I’ve spent the last four hours researching a claim which I read years ago in a source I can’t remember. It’s a tidbit that I’ve shared with my World Literature Class many times over the years. The claim relates to papyrus, the thick fibrous material on which Ancient Egyptian scribes did their writing. I wasn’t able to find the original source -- I think it may have been an interview with a writer – but I was able to find another source, Egyptian Papyrus and Papyrus-Hunting by James Baikie, which tells the same story. According to Baikie, scribes would reuse papyrus by washing the ink out with a liquid:
“In spite of the admirable quality of the ink used by the ancient Egyptian scribe, the process of washing-out was apparently quite an easy one. It was frequently resorted to, not only for the purpose of preparing a sheet of new writing, but for quite another purpose. The ancient Egyptian had a profound belief in the magical virtue of the written word, and one of his favourite ways of possessing himself of knowledge was to wash off in beer the writing of any roll whose contents he wished to make infallibly his own, subsequently drinking the beer. He thus literally absorbed the knowledge which he desired to possess.”
This is a charming story on many levels. It is easy to imagine the poor scribe, toiling away inside the a massive and impersonal Egyptian bureaucracy, being asked by his boss to wash out a papyrus containing some beautiful poem in order to reuse it to copy out some pedestrian account of grain holdings or the sale of cattle from one noble to another. He became a scribe because he loved words and yet, here he is, being asked to destroy the very things he loves. How can he honor them? By taking them into himself and letting them become a part of him.
The fact that he dissolves the words in beer is a nice touch too. It speaks directly to the feeling of intoxication that can overcome us when we read something truly inspiring or strange or well-written, especially when we read these words out loud. The other day I entertained my class of high school seniors during a lull by reading to them from the beginning of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Read them out loud yourself and see if you don’t start to get a buzz:
“rivverun past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.This is language inspiring and strange and almost impossible to read without stumbling, but if you succeed, its sense of flow, the winding way its riverish words overwhelm simple meanings and spill out over the page, is unparalleled. Just look at that glorious onomatopoeia Joyce created to capture the sound of Humpty Dumpty’s fall off of the wall. As I understand it he’s also referring to Adam and Eve, Jesus, and the Irish folk song character Finnegan, all of whom experience a “fall” of one kind or another – that’s the virtue of watery words: they can fit to fill many different vessels all at once.
Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer's rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County's gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all's fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.
The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntro-varrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and lateron life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since devlinsfirst loved livvy.”
True lovers of language, whether they’re poets or rappers (who “spit” rhymes) or writers like Baikie’s Egyptian scribe, don’t just love language for what it means: they love it for how it sounds, for how it looks on the page, and for how it feels in your mouth as you speak it. They love the fact that there is a word, mouthfeel, that precisely captures this quality. The moment I fell in love with Moby Dick wasn’t the moment that it told me a great truth or imparted interesting information. It was the moment that I read the following description of a bar:
“within are shabby shelves, ranged round with old decanters, bottles, flasks; and in those jaws of swift destruction, like another cursed Jonah (by which name indeed they called him), bustles a little withered old man, who, for their money, dearly sells the sailors deliriums and death.By the time I hit that final splash of alliteration and assonance: “villainous green goggling glasses deceitfully tapered downwards,” I wanted to submerge myself in Melville’s words and never come up for air. Every child knows the pleasure of a tongue-twister, and there are some writers, like Melville and Joyce, who seem not to have forgotten. They elevate the tongue-twister to a legitimate art in its own right.
Abominable are the tumblers into which he pours his poison. Though true cylinders without - within, the villainous green goggling glasses deceitfully tapered downwards to a cheating bottom.”
But as fun as intoxication can be, clarity of thought is an important corrective. The beer the Egyptians drank wasn’t necessarily like the beer we drink today: in the centuries before water purification, alcohol of one kind or another, usually heavily diluted, was the drink of choice for people all over the world. So the scribe’s beer may not have been so intoxicating after all.
And clearly considered, Baikie’s story starts to evaporate.
Baikie’s book was published in 1925, at the height of Egyptomania in the Western world. A mere three years earlier, Howard Carter had discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, and the discovery of the tomb, along with rumors of a deadly curse afflicting those who had opened it, stoked the interest of an entire generation.
Baikie himself was the author of a number of books on Egypt, including the absolutely delightful children’s book Peeps at Many Lands: Ancient Egypt. Baikie’s account of Egyptian life in this book is vibrant, detailed and utterly immersive, and his obvious passion for Everything Egypt seeps out of every page. In his book Glamour of the Near East Excavation, Baikie argues:
“The aim of modern excavation is not to unearth dead kings, and so to enable us to see over again what we knew already…it is to recreate for us the life of those long-dead days, and to show us how living men and women, not kings and queens and nobles only, but far more the common people of the time, lived, what they thought, what they hoped for in this life and the life to come, and how, under such inspirations, they wrought their part in the long story of human progress.”In Peeps at Many Lands, Baikie succeeds in this mission so well that I can’t help but quote a passage, one where he describes the bazaars of Thebes:
At one moment you rub shoulders with a Hittite from Kadesh, a conspicuous figure, with his high-peaked cap, pale complexion, and heavy, pointed boots. He looks round him curiously, as if thinking that Thebes would be a splendid town to plunder. Then a priest of high rank goes by, with shaven head, a panther skin slung across his shoulder over his white robe, and a roll of papyrus in his hand. A Sardinian of the bodyguard swaggers along behind him, the ball and horns on his helmet flashing in the sunlight, his big sword swinging in its sheath as he walks; and a Libyan bowman, with two bright feathers in his leather skull-cap, looks disdainfully at him as he shoulders his way through the crowd….This is Egyptian history as only a lover of Egypt could render it. But lovers are not necessarily the most objective of writers. Their loyalties are split between, on the one hand, faithfully recording the specific details that make their loved one unique, and on the other, conveying the special relationship they have with the loved one in a way that makes that relationship present to the reader. It’s easy to end up exaggerating this or that aspect in order to make what you’re describing as attractive to the reader as it is to you. It might have been hard for Baikie to resist making Egypt sound as fascinating as possible, even if that meant blurring the facts a little. Add to this a public demand for an outlandish and mysterious Egypt which was encouraged by Theosophists and Spiritualists such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and you have conditions under which even a committed historian might make a sloppy claim.
A little farther on, the Tyrian traders, to whom the cargo of our galley is consigned, have their shop. Screens, made of woven grass, shelter it from the sun, and under their shade all sorts of gorgeous stuffs are displayed, glowing with the deep rich colours, of which the Tyrians alone have the secret since the sack of Knossos destroyed the trade of Crete. Beyond the Tyrian booth, a goldsmith is busily employed in his shop. Necklets and bracelets of gold and silver, beautifully inlaid with all kinds of rich colours, hang round him; and he is hard at work, with his little furnace and blowpipe, putting the last touches to the welding of a bracelet, for which a lady is patiently waiting.
In one corner of the bazaar stands a house which makes no display of wares, but, nevertheless, seems to secure a constant stream of customers. Workmen slink in at the door, as though half ashamed of themselves, and reappear, after a little, wiping their mouths, and not quite steady in their gait. A young man, with pale and haggard face, swaggers past and goes in, and, as he enters the door, one bystander nudges another and remarks: "Pentuere is going to have a good day again; he will come to a bad end, that young man.”
By-and-by the door opens again, and Pentuere comes out staggering. He looks vacantly round, and tries to walk away; but his legs refuse to carry him, and, after a stumble or two, he falls in a heap and lies in the road, a pitiful sight. The passers-by jeer and laugh at him as he lies helpless; but one decent-looking man points him out to his young son, and says: "See this fellow, my son, and learn not to drink beer to excess. Thou dost fall and break thy limbs, and bespatter thyself with mud, like a crocodile, and no one reaches out a hand to thee. Thy comrades go on drinking, and say, 'Away with this fellow, who is drunk.' If anyone should seek thee on business, thou art found lying in the dust like a little child."
Reading Baikie’s description of the scribe absorbing some well-loved work, I note the slippery word “frequently.” How could Baikie possibly know how frequent this practice was? Even today, in a world where it is much easier to check the facts, it is possible to find examples of newspapers exaggerating the frequency of some trendy behavior, so even if Baikie somehow had a primary source attesting to a flood of scribes drinking ink, that assertion would have to be taken with a grain of salt. But Baikie doesn’t cite to an historical source at all, but rather to a mythological one:
“Thus when Prince Na-nefer-ka-ptah had got possession of the magic Book of Thoth, he made a copy of the whole book, washed off the ink with beer, and drank the beer ‘and so he knew everything that had been written in the Book of Thoth’; while at the close of the famous legend which tells how Isis stole the great name of Ra, it is written: ‘Let it be written down, and dissolve the writing in beer, and let the beer be drunk; or let it be written on a piece of linen, and worn for an amulet about the neck.”It’s a real stretch to say that actions described in the dream-space of mythology reflect actual practices in the world. We might as well read the Book of Revelation and assert that people frequently ate books.
This is especially true in light of the fact that ancient Egyptians clearly saw a metaphorical connection between drinking and reading. In fact, the word am in old Egyptian means both “to swallow” and “to know.” Mythology is often a place where we make long-used metaphors literal.
In any case, the practice was unlikely to be frequent. As the Encyclopedia Brittanica of 1910 notes in its entry on palimpsest (my favorite word, by the way):
“Papyrus could not be scraped or rubbed; the writing was washed from it with the sponge. This, however, could not be so thoroughly done as to leave a perfectly clean surface….[However], traces of earlier writing are very rarely to be detected in extant papyri. Indeed, the supply of the material must have been so abundant that it was hardly necessary to go to the trouble of preparing a papyrus, already used, for a second writing.”Baikie’s wonderful story of the ink-drinking scribes was probably, like the story it derived from, a myth. But like all good myths, I think it expresses a deeper truth about our thirst for knowledge, about the torrential power of words, and about the slow flow of the stream of time that washes away all superficial verities while at the same time nurturing us with the truth of the ages.
A sonnet by Elizabeth Bishop on the subject:
I am in need of music that would flowA toast to James Baikie and to word-lovers everywhere: may your waters be clear and your cup runneth over.
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!
There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.
What are some of the most intoxicating words you've ever read?