pharaohs reigned; Pharaoh, at the fall of the 20th Dynasty and New Kingdom in the 11th century BCE.

In each, the protagonist (Horus, and Ramses XIII,[11] respectively) aspires to introduce social reforms. (Ramses also plans preventive war against a rising Assyrian power.)

In each, the protagonist perishes before he can implement his plans — though, in the novel, some of these are eventually realized by Ramses' adversary and successor, Herihor.[12]

See also


  1. ^ Krystyna Tokarzówna and Stanisław Fita, Bolesław Prus, 1847-1912, p. 376.
  2. ^ Christopher Kasparek, "Prus' Pharaoh: the Creation of a Historical Novel", The Polish Review, 1994, no. 1, p. 46.
  3. ^ Christopher Kasparek, "Prus' Pharaoh: the Creation of a Historical Novel", p. 46.
  4. ^ Zygmunt Szweykowski, "Geneza noweli 'Z legend dawnego Egiptu'".
  5. ^ Zygmunt Szweykowski, p. 259.
  6. ^ Zygmunt Szweykowski, p. 300.
  7. ^ Zygmunt Szweykowski, p. 261.
  8. ^ Christopher Kasparek, "Prus' Pharaoh and the Solar Eclipse", The Polish Review, 1997, no. 4, p. 473, note 7, and p. 477.
  9. ^ Christopher Kasparek, "Prus' Pharaoh: the Creation of a Historical Novel", p. 48.
  10. ^ Christopher Kasparek, "Prus' Pharaoh: the Creation of a Historical Novel", p. 46.
  11. ^ Actually, Egypt's last Ramesside pharaoh was Ramses XI, not "Ramses XIII."
  12. ^ Bolesław Prus, Pharaoh, translated from the Polish by Christopher Kasparek (2nd, revised ed., 2001), p. 618.


  • Zygmunt Szweykowski, "Geneza noweli 'Z legend dawnego Egiptu'" ("The Genesis of the Short Story, 'A Legend of Old Egypt,'" originally published 1962), reprinted in his book, Nie tylko o Prusie: szkice (Not Only about Prus: Sketches), Poznań, Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 1967, pp. 256–61, 299-300.
  • Krystyna Tokarzówna and Stanisław Fita, Bolesław Prus, 1847-1912: kalendarz życia i twórczości, pod redakcją Zygmunta Szweykowskiego (Bolesław Prus, 1847-1912: a Calendar of [His] Life and Work, edited by Zygmunt Szweykowski), Warsaw, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1969.
  • Christopher Kasparek, "Prus' Pharaoh: the Creation of a Historical Novel", The Polish Review, 1994, no. 1, pp. 45–50.
  • Christopher Kasparek, "Prus' Pharaoh and the Solar Eclipse", The Polish Review, 1997, no. 4, pp. 471–78.
  • Bolesław Prus, Pharaoh, translated from the Polish by Christopher Kasparek (2nd, revised ed.), Warsaw, Polestar Publications (ISBN 83-88177-01-X), and New York, Hippocrene Books, 2001.
  • Jakub A. Malik, Ogniste znaki Przedwiecznego. Szyfry transcendencji w noweli Bolesława Prusa "Z legend dawnego Egiptu". Próba odkodowania ("Fiery Signs of the Eternal: Ciphers of Transcendence in Bolesław Prus' Short Story 'A Legend of Old Egypt': An Attempt at Decoding"), in Jakub A. Malik, ed., Poszukiwanie świadectw. Szkice o problematyce religijnej w literaturze II połowy XIX i początku XX wieku (Search for Testimonies: Sketches on Religious Themes in Literature of the Second Half of the 19th and the Early 20th Centuries), Lublin, Wydawnictwo TN KUL, 2009.
Bolesław Prus

Bolesław Prus (pronounced: [bɔ'lεswaf 'prus]; 20 August 1847 – 19 May 1912; born Aleksander Głowacki) is a leading figure in the history of Polish literature and philosophy and a distinctive voice in world literature. Głowacki adopted the pen name Bolesław Prus.

As a 15-year-old Głowacki joined the Polish 1863 Uprising against Imperial Russia. Shortly after his 16th birthday, he suffered severe battle injuries. Five months later he was imprisoned for his part in the Uprising. These early experiences may have precipitated the panic disorder and agoraphobia that dogged him through life, and shaped his opposition to attempting to regain Poland's independence by force of arms.

In 1872 at the age of 25, in Warsaw, he settled into a 40-year journalistic career that highlighted science, technology, education, and economic and cultural development. These societal enterprises were essential to the endurance of a people who had in the 18th century been partitioned out of political existence by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Głowacki took his pen name "Prus" from the appellation of his family's coat-of-arms.

As a sideline he wrote short stories. Succeeding with these, he went on to employ a larger canvas; over the decade between 1884 and 1895, he completed four major novels: The Outpost, The Doll, The New Woman and Pharaoh. The Doll depicts the romantic infatuation of a man of action who is frustrated by his country's backwardness. Pharaoh, Prus' only historical novel, is a study of political power and of the fates of nations, set in ancient Egypt at the fall of the 20th Dynasty and New Kingdom.

Christopher Kasparek

Christopher Kasparek (born 1945) is a Scottish-born writer of Polish descent who has translated works by numerous authors, including Ignacy Krasicki, Bolesław Prus, Florian Znaniecki, Władysław Tatarkiewicz, Marian Rejewski, and Władysław Kozaczuk, as well as the Polish-Lithuanian Constitution of 3 May 1791.

He has published papers on Enigma decryption; Bolesław Prus and his novel Pharaoh; the theory and practice of translation; logology (science of science); and multiple independent discovery.

Frederick III, German Emperor

Frederick III (German: Friedrich III.; 18 October 1831 – 15 June 1888) was German Emperor and King of Prussia for ninety-nine days in 1888, the Year of the Three Emperors. Known informally as "Fritz", he was the only son of Emperor Wilhelm I and was raised in his family's tradition of military service. Although celebrated as a young man for his leadership and successes during the Second Schleswig, Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars, he nevertheless professed a hatred of warfare and was praised by friends and enemies alike for his humane conduct. Following the unification of Germany in 1871 his father, then King of Prussia, became the German Emperor. Upon Wilhelm's death at the age of ninety on 9 March 1888, the thrones passed to Frederick, who had by then been German Crown Prince for seventeen years and Crown Prince of Prussia for twenty-seven years. Frederick was suffering from cancer of the larynx when he died, aged fifty-six, following unsuccessful medical treatments for his condition.

Frederick married Victoria, Princess Royal, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. The couple were well-matched; their shared liberal ideology led them to seek greater representation for commoners in the government. Frederick, in spite of his conservative militaristic family background, had developed liberal tendencies as a result of his ties with Britain and his studies at the University of Bonn. As the Crown Prince, he often opposed the conservative Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, particularly in speaking out against Bismarck's policy of uniting Germany through force, and in urging that the power of the Chancellorship be curbed. Liberals in both Germany and Britain hoped that as emperor, Frederick III would move to liberalize the German Empire.

Frederick and Victoria were great admirers of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband. They planned to rule as consorts, like Albert and Queen Victoria, and to reform what they saw as flaws in the executive branch that Bismarck had created for himself. The office of Chancellor, responsible to the Emperor, would be replaced with a British-style cabinet, with ministers responsible to the Reichstag. Government policy would be based on the consensus of the cabinet. Frederick "described the Imperial Constitution as ingeniously contrived chaos."

The Crown Prince and Princess shared the outlook of the Progressive Party, and Bismarck was haunted by the fear that should the old Emperor die—and he was now in his seventies—they would call on one of the Progressive leaders to become Chancellor. He sought to guard against such a turn by keeping the Crown Prince from a position of any influence and by using foul means as well as fair to make him unpopular.

However, his illness prevented him from effectively establishing policies and measures to achieve this, and such moves as he was able to make were later abandoned by his son and successor, Wilhelm II.

The timing of Frederick's death and the length of his reign are important topics among historians. The premature demise of Frederick III is considered a potential turning point in German history; and whether or not he would have made the Empire more liberal if he had lived longer is still discussed.

Index of philosophical literature

This is a list of philosophical literature articles.

Mold of the Earth

"Mold of the Earth" (Polish: "Pleśń świata") is one of the shortest micro-stories by the Polish writer Bolesław Prus.

The story was published on 1 January 1884 in the New Year's Day issue of the Warsaw Courier (Kurier Warszawski). The story comes from a period of pessimism in the author's life caused by Poland's political situation (in which nine decades earlier, upon the completion of the Partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Poland had ceased to exist as an independent country) and by the 1883 failure of Nowiny (News), a Warsaw daily that Prus had been editing for less than a year.

Pharaoh (novel)

Pharaoh (Polish: Faraon) is the fourth and last major novel by the Polish writer Bolesław Prus (1847–1912). Composed over a year's time in 1894–95, serialized in 1895–96, and published in book form in 1897, it was the sole historical novel by an author who had earlier disapproved of historical novels on the ground that they inevitably distort history.

Pharaoh has been described by Czesław Miłosz as a "novel on... mechanism[s] of state power and, as such, ... probably unique in world literature of the nineteenth century.... Prus, [in] selecting the reign of 'Pharaoh Ramses XIII' in the eleventh century BCE, sought a perspective that was detached from... pressures of [topicality] and censorship. Through his analysis of the dynamics of an ancient Egyptian society, he... suggest[s] an archetype of the struggle for power that goes on within any state."Pharaoh is set in the Egypt of 1087–85 BCE as that country experiences internal stresses and external threats that will culminate in the fall of its Twentieth Dynasty and New Kingdom. The young protagonist Ramses learns that those who would challenge the powers that be are vulnerable to co-option, seduction, subornation, defamation, intimidation and assassination. Perhaps the chief lesson, belatedly absorbed by Ramses as pharaoh, is the importance, to power, of knowledge.

Prus' vision of the fall of an ancient civilization derives some of its power from the author's intimate awareness of the final demise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, a century before the completion of the novel.

Preparatory to writing Pharaoh, Prus immersed himself in ancient Egyptian history, geography, customs, religion, art and writings. In the course of telling his story of power, personality, and the fates of nations, he produced a compelling literary depiction of life at every level of ancient Egyptian society. Further, he offers a vision of mankind as rich as Shakespeare's, ranging from the sublime to the quotidian, from the tragic to the comic. The book is written in limpid prose and is imbued with poetry, leavened with humor, graced with moments of transcendent beauty.Pharaoh has been translated into twenty languages and adapted as a 1966 Polish feature film. It is also known to have been Joseph Stalin's favourite book.

Prose poetry

Prose poetry is poetry written in prose instead of using verse but preserving poetic qualities such as heightened imagery, parataxis and emotional effects.

Shades (story)

"Shades" (Polish: "Cienie") is one of Bolesław Prus' shortest micro-stories. Written in 1885, it comes from a several years' period of pessimism in the author's life caused partly by the 1883 failure of Nowiny (News), a Warsaw daily that he had been editing less than a year. Prus, the "lamplighter" who had striven to dispel darkness and its attendant "fear, error and crime," had failed to sufficiently interest the public in his "observatory of societal facts," Nowiny."Shades" is one of several micro-stories by Bolesław Prus that were inspired partly by 19th-century French prose poetry.Prus scholar Zygmunt Szweykowski writes:

Night, darkness, unfamiliar places with indeterminate details of topography, and indeed any powerful phenomenon arouses anxiety in Prus, which prompts him to personify nature. There appears before him a world of living, mysterious, menacing things... full of uncanny experiences, of strange shapes, of striking contrasts of light and shade. The latter realm of sensations, especially, is represented in a most interesting way; extraordinary moments sensitize Prus to changes in light, and the more so to its absence; from this, spring interesting poetic suggestions of the lives of shades in his works ("Shades" [1885], "In the Light of the Moon" [1884], etc.)....

Based on an exact familiarity with nature and with scientific abstractions, which Prus knows consummately how to render concrete, the writer creates a completely original world, not encountered in other authors, of splendid visions striking by their perspectives of infinity; these translate the longings, yearnings and struggles of the human soul to the universe ("In the Light of the Moon") or bring to light a higher, religious, mythic or legendary order of the universe ("New Year" [1880]).

These far-reaching perspectives, present at the start of Prus' writing career, intensify markedly after 1882 with the failure of Nowiny [News]. The writer's attitude to his art changes decisively; that art becomes ever closer to him, and we see his writing gain remarkably in depth, and humor assume a distinct role, and Prus begin to avoid writing [the kinds of] pieces [that he had been writing, motivated previously by] a desire to amuse the reader [with] jibes and jokes...

Prus' micro-story "Shades" comprises two successive parts. The first half evokes the above-described atmosphere of dread, via Prus' description of an eternal contest between light and darkness. The second half of the micro-story pictures the efforts of one of a number of nameless lamplighters to dispel the darkness, for as long as his limited lifespan permits.

Short story

A short story is a piece of prose fiction that typically can be read in one sitting and focuses on a self-contained incident or series of linked incidents, with the intent of evoking a "single effect" or mood, however there are many exceptions to this.

A dictionary definition is "an invented prose narrative shorter than a novel usually dealing with a few characters and aiming at unity of effect and often concentrating on the creation of mood rather than plot."The short story is a crafted form in its own right. Short stories make use of plot, resonance, and other dynamic components as in a novel, but typically to a lesser degree. While the short story is largely distinct from the novel or novella (a shorter novel), authors generally draw from a common pool of literary techniques.

Short story writers may define their works as part of the artistic and personal expression of the form. They may also attempt to resist categorization by genre and fixed formation.

Short stories have deep roots and the power of short fiction has been recognised in modern society for hundreds of years. The short form is, conceivably, more natural to us than longer forms. We are drawn to short stories as the well-told story, and as William Boyd, the award-winning British author and short story writer has said:"[short stories] seem to answer something very deep in our nature as if, for the duration of its telling, something special has been created, some essence of our experience extrapolated, some temporary sense has been made of our common, turbulent journey towards the grave and oblivion".In terms of length, word count is typically anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 for short stories, however some have 20,000 words and are still classed as short stories. Stories of fewer than 1,000 words are sometimes referred to as "short short stories", or "flash fiction".

Short stories

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