Hymn to the Nile flood is a literary composition in Middle Egyptian, of uncertain date, popular during the New Kingdom. Numerous surviving copies have been identified as written in the New Kingdom , likely as a classical text taught in scribal schools of the time.
After reading, we realize just how much influence religion had on the Egyptians, and how much the Nile influenced their religion. Herodotus wrote: “The Egyptians live in a peculiar climate, on the banks of a river which is unlike every other river, and they have adopted customs and manners different in nearly every respect from those of other men.”[ Manchip White, 1970]. He also wrote to call Egypt itself the “Gift of the Nile,”[Maxwell, 2006 / TESSA, 2008] providing, years later, a remarkably accurate summary of the early Egyptian Civilization.
To the people of Egypt, both ancient and modern, the Nile River encompassed the idea of life itself. For thousands of years, the River has made life possible for people and animals. It has shaped the culture, religion and arts that we are still searching to understand today.
Even the ancient Egyptian calendar (consisting of twelve months each of 30 days) was divided into three seasons and based upon the cycles of the Nile. The three seasons were: akhet, Inundation, peret, the growing season, and shemu, the drought or harvest season.
From the earliest recorded history, the Nile River yearly flooded the surrounding valley region. The fertility of land in the Nile valley, and therefore its suitability for agriculture, depended upon regular flooding without which, there would have been insufficient water to sustain crops. The ancient Egyptians also recognized that if the water rose too high, villages would be destroyed; and conversely if the water remained too low, the land would turn to dust and bring famine. Temple records of the time indicate that, one flood in five was either too low or too high. The Nile was critical in the formation of the Egyptian way of life.
The Egyptian people understood little of the physical sciences and as such natural events were often seen as miracles to them. This limited understanding caused them to seek supernatural explanations for the natural events that were vital to their survival. Among those was the Nile and its cycle of flooding.
In an attempt to understand the Nile, and to assure that it would continue to meet the agricultural needs, the Egyptians considered it as a form of god or at least as a servant of a god. Early Egyptians gave the Nile human characteristics such as the desire to accept offerings, the “establisher of justice” the ability to conqueror, and to “give” to the people.
Although considered a God, there are no surviving temples dedicated to the Nile flood, though there might have been at one time. It is clear however that the Nile flood was the central event of the agricultural year, a time during which silt was deposited over the fields, flooded during inundation, throughout the Nile River valley. Additionally it can be found that other written sources make reference to festivals, during which great quantities of produce were offered to the Nile flood. Speculation could suggest that, such a festival could have included occasions for the singing of this hymn. However, none of the surviving copies, according to researchers, includes directions or dates to indicate public recitation. Furthermore the extract points more towards a literary appreciation of reading than recital of the composition.
The attraction of the river was evident. Unlike the other forces of nature such as, the sun, the moon, the relationship with the Nile was close and personal. Its origin and behavior still remained a mystery, but without it, life in Egypt would not be possible. Through trade contact with Mesopotamia it is possible that the Egyptian people knew of the frequently destructive flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and of the hardship that this brings the people. It is not surprising to learn then, that ancient Egyptians looked upon their river with reverence and awe given its comparative behavior.