Egyptian Proverbs and Popular Sayings


29 pages
Contains Index
ISBN 0-919966-61-6
DDC 398'





Edited by Saad Elkhadem
Translated by Saad Elkhadem
Reviewed by Alan D. Booth

Alan D. Booth is an associate professor in the Classics Department at
Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario.


In every culture, the lessons of experience are transmitted through adage. Egypt has a long tradition of such instruction, which often applies to particular professions. Thus, under the Pharoahs, boys training to become scribes, a rough equivalent of civil servants, would copy out such suitable axioms as: “Be a scribe who is freed from all labour and protected from all work.” Recently Egyptian sayings have been assembled by Ahmad Taymur. From this collection, which contains 3,188 entries, D. Elkhadem has selected and translated 729 “which seemed clear enough to be understood and appreciated by Western readers.” Many have indeed a familiar ring. “A drowning man clings to a straw” and “When the cat’s away, the mice will play” exist in this very form in English. “A bird in the hand is worth ten on the tree” and “A cat has seven lives,” despite the increase in avian value and diminishment of feline longevity, convey the same sense as their English counterparts. “For every ascent, there is a descent” and “Men’s only flaw is their scarcity” express, in slightly more formal terms, the commonplaces that “What goes up must come down” and “Good men are hard to find.”

Such dicta, begotten of common human experience, are current and comprehensible throughout the world. But in our part of the globe, those in a hurry do not often hear “Don’t ride a camel,” or is it commonly observed that “there is nothing more disgusting than an effeminate peasant.” The impact of the statement “He who boards a ship is liable to drown” has been blunted by technological progress. Again, changes in social outlook call some proverbial wisdom into question. “Spank your son if he goes astray, this won’t kill him before his day” offers advice, no longer universally approved, about sparing rods and spoiling children. The ancient Romans, who had a proverb “Off the bridge with the senior citizens,” might have agreed that “people over sixty always complain without any reason or without any pain”; but current Canadian sensibility would scarcely enunciate this viewpoint. Woman rarely fares well in inherited thinking, and, in our society, effort is expended to alter traditional biases. So perhaps not all Canadians will smile when informed that “women can never train an ox to pull a plow”; someone may even rise to prove the contrary. Again, “A dancer dies, but her hips will jiggle forever” could inspire table-dancers with dreams of immortality. But will all my compatriots find in the sentiment a positive value?

This volume, which closes with a useful index of themes and motifs, provokes cultural comparisons and reflexions in a charming way. So we must thank D. Elkhadem for having provided the English-speaking public with this enjoyable and profitable access to the axiomatic wisdom of Egypt.


“Egyptian Proverbs and Popular Sayings,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 25, 2024,