About writings and rewritings by scribes: an e-dialogue with Hana Navratilova

2019.12.12 | By Gregory Nagy (revised 2019.12.15)

§0. In the second illustration for my posting in Classical Inquiries 2019.11.22, I showed a picture of the ancient Egyptian divinity Thoth, who is the god of scribes and, more generally, of writing and wisdom. The picture shows him in the act of writing. This picture is a photograph of a three-dimensional model created in modern times as a re-enactment of a two-dimensional picture painted within the text of an ancient papyrus. In the cover illustration for the posting here for 2019.12.12, I show the same picture of the modern three-dimensional Thoth, but, this time, I place it to the left of another picture of the same god Thoth. And this other picture on the right is a photograph of a two-dimensional painting —a picture painted within the text of another ancient papyrus, the Papyrus of Ani, housed in the British Museum. What I hope to argue here is that the two pictures of the ibis-headed god Thoth as originally painted in the two ancient Egyptian papyri (and in many other papyri) show him in the act of producing a text that is directly relevant to the texts of the papyri. In the course of planning my argumentation, I initiated a dialogue, by way of e-mail, with a noted Egyptologist, Hana Navratilova, about questions of writing and rewriting by scribes. In the course of our e-dialogue, I had in mind one underlying question in particular: is the idea of Thoth as the divine model of scribes parallel to the idea of an authorized “fair copy”? By implication, the writing of a notionally perfect text by the divine model as scribe requires perfectionism on the part of imperfect mortal scribes who must copy the original text, perfect as it is. And the assurance of perfection would have to come from Thoth, that otherworldly scribe who is seen in the act of producing his own otherworldly text.

On the left: detail of Thoth as scribe. Close-up from a set of modern three-dimensional models. These models recreate a scene, painted in an ancient papyrus, that shows the weighing of the heart of a woman named Isty. Field Museum, Chicago. Image detail after https://www.flickr.com/photos/101561334@N08/35255185793/.
On the right: detail of Thoth as scribe. Close-up from a set of ancient two-dimensional pictures. These pictures recreate a scene, painted in an ancient papyrus, that shows the weighing of the heart of a man named Ani. From the Papyrus of Ani, British Museum. Image detail from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BD_Weighing_of_the_Heart.jpg.


§1. [GN:] I was e-introduced to Hana Navratilova by Ian Rutherford, whom I was asking for advice about the extended caption that I wrote for the second illustration in Classical Inquiries 2019.11.22. That second illustration corresponds to the left side of the diptych that is featured as the first illustration here in Classical Inquiries 2019.12.12. Ian had offered to help me by consulting Hana about my caption, and that is how my e-dialogue with her got started. In §1A, I (= hereafter GN) repeat the text of the caption I wrote. Then, in §1B and in §1C, I show the initial comments of Hana (hereafter = HN), who was originally responding to questions I was asking Ian (hereafter IR).

§1A. [GN:] The image here is a close-up photograph of a model of Thoth, part of a set of modern three-dimensional models based on ancient two-dimensional pictures painted inside the text of a papyrus scroll excavated in 1891 and dating from the 21st Dynasty. The god Thoth is pictured in “Scene III” of the papyrus, the text of which depicts a series of otherworldly scenes derived from the Book of the Dead. The version of that Book as rewritten in the text of this papyrus has been customized to fit the circumstance, which I can summarize this way: a dead woman has been mummified and then entombed in her coffin together with the papyrus. The woman’s mummy and her coffin and the customized papyrus and the modern three-dimensional models that are based on the ancient two-dimensional pictures in the papyrus are all housed together in the Field Museum, Chicago: https://www.flickr.com/photos/9549670@N05/38616966031/. Pictured in “Scene III” of the papyrus is the god Thoth in the act of taking notes while observing a ritual action, and it is this picturing that we see replicated in the modern three-dimensional model that I show in the close-up photograph above. The ritual action here is a weighing of the heart of the dead woman, described in the papyrus as a Chantress of the god Amun. The actual heart of this woman had been left inside her mummified body, entombed together with the papyrus. The figures who are pictured in “Scene III” of the papyrus—and who are replicated by way of the modern three-dimensional models exhibited in the Field Museum—are engaged in the act of actually weighing the woman’s heart. The weighing is supervised by the jackal-headed god Anubis and recorded by the ibis-headed god Thoth. Pictured on one side of a huge otherworldly scale is the heart of the Chantress, and, on the other side, the Feather of Truth. If the heart successfully balances against the Feather, then the Chantress has passed the test and may now be presented to Osiris and Isis; if she does not pass the test, however, her heart will be devoured by the monstrous Ammit, also pictured in the papyrus. The god Thoth, with a writing implement and a writing surface in hand, stands by, observing the results of the weighing—and taking notes.

§1B. [HN, responding to a general question posed by GN, who had asked IR about the multiple bureaucratic roles of ancient Egyptian scribes:] Pointing out the multiple roles of scribes is an excellent idea. But there is no need to worry unduly about the bureaucratic side of their actions —it all depended on context and individual social position. Some of the bureaucrats were somewhat like the Confucian literati in China, highly cultured, well-versed in poetry, etc. And, yes, the religious hymns or aspects of ritual would have been also well within the remit of a specialist scribe, even if not of every scribe. Also—one more note—the act of writing is very important in and of itself—any scribe’s pen becomes the symbolic pen (or beak) of Thoth, and has the power (and duty) to record truth. Being a scribe came with a responsibility of enacting the Maat (order, truth, justice, all rolled into one). Niv Allon and I (= Allon and Navratilova 2017) looked into this in our book on scribes (see also Allon 2013).

§1C. [HN, responding to a specific question posed by GN, who had asked IR about the translation ‘Chantress’:] ‘Chantress of Amun’ is an accepted translation of a title SmAy.t n Imn, alternatives that I have seen used are ‘Songstress’, which is far less poetic, and ‘Singer’, which blurs the fact that it was a specifically female role (male title holders are rare). These ladies were pretty high up in the hierarchy, and singing was just a part of what they did—the research on their role is still ongoing (compare Onstine 2016). The lady’s name, transcribed by way of modern Egyptological spelling conventions as Isty, or As.t—which could also be read Aset or Eset—is the same name as that of the goddess Isis. Egyptian women were frequently given this name—either on its own, as here, or in compound formations of theophoric names, such as Esetnefret.

Detail of an image from the Anthropological Collections of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago; used under a CC BY-NC license. GN comments: here the lady Isty, namesake of Isis, is about to be received by Osiris, seated on his throne, and by his consort Isis, standing next to the throne.


§2. [GN, responding (2019.11.29) to the comments of HN that had been kindly forwarded to him by IR:] In response to your treasured comments… I have further questions. What is the best way to think of the writing implement used by Egyptian scribes who work on a papyrus like the one that was entombed together with our friend the ‘Chantress’? Are such scribes writing or painting—or both? And is it possible that the text that is notionally recorded by Thoth is then transferred, notionally, into the papyrus roll? As you can see by now, I love the term “notionally”!

§3. [GN, with background for the questions posed in §2:] You will see why I am asking these questions when you read, below, two quotations from two separate works of mine, both of which are available online in their entirety (if you want to see the overall contexts).

§3A. Quotation 1 from GN, taken from https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/6687

¶24. [W]e have seen that some standard Mycenaean words have survived into the first millennium BCE, and the two examples we have considered are ἵππος/híppos and ἁρμόττω/harmóttō.{13<https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/6687#n.13>} It is no accident, I think, that these two surviving examples of standard Mycenaean, ἵππος/híppos and ἁρμόττω/harmóttō, have to do with the elite activities of horsemanship and charioteering.

¶25. An analogous point can be made about the elite activity of scribal writing. It has to do with the noun διφθέρα/diphthérā, meaning ‘leather, parchment’, which is derived via *depstérā from the verb δέψω/dépsō in the sense of ‘tan’—as in the tanning of leather or parchment. The noun διφθέρα/diphthérā passes the phonological test of the standard Mycenaean dialect, showing the linguistic innovation of raising e to i next to a bilabial, whereas the corresponding verb δέψω/dépsō fails the same test, with its original e left unraised. Also failing the test is the noun δέψα / dépsa, attested as an entry in the Lexicon attributed to Zonaras, where it is glossed as βύρσα ‘hide’.

¶26. In translating διφθέρα/dipthérā as ‘parchment’, I mean ‘parchment for writing’, following Herodotus (5.58), who says that the word διφθέρα/dipthérā was used by {88|89} Ionians in that sense. Relevant here is the existing archaeological evidence for the use of parchment by the Linear A scribes in the administrative center at Zakro in Crete.{14<https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/6687#n.14>} Evidently, the procedure of these scribes was to use parchment for their permanent archival records, as opposed to their use of clay tablets for making temporary records. I infer that the Linear B scribes of the Mycenaean era followed an analogous procedure: they would write their temporary records on clay tablets, and these records would then be transferred at the end of a given fiscal year from clay to parchment (the notion of a fiscal year is indicated by references in the Linear B tablets to the current year as opposed to the immediately preceding and following years). There is an irony to be noted here: when the administrative centers of the Mycenaean era were destroyed by fires, the temporary records of the Linear B scribes were made permanent for archaeologists because they were baked and thus preserved by the same fires that must have destroyed the permanent records recorded on parchment.

¶27. I argue, then, that the noun διφθέρα/diphthérā is a reflex of standard Mycenaean, referring to the elite activity of scribes writing on parchment, while the corresponding verb δέψω/depsō is a reflex of substandard Mycenaean, referring to the non-elite activity of tanners tanning hides—whether or not these hides ever become the parchment of scribes. The use of διφθέρα/diphthérā with reference to the parchment of elite scribes survives in the Cypriote word διφθεραλοιφός/diphtheraloiphós, which means literally ‘parchment-painter’. This word is preserved in the ancient dictionary attributed to Hesychius, where it is glossed as γραμματοδιδάσκαλος παρὰ Κυπρίοις ‘teacher of literacy, in Cypriote usage’ [literally, ‘teacher of letters, among Cypriotes’]. This word is relevant to my earlier statement about the studiously archaizing culture of the Cypriotes in the first millennium BCE: “the elites of this insular culture still retained the custom of chariot-fighting and the practice of syllabic writing, using a scribal system that is evidently cognate with the Linear B system (and even with the earlier Linear A system).”

§3B. Quotation 2 from GN, taken from https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/5976.ii-interweaving-metonymy-and-metaphor

2¶121. [T]he myth of the Gigantomachy was the equivalent of a charter myth for Athens. That is, the narration of the Gigantomachy {120|121} was considered to be a foundational statement about Athenian identity—the ultimate statement.{123<https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/5976.ii-interweaving-metonymy-and-metaphor#n.123>} And the ritualized process of pattern-weaving the robe or Peplos of Athena was the equivalent of actually narrating this charter myth.{124<https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/5976.ii-interweaving-metonymy-and-metaphor#n.124>} That is to say, the narration of the Gigantomachy as a charter myth was literally woven into the Peplos of Athena. A vital piece of evidence comes from a passage I am about to quote from Plato, whose wording refers specifically to the weaving of the quadrennial Peplos. I quote here that passage, joining the dialogue at a moment when Socrates has this to say to Euthyphro:

So, do you think that there really was a war among the gods with each other, and that there were terrible hostilities and battles and many other such things as are narrated by poets—sacred things [hiera] that have been patterned [kata-poikillein] for us by noble masters of visual arts [= grapheus plural], in particular the Peplos at the Great [= quadrennial] Panathenaia, which is paraded up to the Acropolis, and which is full of such pattern-weavings [poikilmata]? Shall we say that these things are true, Euthyphro?

Plato Euthyphro 6b–c


2¶122. We see here an explicit reference to the pattern-weaving of the Gigantomachy, as a sacred myth, into the Peplos rewoven for the quadrennial or Great Panathenaia. And we also see that the weaving was done by male professionals.

2¶123. In my initial formulation about the weaving of the quadrennial Panathenaic Peplos, I had already asserted that its weavers were male professionals. And now the evidence of Plato’s wording here backs up that assertion, since the word he uses with reference to the weavers of the Peplos is the masculine plural noun grapheis, meaning ‘masters of the visual arts’. This noun, which is grapheus in the singular, is relevant in other ways as well. For example, grapheus can mean not only ‘visual artist’ in general but also ‘painter’ in particular, as in Plato Phaedo 110b. Further, the related noun graphē is used in the sense of ‘painting’ in a passage about {121|122} Pheidias in Strabo 8.3.30 C354. The meanings of these words grapheus and graphē as ‘painter’ and ‘painting’ are also relevant to pattern-weaving, since we already know that the idea of painting can overlap with the idea of pattern-weaving, as in the case of the Latin noun pictūra. Even more telling is the Greek verb en-graphein, which is actually attested in a context that refers specifically to the weaving of patterns into the fabric of the quadrennial Peplos (scholia for Aristophanes Knights 566).{126<https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/5976.ii-interweaving-metonymy-and-metaphor#n.126>}

§4. [HN responds:] I dare say the Egyptian parallels can be of some use here.
The worlds of writing and painting are closely related in ancient Egypt, even if—necessary caveat—not every scribe is a painter and vice versa (see Laboury 2016).

• First, the writing and painting utensils look similar. The writing palette differs from the painting palette only in number of colours. The painting palette has many more colours. A scribal palette would have only red and black, with rush pens enclosed, as opposed to the larger palette of a painter, with several pits for different colours. A painter would also use a larger selection of brushes, as opposed to the writing persons, who would just have the narrow brush pen at their disposal.

• Second, the painter is a ‘scribe of the outlines’, a sXA qdw, as opposed to a sXA, ‘scribe’. The close relation of writing, especially monumental hieroglyphic texts, and painting of figural scenes was thus clearly expressed. In terms of monumental art, communication via written and visual message in Egypt was indeed rather closely related and operated in interaction (see in general Baines 2007).

§5. [GN responds:] About the text produced by Thoth in paintings that show him in the act of producing such a text… Such texts show the god standing in profile while holding in near-profile the object on which he is producing his text, and so we might assume we cannot see such a text in its fullness. But I think we can in fact see the god’s full text: it is rewritten as the text that we see written in the papyri that picture the original writer of the notionally original text, which is the “fair copy,” as it were, produced by the god of scribes himself. And even the picturing of the god in the act of writing may have been notionally painted by the god himself as an accompaniment to what he has notionally written. Further, if we can think of the god as the original painter as well as the original writer of such papyri, we can even think of Thoth as picturing himself in the act of producing his own “fair copy” of his own text. It would be a mise en abyme, where the originator of text and image pictures himself in the act of originating the text and the image.

§6. [HN responds:] The matter is even more interesting, however, in relation to the object that Thoth is actually holding in painted pictures that represent him in the act of producing a text while taking notes as he witnesses the weighing of a dead person’s heart. In the case of the relevant picture we see painted in the Papyrus of Ani, the god Thoth holds a scribal palette, as described above. In pictures we see painted in other papyri, Thoth holds both a palette and another piece of writing surface, resembling a tablet—as in the Papyrus of Hunefer, EA9901, which is housed, like the Papyrus of Ani, in the British Museum. If, in situations where Thoth is holding a scribal palette, we assume he is also recording the scene that he himself is a part of, then the mise en abyme becomes particularly sophisticated.

The weighing of the heart in the papyrus of Hunefer, British Museum. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


§7. [GN responds:] This dialogue leads me to think: in terms of ancient Egyptian scribal practices, the act of producing a text is primarily an act of painting, but this act can include the act of writing. In such terms, then, the very idea of Image includes the very idea of Text.

§8. [HN responds to the points made by GN at §3:] Regarding the practice of writing and the process of producing a temporary versus permanent record:

§8A. Let’s first return again to the situation as shown in the Book of the Dead that is customized for the Chantress in the papyrus at the Field Museum: what are we to make of the tablet-like object held by Thoth? In this case, it is rather difficult to decide, as Thoth is sometimes seen scribbling on an object resembling a tablet (as in the painting within the text of the papyrus that inspired the 3D model), or on his own scribal palette, or in still other situations on an object that resembles a papyrus roll. A closer look would be an intriguing study in practicalities of writing as depicted in the various Book of the Dead texts. However, even if the visual evidence of such texts is ambiguous, it is an attested fact that people wrote on tablets and on fragments of stone and pottery, and then transferred their notes on papyrus. They could even write on their own writing palette!

§8B. But a transfer from palettes and fragments did not always happen (fragments of stone with texts could have also been archived, as so-called ostraca), but the practice is attested. Hence, Thoth might have also written on a tablet, to transfer his notes later … (see the discussions in Donker van Heel and B. J. J. Haring 2003).

§8C. There are some models of a scribe holding what looks like a large ‘tablet’: in fact this is most likely a papyrus, as tablets of this size would have been very impractical to carry, but a papyrus of this size was simply rolled up, etc.

§8D. To sum up—writing and painting do inhabit closely related spaces in Egyptian culture, and the practice of writing also included making preliminary notes and transferring these.

§8E. Finally—considering ‘masters of visual arts’—the Egyptian painters certainly saw themselves as such and as pupils of Thoth at the same time. The texts attested in Deir el-Medina (you can’t get away from that place in Egyptology …) show that the painters responsible for royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings were worshipping Thoth and considering themselves to be part of the community of scribes.

§8F. I am intrigued by the Mycenean evidence of the practice of preliminary notes!

Further illustrations:


A writing palette, complete with reed pens in their groove (palette of Smendes), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 47.123a–g. Image via the Met.


A painter’s palette (no brushes), dated to reign of Amenhotep III, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 26.7.1294. Image via the Met.


View of a granary model, including a scribe using a portable “table” (open papyrus roll) and writing palette, dated to reign of Amenemhat I, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 20.3.11. Image via the Met.


Detail of the above: two scribes at work with scrolls and palette.




Allon, N. 2013. “The writing hand and the seated baboon: tension and balance in statue MMA 29.2.16.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 49:93–112

Allon, N., and Navratilova, H. 2017. Ancient Egyptian Scribes: A Cultural Exploration. London and New York.

Baines, J. 2007. Visual and written culture in ancient Egypt. Oxford.

Donker van Heel, K., and B. J. J. Haring. 2003. Writing in a workmen’s village: scribal practice in Ramesside Deir el-Medina. Egyptologische Uitgaven 16. Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten.

Laboury, D. 2016. “Le scribe et le peintre: à propos d’un scribe qui ne voulait être pris pour un peintre.” In Aere perennius: mélanges égyptologiques en l’honneur de Pascal Vernus, ed. Ph. Collombert, D. Lefèvre, St. Polis, and J. Winand, 371–396. Leuven.

Onstine, S. L. 2016. The role of the chantress (5mayt) in ancient Egypt. BAR International Series 1401. Oxford.