Wherein the life of an Egyptian scribe is better than being seized, beaten, smelling worse than fish eggs and/or oozing puss.
Ah, the business and technical writer’s life. It’s a bit like being a superspy: Using the latest in microtechnology to draft summaries of quarterly expense reports, sneaking your way through dangerous headquarters to stand in line at the photocopier, having beautiful people ignore you completely. Now that I think about it, my years writing and editing policies and procedures had nothing more in common with James Bond than both of us being hominids.
It was different for the ancient Egyptians. Dynastic scribes were more than underpaid memo-scribblers: they were true one-percenters who not only ensured government functioned smoothly, but could potentially work their way up to general and even—in one instance—pharaoh.
The Life of a Scribe
Boys began scribal training at six or seven, with the sons of wealthier parents attending boarding schools run by the government or local temples. Scribal education focused on memorizing more than 700 hieroglyphs, students carefully drawing and redrawing the characters on pottery cleaned with a wet rag between exercises. Upon graduation the students moved into apprenticeships to begin real-world training (boys from poorer families, unable to afford boarding school, alternated between apprenticeships and working with their families).
Because less than one percent of the population was literate, scribes were in high demand. Almost everything that happened in ancient Egypt (at least among the government, priesthood, and upper-level business) was recorded, including military statistics and orders, food recipes and inventories, directions and requisitions for construction, population records and even magical spells. Being the only people with the ability to create these documents provided the scribes with a stable and lucrative career.
At the very least, scribes enjoyed easier lives with higher pay than most of their fellow Egyptians; for example, scholars point to the soft body shape of the “Seated Scribe” pictured above as evidence for his wealth and sedentary lifestyle. A particularly gifted and ambitious scribe, however, could aspire to far more than chubbiness. Scribes were often regional tax officials, and a number of scribes rose to high status within their pharaonic courts: Amenhotep, son of Hapu, a scribe in the kingdom of Amenhotep III (roughly 1390–1353 BCE), was even deified and worshipped for centuries after his death.
It was even possible for scribes to rise to the highest levels of power within the kingdom. At least two scribes, Djehuty (who served Thutmose III (1479–1425)) and Horemheb (who served Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and Ay in the 14th-century BCE) became generals in the Egyptian army. Horemheb, however, rose even higher: following Ay’s death, he became the final pharaoh of the 18th dynasty. I think this sets a great precedent for modern business writers to use as their answer for the standard “where do you see yourself in XX years” interview question: “I see myself as pharaoh, or at least sitting in your seat. In fact, get out!”
Become a Writer or Smell Worse than Fish Eggs
While becoming a scribe was a solid path for social mobility, it wasn’t always the first choice for Egyptian boys who preferred playing soldier or hunter. A Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE) document commonly called The Satire of the Trades addressed this by comparing the real and imagined horrors of other trades to the relative high life enjoyed by scribes. In it Duau Khety warns his son, Pepy, against becoming a coppersmith with “his fingers like crocodile skin, his stench worse than fish eggs,” or a gardener who “has to carry a rod and all his shoulder bones age, and there is a great blister on his neck, oozing puss.”
How can poor Pepy avoid such a terrible fate? Duau Khety throws his arm around his son’s shoulder and murmurs these golden words: “I have seen violent beatings: so direct your heart to writing. I have witnessed a man seized for his labour—Look, nothing excels writing.” Think of this as the ancient Egyptian equivalent of the “plastics” scene from The Graduate.
At the same time, this wasn’t simply an ancient predecessor to 21st-century snark about jobs: The Satire of the Trades was frequently copied by students training to be scribes. I suppose forcing students to repeatedly praise their field and spit on other career tracks is one way of building dedication. Perhaps colleges and universities experiencing declines in their creative writing majors can take this approach. It couldn’t hurt to have Ashley diligently type, “Writing: It’s better than taking a beating…probably…it’s possible taking a beating pays better. At least I won’t smell worse than fish eggs.”