The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
A Glance at Egyptian Papyri.

by A. J. Goddison, M.R.A.I., Member of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, &c.
Volume 1, 1890, pg. 937

When we visit the Egyptian collections in our principal museums and find our minds directed towards those ages which awe us by their antiquity a certain curiosity possesses us to know more of these things than we can gather from the often scanty descriptions given in the catalogues. We gaze in wonder at the gigantic statues of their kings, the marvelous workmanship of their sarcophagi, the wonderful decorations of their mummies, and are amazed at the beauty of their furniture, jewellery, &c., and at the refinement these display. We long to know something of the life and thought, the feelings and sentiments, of these highly civilised ancient people. To gratify this desire we must turn to their literature, to be found written on papyrus. To the majority of us the word "papyrus" suggests curious strips of old, torn, and discoloured linen, apparently, (carefully preserved under glass), covered with mystic characters and weird representations of gods and demons.

Many of these specimens are chapters from the "Book of the Dead," a collection of prayers and hymns for the use of the soul in a future state, the knowledge of which is supposed to give strength to the deceased for the conflicts through which he must pass before the attainment of final bliss. As nearly everybody of any position mummies in Egypt had one or more of these chapters written on papyrus buried with him in his coffin, there are a good many specimens in the principal museums.

Besides these religious documents there are numerous other writings--tales, treatises, precepts, historical poems, &c., many of which are deeply interesting.

Perhaps, before going further, we may describe the nature of the material upon which this literature is written. Isaiah says "The paper reeds by the brooks...shall wither, be driven away, and be no more." His words seem to have come true, as very little papyrus is now found in Lower Egypt, where it once flourished so luxuriantly that the Egyptians distinguished the god of the Lower Nile by a bunch of its flowers upon his head. Strabo describes the plant as like a "peeled wand, surmounted by a plume of feathers." It grew to a height of about sixteen feet, and the stems were about the thickness of sugar-can. The papyrus served many uses: the roots served for fuel; the lower part of the stem was sweet to suck, and was often boiled for its juice; mats and sandals were made from the bark; the lower part of the stalk was used in constructing baskets and even boats; and the upper part furnished the material for "Papua," the Egyptian name, from whence probably the Latin word papyrus, and, finally, our English word paper, have been derived.

Picture representations of the preparation of the papyrus are found in the Egyptian tombs, and especially upon the walls of one near the site of Memphis. Stripes of the stalk, cut into thin slices, are laid carefully out in a row by one man, whilst another places strips transversely over his companion's work. After being pressed and mixed with a glutinous matter, it is rolled out into a very thing paste, and dried into the sun. Dr. Birch tells us (Wilkinson's "Ancient Egyptians," Vol. 2), that the breadth of the papyri varies according to age, the oldest being much narrower than those of more recent date. To fix the exact age of a papyrus is an extremely difficult matter, as numberless copies must have been made of each work at different times for the various private and public libraries which are known to have existed in Egypt from an early period, and the scribes were continually occupied in renewing and making fresh copies of dilapidated manuscripts. The older papyri seem to be the darkest in color, but even in the early periods of its manufacture the finer qualities were lighter in color and more silky in texture than the inferior. The strips vary in length, but age and misadventure prevent out forming a very decided opinion as to the original length of any; the "Great Harris Papyrus" in the British Museum is 133 feet long, and specimens have been found reaching to the length of 150 feet.

The older known papyri date back about four thousand years, and owe their preservation to the dry climate of Egypt, and to the fact of their having been stored within tombs hermetically sealed--cut in the living rock, often to the depth of eighty or ninety feet, and covered over with dry desert sand. Papyrus was written upon in blank ink with a reed pen; and commencements of chapters or remarks worthy of extra notice were inscribed in red, as in our own rubrics. The Egyptians employed three kinds of writing, 1st, the Hieroglyphic, or sacred writing, used almost exclusively for religious and monumental compositions and records; in this the characters are distinctly drawn; and, in Hieratic, in which the same characters are represented in a running hand, reduced in form and often altered in shape; and 3rd, the Demotic, which came into use about 800 B.C., in which the Hieroglyphic characters can scarcely be recognized, and which was principally used for business purposed; it is used, however, in the second inscription on the Rosetta Stone, and on a few other monuments, but these are rare instances.

The oldest known papyrus dates from the pyramid period, and is called the "Prisse Papyrus" and, "The Oldest Book in the World." It was discovered in a tomb of the 11th Dynasty, by M. Prisse d'Avvenes, when making excavations in the Necropolis of Thebes, and was presented by him in 1847 to the National Library in Paris. This precious manuscript is beautifully written in Hieratic, and shows its antiquity by its characters being of a less cursive style than those of the later papyri. As its author, Ptahotep, lived to be above 120 years old, it is believed he saw a succession of Pharaohs, and was himself the eldest son of Kin Assa, who reigned about 3333 B.C. In his maxims Ptahotep dwells upon the advantages of the study of wisdom, and impresses his readers with the necessity of pursuing the paths of virtue rather than those of vice. In one particularly noticeable passage he says: "If thou has become great after thou hast been lowly, and if thou hast amassed riches after poverty, so that because of this thou has become first in thy city, and if the people know thee on account of thy wealth, and thou art become a mighty lord, let not thy heart be lifted up because of thy riches, for the author of them is God. Despise not thy neighbour, who is as thou wast, but treat him as thy equal." Truly this text of 4000 years ago shows how little human nature has changed, though kingdoms and nations have been swept away, for evidently, in those far away times, the accession to heath and prosperity was often attended by an altered bearing. In a later papyrus in the Museum of Leyden we find the following text: "Happy is the man who earth his own bread. Possess what thou hast in the joy of the heart. What thou has not, obtain it by work. It is profitable for a man to eat his own bread. God grants this to whomsoever honours him."

The "Maxims of the Scribe And," of the Rameside period, in which he gives advice to his son, might be used by any parent of the present da. In commending the duty of filial affection, he says:--"Thou wast put to school, and whilst thou wast taught letters each day, thy mother attended to thee after thou hadst finished with thy master, bringing thee food and drink from her house. Thou art become the master of a household, thou has married and art a man, but never lose sight of the trouble thou gavest to thy mother in infancy, nor of the protecting care she gave thee, for fear she should raise her hands to God, and He should listen to her lamentations." Again, in speaking of politeness he says:--"Do not be seated when another is standing who is older than thou, or thy superior in station." This papyrus is in the Gizeh Museum, and dates back to about 1200 B.C.

A papyrus in the British Museum called "Anastasi No. 1," from having formed part of the collection of the late M. Anastasi, for many years Swedish Consul in Egypt, is extremely interesting, as it contains a description of the travels and adventures of an Egyptian officer in Syria and Phoenicia during the reign of Ramses II. Many papyri treat upon medicine, and of these the most notable is the Ebers papyrus, which consists of 110 pages, perfectly free from decay. It discourses upon various maladies, some of which were ascribed to the influence of evil spirits and could only be cured by praying to the gods. The drugs were prepared from vegetable, animal, and mineral substances; and wild aniseed, milk, and oil of birds are highly recommended for diseases of the stomach.

The title given on the papyrus is, "An Account of Remedies Against Illness," and it commences by a "Chapter of applying remedies upon some of the limbs of man." Towards the middle of the papyrus a chapter treats upon the hair, and the means to be taken to prevent it turning grey or falling off, one of the recipes for the latter being ascribed to the mother of King Teta, who is supposed to have reigned B.C. 3300.

The use of drugs was an ancient practice in Egypt, for an old medical papyrus in the British Museum contains a recipe said to have been discovered in the days of King Cheops, the builder of the great pyramid. Homer described Helen of Troy as conversant with the medicines of Egypt, "Where Earth, the grain grower, yields herbs in greatest plenty; many that are healing in the cup, and many baneful. There each man is a leech, skilled beyond all human kind." Many portions of Homer have been found written on papyrus, and the Bodleian Library contains, amongst others, a splendid fragment of the second book of the Iliad, inscribed in early Greek writing. This precious document was found by Mr. Flinders Petrie, in 1888, in a tomb at Hawara, in Lower Egypt, rolled up and lying under the head of a mummies lady. It is about four feet long, and eleven inches wide.

Amongst the lighter literature we have the favourite tale of the "Two Brothers," which resembles in many respects the story of Joseph. This papyrus, now in the British Museum, is known to have been in the possession of the grandson of Rameses II., called Sethi II., and was written in the reign of his father, Meneptah I. The young prince's name is found written upon the last page. "How Thott took the city of Joppa," is not unlike the "Forty Thieves," although the principal actors in the story are believed to be historic personages. Thomas, the chief character, who was an officer in the army of Thotmess III. (B.C. 1600), finding it impossible to obtain possession of the city of Joppa by force, tried stratagem. He managed to enter the gate, disguised as a prisoner of war, accompanied by soldiers dressed to represent slaves, who carried other soldier, sealed up in leathern jars, which were supposed to contain treasure. The story ends with the city and its inhabitants being betrayed into the power of the King of Egypt by this means; but, unfortunately, the papyrus is very fragmentary, and very few details can be gathered. The "Doomed Prince" is a romantic tale, also of the time of Thomas III., and is written on the reverse side of a portion of the Harris papyrus. But we cannot enumerate here all the stories, more or less interesting, found on papyri; many are very fantastic, and not unlike our fairy tales; some of them, too, begin in our own old fashion of "Once upon a time."

The Book of the Dead is found in the most complete form in the Turin Museum, but even that copy does not contain all the chapters, and is of comparatively late date, 666 B.C. It has 165 chapters, of which Lepsius published a facsimile; and Dr. Birch, of the British Museum, and M. Pierret, of the Louvre, made translations. They are both incomplete works, as there are many inaccuracies in the Turin text; also Dr. Birch made his translation before the exact meaning of many of the hieroglyphs was ascertained. The Book of the Dead may be divided into three period,--that of the pre-18th-dynasty, of the Theban, and of the Saito-Greco. M. Naville, an accomplished Egyptian scholar, was extremely anxious a few years ago to publish a work embracing these three period; the labour, however, was found too stupendous, and in 1886 he brought out an edition containing the hieroglyphic texts of the Theban period only, in three volumes. Even this is a great work, containing as it does a careful explanation of the Book of the Dead, a description and classification of the manuscripts relating to it, the details of each chapter, their hieroglyphic texts, and an index of them. M. Naville wrote his work in French; but the Prussian Government having generously undertaken to bear the whole of the expenses of publication, it was carefully translated into German by M. Ludwig Stern.

The Book of the Dead consists of a number of prayers and religious formulae, arranged in chapters on papyrus, accompanied by vignettes either in colour or plainly sketched in ink. Chapters of it were also found inscribed upon the walls of tombs, and on coffins, amulets, statues, mummy wrappings, &c. Its purpose was to instruct the soul in a future state, and to give to man an account of the conditions awaiting him after the tomb. Frequently it was placed inside hollow wooden figures of Osiris (the judge of the dead) within the coffin, or else deposited in a roll bound with cord or the stalk of a plant, near or upon the mummy. The fitness of the title, the "Book of the Dead," has often been disputed; it originated with Lepsius, who contended that the name of "Funeral Ritual," given to it by Champollon, its original discoverer, was incorrect. As no better title has been suggested we must continue to call it "The Book of the Dead."

One of the latest additions to the Egyptian treasures of the British Museum is a magnificent papyrus, in almost perfect condition, containing about sixty chapters of this mysterious work. It was found in a Theban tomb within the last three years, and arrived in England in the summer of 1888. We have much cause to be grateful to Mr. E.A. Wallis Bridge, the learned Egyptologist, through whose instrumentality this beautiful and, in some of its details, unique papyrus was acquired for our national collection.

A number of facts lead to the conclusion that this manuscript belongs to the fourteenth century B.C. It was written for a "Scribe of the Sacred Revenues of all the Gods of Thebes," whose name was Ani. He also had charge of "The Granaries of the Lords of Abjdos," an office reminding us of the one held by Joseph. No copy of the Book of the Dead has been found containing all the known chapters; and, as they are seldom placed in the same order in the different papyri, we may almost conclude that, when a papyrus was ordered to be made, favourite chapters were selected and arranged according to the taste of the customer.

To understand and appreciate the Book of the Dead, a thorough knowledge of the Egyptian philosophical doctrines is required; and, even with that, many of its meaning are veiled in obscurity. Renouf, in his Hibbert lecture, No. 5, says, "Nothing can exceed the simplicity and brevity of the sentences. And yet the difficulties which a translator has to overcome are very great." And again, in the same lecture, he says, "The most accurate knowledge of the Egyptian vocabulary and grammar will not, however, suffice to pierce the obscurity arising from the mythological allusions. The difficulty is not in translating the text, but in understanding the meaning which lies beneath familiar words."

From this slight sketch of Egyptian literature, as found on papyri, we cannot help observing that this ancient race possessed a very high sense of morality even at the earliest known period of its history.

CAIRO, * December 13th, 1890.

Typed by mlgthompson, Sept 2017