Once long ago in the land of Khem, there lived a King who greatly desired a son. For long and long no son was vouchsafed to him, but he would not give up hope. The King prayed to all the gods, giving generous alms to poor men and founding temples, and night and morning lay on his face in the great Temple of his city, praying every god and goddess to send him a son.
And as notice is often enough taken of such persistence, the gods took counsel together and at last decreed that a son should be born to the King. And when his wife’s time was fulfilled, she brought forth their firstborn boy. But also, since notice had been taken, then soon after the birth came the Hathors to decree a destiny for the child. And the first Hathor said, “His death shall be by the crocodile.” And the second said, “Or else by the serpent.” “Or else by the dog,” said the third; and then they vanished away.
The royal attendants standing by the child’s cradle heard all this, and went to tell the King. Then the King’s heart sickened within him, and the Queen’s likewise, that no sooner was their son newborn and in their arms than his death was foretold them. “What can we do?” the Queen said, grieving. “How may any mortal man elude his fate?”
“We will do what we can,” said the King. And he caused a house to be built in the midst of the desert, far from the haunts of man or beast. He furnished it with caretakers and servants and with all manner of good things from the royal house, meaning that the child should stay there and never go abroad. And so it was done; the King’s son was raised there in isolation, living the life of a prince in the midst of the emptiness.
He spent his childhood in that house, seeing none but his parents and the servants who waited on him. And it chanced one day that the young Prince was up on the roof of the great house looking down at the road that passed it by — this being the only way he could get a glimpse of the doings of the outer world, and one of his few great pleasures. And as he said on the roof looking out at the world, he saw men come walking down the road, with a strange four-legged creature trotting behind him.
The Prince spoke to the little pageboy who was with him to see to his needs, and said, “What is that creature walking behind the man down there on the road?” “It is a dog, your highness,” said the page. And the Prince, looking at it, thought that there was nothing he wanted more in the world. And he begged of the servants, “Let there be brought to me a dog like that.”
The servants were troubled and reluctant, for they knew the fates that had been foretold the Prince. They sent to his father the King to learn what to do. And the King, hearing of his son’s great desire, relented and said, “Let there be brought to him a little pet dog, lest his heart be sad.” And behold, they brought him a little dog, a greyhound pup. The young Prince fed the puppy, and played with him and cared for him, and they brought each other great joy.
The days increased, and the years passed, and the child grew into a young man, tall and strong and well grown in all his limbs. He sent his father a message at last, saying, “Father, why am I kept here any longer? If I am fated to three evil fates, then at least let me follow my desire a while. Let me live before I die, and let the Gods do with me what is in Their hearts.” And though at first the King was reluctant, his son was as persistent as the King himself had once been in his prayers.
Finally the Prince’s father agreed to do is the Prince asked. He gave him fine armor, and every kind of weapon, and a noble chariot. And after they said their farewells, the King’s people conveyed the Prince and his dog, now well grown and in his prime, to the eastern lands. There they said to him, “Behold, the world and your freedom! Go where thou wilt, O Prince.”
And so, with his dog running after, the Prince drove his chariot northward following his heart into the desert. He thrived in this life, for the emptiness did not frighten him, he having been used to it from his earliest days. And the dog, happy in its travels with its master, caught all manner of game for the two of them, so they were never hungry. And they journeyed far.
It came to pass that one day the Prince, looking toward the horizon ahead of them, saw the light of Ra’s Sun glance off something far ahead. And behold, as they approached it, the Prince saw that it was a high tower; and as they approached it more closely still, that about the feet of the tower were pitched many pavilions of rich fabric and standards of great families.
Curious, the Prince rode up to these tents and greeted the young men who came out to meet him. The young men had their servants feed and look after the Prince’s horses and his dog, and themselves they took the Prince into the great tent they shared. They bathed him and perfumed him and anointed his feet, they gave him of their own food and wine, and then when he had eaten and drunk and was rested, they said to him, “Goodly young sir, where have you come from?”
“I come from Khem, from Egypt’s land,” said the Prince. “I am the son of an officer there. My mother died, and my father has taken another wife; and when she bore children to him, she began to hate me. So I have come away out of their house as a fugitive, to seek my fortune elsewhere.” And the young men embraced him, and kissed him, and said “You are welcome among us; fear nothing here.”
Having been welcomed, the Prince said to the young men, “What is it that you are doing here?” And they said to him, “This place is the land of Naharaina, and in that tower lives the only daughter of the petty king of Naharaina, as she has done since she was a child. But now comes the time when it has been decreed by the Hathors that she shall leave the tower and take a husband. And so her father the King has decreed that all we, the sons of the noblemen and princes of Naharaina, shall climb the tower and try to win to the Princess. But the only windows are seventy cubits up the tower’s side, and its walls are sheer and hard to climb.”
“May I also attempt this adventure?” said the Prince: for he thought of the loneliness of such a life, knowing it well, and was loath to leave another to it. And the young princes and noble men of Naharaina said, “Why should you not? We will attempt it together.”
The next day was one that was decreed for the climbing. As it began the Prince watched the young men attempt the tower, and examined it carefully, looking out for handholds and footholds and watching where the others succeeded and where they failed. And finally, in the heat of the day when the others did not like to climb, he made his attempt. The high Sun showed him the shadows of handholds and footholds more clearly than they could have been seen earlier in the day, so that the Prince with great patience and effort won up to the one of the windows, and entered the upper room, and found the Princess there.
His arrival astonished and delighted her, for she had seen the strange new arrival in the young men’s camp from her high vantage point; and in him she knew now that the decree of the Hathors was fulfilled for her. She embraced the Prince and kissed him, and while they sat down to talk, she sent a servant to tell her father the glad news.
To this King, the servant said, “Majesty, one of the people has reached thy daughter’s window.” And the king said, “Which of the princes is it?” “O King,” said the servant, “it is no Prince, but the son of an officer who fled the land of Egypt and the persecution of a stepmother who hated him.” And the King of Naharaina flew into a rage, saying, “What, shall I give my only daughter, a Princess and a daughter of Queens before her, to a ragged fugitive? Let him go back where he came from, and if he does not, he shall be thrown from the tower.”
A servant was sent to carry this message to the Princess. But when she heard it, the Princess seized the Prince’s hand and swore an oath by the gods, saying, “By the very soul and being of great Ra-Harakhti, if anyone lays a hand on you to take you from here, I will never eat again nor drink again; I will be dead within that hour!” And hearing of this oath, the King, both angry and afraid, sent men into that house to slay the Prince. But the Princess stood between him and those who would have slain him, and said, “By Ra’s great being, should any of you slay this noble youth, I will be dead by one of your swords in the next minute. I will not pass an hour more of life on this earth if he is parted from me; in less time than that, he and I will be sailing through the Tuat together, toward the weighing of our souls!”
Then together they went before the King. And he, seeing that the young man was of noble mien and bearing and well spoken, understood in his heart that this was one of high birth who was concealing the truth of his origins for some reason of his own. And seeing that the young man was handsome and strong and clever, and most importantly, that his daughter had come to love him instantly, the King saw in this the workings of fate and the decree of the Hathors, and resigned himself to it.
So the young man Prince was given the Princess of Naharaina to wife, and with her a great house, and servants and cattle and wide fields for their living, and all manner of other good things. And the Prince and Princess settled down to live happily together.
And as their days together lengthened they began to tell one another the tales and secrets of their lives: and by and by the Prince said to the Princess, “This fate has been ordained to me: to die either by the crocodile, or the dog, or the serpent.” Alarmed, his wife said, “Then let one kill the dog that follows you about all the day!” The Prince was horrified, and said, “I am not going to kill my dog, my good friend that I brought up from a puppy since I was a little boy!”
The Princess understood this, yet she feared for her husband. It seemed to her that perhaps her husband had been spared the fate of the dog, having lived so long with this one. But what of the other two fates? On their account she feared for him greatly, and desired him not to go forth in the world.
Yet he did, against her will. Time came that the Prince desired to look on his old homeland again, and with the Princess he went thither and stayed in a place prepared for them, a house near a mighty river. Now behold, from the river a great crocodile came forth, making his way toward the town where the Prince and Princess were staying. But also in that town was a powerful hunter and master of beasts, and when he saw the crocodile, he went to battle it, and caught it and bound it, afterwards keeping it (as he thought) penned up.
During this time, the Prince and his Princess stayed in that town, knowing nothing of this. They ate and drank and slept and walked and went about their lives; and after one such day the Prince came home and laid him down and slept. But his wife was troubled in her heart, she knew not why, and so she lay awake by him and watched late, with just a small lamp burning. And from a hole low down in the wall of their room, she saw a snake come forth.
Quietly the Princess rose and summoned a servant and bade him bring milk in a bowl (for all know that serpents cannot resist milk), and this she put in the serpent’s way. And the serpent came upon the milk and drank and was sodden and fell over upside down, and slept. The Princess then fetched a dagger and killed the serpent: and when it was well dead she woke her husband and said, “See how the good Gods have given this fate into our hands! Surely they will give the others into your mastery also.”
And her husband gave thanks for her, and for the Gods’ kindness, and sacrificed to them day by day.
So their life went on. And came a day when the Prince went walking in the fields. He was not alone: his dog ran along through the fields with him. The dog saw game in amongst the reeds of the river, bright ducks and other waterfowl, and went in to chase them. The Prince his master went after the dog. He came to the reeds of the river, and as the dog plunged into them, the Prince went after.
And lo, from among the reeds the crocodile came forth, escaped from where the strong man of the town had penned it. And it looked upon the Prince and said to him, “I am thy doom, O Prince, following after thee…”
And here the story ends. The rest of the page of the papyrus on which it is written (Harris 500, in the British Museum) is lost.
Few fairy tales are more poignant than this, because — despite the presence of tropes that are so familiar to us: the Sleeping Beauty-ish prince and the Rapunzel-ish princess in their towers, the Prince’s cursed adulthood, the supernatural forces appearing at their births, even the offhand, artful (lying) backstory about the hated stepchild fled from a cruel home — we can never know for sure what ending the original storyteller(s) intended. There are versions of this story all through print and all over the web that attempt to stick happy endings (and tragic endings and any old kind of endings) onto the ancient, achingly unfinished narrative — upon the final truth of which the silence of millennia has descended beyond any attempt of ours to complete it.
If there is a heaven for writers, and a bar in that heaven, I would like to look this storyteller up there (after the paired business of breath and blood are done) and buy them a beer (beer was big in Egypt…) and find out how it ended. In the meantime, fate and mortality and the fragility of material being speak with their own voices, beyond our ability to silence them:
“I am thy doom, O Prince, following after thee…”
(This version of the Prince’s Tale is adapted from Egyptian Tales, Second Series, XVIIIth To XIXth Dynasty by W. M. Flinders Petrie, first published in 1895.)