Egypt: The Tale of King Rhampsinitus

This story is part of the Ancient Egypt unit. Story source: Egyptian Myth and Legend by Donald Mackenzie (1907).

The Tale of King Rhampsinitus

A folk tale regarding the king who reigned in Egypt before Khufu was related by a priest to Herodotus, the Greek historian.

The monarch was called Rhampsinitus. He built the western portion of the temple of Ptah. He also erected two statues — one to Summer, which faced the north and was worshipped, and the other to Winter, which faced the south but was never honoured.

The king possessed great wealth, and he caused to be constructed beside the palace a strong stone chamber in which he kept his riches. One of the builders, however, contrived to place a stone in such a manner that it could be removed from the outside.

It chanced that, after the king had deposited his treasure in the chamber, this builder was stricken with illness and knew his end was nigh. He had two sons, and he told them his secret regarding the stone, and gave them the measurements, so that they might locate it.

After the man died the sons went forth in the darkness of night, and when they found the stone they removed it. Then they entered the chamber, and carried away much treasure, and ere they departed they closed up the wall again.

The king marvelled greatly when he discovered that his riches had been plundered, for the seals of the door were unbroken, and he knew not whom to suspect. Again and again the robbers returned, and the treasure diminished greatly. At length the king caused traps to be laid in the chamber, for his guards, who kept watch at the entrances, were unable to prevent the mysterious robberies.

Soon after the brothers returned. They removed the stone, and one of them entered stealthily. He went towards the treasure, as was his custom, but was suddenly caught in a trap. In a moment he realized that escape was impossible, and he reflected that he would be put to death on the morrow, while his brother would be seized and similarly punished. So he said to himself: "I alone will die."

When he had thus resolved to save his brother, he called to him softly in the darkness, bidding him to enter cautiously. He made known his great misfortune, and said: "I cannot escape, nor dare you tarry long lest you be discovered, When they find me here I will be recognized, and they will seize you and put you to death. Cut off my head at once so that they may not know who I am, and thus save your own life."

With a sad heart, the brother did as he was desired and carried away the head. Ere he escaped in the darkness, he replaced the stone, and no man saw him.

When morning came the king was more astounded than ever to find a headless body entrapped in the treasure chamber, for the door had not been opened, and yet two men had entered and one had escaped. He commanded that the corpse should be hung on the palace wall and stationed guards at the place, bidding them to keep strict watch so that they might discover if anyone came to sorrow for the dead man. But no one came nigh.

Meanwhile the mother grieved in secret. Her heart was filled with anger because the body was exposed in such a manner, and she threatened to inform the king regarding all that had happened if her other son would not contrive to carry away the corpse. The young man attempted to dissuade her, but she only repeated her threat, and that firmly. He therefore made preparations to obtain possession of the corpse.

He hired several asses, and on their backs he put many skins of wine. In the evening he drove them towards the palace. When he drew near to the guards who kept watch over his brother's body, he removed the stoppers of some of the skins. The wine ran forth upon the highway, and he began to lament aloud and beat his head as if he were in sore distress. The soldiers ran towards the asses and seized them, and caught the wine in vessels, claiming it for themselves. At first the brother pretended to be angry and abused the men, but when they had pacified him, as they thought, he spoke to them pleasantly and began to make secure the stoppers of all the skins.

In a short time he was chatting with the guards, and pretended to be much amused when they bantered him over the accident. Then he invited them to drink, and they filled their flasks readily. So they began, and the young man poured out wine until they were all made very drunk.

When they fell asleep, the cunning fellow took down his brother's body, and laid it upon the back of one of the asses. Ere he went away he shaved the right cheeks of the soldiers. His mother welcomed him on his return in the darkness and was well pleased.

The king was very angry when he discovered how the robber had tricked the guards, but he was still determined to have him taken. He sent forth his daughter in disguise, and she waited for the criminal.

She spoke to several men, and at length she found him because he came to know that he was sought and desired to deal cunningly with her. So he addressed her, and she offered to be his bride if he would tell her the most artful thing and also the most wicked thing he had ever done.

He answered readily: "The most wicked thing I ever did was to cut off my brother's head when he was caught in a trap in the royal treasure chamber, and the most artful was to deceive the king's guards and carry away the body."

The princess tried to seize him, but he thrust forth his brother's arm, which he carried under his robe, and when she clutched it he made speedy escape.

Great was then the astonishment of the king at the cunning and daring of the robber. He caused a proclamation to be made, offering him a free pardon and a generous reward if he would appear at the palace before him.

The man went readily, and His Majesty was so delighted with his speeches and great ingenuity that he gave him his daughter in marriage. There is no more artful people than the Egyptians, but this man had not his equal in the land.

(1100 words)

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