To be a scribe

I sometimes engage in a day-dream game. It consists of asking myself the question "If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?" This is a very good game because I can easily spend all day at it without finding the answer. The fact is, I have never been able to think of any job that I really wanted to do. Well, that’s not quite true. There is one job I rather fancy, but it is for ever beyond my reach.

I was reminded of it the other day by reading about ancient written languages and particularly the applications of writing in the Egypt of the Pharaohs. The Egyptians carried writing — and its concomitant, inscribed text on monuments — to the level of a high art. For them, writing was not simply a useful skill but was also part of their artistic and cultural endeavour and they believed the written word possessed spiritual power. The distinction between representational art and writing was blurred because hieroglyphs were pictures and words therefore magically possessed qualities of the beings that they represented. Writing was a sacred art and those who practised it, the scribes, had special status. You have probably now guessed my secret. Yes, I have long entertained a hankering to be an Egyptian scribe.

Egyptian scribes were important people. They were responsible not merely for designing and executing the hieroglyphic inscriptions on monuments but were also influential in all areas of government, business, administration, and scholarship. Like any complex society, Egypt relied heavily on written records, contracts, letters and documents of every kind. Only a a tiny fraction of the population possessed the arts of reading and writing and such people were therefore much in demand and assured of a good living.

The work of the scribe extended far beyond that of the modern clerk or amanuensis. They not only knew how to write and to calculate but also the proper form into which every kind of document had to be cast and the requirements for all jobs involving writing. In other words, the title of scribe covered many professions that have separate names in our own society. They were teachers, record keepers, librarians, accountants, surveyors, historians, lawyers, etc, often several of these at once. No one exercising a trade or profession who had not trained as a scribe himself could operate without the services of one.

Because the skill of writing was considered sacred and an art form, scribes lavished great care and attention on their work. Throughout the 3,000 or so years of their country’s history, for example, hieroglyphic writing shows no sign of erosion, simplification or even of evolution. The last characters to be inscribed were as clean and detailed as the first, inscribed three millennia before.

This is not to say that the scribe had an easy time of it. For one thing, training was long and extremely arduous. The glimpses we have of life in the scribes’ school suggest something akin to the Dickensian boarding school. The student scribe spent the first few years copying texts (possibly without understanding them) in order to learn to form the various glyphs. Many fragments of school exercises, full of omissions and errors, have been found. Some have corrections added by the teacher. Standard texts for copying, including one called The advantages of the scribe’s life, have turned up all over Egypt. Given that the format of the various kinds of documents was as important as the content, various samples are known, showing that this was also taught assiduously in the schools.

The scribe had to be conversant with hieroglyphs, of course. These were a mixture of ideograms (pictures representing objects and concepts) and phonetic symbols. It was possible to represent a word in different ways, some permissible and some not. The scribe had to learn when to use the different permissible forms. Hieroglyphs were specially designed to be chiselled on stone but they could also be written on papyrus, using the scribe’s standard implements. These comprised a small board with two depressions for mixing the ink, one for black ink and one for red, a reed brush for writing, and small flasks containing ink pigment. This kit was the scribe’s distinguishing mark and is shown in numerous pictures as well as having its own hieroglyph.

While scribes often wrote on papyrus, they also wrote on wood, leather, stone and shards of pottery. If the postman were to bring you a letter written on a piece of broken jug, you would probably think it a little odd; not so an Ancient Egyptian. Any piece of durable material with a reasonably flat surface could be used to write on, given that papyrus took a lot of labour to produce and was expensive.

Letters, contracts, bills of sale, inventories, surveys, etc. were written, not in hieroglyphs, but in a cursive script developed from these called hieratic. This script is flowing and aesthetically pleasing but it is also more practical for everyday business than hieroglyphs. The characters of hieratic correspond to hieroglyphs, despite being of different form, and it is easy to translate from one script to the other on a sign-by-sign basis.

This, however, is not the case with demotic, another script known to the scribe. Demotic was developed late in Egyptian times, presumably as the amount of written work increased and the spoken language changed. It eventually replaced hieratic in everyday use though hieratic continued to be used in the temples. While its descent from hieroglyphic writing can be traced, demotic is very different and a sign-by-sign transcription is no longer possible.

Demotic was one of the three scripts appearing on the Rosetta Stone. It was the fact that the same text was also given in hieroglyphs and Greek that enabled linguists finally to crack the code of Ancient Egyptian writing.

Ancient Egypt engaged in relationship – sometimes hostile, sometimes friendly – with the other nations in the area, including the powerful kingdoms along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. These civilizations used the cuneiform script, composed of wedge-shaped marks pressed into moist clay tablets. The Egyptians soon realized that this form of writing was a much more efficient way of conducting diplomatic correspondence than their own scripts and so at least some scribes would have been conversant with cuneiform and the languages it was used to represent. In addition, they learned to transliterate the Egyptian language into forms suitable for expression in cuneiform script.

With at least four scripts and their corresponding languages, mathematics, the skills of surveying and accountancy, and many others, all with their appropriate formats and conventions, there was a lot for the scribe to learn and in a perfectionist society like Egypt, mediocrity could not exist – only excellence was good enough.

Egyptian scribes enjoyed prestige and admiration. They were the glue which held their intricate civilization together. Their training was long and demanding, the discipline strict, but their work was of the utmost importance to their nation and many of them achieved fame and fortune, rising to be advisers and confidants of Pharaoh himself, like the later deified Imhotep, who designed and supervised the building of Egypt’s first pyramid for his master Djoser. There are many engaging pictures and sculptures of scribes, perhaps sitting cross-legged with writing brush poised or out in the fields conducting surveys with the ink board tucked under one arm. The beauty of their work can still be admired in many splendid exemplars.

The day-dream of becoming a scribe is thus an engaging one but there is an irony in it for me. That is because my own handwriting is poor. This is something that has haunted me all my life and it is why I never write anything by hand unless this is unavoidable. Something odd happens between brain and hand so that I cannot write more than a few words without making mistakes. My hand seems to act on its own, adding a tail to a letter than has no tail, leaving out a letter or adding a symbol that doesn’t look like any known letter. As I am, then, I could not function as a scribe any more than a lame man could compete in marathon with trained runners. But I suppose, if I can imagine myself transported back in time to Ancient Egypt, then I can also imagine myself endowed in the process with the ability to learn the demanding skills necessary to becoming a proud member of the body of scribes.

Copyright © 2010 SilverTiger,, All rights reserved.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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6 Responses to To be a scribe

  1. AEJ says:

    What a wonderful daydream! Being a student of language, I share your fascination. I read a wonderful book called “Writing Systems” by Geoffrey Sampson that showed multiple intriguing examples of writing in other cultures. It has a treasured spot on my bookshelf.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Writing does indeed provide a fascinating study, especially when a script has been decoded and can be understood. It is sad that we shall never know what the Egyptian language sounded like, although there are clues to the pronunciation of some words.

  2. WOL says:

    Maybe you were a scribe in another incarnation, she says, tongue in cheek.

    Join the club. A brain that goes lickety split, a hand that cannot keep up with it, and five years of college pretty much trashed my so-so handwriting. My dad, on the other hand, had beautiful handwriting — doubly unique as he was a southpaw. In his day, it was common practice to force lefties to become righties when they learned to write. When she found out what his teacher was up to, my grandmother when roaring down to the school in high dudgeon. “God made my son left handed and you’re not going to change him!” — The teacher backed down, but on the condition that he “learn to write properly.” She refused to let him curl his hand around as is common to lefties. My dad always had a gorgeous, copper plate handwriting, and wrote with a broad nibbed fountain pen for many years. Alas, he had a strokelet about a year ago, and now can no longer read nor write. Being nearly blind does not help.

    I would imagine learning to write Egyptian would be similar in terms of skills required to learning to write Chinese – While we are wishfully thinking, I would like to be able to hear Ancient Egyptian spoken by Ancient Egyptians, and see what some of the mummies looked like before they were mummies. Tut, for one.

    • SilverTiger says:

      My son is left-handed. At school they did not force him to write right-handed but the teacher did insist that the paper be placed so that the edges of the sheet be parallel to the corresponding edges of the desk. As a result, my son wrote with a crabbed hand to avoid smudging what he had just written. I told him to turn the paper instead and I still remember his exclamation of relief when he found he could write more comfortably that way. I think his teacher must have accepted this as he wrote thus ever afterwards and has quite presentable handwriting – much nicer than mine.

      Your father’s mother was right to defend her son’s left-handedness. Good for her! My mother too was capable of being a tigress in defence of her little boy.

      An additional complication in Egyptian writing was that, in common with other peoples of the time, the Egyptians wrote right-to-left and left-to-right on alternate lines. You know which way the text runs because the glyphs of living creatures face the direction of writing. The scribe thus had to be able to produce glyphs in both orientations.

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