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Ancient Egyptian texts: Instruction in letter-writing
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Instruction in letter-writing

    Beginning of the instruction in letter-writing made by the royal scribe and chief overseer of the cattle of Amen-Re, King of Gods, Nebmare-nakht for his apprentice, the scribe Wenemdiamun.
    [The royal scribe] and chief overseer of the cattle of Amen- [Re, King of Gods, Nebmare-nakht speaks to the scribe Wenemdiamun].
    Apply yourself to this] noble profession.... You will find it useful.... You will be advanced by your superiors. You will be sent on a mission.... Love writing, shun dancing; then you become a worthy official. Do not long for the marsh thicket. Turn your back on throw-stick and chase. By day write with your fingers; recite by night. Befriend the scroll, the palette. It pleases more than wine. Writing for him who knows it is better than all other professions. It pleases more than bread and beer, more than clothing and ointment. It is worth more than an inheritance in Egypt, than a tomb in the west.
    Young fellow, how conceited you are! You do not listen when I speak. Your heart is denser than a great obelisk, a hundred cubits high, ten cubits thick. When it is finished and ready for loading, many work gangs draw it. It hears the words of men; it is loaded on a barge. Departing from Yebu it is conveyed, until it comes to rest on its place in Thebes.
-   Papyrus Lansing, late New Kingdom
  shun dancing: Men are rarely shown dancing, still it appears that dancing was popular.
  marsh: Much of the Nile delta was waterlogged and marshy.
  throw-stick: Bent stick used for hunting fowl.
Hunters palette
Hunters Palette
Source: excerpt, Francesco Raffaele's website [1]

  recite by night: Though he was literate, learning large amounts of knowledge by heart was an important part of a scribe's education.
  cubits: A cubit was about half a metre
  on a barge: Shipping on the Nile was the main means of transportation, above all for heavy loads.
  Yebu: Elephantine
    So also a cow is bought this year, and it plows the following year. It learns to listen to the herdsman; it only lacks words. Horses brought from the field, they forget their mothers. Yoked they go up and down on all his majesty's errands. They become like those that bore them, that stand in the stable. They do their utmost for fear of a beating.
    But though I beat you with every kind of stick, you do not listen. If I knew another way of doing it, I would do it for you, that you might listen. You are a person fit for writing, though you have not yet known a woman. Your heart discerns, your fingers are skilled, your mouth is apt for reciting.
    Writing is more enjoyable than enjoying a basket of [?] and beans; more enjoyable that a mother's giving birth, when her heart knows no distaste. She is constant in nursing her son; her breast is in his mouth every day. Happy is the heart [of] him who writes; he is young each day.
  a cow is bought this year, and it plows: In ancient Egypt it was cows rather than bulls or oxen which were used for ploughing. (cf. Agriculture)
  Yoked: Horses, introduced into Egypt during the Middle Kingdom and used in significant numbers since the New Kingdom, were rarely ridden, but rather used to pull chariots.
  on all his majesty's errands: Horses being very expensive to acquire and keep, they were employed for the king's and the nobility's purposes.
  I beat you with every kind of stick: Physical punishments of all kinds were widespread.
    The royal scribe and chief overseer of the cattle of Amen- Re, King of Gods, Nebmare-nakht, speaks to the scribe Wenemdiamun, as follows. You are busy coming and going, and do not think of writing. You resist listening to me; you neglect my teachings.
    You are worse than the goose of the shore that is busy with mischief. It spends the summer destroying the dates, the winter destroying the seed-grain. It spends the balance of the year in pursuit of the cultivators. It does not let seed be cast to the ground without snatching it.... One cannot catch it by snaring. One does not offer it in the temple. The evil, shape-eyed bird that does no work!
Meidum Geese
Meidum geese
Mastaba of Nefermaat
Picture source: excerpt, TourEgypt site
  snaring: with nets, cf. Fowling
    You are worse than the desert antelope that lives by running. It spends no day in plowing. Never at all does it tread on the threshing-floor. It lives on the oxen's labor, without entering among them. But though I spend the day telling you "Write," it seems like a plague to you. Writing is very pleasant!.... See for yourself with your own eye. The occupations lie before you.   threshing: Grain was threshed by driving animals, generally cattle, over the harvested corn-ears spread out on a hard surface (cf. The Grain Harvest.)
    The washerman's day is going up, going down. All his limbs are weak, [from] whitening his neighbor's clothes every day, from washing their linen.
    The maker of pots is smeared with soil, like one whose relations have died. His hands, his feet are full of clay; he is like one who lives in the bog.
    The cobbler mingles with vats. His odor is penetrating. His hands are red with madder, like one who is smeared with blood. He looks behind him for the kite, like one whose flesh is exposed.
    The watchman prepares garlands and polishes vase-stands. He spends a night of toil just as one on whom the sun shines.
    The merchants travel downstream and upstream. They are as busy as can be, carrying goods from one town to another. They supply him who has wants. But the tax collectors carry off the gold, that most precious of metals.
    The ships' crews from every house [of commerce], they receive their loads. They depart from Egypt for Syria, and each man's god is with him. [But] not one of them says: "We shall see Egypt again!"
    The carpenter who is in the shipyard carries the timber and stacks it. If he gives today the output of yesterday, woe to his limbs! The shipwright stands behind him to tell him evil things.
    His outworker who is in the fields, his is the toughest of all the jobs. He spends the day loaded with his tools, tied to his toolbox. When he returns home at night, he is loaded with the toolbox and the timbers, his drinking mug, and his whetstones.
    The scribe, he alone, records the output of all of them. Take note of it!
  There is a long scribal tradition of comparing other trades unfavorably with the profession of the scibe, generally exaggerating the - very real - hardships they had to bear.
  The maker of pots is smeared with soil, ..... : The parallel passage from The Satire of the Trades reads: 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.
  odor is penetrating: From curing leather or from dying.
  madder: plant from the roots of which a red die was made.
  whetstones: copper and bronze are much softer than steel, and tools made of them needed frequent resharpening.
    Let me also expound to you the situation of the peasant, that other tough occupation. [Comes] the inundation and soaks him..., he attends to his equipment. By day he cuts his farming tools; by night he twists rope. Even his midday hour he spends on farm labor. He equips himself to go to the field as if he were a warrior. The dried field lies before him; he goes out to get his team. When he has been after the herdsman for many days, he gets his team and comes back with it. He makes for it a place in the field. Comes dawn, he goes to make a start and does not find it in its place. He spends three days searching for it; he finds it in the bog. He finds no hides on them; the jackals have chewed them. He comes out, his garment in his hand, to beg for himself a team.
    When he reaches his field he finds [it?] broken up. He spends time cultivating, and the snake is after him. It finishes off the seed as it is cast to the ground. He does not see a green blade. He does three plowings with borrowed grain. His wife has gone down to the merchants and found nothing for barter. Now the scribe lands on the shore. He surveys the harvest. Attendants are behind him with staffs, Nubians with clubs. One says [to him]: "Give grain." "There is none." He is beaten savagely. He is bound, thrown in the well, submerged head down. His wife is bound in his presence. His children are in fetters. His neighbors abandon them and flee. When it is over, there is no grain.
  the situation of the peasant: cf The farmer and his tools, Agriculture
  his garment in his hand: To spare their clothes the poor often worked naked in wet or dirty environments.
  the snake is after him. It finishes off the seed: Probably an error only a scribe could make. Snakes were (unless they bit him) the farmer's best friend by hunting rodents which destroyed sizable parts of the crop both on the stalk and in storage.
  plowings: While in most places ploughing is required to keep the soil fertile, in Egypt where the Nile covered the land yearly with a thin layer of nutrition rich soil, the plough was used to cover the seeds. At times, animals like pigs or sheep were driven over freshly sown fields instead.
  He is bound ..... and flee: Often the family (and according to this text the neighbours, generally relations in peasant villages) were held responsible for the deeds of an individual
    If you have any sense, be a scribe. If you have learned about the peasant, you will not be able to be one. Take note of it!.... Furthermore. Look, I instruct you to make you sound; to make you hold the palette freely. To make you become one whom the king trusts; to make you gain entrance to treasury and granary. To make you receive the ship-load at the gate of the granary. To make you issue the offerings on feast days. You are dressed in fine clothes; you own horses. Your boat is on the river; you are supplied with attendants. You stride about inspecting. A mansion is built in your town. You have a powerful office, given you by the king. Male and female slaves are about you. Those who are in the fields grasp your hand, on plots that you have made. Look, I make you into a staff of life! Put the writings in your heart, and you will be protected from all kinds of toil. You will become a worthy official. Do you not recall the [fate of] the unskilled man? His name is not known. He is ever burdened [like an ass carrying things] in front of the scribe who knows what he is about.   one whom the king trusts: In a society where economic life was dominated to a large extent by the state officialdom, a scribe had a future only in the state or temple bureaucracies, where advancement to a large extent was based on achievement. Egyptian scribes formed a kind of noblesse de robe.
  on plots that you have made: Scribes assigned royal lands (cf. Allotment of crown lands to soldiers and their rents in Ptolemaic times) and reassigned land if the landmarks had been washed away by the Nile innundation.
    Come, [let me tell] you the woes of the soldier, and how many are his superiors: the general, the troop-commander, the officer who leads, the standard-bearer, the lieutenant, the scribe, the commander of fifty, and the garrison-captain. They go in and out in the halls of the palace, saying: "Get laborers!" He is awakened at any hour. One is after him as [after] a donkey. He toils until the Aten sets in his darkness of night. He is hungry, his belly hurts; he is dead while yet alive. When he receives the grain-ration, having been released from duty, it is not good for grinding.   Generally speaking military life appears not to have been popular with the ancient Egyptians. From earliest times foreigners had to be hired as mercenaries and they became steadily a more and more important part of the armed forces.
    He is called up for Syria. He may not rest. There are no clothes, no sandals. The weapons of war are assembled at the fortress of Sile. His march is uphill through mountains. He drinks water every third day; it is smelly and tastes of salt. His body is ravaged by illness. The enemy comes, surrounds him with missiles, and life recedes from him. He is told: "Quick, forward, valiant soldier! Win for yourself a good name!" He does not know what he is about. His body is weak, his legs fail him. When victory is won, the captives are handed over to his majesty, to be taken to Egypt. The foreign woman faints on the march; she hangs herself [on] the soldier's neck. His knapsack drops, another grabs it while he is burdened with the woman. His wife and children are in their village; he dies and does not reach it. If he comes out alive, he is worn out from marching. Be he at large, be he detained, the soldier suffers. If he leaps and joins the deserters, all his people are imprisoned. He dies on the edge of the desert, and there is none to perpetuate his name. He suffers in death as in life. A big sack is brought for him; he does not know his resting place.
    Be a scribe, and be spared from soldiering! You call and one says: "Here I am." You are safe from torments. Every man seeks to raise himself up. Take note of it!
  He is called up for Syria: A campaign abroad might make a soldier's fortune. Through bravery he could achieve advancement and acquire booty, though, of course, chances were he rather died of hardship, disease or in a battle.
  When victory is won: cf. Standards of behaviour after victory
    [To] the royal scribe and chief overseer of the cattle of Amen-Re, King of Gods, Nebmare-nakht.
    The scribe Wenemdiamun greets his lord: In life, prosperity, and health! This letter is to inform my lord. Another message to my lord. I grew into a youth at your side. You beat my back; your teaching entered my ear. I am like a pawning horse. Sleep does not enter my heart by day; nor is it upon me at night. [For I say:] I will serve my lord just as a slave serves his master.
    I shall build a new mansion for you [on] the ground of your town, with trees [planted] on all its sides. There are stables within it. Its barns are full of barley and emmer, wheat, cumin, dates, ...beans, lentils, coriander, peas, seed-grain, ...flax, herbs, reeds, rushes, ...dung for the winter, alfa grass, reeds, ...grass, produced by the basketful. Your herds abound in draft animals, your cows are pregnant. I will make for you five aruras of cucumber beds to the south.

Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature University of California Press, Berkeley, 1976, Volume I, pp. 168-173.
From which has become defunct [2].

  aruras: An aroura was the ground covered by a yoke of ploughing oxen in one day, about 2700 m²
  cucumber beds: Growing vegetables was much more labour intensive than growing grain. The land had to be irrigated by hand throughout the whole period of growth, it had to be hoed, weeded, and possibly even manured.


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-[1] The Hunters Palette
Goto[2] Nebmare-nakht: Instruction in letter-writing, (Papyrus Lansing), translation M. Lichtheim

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November 2003