Be a Scribe
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