Peeps at Ancient Egypt - Jamse Baikie

Egyptian Books

The Egyptians were, if not quite the earliest, at least among the earliest of all the peoples of the world to find out how to put down their thoughts in writing, or in other words, to make a book; and one of their old books, full of wise advice from a father to his son, is, perhaps, the oldest book in the world. Two words which we are constantly using might help to remind us of how much we owe to their cleverness. The one is "Bible," and the other is "paper." When we talk of the Bible, which just means "the Book," we are using one of the words which the Greeks used to describe the plant out of which the Egyptians made the material on which they wrote; and when we talk of paper, we are using another name, the commoner name, of the same plant. For the Egyptians were the first people to make paper, and they used it for many centuries before other people had learned how much handier it was than the other things which they used.

Yet, if you saw an Egyptian book, you would think it was a very curious and clumsy thing indeed, and very different from the handy volumes which we use nowadays. When an Egyptian wanted to make a book, he gathered the stems of a kind of reed called the papyrus, which grew in some parts of Egypt in marshy ground. This plant grew to a height of from 12 to 15 feet, and had a stalk about 6 inches thick. The outer rind was peeled off this stalk, and then the inner part of it was separated, by means of a flat needle, into thin layers. These layers were joined to one another on a table, and a thin gum was spread over them, and then another layer was laid crosswise on the top of the first. The double sheet thus made was then put into a press, squeezed together, and dried. The sheets varied, of course, in breadth according to the purpose for which they were needed. The broadest that we know of measure about 17 inches across, but most are much narrower than that.

When the Egyptian had got his paper, he did not make it up into a volume with the sheets bound together at the back, as we do. He joined them end to end, adding on sheet after sheet as he wrote, and rolling up his book as he went along; so when the book was done it formed a big roll, sometimes many feet long. There is one great book in the British Museum which measures 135 feet in length. You would think it very strange and awkward to have to handle a book like that.

But if the book seemed curious to you, the writing in it would seem still more curious; for the Egyptian writing was certainly the quaintest, and perhaps the prettiest, that has ever been known. It is called "hieroglyphic," which means "sacred carving," and it is nothing but little pictures from beginning to end. The Egyptians began by putting down a picture of the thing which was represented by the word they wanted to use, and, though by-and-by they formed a sort of alphabet to spell words with, and had, besides, signs that represented the different syllables of a word, still, these signs were all little pictures. For instance, one of their signs for a was the figure of an eagle; their sign for m was a lion, and for u a little chicken; so that when you look at an Egyptian book written in the hieroglyphic character, you see column after column of birds and beasts and creeping things, of men and women and boats, and all sorts of other things, marching across the page.

When the Egyptians wanted any of their writings to last for a very long time, they did not trust them to the frail papyrus rolls, but used another kind of book altogether. You have heard of "sermons in stones"? Well, a great many of the Egyptian books that tell us of the great deeds of the Pharaohs were written on stone, carved deep and clear in the hard granite of a great obelisk, or in the limestone of a temple wall. When one of the Kings came back from the wars, he generally published the account of his battles and victories by carving them on the walls of one of the great temples, or on a pillar set up in the court of a temple, and there they remain to this day for scholars to read.

When the hieroglyphics were cut in stone, the lines were often filled in with pastes of different colours, so that the whole writing was a blaze of beautiful tints, and the walls looked as if they were covered with finely-coloured hangings. Of course, the colours have mostly faded now; but there are still some temples and tombs where they can be seen, almost as fresh as when they were first laid on, and from these we can gather some idea of how wonderfully beautiful were these stone books of ancient Egypt. The scribes and carvers knew very well how beautiful their work was, and were careful to make it look as beautiful as possible; so much so, that if they found that the grouping of figures to make up a particular word or sentence was going to be ugly or clumsy, they would even prefer to spell the word wrong, rather than spoil the appearance of their picture-writing. Some of you, I dare say, spell words wrong now and again; but I fancy it isn't because you think they look prettier that way.

But now let us turn back again to our papyrus roll. Suppose that we have got it, clean and fresh, and that our friend the scribe is going to write upon it. How does he go about it? To begin with, he draws from his belt a long, narrow wooden case, and lays it down beside him. This is his palette; rather a different kind of palette from the one which artists use. It is a piece of wood, with one long hollow in it, and two or three shallow round ones. The long hollow holds a few pens, which are made out of thin reeds, bruised at the ends, so that their points are almost like little brushes. The shallow round hollows are for holding ink—black for most of the writing, red for special words, and perhaps one or two other colours, if the scribe is going to do a very fine piece of work. So he squats down, cross-legged, dips a reed-pen in the ink, and begins. As he writes he makes his little figures of men and beasts and birds face all in the one direction, and his readers will know that they must always read from the point towards which the characters face. Now and then, when he comes to some specially important part, he draws, in gay colours, a little picture of the scene which the words describe.

Now, you can understand that this picture-writing was not very easy work to do when you had nothing but a bruised reed to draw all sorts of animals with. Gradually the pictures grew less and less like the creatures they stood for to begin with, and at last the old hieroglyphic broke down into a kind of running hand, where a stroke or two might stand for an eagle, a lion, or a man. And very many of the Egyptian books are written in this kind of broken-down hieroglyphic, which is called "hieratic," or priestly writing. But some of the finest and costliest books were still written in the beautiful old style.

On their papyrus rolls the Egyptians wrote all sorts of things—books of wise advice, stories like the fairy-tales which we have been hearing, legends of the gods, histories, and poems; but the book that is oftenest met with is one of their religious books. It is nearly always called the "Book of the Dead" now, and some people call it the Egyptian Bible, but neither of these names is the right one. Certainly, it is not in the least like the Bible, and the Egyptians themselves never called it the Book of the Dead. They called it "The Chapters of Coming Forth by Day," and the reason they gave it that name was because they believed that if their dead friends knew all the wisdom that was written in it, they would escape all the dangers of the other world, and would be able in heaven to go in and out just as they had done upon earth, and to be happy for ever.

The book is full of all kinds of magical charms against the serpents and dragons and all the other kinds of evil things that sought to destroy the dead person in the other world. The scribes used to write off copies of it by the dozen, and keep them in stock, with blank places for the names of the persons who were to use them. When anyone died, his friends went away to a scribe, and bought a roll of the Book of the Dead, and the scribe filled in the name of the dead person in the blank places. Then the book was buried along with his mummy, so that when he met the demons and serpents on the road to heaven, he would know how to drive them away, and when he came to gates that had to be opened, or rivers that had to be crossed, he would know the right magical words to use.

Some of these rolls of the Book of the Dead are very beautifully written, and illustrated with most wonderful little coloured pictures, representing different scenes of life in the other world, and it is from these that we have learned a great deal of what the Egyptians believed about the judgment after death, and heaven. But the common ones are very carelessly done. The scribes knew that the book was going to be buried at once, and that nobody was likely ever to see it again; so they did not care much whether they made mistakes or not, and often they missed out parts of the book altogether. They little thought that, thousands of years after they were dead, scholars would dig up their writings again, and read them, and see all their blunders.

Temple of Edfu


Of course, a great deal of this book is dreadful rubbish, and anything more unlike the noble and beautiful teaching of the Bible you can scarcely imagine. It has no more sense in it than the "Fee! fi! foh! fum!" of our fairy-stories. Here is one little chapter from it. It is called "The Chapter of Repulsing Serpents," and the Egyptians supposed that when a serpent attacked you on your way to heaven, you had only to recite this verse, and the serpent would be powerless to harm you: "Hail, thou serpent Rerek! advance not hither. Stand still now, and thou shalt eat the rat which is an abomination unto Ra (the Sun-God), and thou shalt crunch the bones of a filthy cat."

It sounds very silly, doesn't it? And there are many things quite as silly as this in the book. You can scarcely imagine how wise people like the Egyptians could ever have believed in such drivel. But, then, side by side with this miserable stuff, you find really wonderful and noble thoughts, that surely came to these men of ancient days from God Himself, telling them how every man must be judged at last for all that he has done on earth, and how only those who have done justly, and loved mercy, and walked humbly with God, will be accepted by Him.