The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant:

Ancient Advice for the Modern Judge


Written by stylus on sheaves of delicate and crumbly papyrus dating from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (ca. 2040 – 1674 B.C.) and preserved by the dry, hot climate of Egypt, is an ancient tale by an anonymous Egyptian author.1 The tale of 430 lines of hieratic text—stylized hieroglyphics—is a simple and yet surprisingly rich story about justice. It has been named The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant. At the heart of the Tale is a series of nine pleas by a wronged peasant to an Egyptian judge to do justice (ma’at). The Tale contains interesting analogies for justice—justice is like sailing a ship, going on a hunt, akin to the judgment of souls, or participating in the harmony of the cosmos. The Tale addresses themes such as the relationship between power, vengeance, and punishment and justice, and the relationship between justice and reward (reciprocity) in this world and in the next. It also addresses a problem chronic as long as we go about this world under Adam’s shadow—the delay and the corruption of justice and law. The Tale reverberates with themes related to justice that are never quite grasped or implemented by the generations of men, and must constantly be re-thought, re-worked, and re-applied—curia semper reformanda. The Egyptian peasant’s pleas argued four thousand years ago, and the images, symbols, and metaphors of justice he adopts, thus remain as vivid and thought-provoking as when first written down by an Egyptian scribe.

Synopsis of The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant

The protagonist of this ancient tale is an Egyptian peasant named Khunanup. Khunanup leaves his farm and his wife, Meret, at the oasis valley of Wadi Natrun and heads to the market at Ninsu (Herakleopolis), his donkeys laden with the produce of his lands:

reeds and fan palms,
natron and salt,
sticks from tiu
and staffs from Farafa
leopard skins
and wolf hides
pebbles and serpentine
wild mint-plants and inbi-fruits
tebu- and uben-plants,
–with all the fair produce of Wadi Natrun.2

His beasts burdened with this luxurious inventory, Khunanup approaches the house of Nemtinakht, a noble tenant of the High Steward of Ninsu, Rensi. Nemtinakht eyes Khunanup and covets all his goods. Nemtinakht formulates an artifice to entrap Khunanup so that he can justify the seizure of this peasant’s property.

Eloquent Peasant in Hieratic Text

Nemtinakht takes some cloth and lays it across the narrow road and beyond its boundaries so that one end of it drapes into a high-banked river beside the road, and the other end in Nemtinakht’s field planted with barley ready to be harvested. This is a symbol of how injustice—which is a private appropriation of another’s right—blocks the public right-of-way, justice, which is the “good way” of the simple as Khunanup calls it. Like a public thoroughfare, justice is a res publica, and its self-appropriation by the selfish and overreaching is a barricade to its proper function.

Nemtinakht’s acts present Khunanup with three choices, none of them good: stay on the road and damage Nemtinakht’s veil, leave the road on the left down a steep bank into the river and risk the loss of his goods, or leave the road on the right onto the barley field and trespass on Nemtinakht’s land.

Confronted with this dilemma, Khunanup appeals to Nemtinakht’s reason. Unfortunately, during his plea one of Khunanup’s donkeys takes a wisp of barley to eat from Nemtinakht’s land. Ever the opportunist, Nemtinakht seizes the donkey and the goods on its back as a remedy for the donkey’s destruction of the wisp of barley. Khunanup offers to redeem such a seizure with the price of a wisp of barley, and offer any just man would accept. Nemtinakht, however, refuses the offer of redemption, beats Khunanup with a stick of green tamarisk wood, and takes all of Khunanup’s donkeys and goods back to his estate.

Khunanup pleads with Nemtinakht for ten days (an Egyptian week), but any appeal to reason and justice by Khunanup is sharply rebuffed. Unable to obtain satisfaction by a voluntary settlement, Khunanup takes the dispute to Rensi, the High Steward of Ninsu, and representative of King Nebkaure of the Herakleopolitan Dynasty (ca. 2080-1987 B.C.).3 Apparently, Rensi rides circuit through his area of jurisdiction—but not by a horse or wagon as judges in the Old West of the Americas, but by boat—as Khunanup makes his initial plea as Rensi heads towards his courthouse barge. Khunanup urges his claim for his stolen goods and the assault on his person.

Impressed by the eloquence of Khunanup in the advocacy of his cause against his tenant, the High Steward Rensi feigns disinterest, makes arrangement surreptitiously to feed Khunanup and his wife, and instructs the court scribes to transcribe all of Khunanup’s arguments for the sake of posterity on rolls of papyrus. Khunanup makes nine separate arguments for justice. These appeals do not emphasize the facts of Khunanup’s case, as he has clearly suffered a wrong and Rensi had been earlier apprised of them. Rather, the arguments are entreaties to the judge to act justly in light of the facts which have already been established. The bulk of the story is therefore composed of entreaties to the judge to exercise the judicial office to assure that justice (ma’at) is the result. These entreaties describe the nature of justice in the Egyptian mind, and the benefits attendant to the expeditious and true exercise of justice.

Ma’at: The Egyptian Concept of Justice

The Egyptian notion of justice (ma’at) was rich, broad, and multi-dimensional. It makes John Rawls’s conception of “justice as fairness” seem one-dimensional, banal, even trite.4 For the Egyptian, the conception of “justice as ma’at” encompassed in an integral way both specific and universal, personal and social, moral and legal, and human and divine connotations of justice. Justice was something that touched and concerned both the ruler and the ruled, the city and the cosmos, the quick and the dead, the present, the past, and the future. It embraced notions of harmony, social solidarity, reciprocity, and retribution. For the Egyptian, justice was what was fitting, orderly, right, and true. Even more, justice was man’s participation in the life of the divine order which underlay the cosmos. As the Stela of King Neferhotep put it, to act justly is to be “in the heart of God,” for being in the heart of God is Ma’at.5 Justice was personified as the goddess Ma’at. It is this rich conception of justice that the peasant invokes when he urges the judge to do justice. And it is this rich conception of justice that allows him to speak so eloquently and in many ways more wisely than our current intellectuals whose vision is often weakened by a lack of peripheral vision that comes from narrow, positivistic theories of law, a myopia that comes from a refusal to grapple with the divine, and an astigmatism that comes from a materialistic, secular philosophy of right. In many ways, the Egyptian peasant was wiser than the Harvard egghead.

Justice is Essential for an Orderly State

In the most frequent theme of the nine pleas, Khunanup compares the cause of justice to a hunting or fishing trip. The walls of Egyptians temples and tombs depict the hunt as a symbol of overcoming chaos,6 and it is in this sense that Khunanup invokes the comparison of justice with a hunt. Like a hunting or fishing trip, the way of justice is a journey guided by sense and intelligence with a defined purpose—truth. The efforts of a good hunter and fisherman are repaid with good food. In the administration of the State, justice—that is truth—is the sustenance of both its judges and its citizens. For the Egyptian, man did not live by bread alone, but by truth and its equivalent, justice. Indeed, Ma’at—the personified goddess of Justice—was considered to be the sustenance of Ra, the Sun God, and all the other gods.7

Khunanup argues that justice is essential for an orderly state and for the flourishing of its people. Like a ship, the State should navigate on the Sea of Truth guided by the Judge at the helm. In traveling on this sea

You will sail on it with a true fair wind;
the bunt will not strip off your sails, nor your boat delay;
nor will misfortune come upon your mast, nor your yards break;
you will not go headlong, and be grounded;
nor will the flood carry you off;
nor will you taste the river’s evil, nor stare in the face of fear.
''But to you the fish will come caught;
you will catch fatted fowl.8

Like any ship, a helmsman is required to guide the journey; the ship of state cannot drift at the whim of the chaotic swirls of river current or it may founder. In the ship of state, the helmsman is the judge, and he must apply pressure at the helm to overcome the chaos of the currents:

For the helmstaff is in your hand, like a pole to open a way
when mischance befalls at sea.
But if the boat goes down it is robbed;
its load perishes on the ground on every shore.9

* * *

Drift not, but steer!
Rescue with the tiller rope!10

Any successful sailing, however, requires not only a helmsman with a steady hand, but requires the helmsman to steer toward the Truth as it were the lodestar:

Steer according to the sail!
Remove the torrent to do Truth!
Beware turning back while at the tiller!11

Failure to guide well assures the foundering of the ship, the failure of the hunt, and the consequent famine of the people. Like the gods who live on Ma’at, the people live on justice:

A vile deed cannot reach harbour,
nor the cargo-bearer landfall.12

* * *

If Falsehood sets out, it strays;
it cannot cross in a ferry, and has
not altered its course.
. . . .
And he who sails with it cannot touch land,
his boat cannot moor in its harbour.13

* * *

O for a moment that destroys,
downfall in your bird-nets,
loss in your fowl,
waste in your marshbirds!14

Without a proper ferry to usher the citizen to the port of justice, the citizen is left to his own devices, which are dismally ineffective because without the organs of justice it is the strong—and not necessarily the just—who overcome the weak.

Has this ferry not gone down? So who can be taken across,
when crossing is made hateful?
Crossing the river on foot—
is that a good crossing? No!15

What then does one call a judge who refuses to steer true, and who suffers his boat to take on the water of untruth and injustice?

Bilge-baler, look now you are noticed!
Helmsman, do not mis-steer your ship!16

The Judge Has a Great Charge

As a frequent part of the peasant’s pleas, encomia are heaped upon the office of the judge. These encomia are not an effort at cheap flattery, because there are other times where the Khunanup virulently and contemptuously chastises the judge for appearing to fail the charge of his office. Khunanup does not confuse the office and the person. Khunanup distinguishes between the authority or power of the judge, and the misuse of that authority or power. As the judge delays judgment, the titles of honor become more ambivalent, parodistic, then clearly sarcastic, even biting and ironic.

Great of the great,
Leader of all that is not and all that is!17
Destroy of Falsehood! Creator of Truth!
Who comes at the voice of the caller!18
[P]raised one whom the praised praise!19
Helm of heaven!
Beam of earth!
Plumbline bearing the weight!
Helm, drift not!
Beam, tilt not!
Plumbline, go not wrong!20

All these suggest that justice—rudder-like—has a directional, teleological component. Yet it also has a structural, foundational, and stable characteristic—it is the support of the roof under which man should find shelter. In a related way, justice is a rule, a canon; it ought to be normative, and dependable and true, like a plumb line.

The judge is compared to the Sun and the great Nile, the seasonal, dependable source of all food and life and good things to the Egyptian.

You are a Sun god, lord of heaven, with your entourage.
Everyone’s portion is with you, like a flood.
Your are a Nileflood who revives the water-meadows, and
restores the ravaged mounds.
Punisher of the robber, protector of the poor—
become not a torrent against the appealer!21

An Unjust Judge Participates in the Wrongdoer’s Acts

A judge who judges unjustly not only commits an infraction against the virtue of justice, but he becomes a participant, a co-conspirator in the crime of the wrongdoer. A negligent—or, worse, biased, interested, or corrupt—judge stands thus twice execrable. “Pass over a misdeed, and it will become two,” argues the peasant in his fourth plea.22

And the measurer of heaps now defrauds for himself;
the measurer for others now despoils his surroundings;
the lawful leader now commands theft—
who then will beat off wretchedness
when the dispeller of infirmity is going wrong?23

The poor, the one who suffers injustice, is left with little recourse if the judge does not mete out justice with straight measure. That destroys the foundations of justice. Foundations once destroyed, what can the just man do?

For the watcher has turned out blind,
the hearer deaf,
the leader a misleader!24
Look, you are like them!
. . . .
You were appointed to hear case,
to judge contenders, to punish the thief.
Look, your way is to weight for the robber.
You are trusted—and are become a misleader.25
Seizer of the robbed, taker!26

Indeed, the corrupt judge is worse than a thief. As a result of his deprivation, his hunger, a thief’s act may be justified. A well-paid judge, however, one who

Sated with . . . bread,
drunk with . . . beer [and]
rich with all [things]27

has no similar excuse. His fall from grace is greater: corruptio optimi pessima.

The bad act without want—should it not be blamed? It
is self-seeking.28
You are educated; you are skilled;
you are perfected—but not for robbing!29

The bad judge is also a model, an archetype for the evildoer, who becomes emboldened by the inability of the wronged to obtain justice:

Only the eater tastes;
so the accused replies.
Only the sleeper sees the dream;
so the punishable judge
is an archetype for the evildoer.30

In another plea, the same them is repeated:

Look, you are a town without a mayor,
like a generation without a great man,
like a boat with no controller,
a gang without a leader.
''Look, you are a stealing officer,
a bribed mayor,
a district-overseer who should beat of the plunderer
who has become an archetype for the evildoer.31

The participation in wrongdoing is not limited to false judgment, but also to delay. The petitions of the peasant become more urgent, more accusatory, and more emboldened by the delay in justice, and Rensi’s apparent lack of concern.

The Judge Must Protect the Weak

It is the weak, those with no voice and no strength of arm, that require a judge. For the weak, self-help is out of the question. A judge is “protector of the poor,”32 in a broad sense as it includes those poor in both material goods as well as those poor in spirit. A judge is:

A father to the orphan
and a husband to the widow,
a brother to the divorced,
an apron to the motherless.33

These titles or epithets allude to justice sub specie aeternitatis—they point to the relationship between justice and the punishment or reward in the life beyond—as these titles are standard in known funeral Autobiographies.34 In a manner of speaking, all those who have suffered injustice at the hand of another are orphans and widows in need:

Drive off my need—look, I am weight down!
Examine me—look, I am at a loss.35
You were appointed as a dyke for the pauper—
beware lest he drown!36

Indeed, in the realm of justice might does not belong to the rich and powerful, nor even to the judge; rather, “might belongs to the deprived.”37 Like a dam holding back the weight of the waters, the judge must be able to withstand the blandishments and threats of the powerful. So a judge who misapplies justice commits an offense against divine justice, is a conspirator with the wrongdoer, and selfishly steals the power that is to be used to benefit the wronged.

Applying the symbol of this Ship of State, the wronged are boatless

You who take care of all at sea—
look, I am under way, but boatless!
Bringer to land of all who drown—rescue the wrecked,
for I am anguished at your very side!38

The judge is to fight off the wrongdoer and protect the weak, as if he were fending off the crocodile.

Give shelter so that you shore will be sound, for look,
your harbour is swarming with crocodiles!39
Shelter, let not the crocodile seize!40

But a bad judge does not protect the weak from the maws of the unprincipled and ravenous man. Indeed the judge himself becomes nothing but a leader of a pack of crocodiles:

A predatory crocodile,
a shelter which has abandoned the harbour of the whole land!41

Justice is Truth and Truth Justice

In the mind of the Egyptian, justice and truth were seen as synonymous. There is ample evidence in the Eloquent Peasant of this view of justice.

The judge is the described as:

Destroyer of Falsehood! Creator of Truth!42

The judge is entreated to:

Do Truth, praised one whom the praised praise!43

Truth is seen as a participation in the order of creation, an order that is good, as creation is seen as something good.

Maintaining the earth’s rightness is doing Truth.44
The mystery of Truth will be found, and Falsehood cast
down on the ground!45
Making defects lessens Truth:
So measure well!46

Justice and Participation in Eternity

For the Egyptian judge, a just judgment was a present participation in the eternal justice of the heavens. On earth there were seasons, the expected seasonal floods of the Nile, and the unexpected catastrophe. In the heavens, the contingencies of human life did not exist, and justice, which sought to rectify the wrongs that arise out of the contingent and evil will of an adversary, participated in that level, dependable order of the cosmos. Things were good if justice reigned on earth. Not so where justice was administered by an evil judge:

Will you then be a man of eternity?
Yet is it no wrong?—the scales tilting,
the weight wandering
the truly upright man turned aside?
Look, Truth flees from under you,
exiled from this place;
the officials are doing evil;
the standard of speech
is now partial,
and the judges snatch when it carries things off—
this means that he who twists speech from its rightness
''makes himself go wrong thereby;
the breath-giver is now at a loss on the ground;
he who breathes calmly makes people pant;
the apportioner is greedy, the dispeller of need is the command of its making,
and the harbour is its own flood;
the punisher of wrong does evil.47

Khunanup concludes:

For you are like the messenger of Khenty.
Look, you surpass the Lady of the Plague.48


The metaphoric reference to Khenty was a biting epithet hurled at the judge. Khenty was the crocodile demon god, devourer of the dead, who would punish evildoers by eating out their hearts. The Lady of the Plague is a reference to the lioness goddess Sekhmet, the goddess of uncontrollable temper, who, spurred by a lust for blood, aimed at the destruction of the human race and was obviated by Re’s device of mixing red ochre with beer in thousands of jars spread across Egypt. Mistaking the beer for blood, Sekhmet drank them until she became drunk and was unable to complete her slaughter. Elsewhere, Khunanup calls the judge, a “dispeller of infirmity,” suggesting that injustice is a plague similar to that spawned by Sekhmet, a virulent disease against which society must inoculate itself with straight judges.

Facing Divine Justice

Facing Divine Justice

It was the view of the Egyptian that by meting out right justice, the judge participated in the eternal, divine order. It follows that a judge who participated in wrongdoing not only contradicted the harmony of the cosmos, but he exposed himself to the divine wrath that follows death. The Egyptian believed in a final judgment. If judgment does not occur in this life, reciprocity—that is punishment or reward commensurate with the injustice or justice wrought—will occur in the next life. The judge would face the goddess Ma’at and the god Thoth in the realm of the dead, and it would not go well for him if he has been unjust. Indeed, the wronged who has been denied justice on this earth will be his accuser in the underworld before to dog-God, Anubis:

Look, I am pleading to you, and you do not hear—
I will go and plead about you to Anubis.49
Take heed of eternity’s approach! Wish to endure,
as is said “Doing Truth is the breath of life.”
. . .
Do the scales wander?
Is the balance partial?
And is Thoth lenient? If so, then you should do evil!
. . . .
If the three are lenient, the you can be lenient.50

The symbol of scales for justice is ancient, as ancient as old Egypt … perhaps even as ancient as the Ancient of Days … for Khunanup uses just such a symbol to explain the purpose of justice.

Speak not falsehood, you are the scales!
Stray not, you are the standard!
Look, you yourself are the very scales:
if they tilt, then you can tilt.51
Only the goodness of the good
man is good beyond him.
But Truth itself is for eternity.
To the necropolis in its doer’s hand it descends;
He is entombed, earth joins with him;
but his name is not effaced on earth.
He is remembered for his goodness.
It is the standard of God’s work.
If it is scales, it tilts not;
if a balance, it is not partial.52

The judge must remember that “the redress is short, the evil long.”53 It does not behoove a judge to trade his heavenly inheritance for a mess of earthly porridge. In a negative form of Pascal’s wager, any temporary benefit gained by injustice is vastly outweighed by the eternal punishment that awaits after death.


The story of the Eloquent Peasant has a happy ending. After the peasant has pled nine times, Rensi the judge read out the nine petitions which had been transcribed. He presented them before King Nebakaure

And they seemed more perfect to his heart
than anything in this entire land.54

Rensi rendered judgment in favor of Khunanup. The judgment returned Khunanup’s goods to him, and, as additional compensation, gave him all the belongings of Nemtinakht, including six slaves, his stored barley and wheat, and his donkeys, swine, and flocks.

Justice done, the story ends; and we are wiser, it is to be hoped, for having digested it.

The Weighing of Souls



1 The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant is preserved in four fragmentary papyri from the Middle Kingdom. It is conveniently translated with an excellent introduction and notes in R. B. Parkinson, The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 54-88.

2 Eloquent Peasant, 58.

3 Id. 77 n. 19.

4 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Revised Edition) (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1999), xi.

5 Eloquent Peasant (Introduction), 13 (citing W. Helck, Historisch-Biographische Texte der 2. Zwischenzeith und neue Texte der 1. Dynastie (Wiesbaden, 1983), 29, ll. 14-15).

6 Id. 77 n. 16.

7 Anna Mancini, Maat Revealed: Philosophy of Justice in Ancient Egypt (Buenosbooks America, 2004), 5-6 (citing Emily Teeter, The Presentation of Maat, Ritual and Legitimacy in Ancient Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 14-15).

8 Eloquent Peasant, 61.

9 Id. 70.

10 Id. 66.

11 Id. 66.

12 Id. 73.

13 Id. 74.

14 Id. 64.

15 Id. 68.

16 Id. 69.

17 Id. 70.

18 Id. 61.

19 Id. 61.

20 Id. 63.

21 Id. 65.

22 Id. 68.

23 Id. 63-64.

24 Id. 64.

25 Id. 69.

26 Id. 72.

27 Id. 64-65.

28 Id. 64.

29 Id. 70.

30 Id. 68.

31 Id. 67.

32 Id. 65.

33 Id. 61.

34 Id. 77 n. 17.

35 Id. 62.

36 Id. 69.

37 Id. 64.

38 Id. 65.

39 Id. 65.

40 Id. 69.

41 Id. 67.

42 Id. 61.

43 Id. 61.

44 Id. 66.

45 Id. 67.

46 Id. 70.

47 Id. 63.

48 Id. 64.

49 Id. 71.

50 Id. 65-66.

51 Id. 66.

52 Id. 73.

53 Id. 64.

54 Id. 75.

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