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Be a Scribe

6 April, 2010

I have been reading Barry Kemp’s book: 100 Hieroglyphs: Think Like An Egyptian. The hieroglyphs are fascinating on their own, but what I enjoyed most is getting a sense of what ancient Egyptians valued, how they thought of the world and ordered their society.

The 82nd hieroglyph in the book depicts a scribal kit, consisting of a ‘flat palette on which black and red ink could be mixed, a narrow solid tube to contain a reed pen, and a little bag for powdered pigments’. This hieroglyph is the dominant one in the Egyptian verb meaning to write, draw or paint.

When placed behind the hieroglyphic figure of a person, you have the word ‘writer’, more commonly known in ancient Egyptian society as ‘scribe’. Scribes were the privileged minority in terms of being able to read and write. Kemp says that during the Old Kingdom, full literacy could have been ‘as low as one per cent of the population.’  Scribes were often administrators for the Pharaohs, with the authority to lead major projects such as building pyramids. The role was so honourable that statues often showed the illustrious man (and it was always a man) as a scribe, perhaps ‘sitting cross-legged with a papyrus scroll across his lap, his face looking either attentively forward or thoughtfully downwards towards his writing.’

According to Kemp, scribes were also elitist. In the practice texts used to teach boys how to read and writer, the various professions were described unfavourably compared with the elevated work of a scribe. Scribes not only reaped material benefits—’the comfortable villas, the well-stocked farmlands’—they also had the respect of society:

  • Be a scribe, and be spared from soldiering. When you call out the reply comes, ‘Here I am.’ You are safe from torments.
  • You are the one who sits grandly in your house; your servants answer speedily; beer is poured copiously; all who see you rejoice in good cheer.
  • Be a scribe. Your body will be sleek, your hands will be soft.

Scribes saw their work as a vocation, with the reward of lasting fame:

By day write with your fingers; recite by night. Befriend the scroll and the palette. It pleases more than wine. Writing for him who knows it is better than all other professions . . . It is worth more than an inheritance in Egypt, than a tomb in the west.

Man decays, his corpse is dust. All his kin have perished. But a book preserves his memory through the mouth of its reciter. Better is a book than a well-built house, than tomb-chapels in the west.

Interestingly, Kemp also mentions a large number of written records about daily life, discovered when researchers excavated an ancient village. These records identify that a number of women—at least in this village—were literate and were writers as well, sending letters to each other. The records also show the variety of subjects the village scribes chose to record in writing, a vareity that suggest the villagers’ interests: ‘stories, love songs, magical and medical texts, a complete book of temple ritual, and a manual on how to interpret people’s dreams.’

Hieroglyph from http://www.dmallisk.net/ancient.htm

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 April, 2010 12:55 pm

    So scribes, because of their unusual skills, were held in high esteem during the time of the Pharaohs. Contrast that with our amateur status as writers at a time when there is such widespread ability to self-publish. Clay Shirky is known for his examinations of “the shock of inclusion” we’re experiencing as vast numbers of people become able to publish online. I’m enthralled by this ocean of information but even more interested to see how it will eventually be organized and who will identify the best of it as a service to the rest of us. Could librarians become the privileged few, as scribes once were?

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    • 14 April, 2010 10:54 am

      Hi Robin,
      Thanks for the link to read about the ‘shock of inclusion’. Librarianship as a profession has had an interesting recent history. In the information Dark Ages–the time when mainframe computers were around but PCs were not yet available and the Web didn’t exist–librarians were the gatekeepers to much of the electronically available information. When I was working in faculty, we had a resident librarian who helped all of us find material for our research. As soon as we had our own PCs, we wanted to find this info ourselves. But as you say, we’re drowning in an undifferentiated ocean of information. If I can push the metaphor, I’d like a way to get to the lovely bays and beaches, and not get stuck on the parts of the coast where the ocean creates a natural rubbish tip. To get to my informational beauty spots, it would help if there were trustworthy electronic clearinghouses, electronic places where people can confidently find the best in terms of a genre or topic. For example, much of the literature and the writing help articles I read online are padded or in need of a good editor. I wonder how much stuff on the Web actually gets read.

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      • 14 April, 2010 11:56 am

        When someone figures out how to curate the best Web content, they’ll make a fortune and be reviled by everyone whose opinion differs.

        And Marsha, I, for one, admire the thorough exploitation of a metaphor and have been known to make a marathon of it when slaphappy with exhaustion. You can just imagine how annoying I’ll be in the nursing home.

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        • 14 April, 2010 6:08 pm

          Hmm, in the nursing home I would find it easier to put up with a metaphoriac than say a punster. But that’s just me.

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  2. 6 April, 2010 9:19 am

    Have you read Deb Westbury’s poem The Scribe’s Daughter? It’s really beautiful and talks about the importance of the written word. Try it!

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    • 6 April, 2010 9:38 am

      Hi Glen,
      Good to hear from you. No, I haven’t read it. Is it published in one of her books?
      Also, speaking of Deb, do you know if she has any poetry workshops for beginners?

      Like

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