Over Christmas my Facebook pal, Susannah Forrest, horsewoman, author of If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession, and also (unlike most of my Facebook friends) somebody I’ve actually met in the real world, posted that famous quotation from Camus: “Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”
As you may be able to see above, it was from a site named Saddles for Soldiers, and in this case was actually referring to walking with a horse – great advice I’d think, and I imagine you definitely wouldn’t want to be walking behind one.
I found it quite difficult to find a picture of Camus walking, but imagine my joy at discovering this one, with a horse, in which I’m not sure that he’s following his own advice, but maybe he thought it didn't apply to horses.
In any case that Camus quotation got me thinking about The Instructions of Shuruppak, a Sumerian text from about 2,600 BC, and one of the oldest known texts in the history of the world. Naturally I wondered if it had anything to say about walking. It does, kind of.
It advises, “You should not buy a prostitute: she is a mouth that bites. You should not buy a house-born slave: he is a herb that makes the stomach sick. You should not buy a free man: he will always lean against the wall. You should not buy a palace slave girl: she will always be the bottom of the barrel. You should rather bring down a foreign slave from the mountains, or you should bring somebody from a place where he is an alien; my son, then he will pour water for you where the sun rises and he will walk before you.”
See – not beside, because he isn’t a friend, and not behind because you don’t want him wandering off when you’re not looking, but in front of you so you can keep your eye on him. Timeless advice, I’m sure.
And that got me thinking about the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a much more recent text than The Instructions of Shuruppak, and actually a whole group of texts, written by different hands over a period of at least a thousand years. The best bit, I think, are the spells designed to help the soul as it passes through the underworld. It includes a spell for ensuring an eternal supply of food and beer, and also one about walking. It doesn’t say anything about walking in front or behind or beside, but it does say this: "You will enter the house of hearts, the place which is full of hearts. You will take the one that is yours and put it in its place, without your hand being hindered. Your foot will not be stopped from walking. You will not walk upside down. You will walk upright.” Which I would think is very, very handy.