How did scribes learn to write?

Going to school was the key to success in ancient Egypt. To get a good job you had to train to be a scribe. You had to learn to read and write.  Do you think it is the same today?


Who could become a scribe?

Anyone! Even a peasant could be taken on as a pupil, if he showed talent. But very few peasants did become scribes. Most were middle or upper class - sons of nobles, craftsmen, officials, priests, and the like. Noblemen's sons often had their own private tutor.

Village scribes could also take on an apprentice to help with jobs like letter-writing and drawing up legal documents.


Schools were often attached to temples. They could also be part of local government offices (like town halls).

Boys started at temple schools from as young as five years of age.

Teachers would have a whitewashed board on the classroom wall, on which they wrote things for the students to copy - just like a whiteboard!


Learning to write

Training began with hieratic, the shorthand version of hieroglyphs which was easier to write. Later on the pupil learned hieroglyphic.

Learning to write was very boring! Children first had to learn to write the symbols properly, and to pack them together neatly in lines and columns. This meant lots and lots of copying them out. Then they had to copy out lots of passages the teacher had written on the board, to learn how to write sentences, letters, and so on.

Thoth, the god of scribes


What sort of things did pupils have to write?

Children had to copy lots of letters, sometimes myths, and sometimes what we call 'wisdom literature.' Wisdom literature were writings about how people should behave, especially young students.

Below are quotes from two works pupils often had to copy. One is about how great it is to be a scribe and how terrible to be anything else. The teachers hoped this passage would make pupils work hard to be a scribe. The second passage tells us teachers would beat children who misbehaved with sticks. Do you think that is a good way to keep control? 


The Satire of Trades

"Do you not consider how badly things are for the farmer when his harvest is registered? Pests have taken half the corn. Mice infest the field and locusts have descended. Cattle devour and sparrows steal. Thieves take what is left from the threshing floor. Woe to the farmer!

When the scribe arrives at the riverbank to register the harvest, he says, 'Give over the corn!' The farmer says 'There is none.' He is stretched out and beaten; he is tied up and thrown into a ditch.

But the scribe directs the work of all the people. For him there are no taxes because he pays his tribute in writing." 



Being beaten!

"Do not be idle, do not waste your time, or you will be soundly beaten. Do not give yourself over to pleasures - that will be your ruin. Write with your hand, read with your mouth and seek advice from those who are wiser than you.

A scribe that is skilled in his calling, a master of education, is most fortunate. Try hard every day to master writing. Do not spend a moment in idleness or you will be beaten. A boy's ear is on his back; he only hears when he is beaten. Take these words to heart for your own good."