Professional-Egyptian scribe story, part 2 of 2

(scribe tools and symbols of one of the most important occupations of ancient Egyptian times)

Egyptian Schools for Scribes Inflicted Ten to Twelve Years of Intensive Training and Discipline on Those Who Desired the Advantages of This Profession, Part 2

The Egyptian brush-pen was made from a thin-stemmed rush, or reed, plant that was usually cut to a length of about nine inches. When it was chewed or hammered soft at one end, it easily frayed and, when trimmed, it held enough ink to keep writing several letters, depending on their sizes, before it needed re-inking.

While the small boys were trying to learn how to draw the special symbols, older boys tutored the younger ones or learned to take dictation on papyrus while the teacher recited proverbs. One of the proverbs that was discovered says, “Give thy heart to learning and love her like a mother, for there is nothing as precious as learning.”

The first stage of Egyptian writing from the earliest days of Egyptian literacy, was named hieroglyphic (“sacred engraved writing”) by the Greeks who first saw it about 2,000 years later. It has survived as the writing style appropriate to religious and monumental inscriptions long after the two later stages, known as hieratic and demotic script had been developed from it.

All three styles have remained essentially picture-writing systems, consisting of a combination of pictograms, ideograms, and phonograms, even after the simpler principle of alphabetic signs had evolved.

Scribe is painting boat and men harvesting reed bushes for a river.
Word Info image © ALL rights reserved.

The harvesting of the papyrus plant was an important industry in Egypt and an essential product for the scribes and their record keeping. This marsh and river-side plant gave us the word “paper” and had other important uses.

Some stalks were harvested for fuel, others were tied in bunches to make beams or supports for simple houses, and some were smeared with a resinous material and made into flat-bottomed boats. In addition, the bark from the stalks were woven into baskets and hampers while the roots were used for food. It was the yellowish, fibrous centers of papyri, cut into thin slices, which gave Egyptians the writing material they could use for keeping records, writing poetry, stories, etc.

Reed pens were better than rush brushes for writing on the papyrus sheets. Scribes made their own pens from reed stalks and carried extras for the work they had to do.

The Egyptians didn’t have much in the way of trees to use for extensive writing or construction purposes, such as bark or a supply of wood. In the many marshes; however, they had a common river plant which had branchless seed-stalks that they called “gomeh”. The Greeks and Romans called the plant “papyrus” from which our word paper came.

After the papyrus was cut and the internal fibers flattened into strips, they were laid side by side on a flat surface. They were then covered with another layer placed crosswise. Next, some cooked vegetable gum would be poured over the sheets thus filling up spaces in the pithy centers as well as holding the strips together. Finally the sheet would be pressed, pounded, and rubbed smoothly; then made into rolls by pasting several sheets end to end.

The intellectual profession of Egyptian scribes was quite different from the trades of such laborers as metal smiths or stone masons. The scribes took great pride in the tools and materials of their craft. In fact, the word for “scribe” in hierogyphic writing combined pictures of the writer’s implements—ink palette, water jar, and brushes—with the pictograph of a man:

Scribe symbol and man equals scribe
Word Info image © ALL rights reserved.

Scribe symbol and man equals scribe
Word Info image © ALL rights reserved.

A 4,700-year-old wooden carving, that was discovered in Egypt, shows Hesire, chief of the royal Egyptian scribes, with his professional tools positioned over his right shoulder. The writing kit included a slate palette with two depressions for holding ink cakes (usually black and red), a wooden case to hold a rush (reed) brush or two, and a small container for water which was used to get the brush wet. The three elements were tied together with twine made of flax fibers: The hieroglyph for “writing” was this following image which included the “tools” of the scribe and a pictograph of a “bundle of papyrus sheets” tied together in a roll.

Scribe symbol and bundled papyrus.
Word Info image © ALL rights reserved.

The ink that the Egyptian scribes used was so stable that it has kept its dense black color after thousands of years. The black ink was made of carbon, usually fine soot, mixed with water and a binding agent such as gum. The red ink was made in the same way, prepared with pigment made from one of the many red oxides that occur naturally in the earth. Red ink was often used to indicate titles and headings and the beginnings of new “paragraphs” or sections.

Thoth, god of words and writing.
Word Info image © ALL rights reserved.

A scribe is shown drawing Thoth, the divine patron of scribes, carrying the traditional palette, water container, and rush brushes or reed pens. This illustration is based on a section from a 13th Century B.C. funerary (tomb or place of burial) text written down on papyrus. Thoth was believed to be the “inventor” of all arts and sciences including the Egyptian system of hieroglyphics. Heiro Another

Thoth, god of words and writing.
Word Info image © ALL rights reserved.

As the god of magic words and writing, Thoth was identified with the Greek god, Hermes. His holy city became Hermopolis (City of Hermes). The Book of Thoth was a famous legendary work that was supposed to reveal the secrets of manipulating matter with verbal charms.

Thoth is the Greek form of the name of the Egyptian god Djhowtey, whose cult was centered in the town of Khmunu (Latin, Hermopolis Magna; modern, Al Ashmunayn) in Upper Egypt. At first he was probably the moon-god; as such, he was called “reckoner of time,” and his name was given to the first month of the Egyptian year. As a result, he became the god of reckoning and of learning in general and was held to be the inventor of writing, the founder of social order, the creator of languages, the scribe, interpreter, and adviser of the gods, and the representative of the sun-god, Re, on earth.

His sacred animals, for reasons that are not quite clear, were the ibis and the baboon. Numerous mummified bodies of these two animals were found in cemeteries near Hermopolis and Thebes. Thoth himself was sometimes represented as an ibis or as a baboon; but more often, he was in human form with an ibis’ head. The Greeks identified Thoth with their god Hermes and traced back to “Thoth, the thrice great” (Hermes Trismegistos) the authorship of powerful magical books.

As the god of magic words and writing and the Book of Thoth was a famous legendary work that was supposed to reveal the secrets of manipulating matter with verbal charms.

Hieroglyphs were written up, down, or across.

The word hieroglyph refers to the characters used in the writings of the ancient Egyptians, in fact it means “writing of the gods” (from the Greek hieros, meaning “holy”, and gluphein, “to engrave“). The earliest known hieroglyphic inscriptions date back to the 3rd millennium B.C., but it is believed by historians that the script must have originated well before that. It underwent no major changes until A.D. 390, when Egypt was under the power of the Romans, although over the centuries the number of signs increased from approximately seven hundred to around five thousand.

Hieroglyphs could be written either right to left or left to right, the lines being either vertical (reading down) or horizontal (reading across). The hieroglyphic figures always faced the beginning of the line. In an inscription that read left to right, the signs faced to the left, or they faced to the right to indicate that one should read right to left.

Hieroglyphs reading down.

Although hieroglyphs worked fine
In their Egyptian day,
It bothers me that in each line
The glyphs all face one way.

And looked they left or right, as it
Might suit the writer’s aim,
It didn’t matter, not a bit—
The meaning stayed the same.

        — Willard R. Espy

Hieroglyphs reading from the left to the right.

Reading from left to right.

Hieroglyphs reading from the right to the left.

Reading from right to left.

Ancient hieroscribe symbol If you want to see the first part about the history of the ancient scribes again, then click here so you can return to the "Professional-Egyptian scribe story, Part 1".

The contents of this page was compiled from material located in this
Bibliography of Sources of Information about Professional-Egyptian Scribe Stories.

Links to related writing words Related writing-word units: glypto-; gram-; graph-; scrib-, script-.