The Rooster’s Egg: A Fable of Ancient Thebes

It is hard not to read this story as a lesson about the arbitrary nature of power and attendant reversals of fortune. Some historical background: Akhenaten, originally Amenhotep IV (1353-1335 B.C.), was the "heretic" pharaoh who officially rejected the traditional Egyptian pantheon, and instituted a new, monotheistic religion, centering on the worship of the sun disk, Aten. However, as modern Egyptians reading this would know, the priests of Amun in fact got the last laugh: after Akhenaten's death, the old gods were restored and Akhenaten's heresy was expunged from the record.

Many long years after the demise of Pharaoh Amenemhat III, who they say was the first to introduce the chicken and the pomegranate from Syria to the land of Egypt, the hen thought for a long time about the status of the race of chickens. Then she spoke to her rooster, as the two of them set about gathering wheat from the ground:

"My darling husband, don't you feel that we are treated rather unfairly in this country? After all, you are one of the most beautiful and wonderful creatures on the face of the earth. You have a magnificent appearance, whenever you draw near, and your plumage is rich with all the colors in a witch's rainbow. As for your head, that blood-red comb sticking up makes you look like a god. There is hardly anything like you in the world of birds or animals. And what's more, you are the first to call out and wake people up when the god Ra appears with his dazzling light over the world. As for me, I lay an egg every day, then I sit on it for three whole weeks straight. I sit patiently the entire time, until the chicks come out from under me, after I have lavished my care on them and kept them warm. Despite all that, my darling, we don't share the divine status that other birds and animals around us have. What would you think, my beloved husband, if we were to go to the high priest in the Temple of the great god Amun, in the sacred city of Thebes of the seven gates, so that we can present our complaint to him, and ask him to bestow on us some holiness and some of the divine respect that is only proper for creatures that are unique, productive, and distinguished as we are? Then we will be respected by one and all, and they will erect beautiful statues of us everywhere. They will present us with gifts and offerings, and be submissive and obedient to us, the way they are with all the other gods."

The rooster was a youth, in the prime of his life, and quite vain about his beauty and charm, which didn't entirely translate into experience and practice. All the hens of the yard submitted to him unconditionally, as evidenced by the great quantity of chicks that came into the world carrying the color of his plumage, and by the appearance of the coxcomb itself that belonged to him. For those reasons, and perhaps because roosters are naturally inclined toward power and dominance, the rooster didn't think for very long. Rather, he replied to the hen enthusiastically and boldly, saying:

"By God, you have spoken the truth, my good lady! What you've said is the very font of wisdom and sense. And to be honest, I hadn't thought about it before, but it's true: there is no one in the race of birds who is more beautiful than I am, I swear by God, except the peacock, but he doesn't live here in Egypt, the land of the fertile black soil, as I do. Also, his voice is unpleasant and shrill. He lacks all the refinement and poetic ability that my voice has, and sacred offerings and worship are meaningless to him. As for the animals, suffice to say that they can only walk on all fours, and among them there are hardly any to be found who are endowed with the elegance and graceful appearance that I have. And as for you, my favored hen, I challenge any creature capable of speech to be more affectionate and giving than you, or to be more sensitive in her responsibilities. By God, you are entirely right that we should go to the oracle of the sublime Amun and present to him our request, since he is the source of wisdom, and the wellspring of truth and justice!"

The next morning, after the rooster had crowed to wake everyone up to the appearance of the god Ra, and the hen had seen to her proper duties by laying her daily egg, the pair left home together, and set off with all deliberateness and dignified bearing through the roads and alleys of the sacred city of Thebes. The hen had been quite right to propose that they set out immediately after sunrise, since the city was still quiet, and the streets empty of people, including the pilgrims who come from everywhere in the land to pay a visit to the Great Temple of Amun. As soon as they reached the temple, they asked permission from the watchman for an audience before the high priest, for the simple reason that they wanted him to answer their request. They went in to see him, and were frightened by the splendor and majesty of the place. For in truth, this was the first time that the rooster and hen had gone inside the temple. The priest they were looking for was standing motionless, wearing an expression full of seriousness and scorn between two rows of shaven-headed priests, who wore splendid white linen cloth. All of them were silent—the only sound there was the sound of their breathing and the beating of hearts in their chests. And despite their awe-inspiring appearance, still they seemed much smaller in the eyes of the hen and rooster than the walls of the lofty temple colored with marvelous images and paintings. The hen sighed as she gazed upon the overwhelming brilliance of the art, created with the utmost precision and refinement. She looked completely entranced as her beak hung open, without making a sound. In fact, she eventually came to a halt, without moving. She looked like one of the temple's statues, scattered here and there among its many columns and niches.

During all this, the hen was hoping to God that the high priest would grant their request quickly and bestow on her and her rooster their rightful due of divine honors, so that the artists could get to work painting portraits of them in beautiful colors and in important poses. In one painting, she would be shown sitting on the eggs; and in another she would be walking in a dignified manner, surrounded by her little chicks; in another, she would be pecking at seeds on the ground. As for the rooster, the hen imagined that his portrait would show him either stretching his neck to crow or spreading his magnificent wings. That way, they would appear on the walls of the temple everywhere, like the cat, the crocodile, the lion, the calf, the cow, the dog, the falcon, the stork, the scarab, and the other animals and sacred birds. The rooster and the hen kept silent for some time out of fear and awe. But soon enough the rooster realized he needed to speak up, so he did his best to make an attempt at getting his breath back, in order to say after some effort:

"Great priest in this pure and sacred precinct! You intermediary of the mighty Amun, you who are close to all the gods! O you who know the sacred mysteries! O seer shaven in head and body, whom no impurity ever touches! O servant of Ra the Eternal, you who have been blessed by the divine pantheon! Hem netjer waab khery heb—Thou Servant of the God, Pure One, Lector Priest! Singer of prophecies, revered by all people in Thebes, and in all the land of black-earthed Egypt under the gods' protection! You who enter the holy sanctuary and come to know all its secrets: here I am, the noble rooster recognized by all the gods of Thebes. I come to you with all humility, along with the hen I favor above all other hens, the great Umm al-Khair-the gift who will never be sundered from me except by the will of Osiris the Savior, who dwells in his heavenly kingdom—we come to present to you a wrong done to us, and to ask of you our request and strong desire. Look upon us with sympathy and affection, and bestow on us your love and approval, by the law of Amun, god of gods, and Min, granter of life, and Isis, goddess of heaven and earth, and Ra the Eternal in the infinite firmament with his dazzling bright light which no darkness or gloom can overcome!

"I say to you, my lord high priest, that we are entitled to divine honors and worship, and we request them from you, hoping for your fairness, because I obey without hesitation the commands of the god Ra, since I greet the morning as soon as I notice his magnificent glowing rays on high, and I repeat that call for one and all when I find that he has reached the zenith of the sky, proclaiming the arrival of midday. Likewise, when he passes away toward the west, so that night may descend, then I bid him farewell, in the hope of meeting him again the next morning, and I sing my song with all the devotion I am capable of: Err-err-err-err-err!

"Of course, the hen Umm al-Khair, my wife, does not hesitate to continue the cycle of life, as she is continually laying eggs, thanks to the tireless efforts for which she is well-known; and she sits on the egg until the chick comes out. And I won't mention, my lord, that we are among the gentlest and finest creatures in this world, and everyone—here in Thebes and everywhere in the country—loves us very much. No one gets angry with us, or is upset with us or complains about us at all. I swear to you, my lord, that we have committed no sin that would anger the gods, and which would merit your calling a curse down on us. Therefore, we beseech you, my lord, to bless us and bestow upon us the sanctity and deference that is our due, as is the case with the cat Bes, and the crocodile Sobek, and the cow Hathor, and the wolf Wepwawet, and the stork Bennu, and the Armant bull Buchis, and the sickle-beaked Ibis, and the ram Khnum, and the falcon Horus, and all your divine protectors who are worshipped and whom you have affectionately taken into your care. We are no less worthy than any of them, in any respect. In fact, perhaps we are the most useful, the gentlest in our nature, and the most refined in our behavior, and our clear desire is to live in peace and with everyone."

Then, after he had finished his speech, the rooster stood still, with his head raised in complete confidence and dignity. The hen could not restrain herself from feeling joy and pride in her beloved, and she felt as though she had just laid an egg in the henhouse that very moment, and she was about to squawk proudly, for she had discovered that her rooster was eloquent, well-spoken, persuasive, and charmingly forthright. He had a voice that was clear and confident, and its beauty was obvious as it echoed through the great temple's interior. But she kept quiet, since she found that dignity and stillness were more appropriate for her as she stood in the presence of the solemn priesthood, in the wide hall of this great temple.

The high priest of Thebes kept his gaze fixed on them for a long time, as he pondered without saying a word. A solemn silence reigned in the hall. The two rows of disciplined priests stood in their assigned positions without any movement or whisper, as though they were statues made of granite. Perhaps the high priest was silent because he had come to think that the subject of divine honors was a significant religious question, which would be difficult for him to explain to the rooster and hen and for them to understand. It was the kind of topic that is complicated except for those chosen individuals able to cross the mental divide between physical forms and the world of imagination and abstraction. For the power and strength of the gods cannot be understood by the common people, except through material forms and representation. The great divine purpose could only be fulfilled through the use of surrounding birds and animals and insects, so that common people could eventually grasp the concept of religion and the esoteric nature of the gods.

That's why he couldn't find anything to say to the rooster and hen, and since he was completely convinced of their inability to understand this particular subject, he decided to rebuke them, and he said to them in a voice that was at once quiet, displeased, scornful, superior, and haughty:

"The truth is that you should be ashamed of what you are considering, now that I've heard it—for the vanity, the folly, the egotism, the stupidity, the pointlessness, and the sheer feeblemindedness of it! And hardly any strategy or planning—your only plan was an inspiration to come to this great temple, and make that foolish speech that the rooster gave! You don't seem to understand that the gods must be powerful, almighty, frightening, mad, fierce, murderous, dominating, controlling, terrifying, and destructive—a lightning bolt, an earthquake, a fire, or an avenger if need be! The cat-god Bes has sharp teeth and claws that can tear his enemies to pieces when necessary, and the crocodile Sobek gulps down any animal whenever it wants, even if that animal is out of the river, lying down on the bank, strolling along and relaxing a little—even if it's the wolf Wepwawet. And you, the race of chickens, you should know more than any of the other animals about the world and its terrible wickedness. Likewise, you know that the strength of Buchis, the Armant bull, becomes like the force of a whirling tempest whenever rage strikes him, and then no one can restrain or stop him. Perhaps you have at some point observed that with your own eyes. The cow Hathor is no less fierce or powerful than he is. When she tramples the grass underfoot, she completely destroys it, no matter how tall it is. Perhaps you have caught sight of Horus the falcon soaring high in the sky: no other bird can come near him at that great height. That is why he is entitled to be the king of the entire heavens. And he can observe all his enemies from his lofty height with his fearful and mighty eye, so that he may swoop down upon them and slay them at any moment he wants. But then again, do you think that Old Man Sickle-Beak-the ibis-is merely a white bird with long legs and a delicate appearance, who gently and calmly pecks at the mud, and whom the farmers love because he helps clear their land of worms? No, no! By the great Amun, the ibis is a terrifying bird—even if he doesn't seem so—and no one can get near him and pick a quarrel with him, no matter how strong or powerful he is. Even if one of the strongest lions were to do so, the ibis' meat is very bitter, and he is difficult to eat. Fainting and retching are the lot of all who take the trouble of attacking and retreating, maneuvering and exerting themselves, sweating as they hunt him, because when they start to tear into a piece of his meat, they discover that all their effort has come to nothing, and that their digging into his flesh has been worthless.

"Then, too, you have gone beyond the boundaries of decency and decorum, and your insolence is simply too much. Your vanity has brought you here to waste our time without even bringing the egg the temple requires, and without your thinking to offer any gift or donation to the sacred gods. In fact, your vanity has driven you to petition for divine status, and you haven't even asked yourselves why I should bestow honors on you like the sacred animals and birds! You have no powers, and you possess no strength. In truth, you are subject to the orders of everyone else, and any animal whatsoever, even one limited in its power can kill you with complete ease and with no problem. The jackal can do that; so can the fox; and the creeping snake is capable of taking you down. Even the weasel, which is considered a species of mouse, can throttle you and suck your blood without you being able to prevent him in any way. To keep that from happening, people keep chickens well-locked up behind fences, and guard them from every direction. And as a result, since long ago your race has been cut off from the rest of the world, and you have no memory of it. You shower yourselves with excessive praise and run around in circles of error and foolishness. Instead, you think it's a question of ugliness and beauty, or two legs and four, or sweet and repulsive voices! No, by God, your lot in life is the proper one. What you have thought and I have heard now has been conjured up in you by the evil Seth, and by Sekhmet the goddess of war!"

The hen was on the verge of soiling herself right then and there. A great fear and alarm took hold of her when she heard the high priest's words. She thought perhaps she urgently needed a well-known remedy for diarrhea (consisting of six grains of Phoenician beans, and the seed of the mulukhiyya plant, mixed with aghnes, ground up and sweetened with honey, and then eaten with date wine.) The rooster, on the other hand, was furious. If it weren't for a little decorum and timidity, and his realization that he stood in the presence of the gods in this great temple, and his fear of disobedience for which Anubis would punish him by tearing out his heart on the Day of Judgment, he would have attacked the high priest with all his might and pecked at him everywhere on his body—priestly genitalia included—and not stop until the priest had returned to his senses by saying, "I promise I'll never say anything like that again!" But the rooster remained calm, and used his reason as a guide, as he realized that he was in a difficult spot—an unenviable one, even—for there was no advantage to be had from any action he could take: each would backfire on him instantly, so he was content with a nod of his comb, and he began to shake it in agitation as he coughed to clear his throat of the stridency of anger. Then he said, with all the gentleness he could muster, and with all the calmness that a rooster is capable of:

"O my lord, revered priest, devotee of the fragrant tongue, from which all that is good and beautiful is diffused like a scent, and which utters only wisdom! You who are free of error! O adherent of holy and immaculate pronouncements! With all due respect, I want to tell you that the god Sobek is not stronger than his adversary the hippopotamus, and the god Bes runs away from a lion, just as the mouse runs from her. And certainly the cow Hathor is slaughtered everywhere—and so too, is the ram Khnum, even though he butts and attacks with his horns. If there is strength alone, then it is the strength of eternity for the great god Ra, who is above all in his power, for he is radiant, giving, generous, compassionate, eternal, beautiful, unique, bestowing warmth . . . and giving life—and, and . . . "

The high priest smiled a sly smile in spite of himself, as he interrupted the rooster by saying quickly:

"Now, listen! When you spout your opinions, you blaspheme and disparage the other gods here in this sacred temple, and in the presence of all these revered priests! And now you have the nerve to say that you have committed no sin and have done no wrong that deserves to have curses called down upon it!"

Then it was the hen's turn to interrupt the priest. Thinking that he was looking to attack her rooster and that his accusations could be dangerous, she said:

"May the great god Ra forbid, great priest, sir! My rooster says that with all due respect and reverence for all the great gods, the local gods, and the lesser gods, for we revere the Triad, the Seven Gods, and the Ennead—in fact, all ninety-nine gods, without overlooking any of them!"

Then she breathed a little, to hide her agitation, and she smiled, while ruffling her feathers coquettishly, and saying in a flirtatious way:

"Furthermore, we have postponed our offering for the temple until next time, so that we can assemble a great quantity of eggs, and bring them to you, my lord, when you come to us for your repayment for this request of ours, by the will of the gods, above all."

The high priest smiled a little, while winking at the hen, then said:

"In that case, return to me after one week, so that I may consider the matter."

* * *

A week passed. Then several weeks, without the hen or rooster being able to get an audience with the high priest, for he remained extremely busy. During this period, critical events of great importance took place in the land: Pharaoh Amenhotep III, the philanderer, died unexpectedly, and in his place his young son, Amenhotep IV, assumed the throne. Before long Amenhotep IV gave himself the name Akhenaten. In truth, it was this new designation that caused the disaster that fell upon the high priest of Amun and humbled him. It made him preoccupied and distressed; he remembered nothing about the matter of the hen and rooster, as if they hadn't spoken to or met him, and as if he took no account of payment for their request and his consideration of it. The young pharaoh was one of the large number of priests who witnessed the high priest's meeting with the hen and rooster in the temple and had overheard their conversation. From that time on until he occupied the throne after the death of his father, Akhenaten thought about everything that was said. And he became convinced that what the rooster said was right: that every god—no matter who he was—had limited, relative and incomplete power, with the exception of the god Ra, who is able to do anything and has absolute power. Within his brilliant golden disk lies Truth, at once hidden and manifest, Truth that has no equal in the earth or in the sky, according to the logic of the high priest himself, under whom Akhenaten had studied medicine, wisdom, philosophy, astronomy and logic in the priestly college of On, in èAin Shams. Thus Ra is the one true god who is worthy of worship, and he alone is entitled to all holiness and divine honors, the more so because power is the basis of logical analysis. Ra alone is generous, giving, mighty, and victorious, whose praises must be sung by all creatures and whose worship must never be shared by another.

The new pharaoh was seized with enthusiasm for this idea of his, and very quickly he set out to make it known to all mankind. And when he had gained a following—including adherents and those who believed that his tongue spoke no arbitrary personal opinions, but only spoke the truth— he launched an all-out war on all those who spoke of physical incarnations and multiple gods, and who depicted them in the form of birds, animals and insects. He dismissed all the priests of the temple of Thebes, and discharged them from their duties. They no longer received gifts and offerings, and eventually they no longer controlled the property of the temple, which included lands and storehouses of grain. None of the golden treasure, which was the temple's real fortune, was returned to them. And they became normal humans, like the rest of God's creatures. All their false mystique of holiness, created by the power of suggestion and illusion, fell away from them.

And from that time on, the hen and rooster enjoyed peace and calm, which they had never had before. And they were certain that there was a kind of justice in this world. They lived to play their role in life in satisfaction and contentment. And they felt that the animals and other birds were like them—without divine status or honors.

The only one who lived after that in pain, grief and remorse was the high priest of the temple of Thebes. He lived in pain because he was used to wealth and power over others, and sorrow continually ate away at his spirit, the way Anubis eats the heart of a dead sinner in the afterlife, because he didn't consider the good and he didn't balance the matter on the scales of sound judgment by granting divine honors to the hen and rooster when they met him in the temple of the great god Amun. And his grief grew greater still when he came to understand how pathetic his former notions of power were. It was these shortcomings that made him pay such a great price, suffering a heavy loss that he could never regain. Regret remained his constant companion, and only after the passage of time did he grasp the profound meaning of the old saying: "Everything in its own time."

The translator would like to thank Dr. Salima Ikram and Dr. Mohammed Abdel Fattah for their assistance.