Death is before me today,
like health to the sick
like leaving the bedroom after sickness.
Death is before me today
like the odor of myrrh
like sitting under a cloth on a day of wind.
Death is before me today
like the odor of lotus
like sitting down on the shore of drunkenness.
Death is before me today
like the end of the rain
like a man’s home-coming after the wars abroad.
Death is before me today
like the sky when it clears
like a man’s wish to see home after numberless years of captivity.
Anonymous, c. 1900 B.C.
The particular challenge of this close reading was the complete unfamiliarity of the symbols and the topics that were being discussed. I remember I spent more time trying to research what the lotus flower and myrrh may symbolize in Egyptian culture, than on actually trying to analyze the poem. However, I belive it all worked out because gaining some knowledge about those things is what made the poem unravel to me. I also believe that this essay demonstrates the basic tools of analysis really well; as I often utilize the meanings of the repetitions, the contrast between the corporal and the cerebral and try to connect the concepts in the poem to a larger tradition of mythology and literature.
The ancient Egyptian poem “Death Is Before Me Today” is a piece of writing about a question that humans have been asking ever since asking questions became possible: how can we live when the promise of death is inevitable? The interplay between the divine and earthly elements, along with the way the poem positions death into the storyline of our existence, gives the reader a sense about how death was viewed not as an abnormal and unwanted guest, but an expected and welcome one. Death is greeted like a dear friend, a salvation. What makes it a salvation is not that it comes after periods of suffering, but it is a liberation by its mere nature. Before one delves into the symbolic and existential nature of the poem, however, a few notes should be made about its structure.
The poem consists of five stanzas made up of tercets, and in each stanza the sentence “death is before me today” is repeated. This gives the poem a rhythmic quality and also makes it easier for us to date it to an era in which poems were mostly memorized to be performed, and not written to be read. First comes the refrain, then a line that is seemingly about ordinary topics which later reveals itself to be about something eternally divine, and each stanza ends with a situation that is utterly human such as “sitting down on the shore of drunkenness.” This juxtaposition becomes more clear when the mythological significance of some elements in the poem are revealed.
For instance, the second stanza reads “death is before me today / like the odor of myrrh / like sitting under a cloth on a day of wind.” Myrrh, a resin with a bittersweet fragrance, is reminded to the listener here not just to appeal to the aromatic senses, but also because it was strongly associated with funerary rituals in ancient Egypt. Used as an ointment for embalming the dead, myrrh also had connections with protection, healing, concentration and above all, Isis: the Goddess of Death and Mourning. Some funerary texts even show that the deceased were promised to have long, soothing hours under myrrh trees in the afterlife (“Isis & The Magic Of Myrrh”). Myrrh has such a strong connection to events that surround death, in fact, that we will encounter it again in the New Testament as one of the three substances the Three Wise Men bring to Jesus (Matthew 2:11). The inclusion of myrrh among the gifts is usually interpreted as foreshadowing the suffering and death of Jesus.
The third stanza, which will continue to contrast naturalistic symbols with day-to-day situations, begins: “death is before me today / like the odor of lotus / like sitting on the shore of drunkenness.” Our introduction to myrrh, a substance associated with death, is followed by a mention of the lotus: a flower which strongly connects to the ideas of rebirth. It is no wonder that this particular plant was interpreted as a symbol for the cyclic nature of life, as ancient Egyptians believed it to be; the lotus flower floats on the surface of the water, but is still connected to the earth underneath the surface. It opens up every day with the arrival of the sun, and sinks back down to earth at night.
The introduction of the lotus flower into the general flow of the poem is not only important because of its symbolic value, but also because only when it is introduced do we get to see a pattern emerging. The poem had already shown us, by its content, that death was seen as a salvation, a relief, a source of comfort “like health to the sick / like leaving the bedroom after sickness.” This was not because life was insufferable, but because death was considered to be a central part of existence, the two were equals. As the smells of myrrh and the lotus flower follow one another, the schema of the poem is created in such a way that death and rebirth also become cyclic events that complement each other, and the equality and companionship among them becomes more structurally pronounced as well.
The repetition of death and rebirth is also clear in the last two stanzas, and they are best understood while being viewed through the lens of ancient Egyptian creation myths. The Egyptian cosmogony claimed that the world was created out of chaotic waters. Furthermore, in the ancient city Hermopolis, it was believed that the sun-god Re emerged from a lotus flower which was rising up to the surface of the primeval waters (“Ancient Egypt: The Mythology – Lotus”). Keeping this narrative in mind, it is clear that water and sun were key to the general scheme of creation for the Egyptians, as they were for so many other civilizations.
It is in this light that we are able to see the imagery about the sun and water throughout the poem more clearly; “sitting under a cloth of wind” brings to mind an image of a sailor, driving force from the air behind him and the fourth stanza begins, as mortal humans sit on the shore of being intoxicated, “death is before me today / like the end of the rain.” Another way the poem emphasizes these elements is by appealing to our physical senses. When we read the lines above, we can think about nothing but the way the earth smells after rain, or the way that first sunbeam feels on our skin.
If we choose to see the rain as a chaotic water that has the potential to breathe life to the earth, as the creation myths of the time (and so many more) did , it is also possible that the end of this bountiful source of creation can also be interpreted as a vessel for destruction, or death. Interestingly, the second line of the fifth and final stanza contrasts this by saying “death is before me today / like the sky when it clears.” As soon as the rain stops and brings the act of creation to a grinding halt, the sun emerges from a fresh sky and springs into our minds connotations about life, birth and rebirth. Although the poem is less direct in its way of coupling the concepts of life and death together in these stanzas than in the ones before, the circular way these subjects follow one another is hard to miss.
It is also important to note that the humane situations that have been appearing in contrast to the mythological elements keep increasing in their emotional urgency as well. While the first stanzas talk about everyday events such as “like leaving the bedroom after sickness,” or “like sitting down on the shore of drunkenness,” the last two stanzas are as serious as can be; “like a man’s home-coming after the wars abroad,” and “like a man’s wish to see home after numberless years of captivity.” It is hard exactly to say why these situations get more and more complicated as the poem progresses. They do, however, start to tell a more complex story about life itself right as the poem starts to build layers of complexity upon the relationship between dying and being alive.
Another narrative that the last two lines bring into mind is undoubtedly that of Odysseus. It is certain of course that connecting the poem’s content to narratives that will come way after tells us nothing about what it meant to the people who created it. That being said, I believe there is still merit in discussing it; this example and the way we encounter the symbolism about myrrh in later religious texts gives us a hint about how long humans have been sharing the same literary devices to give voice to the same concerns.
In conclusion, the poem “Death Is Before Me Today” manages to show us how death and birth were seen as cyclic events, that one was not more powerful or scarier than the other in the minds of ancient Egyptians. It does this first by its content and then by using symbols that belong in nature to create a rhythmic pattern of death and birth. Although it is seemingly a poem about death, what the poem really does is to emphasize how dying and being alive are so beautifully and complexly interwoven together.
Written for my “Development of Poetry I” class in Fall 2016.
“Ancient Egypt: The Mythology – Lotus”. Egyptianmyths.net, 2016,
“Isis & The Magic Of Myrrh”. Isiopolis, 2013,
Painting: “Hope” by George Frederic Watts (1817–1904) and assistants