The Literature of ancient Egypt is the product of a period of about four thousand years, and it was written in three kinds of writing, which are called hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic. In the first of these the characters were pictures of objects, in the second the forms of the characters were made as simple as possible so that they might be written quickly, and in the third many of them lost their picture form altogether and became mere symbols. Egyptian writing was believed to have been invented by the god Tehuti, or Thoth, and as this god was thought to be a form of the mind and intellect and wisdom of the God who created the heavens and the earth, the picture characters, or hieroglyphs as they are called, were held to be holy, or divine, or sacred. Certain religious texts were thought to possess special virtue when written in hieroglyphs, and the chapters and sections of books that were considered to have been composed by Thoth himself were believed to possess very great power, and to be of the utmost benefit to the dead when they were written out for them in hieroglyphs, and buried with them in their coffins. Thoth also invented the science of numbers, and as he fixed the courses of the sun, moon, and stars, and ordered the seasons, he was thought to be the first astronomer. He was the lord of wisdom, and the possessor of all knowledge, both heavenly and [2]earthly, divine and human; and he was the author of every attempt made by man to draw, paint, and carve. As the lord and maker of books, and as the skilled scribe, he was the clerk of the gods, and kept the registers wherein the deeds of men were written down. The deep knowledge of Thoth enabled him to find out the truth at all times, and this ability caused the Egyptians to assign to him the position of Chief Judge of the dead. A very ancient legend states that Thoth acted in this capacity in the great trial that took place in heaven when Osiris was accused of certain crimes by his twin-brother Set, the god of evil. Thoth examined the evidence, and proved to the gods that the charges made by Set were untrue, and that Osiris had spoken the truth and that Set was a liar. For this reason every Egyptian prayed that Thoth might act for him as he did for Osiris, and that on the day of the Great Judgment Thoth might preside over the weighing of his heart in the Balance. All the important religious works in all periods were believed to have been composed either by himself, or by holy scribes who were inspired by him. They were believed to be sources of the deepest wisdom, the like of which existed in no other books in the world. And it is probably to these books that Egypt owed her fame for learning and wisdom, which spread throughout all the civilised world. The "Books of Thoth," which late popular tradition in Egypt declared to be as many as 36,525 in number, were revered by both natives and foreigners in a way which it is difficult for us in these days to realise. The scribes who studied and copied these books were also specially honoured, for it was believed that the spirit of Thoth, the twice-great and thrice-great god, dwelt in them. The profession of the scribe was considered to be most honourable, and its rewards were great, for no rank and no dignity were too high for the educated scribe. Thoth appears in the papyri and on the monuments as an ibis-headed man, and his companion is usually a dog-headed ape called "Asten." In the Hall of the Great Judgment he is seen holding in one hand a reed with which he is writing on a palette the result of the [3]weighing of the heart of the dead man in the Balance. The gods accepted the report of Thoth without question, and rewarded the good soul and punished the bad according to his statement.

Thoth, the Scribe of the Gods.

Thoth, the Scribe of the Gods.

From the beginning to the end of the history [4]of Egypt the position of Thoth as the "righteous judge," and framer of the laws by which heaven and earth, and men and gods were governed, remained unchanged.

The substances used by the Egyptians for writing upon were very numerous, but the commonest were stone of various kinds, wood, skin, and papyrus. The earliest writings were probably traced upon these substances with some fluid, coloured black or red, which served as ink. When the Egyptians became acquainted with the use of the metals they began to cut their writings in stone. The text of one of the oldest chapters of the Book of the Dead (LXIV) is said in the Rubric to the chapter to have been "found" cut upon a block of "alabaster of the south" during the reign of Menkaurā, a king of the fourth dynasty, about 3700 B.C. As time went on and men wanted to write long texts or inscriptions, they made great use of wood as a writing material, partly on account of the labour and expense of cutting in stone. In the British Museum many wooden coffins may be seen with their insides covered with religious texts, which were written with ink as on paper. Sheepskin, or goatskin, was used as a writing material, but its use was never general; ancient Egyptian documents written on skin or, as we should say, on parchment, are very few. At a very early period the Egyptians learned how to make a sort of paper, which is now universally known by the name of "papyrus." When they made this discovery cannot be said, but the hieroglyphic inscriptions of the early dynasties contain the picture of a roll of papyrus, and the antiquity of the use of papyrus must therefore be very great. Among the oldest dated examples of inscribed papyrus may be noted some accounts which were written in the reign of King Assa (fourth dynasty, 3400 B.C.), and which were found at Sakkārah, about 20 miles to the south of Cairo.

Papyrus was made from the papyrus plant that grew and flourished in the swamps and marshes of Lower Egypt, and in the shallow pools that were formed by the annual Nile flood. It no longer grows in Egypt, but it is found in the swamps of the Egyptian Sūdān, where it grows sometimes [5]to a height of 25 feet. The roots and the stem, which is often thicker than a man's arm, are used as fuel, and the head, which is large and rounded, is in some districts boiled and eaten as a vegetable. The Egyptian variety of the papyrus plant was smaller than that found in the Sūdān, and the Egyptians made their paper from it by cutting the inner part of the stem into thin strips, the width of which depended upon the thickness of the stem; the length of these varied, of course, with the length of the stem.

Thoth and Amen-Rā Succouring Isis in the Papyrus Swamps.

Thoth and Amen-Rā Succouring Isis in the Papyrus Swamps.

To make a sheet of papyrus several of these strips were laid side by side lengthwise, and several others were laid over them crosswise. Thus each sheet of papyrus contained two layers, which were joined together by means of glue and water or [6]gum. Pliny, a Roman writer, states (Bohn's edition, vol. iii. p. 189) that Nile water, which, when in a muddy state, has the peculiar qualities of glue, was used in fastening the two layers of strips together, but traces of gum have actually been found on papyri. The sheets were next pressed and then dried in the sun, and when rubbed with a hard polisher in order to remove roughnesses, were ready for use.[1] By adding sheet to sheet, rolls of papyrus of almost any length could be made. The longest roll in the British Museum is 133 feet long by 16½ inches high (Harris Papyrus, No. 1), and the second in length is a copy of the Book of the Dead, which is 123 feet long and 18½ inches high; the latter contains 2666 lines of writing arranged in 172 columns. The rolls on which ordinary compositions were written were much shorter and not so high, for they are rarely more than 20 feet long, and are only from 8 to 10 inches in height.

The scribe mixed on his palette the paints which he used. This palette usually consisted of a piece of alabaster, wood, ivory, or slate, from 8 to 16 inches in length and from 2 to 3½ inches in width; all four corners were square. At one end of the palette a number of oval or circular hollows were sunk to hold ink or paint. Down the middle was cut a groove, square at one end and sloping at the other, in which the writing reeds were placed. These were kept in position by a piece of wood glued across the middle of the palette, or by a sliding cover, which also served to protect the reeds from injury. On the sides of this groove are often found inscriptions that give the name of the owner of the palette, and that contain prayers to the gods for funerary offerings, or invocations to Thoth, the inventor of the art of writing. The black ink used by the scribes was made of lamp-black or of finely-powdered charcoal mixed with water, to which a very small quantity of gum was probably added. Red and yellow paint were made from mineral earths or ochres, [7]blue paint was made from lapis-lazuli powder, green paint from sulphate of copper, and white paint from lime-white. Sometimes the ink was placed in small wide-mouthed pots made of Egyptian porcelain or alabaster. The scribe rubbed down his colours on a stone slab with a small stone muller. The writing reed, which served as a pen, was from 8 to 10 inches long, and from one-sixteenth to one-eighth of an inch in diameter; the end used in writing was bruised and not cut. In late times a very much thicker reed was used, and then the end was cut like a quill or steel pen. Writing reeds of this kind were carried in boxes of wood and metal specially made for the purpose. Many specimens of all kinds of Egyptian writing materials are to be seen in the Egyptian Rooms of the British Museum.

[1] In some parts of Mesopotamia where scribes at the present day use rough paper made in Russia, each sheet before being written upon is laid upon a board and polished by means of a glass bottle.


Wooden Palette of Rāmeri, an official of Thothmes IV. 1470 B.C.
Wooden Palette of Aāhmes I, King of Egypt 1600 B.C.

As papyrus was expensive the pupils in the schools attached to the great temples of Egypt wrote their exercises and copies of standard literary compositions on slices of white limestone of fine texture, or upon boards, in the shape of modern slates used in schools, whitened with lime. The "copies" from which they worked were written by the teacher on limestone slabs of somewhat larger size. Copies of the texts that masons cut upon the walls of temples and other monuments were also written on slabs of this kind, and when figures of kings or gods were to be sculptured on the walls their proportions were indicated by perpendicular and horizontal lines drawn to scale. Portions of broken earthen-ware pots were also used for practising writing upon, and in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods lists of goods, and business letters, and the receipts given by the tax-gatherers, were written upon potsherds. In still later times, when skin or parchment was as expensive as papyrus, the Copts, or Egyptian Christians, used slices of limestone and potsherds for drafts of portions of the Scriptures and letters in much the same way as did their ancestors.

A roll of papyrus when not in use was kept in shape by a string or piece of papyrus cord, which was tied in a bow; sometimes, especially in the case of legal documents, a clay seal bearing the owner's name was stamped on the cord. [8]Valuable rolls were kept in wooden cases or "book boxes," which were deposited in a chamber or "house" set apart for the purpose, which was commonly called the "house of books," i.e. the library. Having now described the principal writing materials used by the ancient Egyptians, we may pass on to consider briefly the various classes of Egyptian Literature that have come down to us.