Sunday, March 31, 2013

Be a Scribe

Fig 1 - Old Kingdom Scribe, Louvre Museum
     Writing was taught in ancient Egypt by having students copy the the well respected works of other writers. Some of the most famous Egyptian texts are known to us from school boy copies (the Carnarvon  Tablet detailing some of the war between Kamose and the Hyksos King is just one example).

     The Papyrus Lansing contains a work extolling the virtues of being a scribe. The papyrus tells a student about the virtues of being a scribe and the miseries of having any other profession. Some of these miseries include:

  • The Washerman - "his limbs are weak (from) whitening his neighbors clothes every day..."
  • The Maker of Pots - "is smeared with soil..."
  • Merchants - "are a busy as can be.. but tax collectors carry off the gold..."
  • Peasants - they have crops that fail, and when the scribe comes to collect the taxes the poor peasant is "beaten savagely" for not being able to pay the taxes

But the profession that must be avoided at all costs is that of a soldier. His commanding officers are after him " (after) a donkey...". He has no clothes and sandals while serving in Syria. "His march is uphill through mountains. He drinks water every third day." And if he dies in a foreign land he will not "...know his resting place...".

     The teacher of scribes has a much different life. His barns "are supplied with grain, are bulging with abundance". The teacher of scribes is "...loved by all, and praised by the king..."
     All in all, it is so much better to be a scribe!

     In figure 1, we see a statue of a scribe from the Old Kingdom. Notice the rolls of fat shown on the scribe's chest. This is meant to show that the scribe is prosperous and does not do physical labor like the unskilled peasants. His papyrus roll is open on his lap in the traditional pose of Egyptian scribes, a pose that will not change in Egyptian art for thousands of years.

Photos copyright 2013 by John Freed. Translations of the Papyrus Lansing are from Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 2, Berkley: University of California Press, 1976, pp. 167 - 175.

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