Oldest Description of Suicidal Thoughts found in an Egyptian Poem
Jul 10, 2006 - 8:37:37 PM

Analysis of an ancient Egyptian poem by a psychiatrist and an Egyptologist shows that it describes the psychopathology of suicide with great accuracy.

Dispute over Suicide was a poem written by an unnamed Egyptian writer between 2000 and 1740 BC on papyrus in hieroglyphics.

The writer is known as ‘The Eloquent Peasant’, and was commissioned by King Meri-ka-re to write a poem in order to dissuade people from committing suicide.

Suicide as a form of human behaviour is probably as ancient as man himself. Attitudes towards those who take their own lives have veered between condemnation and tolerance throughout the ages.

It is possible that moral and cultural views about suicide have affected its incidence, statistics on suicide, and even coroners’ verdicts. An historical approach makes it possible to understand what meaning suicide has for people with different experiences from different backgrounds and generations.

Dr. George Tadros, a consultant psychiatrist, and Dr. Ahmes Pahor, an Egyptologist and ENT consultant, used a computer programme with special software for qualitative analysis to assess the poem.

The Eloquent Peasant gives a detailed description of negative thoughts, hopelessness and helplessness, which are characteristic of the state of mind of a person contemplating suicide. The poem presents an accurate picture of depressive mood, and the negative thought pattern that accompanies it.

The poet also gives a unique illustration of ‘magical thinking’, which is frequently associated with suicide. “Surely he who is yonder shall be a living God Punishing the sin of him who commits it.”

“Death is by my sight today…” The poet gives a detailed account of the feeling of suicide as approaching death, and demonstrates how desperate people could see suicide as a desirable outcome.

However, The Eloquent Peasant also offers a solution of reconciliation to resolve the conflict for people contemplating suicide.

“What my soul said to me.
Put care aside, my comrade and brother.
Make an offering on the brazier and cling to life…”

The authors of the study comment that the Ancient Egyptians appear to have had a significant grasp of the psychopathology of suicide. It would be interesting, they say, to study wider mental health issues and practice in ancient Egypt.

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