Ancient History & Civilisation

6. Letters

Education—Schools of government—Paper and ink—Stages in the development of writing—Forms of Egyptian writing

The priests imparted rudimentary instruction to the children of the well-to-do in schools attached to the temples, as in the Roman Catholic parishes of our age.130 One high-priest, who was what we should term Minister or Secretary of Education, calls himself “Chief of the Royal Stable of Instruction.”131 In the ruins of a school which was apparently part of the Ramesseum a large number of shells has been found, still bearing the lessons of the ancient pedagogue. The teacher’s function was to produce scribes for the clerical work of the state. To stimulate his pupils he wrote eloquent essays on the advantages of education. “Give thy heart to learning, and love her like a mother,” says one edifying papyrus, “for there is nothing so precious as learning.” “Behold,” says another, “there is no profession that is not governed; it is only the learned man who rules himself.” It is a misfortune to be a soldier, writes an early bookworm; it is a weariness to till the earth; the only happiness is “to turn the heart to books during the daytime and to read during the night.”132

Copy-books survive from the days of the Empire with the corrections of the masters still adorning the margins; the abundance of errors would console the modern schoolboy.133 The chief method of instruction was the dictation or copying of texts, which were written upon potsherds or limestone flakes.134 The subjects were largely commercial, for the Egyptians were the first and greatest utilitarians; but the chief topic of pedagogic discourse was virtue, and the chief problem, as ever, was discipline. “Do not spend thy time in wishing, or thou wilt come to a bad end,” we read in one of the copy-books. “Let thy mouth read the book in thy hand; take advice from those who know more than thou dost”—this last is probably one of the oldest phrases in any language. Discipline was vigorous, and based upon the simplest principles. “The youth has a back,” says a euphemistic manuscript, “and attends when he is beaten, . . . for the ears of the young are placed on the back.” A pupil writes to his former teacher: “Thou didst beat my back, and thy instructions went into my ear.” That this animal-training did not always succeed appears from a papyrus in which a teacher laments that his former pupils love books much less than beer.135

Nevertheless, a large number of the temple students were graduated from the hands of the priest to high schools attached to the offices of the state treasury. There, in the first known School of Government, the young scribes were instructed in public administration. On graduating they were apprenticed to officials, who taught them through plenty of work. Perhaps it was a better way of securing and training public servants than our modern selection of them by popularity and subserviency, and the noise of the hustings. In this manner Egypt and Babylonia developed, more or less simultaneously, the earliest school-systems in history;136 not till the nineteenth century of our era was the public instruction of the young to be so well organized again.

In the higher grades the student was allowed to use paper—one of the main items of Egyptian trade, and one of the permanent gifts of Egypt to the world. The stem of the papyrus plant was cut into strips, other strips were placed crosswise upon these, the sheet was pressed, and paper, the very stuff (and nonsense) of civilization, was made.137 How well they made it may be judged from the fact that manuscripts written by them five thousand years ago are still intact and legible. Sheets were combined into books by gumming the right edge of one sheet to the left edge of the next; in this way rolls were produced which were sometimes forty yards in length; they were seldom longer, for there were no verbose historians in Egypt. Ink, black and indestructible, was made by mixing water with soot and vegetable gums on a wooden palette; the pen was a simple reed, fashioned at the tip into a tiny brush.138

With these modern instruments the Egyptians wrote the most ancient of literatures. Their language had probably come in from Asia; the oldest specimens of it show many Semitic affinities.139 The earliest writing was apparently pictographic—an object was represented by drawing a picture of it: e.g., the word for house (Egyptian per) was indicated by a small rectangle with an opening on one of the long sides. As some ideas were too abstract to be literally pictured, pictography passed into ideography: certain pictures were by custom and convention used to represent not the objects pictured but the ideas suggested by them; so the forepart of a lion meant supremacy (as in the Sphinx), a wasp meant royalty, and a tadpole stood for thousands. As a further development along this line, abstract ideas, which had at first resisted representation, were indicated by picturing objects whose names happened to resemble the spoken words that corresponded to the ideas; so the picture of a lute came to mean not only lute, but good, because the Egyptian word-sound for lute—nefer—resembled the word-sound for good—nofer. Queer rebus combinations grew out of these homonyms—words of like sound but different meanings. Since the verb to be was expressed in the spoken language by the sound khopiru, the scribe, being puzzled to find a picture for so intangible a conception, split the word into parts, kho-pi-ru, expressed these by picturing in succession a sieve (called in the spoken language khau), a mat (pi), and a mouth (ru); use and wont, which sanctify so many absurdities, soon made this strange assortment of characters suggest the idea of being. In this way the Egyptian arrived at the syllable, the syllabic sign, and the syllabary—i.e., a collection of syllabic signs; and by dividing difficult words into syllables, finding homonyms for these, and drawing in combination the objects suggested by these syllabic sounds, he was able, in the course of time, to make the hieroglyphic signs convey almost any idea.

Only one step remained—to invent letters. The sign for a house meant at first the word for house—per; then it meant the sound per, or p-r with any vowel in between, as a syllable in any word. Then the picture was shortened, and used to represent the sound po, pa, pu, pe or pi in any word; and since vowels were never written, this was equivalent to having a character for P. By a like development the sign for a hand (Egyptian dot) came to mean do, da, etc., finally D; the sign for mouth (ro or ru) came to mean R; the sign for snake (zt) became Z; the sign for lake (shy) becameSh. . . . The result was an alphabet of twenty-four consonants, which passed with Egyptian and Phoenician trade to all quarters of the Mediterranean, and came down, via Greece and Rome, as one of the most precious parts of our Oriental heritage.140 Hieroglyphics are as old as the earliest dynasties; alphabetic characters appear first in inscriptions left by the Egyptians in the mines of the Sinai peninsula, variously dated at 2500 and 1500 B.C.141*

Whether wisely or not, the Egyptians never adopted a completely alphabetic writing; like modern stenographers they mingled pictographs, ideographs and syllabic signs with their letters to the very end of their civilization. This has made it difficult for scholars to read Egyptian, but it is quite conceivable that such a medley of longhand and shorthand facilitated the business of writing for those Egyptians who could spare the time to learn it. Since English speech is no honorable guide to English spelling, it is probably as difficult for a contemporary lad to learn the devious ways of English orthography as it was for the Egyptian scribe to memorize by use the five hundred hieroglyphs, their secondary syllabic meanings, and their tertiary alphabetic uses. In the course of time a more rapid and sketchy form of writing was developed for manuscripts, as distinguished from the careful “sacred carvings” of the monuments. Since this corruption of hieroglyphic was first made by the priests and the temple scribes, it was called by the Greekshieratic; but it soon passed into common use for public, commercial and private documents. A still more abbreviated and careless form of this script was developed by the common people, and therefore came to be known as demotic. On the monuments, however, the Egyptian insisted on having his lordly and lovely hieroglyphic—perhaps the most picturesque form of writing ever made.

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