The Ancient Egyptians on Writing

26 Feb

In today’s post, I’m going to take you back in time around 4,000 years. You know by now how much I love history, and you probably know that I did my degree in Egyptology. So today I’m going to talk a little about the ancient Egyptians and their thoughts on writing.

Statue of the scribe Min-nakht (from the Walters Art Museum, via Wikimedia Commons)


Being able to read and write was rare in ancient Egypt, and only 1 in 100 people could do those things. People who could were known as scribes, and held a very desirable position in Egyptian society. Scribes were vital to the country’s administration and didn’t even have to pay tax.

Very few women were literate, and the boys who were to become scribes started their training at a young age. It seems that scribes learnt to read and write by copying passages from well-known texts, and trained for several years.

Papyrus Lansing

During ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (a period of time from 2055-1650 BC) there was a king called Sesostris III (sometimes spelt ‘Senusret’). He was pharaoh from 1872-1853 BC, and he greatly changed the country’s bureacracy during his reign. This meant that more trained scribes were needed, and the following passage from the Papyrus Lansing (also known as the “Satire of the Trades”) was used to persuade people that being a scribe was the job for them.

One thing it is worth mentioning is that ancient Egyptian grammar and sentence structure can seem odd to modern readers. At uni I did some modules of Middle Egyptian hieroglyphics, and even when a passage was translated correctly it didn’t always seem right! Think Yoda, and you’d be on the right lines…

Anyway, take a look at the following passage (translation taken from the University of Arizona) and find out exactly why the ancient Egyptians thought being a scribe was the best job in the world!

Praise of the Scribe’s Profession

… [Apply yourself to this] noble profession … You will find it useful … You will be advanced by your superiors. You will be sent on a mission … Love writing, shun dancing; then you become a worthy official. Do not long for the marsh thicket. Turn your back on throw stick and chase. By day write with your fingers; recite by night. Befriend the scroll, the palette. It pleases more than wine. Writing for him who knows it is better than all other professions. It pleases more than bread and beer, more than clothing and ointment. It is worth more than an inheritance in Egypt, than a tomb in the west.

The papyrus continues with a section of advice for any unwilling pupils, before the following:

All Occupations Are Bad Except That of the Scribe

See for yourself with your own eye. The occupations lie before you. The washerman’s day is going up, going down. All his limbs are weak, [from] whitening his neighbors’ clothes every day, from washing their linen. The maker of pots is smeared with soil, like one whose relations have died. His hands, his feet are full of clay; he is like one who lives in the bog. The cobbler mingles with vats. His odor is penetrating. His hands are red with madder, like one who is smeared with blood. He looks behind him for the kite, like one whose flesh is exposed. The watchman prepares garlands and polishes vase-stands. He spends a night of toil just as one on whom the sun shines. The merchants travel downstream and upstream. They are as busy as can be, carrying goods from one town to another. They supply him who has wants. But the tax collectors carry off the gold, that most precious of metals. The ships’ crews from every house (of commerce), they receive their loads. They depart from Egypt for Syria, and each man’s god is with him. (But) not one of them says: “We shall see Egypt again!” The carpenter who is in the shipyard carries the timber and stacks it. If he gives today the output of yesterday, woe to his limbs! The shipwright stands behind him to tell him evil things. His outworker who is in the fields, his is the toughest of all the jobs. He spends the day loaded with his tools, tied to his tool-box. When he returns home at night, he is loaded with the tool-box and the timbers, his drinking mug, and his whetstones. The scribe, he alone, records the output of all of them. Take note of it!

After that, the papyrus outlines the plight of the peasant, before discussing how being a scribe is much better than being a soldier. That last section ends with:

When victory is won, the captives are handed over to his majesty, to be taken to Egypt. The foreign woman faints on the march; she hangs herself [on] the soldier’s neck. His knapsack drops, another grabs it while he is burdened with the woman. His wife and children are in their village; he dies and does not reach it. If he comes out alive, he is worn out from marching. Be he at large, be he detained, the soldier suffers. If he leaps and joins the deserters, all his people are imprisoned. He dies on the edge of the desert, and there is none to perpetuate his name. He suffers in death as in life. A big sack is brought for him; he does not know his resting place. Be a scribe, and be spared from soldiering! You call and one says: “Here I am.” You are safe from torments. Every man seeks to raise himself up. Take note of it!

Well there you go — if you were ever in doubt that writing is the best thing ever, hopefully the ancient Egyptians managed to persuade you! My favourite bit is at the end of the first paragraph, where writing is said to please “more than bread and beer”. I’m not sure I agree with this 100% — at the end of a tough day, when thing haven’t gone quite how I’d hoped, sometimes I need that glass of wine!

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2 Responses to “The Ancient Egyptians on Writing”

  1. Richard Abbott (@MilkHoneyedLand) February 27, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

    Indeed yes! And of course the Middle Kingdom which produced this satire also generated some great literature in prose and verse. Like the Tale of Sinuhe – whether you think of it as real history as most people used to in times past, or fiction as most people seem to now, it’s a great read and has some wonderful use of literary devices.

    • Stacey Mitchell March 1, 2013 at 11:47 am #

      Oh yes, the Tale of Sinuhe! That’s a fantastic story — fact or fiction.

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