“Being Quiet is Useful”

Socio-cultural Perspectives on Silence in Ancient Egyptian Wisdom Literature

(Dr Ilaria Cariddi, Università degli Studi di Firenze)

In the long history of the so-called “wisdom” genre of ancient Egyptian literature, one of the most recurring topoi is the advice of keeping silence—(s)gr—a virtue deemed essential for social coexistence, presented as a solution of daily-life issues, and as a means to reach personal success.

Far from advocating submissiveness, or a dismissal of discourse, for the Egyptians “being silent” meant mastering every aspect of the difficult art of conversation, as “speech is similar to fire”: refraining from speaking can be a form of prudence, respect, self-control, and of conflict management. Judicious and morally superior, the “silent man” is also capable of preventing those conducts that hinder social interactions—and, later on, also considered offensive to the gods: calumny, hypocrisy, excessive criticism, chattery, verbal violence.

Various textual sources concur in presenting silence as a quality admired by the community, crucial in courtly behaviour, and rewarded by the sovereign. From the New Kingdom onwards, it also subsumes the principle of a reverential quiet in the human-divine relationship.

The presentation will offer a selection of quotes from the classics of the genre, in order to discuss the development of a concept that appears peculiar in the ancient Mediterranean landscape of ethics.