Papyrus

Barbara Stacy

From books, civilization arises

The current Witches’ Almanac assures us that the lovely papyrus reed growing along the Nile Delta had vast historical impact. Its stems were converted into the first paper, the first paper converted into the first books. Hundreds of hieroglyphs were simplified into cursive hieratic and demotic alphabets. For the first time ever ordinary people could read and write -- a landmark in human history. An amazing number of papyruses, secular and religious, have come down to us. We are fascinated with the beauty and cultural significance of the texts.

Glimpses of an ancient world

The Great Hymn to Aten

All beasts are content with their pasturage;
Trees and plants are flourishing.
The birds which fly from their nests,
Their wings are (stretched out) in praise to the ka.
All beasts spring upon (their) feet.
Whatever flies and alights,
They live when thou hast risen (for) them.
The ships are sailing north and south as well,
For every way is open at they appearance.
The fish in the river dart before thy face;
Thy rays are in the midst of the great green sea.

Many of the papyruses were spellbooks, repositories of magic, mystical secrets and arcane knowledge, including charms. The ancient Egyptians believed that charms could protect and charms could abolish.

Charm for the protection of a child

Run out, thou who comest in darkness, who enterest in stealth, his nose behind him, his face turned backward, who loses that for which he came.
Comest thou to kiss this child? I will not let thee kiss him.
Comest thou to soothe (him)? I will not let thee soothe him.
Comest thou to harm him? I will not let thee harm him,
Comest thou to take him away? I will not let thee take him from me.
I have made his protection against thee out of Efet-herb, it makes pain; out of onions, which harm thee; out of honey which is sweet to (living) men and bitter to those who are yonder (the dead); out of the evil parts of the Ebdu-fish; out of the jaws of the meret; out of the backbone of the perch...in darkness.
References to kissing and soothing the child warn of false friendliness; the odor of rotten fish repels.

Two charms for destruction of snakes

Get thee back, Apep, thou enemy of Ra, thou winding serpent without arms and without legs. Long is thy tail in front of thy den, thou enemy; retreat before Ra. Thy form shall be overthrown by the slaughtering knife of the great god.

O poison, I adjure thee to come forth on the earth. Horus uttereth a spell over thee. Thou shalt not rise up towards heaven but shall totter downwards, O feeble one, without strength, cowardly, unable to fight, blind, without eyes, and with thine head turned upside down. Lift not up thy face. Get thee back quickly and find not the way. Lie down in despair, rejoice not, retreat speedily, and show not thy face because of the speech of Horus, who is perfect in words of power. The poison rejoiced (but) the hearts of many were very sad thereat. Horus hath smitten it with his magical spells, and he who was in sorrow is (now) in joy.

The asp, a category of cobra, was so deadly that it was used for executions, although it was the symbol of Egyptian royalty. The snake, clutched to her breast, effected the famous suicide of Cleopatra.

Hymn to the Nile

Hail to thee, O Nile! who manifests thyself over this land, and comes to give life to Egypt!
Mysterious is thy issuing forth from the darkness, on this day whereon it is celebrated!
Watering the orchards created by Re, to cause all the cattle to live, you give the earth to drink, inexhaustible one!
Path that descends from the sky, loving the bread of Seth and the first-fruits of Nepera, You cause the workshops of Ptah to prosper!

From the mouths of the dead

Egyptians had no concept of confessing sins. At the gateway to the Otherworld, where hearts were weighed, the deceased offered precise accounts of their integrity. From The Book of the Dead, a “negative confession” by opposition provides insight into what the Egyptians regarded as evil behavior:

Glory to thee, O thou Great God, thou Lord of Truth and Justice. Lo! I have defrauded no man of his dues. I have not oppressed the widow. I have not borne false witness. I have not been slothful. I have broken faith with no man. I have slain no man. I have starved no man. I have not enriched myself by unlawful gains. I have not given short measure of corn. I have not tampered with the scales. I have not encroached upon my neighbors field. I have not cut off the running water from its lawful channel. I have not turned away the food from the mouths of the fatherless. Lo! I am pure! I am pure!

The Proverbs of Ptah Hutep

A “wisdom text” considered the world’s oldest book, about five thousand years old. The papyrus is a primary treasure of the Biblioteque Nationale, Paris:

Here begins the wise sayings said by the prince, sacred father, God’s favorite, the true son of the king, ruler of the city, minister Ptah Hutep. He wrote it to educate the ignorant and to teach his son styles of wisdom and wise sayings. Glory be to those who follow these teachings and shame be on those who neglect them.

Be not proud because of thy learning. Converse with the ignorant as freely as with the scholar, for the gates of knowledge should never be closed.

If thou art exalted after having been low, if thou art rich after having been needy, harden not thy heart because of thy elevation. Thou hast but become a steward of the good things belonging to the gods.

If thou wouldst be of good conduct and dwell apart from evil, beware of bad temper: for it contains the germs of all wickedness. When a man takes Justice for his guide and walks in her ways, there is no room in his soul for bad temper.

Do not disturb a great man, do not distract the attention of a busy man. His care is to accomplish his task. Love for the work they have to do brings men nearer to the gods.

Treat well thy people, as it behooves thee; this is the duty of those whom the gods favor.

Take care of those who are faithful to thee, even when thine own estate is in evil case. So shall thy merit be greater than the honors which are done to thee.

Do not repeat the violent words (of others). Do not listen to them. They have escaped a heated soul. If they are repeated in thy hearing, look on the ground and be silent.

A variety of the wise words to his son from Ptah Hutep, who called himself “a patriarch of one hundred ten years.” Perhaps the most endearing is the popular favorite of teaching from parent to child, good table manners: “When you sit to the table of a dignitary, take, when he asks you, from what is immediately before you. Do not look at what is before him. Do not look too much at him.”



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