Legend has it that it was the Egyptian god Thoth who created writing or, as the Egyptians called it, medu netjer “the words of the gods” (this is what we refer to as hieroglyphics, after the Greek ἱερός “holy” and γλύφω “to carve”). His intention was to give wisdom and a better memory to the Egyptians, but the god Re thought that writing would have the opposite effect, making people rely on written documents for wisdom and memory. However, Thoth still gave writing to a restricted group: the scribes. For this reason, scribes honoured Thoth as their patron.
The god Thoth with writing tools.
Scribes were highly thought of in Egyptian society and they had to pass several years of training until they got enough knowledge and mastered writing. The Houses of Life (per-ankh), normally attached to temples, worked as centres of knowledge and as schools for scribes. In these centres books were copied, all kinds of knowledge were kept in what we would call libraries and people were trained to become scribes, administrators or even healers.
Egyptian wooden figurine of a scribe. © Trustees of the British Museum.
But Thoth was not the only god venerated in the House of Life. So was Seshat, goddess of writing and scribe of the gods. As the goddess of writing she would do all the accounting and record keeping of the gods. She also does measures, is patron of the libraries, librarians and builders and is often depicted as wife or daughter of Thoth, god of wisdom and creator of writing. But most importantly, she would receive a copy of the documents written in the House of Life so that she would keep them eternally in the library of the gods.
Seshat writing. Limestone relief (ca.1919-1875 BC). Brooklyn Museum.
We already saw a goddess of writing in the Mesopotamian tradition. In Egypt too we have a female deity in charge of writing but also of all scribal duties. As we said in the previous post of Writing Gods and Myths, this may suggest that women could also receive a higher education and become literate. In fact, there is evidence that at least in Egypt women could have jobs that required literacy, like physicians or high religious positions. But we also know of members of the royal family who were literate, like Neferu-Ra (daughter of pharaoh Hatshepsut) and queens Nefertiti and Tiye.
Bust of queen Nefertiti. Neues Museum Berlin.
For the next instalment we will be leaving the Mediterranean and heading north – look out for it soon!
~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (CREWS project PhD student)