Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egyptian texts: The instruction of Dua-Khety
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The Instruction of Dua-Khety

The beginning of the teaching which the man of Tjel named Dua-Khety made for his son named Pepy, while he sailed southwards to the Residence to place him in the school of writings among the children of the magistrates, the most eminent men of the Residence.

    So he spoke to him: Since I have seen those who have been beaten, it is to writings that you must set your mind. Observe the man who has been carried off to a work force. Behold, there is nothing that surpasses writings! They are a boat upon the water. Read then at the end of the Book of Kemyet this statement in it saying:

    As for a scribe in any office in the Residence, he will not suffer want in it. When he fulfills the bidding of another, he does not come forth satisfied. I do not see an office to be compared with it, to which this maxim could relate. I shall make you love books more than your mother, and I shall place their excellence before you. It is greater than any office. There is nothing like it on earth. When he began to become sturdy but was still a child, he was greeted (respectfully). When he was sent to carry out a task, before he returned he was dressed in adult garments.
-   pSallier II
  This didactic text, also called The Satire of the Trades dates from the Middle Kingdom. Whether it was intended to be a humorous description of crafts or just a dry schoolmaster's copying exercise for budding officials, it depicts working life quite realistically: mostly hard and often boring drudgery.
-Tjel : Tjaru, in the eastern Delta.
-who have been beaten : the higher up one was on the social scale, the less likely one was to undergo corporal punishment. (cf. Law and Order)

    I do not see a stoneworker on an important errand or a goldsmith in a place to which he has been sent, but I have seen a coppersmith at his work at the door of his furnace. His fingers were like the claws of the crocodile, and he stank more than fish excrement.
Metal smith
    Every carpenter who bears the adze is wearier than a fieldhand. His field is his wood, his hoe is the axe. There is no end to his work, and he must labor excessively in his activity. At nighttime he still must light his lamp.
-At nighttime he still must light his lamp : Working into the night must have been the exception. Most people probably rose at daybreak and went to bed shortly after nightfall. Lamps filled with oil (preferably castor oil which is excellent for the purpose), or fat were used for lighting.
    The jeweler pierces stone in stringing beads in all kinds of hard stone. When he has completed the inlaying of the eye-amulets, his strength vanishes and he is tired out. He sits until the arrival of the sun, his knees and his back bent at (the place called) Aku-Re.
-his back bent : Tables were only rarely used in ancient Egypt. Most craftsmen worked crouching with their workpieces on the ground before them.
    The barber shaves until the end of the evening. But he must be up early, crying out, his bowl upon his arm. He takes himself from street to street to seek out someone to shave. He wears out his arms to fill his belly, like bees who eat (only) according to their work.
-The barber shaves : Considering the tools they had shaving must have been pretty exhausting for the barber and quite an ordeal for his client. Freshly knapped flint knives were very keen, but copper and bronze tools are not known for razor-sharp edges.
    The reed-cutter goes downstream to the Delta to fetch himself arrows. He must work excessively in his activity. When the gnats sting him and the sand fleas bite him as well, then he is judged.
    The potter is covered with earth, although his lifetime is still among the living. He burrows in the field more than swine to bake his cooking vessels. His clothes being stiff with mud, his head cloth consists only of rags, so that the air which comes forth from his burning furnace enters his nose. He operates a pestle with his feet with which he himself is pounded, penetrating the courtyard of every house and driving earth into every open place.
-potter: cf Pottery
    I shall also describe to you the bricklayer. His kidneys are painful. When he must be outside in the wind, he lays bricks without a garment. His belt is a cord for his back, a string for his buttocks. His strength has vanished through fatigue and stiffness, kneading all his excrement. He eats bread with his fingers, although he washes himself but once a day.
-bricklayer : cf Building in ancient Egypt
-His kidneys are painful : much of the work was done bending over while lifting quite heavy loads.
-without a garment: clothes were relatively expensive. They were often taken off when they might get spoiled.
Brick making
    It is miserable for the carpenter when he planes the roof-beam. It is the roof of a chamber 10 by 6 cubits. A month goes by in laying the beams and spreading the matting. All the work is accomplished. But as for the food which is to be given to his household (while he is away), there is no one who provides for his children.
-planes: The modern plane was unknown, instead carpenters used adzes which require careful handling. The soft material blades were made of did not lighten the workload either. Cf. Carpenters and their Tools
-10 by 6 cubits: 5 by 3 metres. Because local trees yielded only short beams of timber, 3 metres was about the maximal width of a room without pillars supporting the ceiling.
The vintner carries his shoulder-yoke. Each of his shoulders is burdened with age. A swelling is on his neck, and it festers. He spends the morning in watering leeks and the evening with corianders, after he has spent the midday in the palm grove. So it happens that he sinks down (at last) and dies through his deliveries, more than one of any other profession.
-The vintner carries his shoulder-yoke: Only rarely were animals used for transporting loads.
The fieldhand cries out more than the guinea fowl. His voice is louder than the raven's. His fingers have become ulcerous with an excess of stench. When he is taken away to be enrolled in Delta labour, he is in tatters. He suffers when he proceeds to the island, and sickness is his payment. The forced labour then is tripled. If he comes back from the marshes there, he reaches his house worn out, for the forced labor has ruined him.
-The fieldhand: Most of Egypt's population worked the land.
-cries out more than the guinea fowl : complains eternally [1]
-raven: In Egyptian abw, meaning some kind of bird, not necessarily a raven
-forced labour: Corvée duty was not just an onus, but also supplied the workers with food during the off-season when they could not work on their own fields. This food was of course just a small part of what he had had to pay in taxes.
The weaver inside the weaving house is more wretched than a woman. His knees are drawn up against his belly. He cannot breathe the air. If he wastes a single day without weaving, he is beaten with 50 whip lashes. He has to give food to the doorkeeper to allow him to come out to the daylight.
-Some weaving was done on primitive horizontal looms at home by the women. Professional weavers were generally men.
-to come out to the daylight: On work days one had to work while there was enough light to see by.
The arrow maker, completely wretched, goes into the desert. Greater than his own pay is what he has to spend for his she-ass for its work afterwards. Great is also what he has to give to the fieldhand to set him on the right road to the flint source. When he reaches his house in the evening, the journey has ruined him.
-spend for his she-ass: Cf. Records of legal proceedings at Deir el Medine
-flint source: Flint occurs as nodules in limestone where it can be quarried. Many flint quarries were located in the eastern desert. By the time of the composition of these Instructions, bronze arrow heads were becoming more common.
The courier goes abroad after handing over his property to his children, being fearful of the lions and the Asiatics. He only knows himself when he is back in Egypt. But his household by then is only a tent. There is no happy homecoming.
-The courier goes abroad: Overland travel was often on foot, at times on a donkey or, probably rarely, by chariot and over bad or non existent roads. It was therefore exceedingly time consuming, cf. a letter from Burnaburiash to Akhenaten.
-fearful of the lions and the Asiatics: Many regions were largely unpopulated, and a traveller might be attacked by wild animals or robbers, cf. another letter from the king of Babylon.
The furnace-tender, his fingers are foul, the smell thereof is as corpses. His eyes are inflamed because of the heaviness of smoke. He cannot get rid of his dirt, although he spends the day at the reed pond. Clothes are an abomination to him.
The sandal maker is utterly wretched carrying his tubs of oil. His stores are provided with carcasses, and what he bites is hides.
Foundry workers
Foundry workers
-heaviness of smoke: In a country where wood was rare and any combustible matter might serve as fuel, the use of clean-burning charcoal was probably not widespread among the poor, but it contributed to the denuding of the eastern desert where most of the mines were located.
-stores are provided with carcasses : His health is health as corpses [1]
The washerman launders at the riverbank in the vicinity of the crocodile. I shall go away, father, from the flowing water, said his son and his daughter, to a more satisfactory profession, one more distinguished than any other profession. His food is mixed with filth, and there is no part of him which is clean. He cleans the clothes of a woman in menstruation. He weeps when he spends all day with a beating stick and a stone there. One says to him, dirty laundry, come to me, the brim overflows.
-crocodile: crocodiles and hippos were the most dangerous big animals in Egypt and lived in close proximity to the human population. They have since been exterminated in the lower Nile.
    The fowler is utterly weak while searching out for the denizens of the sky. If the flock passes by above him, then he says: would that I might have nets. But God will not let this come to pass for him, for He is opposed to his activity.
-nets: fowling with nets was probably quite effective.
    I mention for you also the fisherman. He is more miserable than one of any other profession, one who is at his work in a river infested with crocodiles. When the totalling of his account is made for him, then he will lament. One did not tell him that a crocodile was standing there, and fear has now blinded him. When he comes to the flowing water, so he falls as through the might of God.
-Fish, fresh, dried or salted were an important part of the diet.
-a river infested with crocodiles: most fishing was done from reed-rafts lying low in the water.
    See, there is no office free from supervisors, except the scribe's. He is the supervisor!
    But if you understand writings, then it will be better for you than the professions which I have set before you. Behold the official and the dependent pertaining to him. The tenant farmer of a man cannot say to him: Do not keep watching me. What I have done in journeying southward to the Residence is what I have done through love of you. A day at school is advantageous to you. Seek out its work early, while the workmen I have caused you to know hurry on and cause the recalcitrant to hasten.
    I will also tell you another matter to teach you what you should know at the station of your debating. Do not come close to where there is a dispute. If a man reproves you, and you do not know how to oppose his anger, make your reply cautiously in the presence of listeners.
    If you walk to the rear of officials, approach from a distance behind the last. If you enter while the master of the house is at home, and his hands are extended to another in front of you, sit with your hand to your mouth. Do not ask for anything in his presence. But do as he says to you. Beware of approaching the table.
-your hand to your mouth: a gesture of respect.
-But do as he says to you : but react to him when addressed [1]
    Be serious, and great as to your worth. Do not speak secret matters. For he who hides his innermost thoughts is one who makes a shield for himself. Do not utter thoughtless words when you sit down with an angry man.
-Be serious, and great as to your worth : Be serious with anyone greater in dignity [1]
-when you sit down with an angry man : but take your seat with the reliable. [1]
    When you come forth from school after midday recess has been announced to you, go into the courtyard and discuss the last part of your lesson book.
    When an official sends you as a messenger, then say what he said. Neither take away nor add to it. He who abandons a chest of books, his name will not endure. He who is wise in all his ways, nothing will be hidden from him, and he will not be rebuffed from any station of his.
-He who abandons a chest of books : Whoever leaves out the declamation (?), [1]
    Do not say anything false about your mother. This is an abomination to the officials. The offspring who does useful things, his condition is equal to the one of yesterday. Do not indulge with an undisciplined man, for it is bad after it is heard about you. When you have eaten three loaves of bread and swallowed two jugs of beer, and the body has not yet had enough, fight against it. But if another is satiated, do not stand, take care not to approach the table.
    See, you send out a large number. You hear the words of the officials. Then you may assume the characteristics of the children of men, and you may walk in their footsteps. One values a scribe for his understanding, for understanding transforms an eager person. You are to stand when words of welcome are offered. Your feet shall not hurry when you walk. Do not approach a trusted man, but associate with one more distinguished than you. But let you friend be a man of your generation.
-A different translation [1]: Look, you send out the throng, you hear the words of officials, Behave then like the children of (important) people, when you are going to collect them. The scribe is the one seen hearing (cases); Would fighters be the ones to hear? Fight words that are contrary; move fast when you are proceeding - your heart should never trust. Keep to the paths for it: the friends of a man are your troops.
    See, I have placed you on the path of God. The fate of a man is on his shoulders on the day he is born. He comes to the judgement hall and the court of magistrates which the people have made. See, there is no scribe lacking sustenance, (or) the provisions of the royal house. It is Meskhenet who is turned toward the scribe who presents himself before the court of magistrates. Honour your father and mother who have placed you on the path of the living. Mark this, which I have placed before your eyes, and the children of your children.
-I have placed you on the path of God : Abundance is on the path of the god [1]
-the court of magistrates which the people have made : that court of officials is the one allotting people to him [1]
-Meskhenet : Goddess of childbirth
-Honour your father and mother : Thank god for the father, and for your mother [1]
    It has come to an end in peace.

Source: Erman, Adolf (1927): The literature of the ancient Egyptians; poems, narratives, and manuals of instruction, from the third and second millennia B. C.
London, Methuen & co. ltd., pp. 67f.




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-[1] Teaching of Khety - the 'Satire of Trades'
-Trades and Crafts
-The satire of the trades
-Papyrus Lansing: A bureaucrat's view of life

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September 2004
February 2012