Coptic Literature

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Coptic Literature


the literature of the Copts, which existed from the fourth to the 18th centuries.

Coptic literature appeared with the spread of Christianity in Egypt and developed for the most part in monasteries. The first Coptic literary works were translations from the Greek of the Old and New Testaments and the writings of Christian theologians, Gnostics, and Manichaeans. Pachomius, the founder of the first monasteries, and his disciples Theodore and Orsiesi (fourth century), became the authors of early original works— monastic rules and sermons. The eminent historical figure Shenute (died 451) is considered the greatest writer. In his works he called for a highly moral way of life and condemned abuses of power. Shenute’s biography, based on legends, was written by Besa, his successor and imitator.

An extensive hagiographic literature arose in the Coptic language and influenced medieval European literature, especially that of Byzantium and, through the latter, the literature of ancient Rus’, including the legends of the daughter of the emperor Zeno Ilarion, Theodosius and Dionysius, and the tale of Archellites. The stories about the hermits have become famous. The Story of Cambyses, which approaches the Egyptian historical novels written in demotic script, is a distinctive work. Toward the end of the first millennium, poetry flourished, and many works of a fanciful and edifying nature appeared. Even after the living Coptic language was displaced by Arabic, works were still written in the dead, bookish Coptic literary language (the anonymous poem “Triadon,” 14th century; The Life of John of Fanikiu, 13th-14th centuries). Liturgical hymns were still being composed in Coptic down to the 18th century.


Ernshtedt, P. V. Koptskie teksty Gosudarstvennogo Ermitazha. Moscow-Leningrad, 1959.
Ernshtedt, P. V. Koptskie teksty Gosudarstvennogo muzeia izobrazitel’nykh iskusstv im. A. S. Pushkina. Moscow-Leningrad, 1959.
Elanskaia, A. I. Koptskie rukopisi Gos. publ. biblioteki im. M. E. Saltykova-Shchedrina. Leningrad, 1969.


Turaev, B. A. “Koptskaia literatura.” In Literatura Vostoka. Petrograd, 1920.
Leipoldt, J. “Geschichte der koptischen Literatur.” In Die Literaturen des Ostens, vol. 7. Leipzig, 1907. Pages 133–82.
Morenz, S. “Die koptische Literatur.” In Handbuch der Orientalistik, vol. 1. Leiden, 1952. Pages 207–19.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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