Westcar Papyrus: Khufu and the Magician

The fourth story of the Westcar Papyrus is told by Hardedef, son of Khufu, and takes place during the reign of Khufu. Hardedef tells his father of a magician named Dedi who has the power to reattach a severed head onto an animal and tame a wild lion. He also claims that Dedi has information about the temple of Thoth.

Westcar Papyrus, Berlin, Keith Schengili-Roberts CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
Westcar Papyrus, Berlin, Keith Schengili-Roberts CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Khufu instructs Hardedef to bring Dedi to his court and he orders Dedi to sever and re-attach the head of a criminal. Dedi refuses, but does consent to perform this magic on a goose, a waterfowl, and an ox. Khufu then asks Dedi to tell him what he knows about the temple of Thoth but Dedi claims that while he does not know the number of rooms in the temple, he knows where the temple is.

When Khufu presses him further he states that he cannot tell the pharaoh as the one to be granted access is the first born of three future pharaohs (the first of three kings of the fifth dynasty, Userkaf who will be born to a Reddjedet, the wife of a priest of Ra). This story forms part of the prophesy establishing the right to rule of Userkaf, Sahure, and Neferirkara Kakai which is continued in the final part of the Westcar Papyrus with the story of the birth of the three pharaohs.

The three future kings are confirmed as the offspring of Ra (Lichtheim 1975:215-22). The prophesy that they will be pious rulers contrasts with the rather bad reputation of the Pharaoh Khufu in later periods. In this papyrus Khufu is alleged to be seeking ancient knowledge to apply to the construction of his tomb (the Great Pyramid of Giza). Mackenzie translates the relevant phrase as the secrets of the dwelling of the god Thoth (1907:147) while Blackman translates the phrase as “the number of chambers in the sanctuary of Thoth” (Neederof 2008:37).

Hornung confirms that there is considerable doubt as to the nature of the information he seeks but it seems clear that this act is considered impious and so the tale could be considered as an example of a morality tale documenting the fall of the royal house of Khufu as a result of his lack of piety (Kemp 2005:77).

The full translation

Then Prince Hordedef (Djedef-Hor) stood up to speak and said “[ ] deed [ ] is something known by those who have passed away one cannot distinguish truth from lies. There is someone under your majesty and in your own time who you do not know”. His majesty said “what is this, Hordedef, my son? “

And Hordedef said “there is a commoner named Dedi, who lives in Djed Snefru. He is a villager who is a hundred and ten years old who eats five hundred loaves of bread and a shoulder of beef for meat and drinks a hundred jars of beer a day. He knows how to mend a severed head; he can make a lion walk behind him with a leash on the ground; and he knows the number of chambers in the sanctuary of Thoth.

Now, his majesty King of Upper and Lower Egypt Khufu, justified, spent the day seeking for himself the chambers of the sanctuary of Thoth in order to make something similar for himself for his horizon (pyramid).

His majesty said “You yourself, Hordedef my son, shall bring this man to me”.

Then boats were prepared for Prince Hordedef and he went southward to Djed Snefru. After the boats had been moored to the riverbank he travelled over land seated in a litter of ebony with poles of sandalwood plated with gold. When he reached Dedi his litter was set down and he stood to greet him. He found him lying on a mat at the threshold of his [ ] as a servant at his head anointed him and another rubbed his feet.

Then Prince Hordedef said “your condition is like that of one who lives before the infirmity of old age (although old age means dying, laying to rest and burial) and who sleeps until dawn free from illness without an old age of coughing. Greeting, oh blessed one. I have come to summon you by order of my father Khufu, justified. You will eat delicacies provided by the king, the food of his companions. He will lead you though a good lifetime and to your ancestors who are in the necropolis.” and to this Dedi said “welcome, welcome Hordedef, prince who is beloved of his father. May your father Khufu, justified, favour you. May he advance your position amongst the elders. May your spirit contend with your enemy and may your soul know the road that leads to the gate of him who shelters the dead. Greeting oh prince”.

Then Prince Hordedef held out his arms to him and raised him up. The he proceeded with him to the river bank giving him his arm. Dedi then said “let me be given one of the barges so that it may carry for me my children and my books”. Then two boats were made available to him together with their crew and Dedi came northward in the boat in which Prince Hordedef was.

After he had reached the [royal] residence Prince Hordedef entered to report to his majesty King of Upper and Lower Egypt Khufu, justified. Prince Hordedef said “King, my lord, I have brought Dedi” and his majesty said “go and bring him to me”. His majesty then proceeded to the audience hall of the palace and Dedi was ushered in.

Then his majesty said “Why is it Dedi that I have not seen you before?” and Dedi said “He who is summoned comes,” answered the old man; “summon me and, look, I have come.” Then his majesty said, “is it true that you know how to mend a severed head” and Dedi said “yes I know how to, king, my lord”.

Then his majesty said “Let a prisoner be brought forth who is in prison and let his sentence be executed.” Whereupon Dedi said “but not to a human. Doing something like that to the noble flock is not ordained”

Then a duck was brought forth and its head was cut off. The duck was placed on the west side of the audience hall and its head on the east side. Dedi spoke magic spell and the duck stood up, waddling, and its head likewise. Once the head had reached the body the duck stood up cackling. Then his majesty had a goose brought to him and same was done with it. His majesty then had a bull to be brought to him, and its head was cut off. Then Dedi said his magic spell and the bull stood up behind him, its leash having fallen on the ground.

Then king Khufu said, “It is said that you know the number of chambers in the sanctuary of Thoth.”

Dedi answered: “I beg your pardon, I do not know their number, but I know where they are kept” and his majesty said “so, where” and Dedi said “there is a box of flint in a room called the inventory in Heliopolis and it is in that box”. And his majesty said “go and bring it to me” and Dedi said “it is not I who shall bring them to you.” and his majesty said “who will bring it to me?” and Dedi said “the eldest of the three kings who are in the womb of Reddjedet will bring it to you”.

Then his majesty said “I want it. These things you say. Who is this she, this Reddjedet?” and Dedi said “she is the wife of a priest of Ra, Lord of Sakhbu, who is pregnant with three sons of Ra, Lord of Sakhbu. He has said this of them: they will perform this ministerial position (rule) in the whole of this land. The eldest will become chief priest at Heliopolis”. And his majesty fell into a bad mood on hearing this. Then Dedi said “what is this mood, king, my lord. Was it caused by these children I mentioned? First your son, and then his son [but] then one of them.”

Then his majesty said “When will reddjedet give birth?” and Dedi said ” on the fifteenth day of the first month of Peret (the season of growing)” then his majesty said “but that is when the sand banks of Two-fish canal are are cut off. Might I visit myself so that I could see the temple of Ra, Lord of Sakhbu” and Dedi said “then I will let four cubits of water appear on the sand banks of Two-fish canal” and his majesty proceeded to his palace.

Then his majesty said “have Dedi assigned to the palace of Prince Hordadef and he will be provided with a thousand loaves of bread, a hundred jugs of beer, one ox and a hundred bunches of vegetables and one did everything as his majesty had ordered.

Adapted from translations by Marc Jan Nederhof and A.M. Blackman

  • Trigger, G.B, Kemp B.J, O’Connor D and Lloyd A.B. (2005) Ancient Egypt a Social History
  • Lichtheim, M (1975) Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I
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