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Transcript of 'Don't laugh at a cat'

In this free lecture Dr Carolyn Routledge, curator at World Museum, takes a light-hearted look at some of the wisdom of the proverbs and witty sayings from ancient Egyptian society.


Dr Carolyn Routledge: Today I want to look at the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians. The ancient Egyptians were the first society in Africa to have writing and the dry conditions have preserved a fair bit of what they wrote so they provide us today with impressions of very early African thought. The Egyptians wrote down lots of things like poems, letters, and stories. From these writings we can tell that they liked proverbs and witty sayings.

Lets get started!

"Don't laugh at a cat!" is one of my favourite words of wisdom from ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, I don’t really know what it means.
I have some ideas, but before I try to go through these, I want to explain a bit about what we know about ancient Egyptian proverbs and wit.

Ancient Egyptian scribes

A group of ancient Egyptian scribes at work, from the tomb of Mereruka, Saqqara, Egypt (approx 2300 BC)

In ancient Egypt, not everyone was educated or knew how to read or write. Becoming a scribe, or a professional writer, was a big deal. There were different kinds of scribes - some recorded grain deliveries on big estates, some helped villagers record their wills and house purchases, some wrote letters for the king, some wrote religious instructions in temples, and some worked for the army. Mostly boys were sent to learn the art of writing, although some women seem to have learned to write.

Scribes did not write in hieroglyphs normally. They wrote a form of writing called hieratic first. It is like the difference between writing cursive and printing. They could write on many things. Cheap writing materials especially for everyday messages and records were pieces of stone. Papyrus seems to have been more expensive and saved for special messages or texts.

Pieces of broken pots were very common (ostraca). One story records how a man in prison wanted to write instructions for his son in case he died in prison. He was denied papyrus so he wrote on pieces of old jars.

Most of the writings of wisdom we have come from the same general type of text. These were texts written by scribes learning how to write. Some are quite basic and were probably written by boys. Some were very advanced and thus were written by young men. There are 2 basic scenarios for these texts - the first is that a father is writing instructions to his son, the second is a teacher is writing to his pupil. We know they are learning texts in part because they often have corrections made on them, probably by the teacher.

When a text is from a father to son, the words of wisdom often relate to how to behave and include lots of instructions on honouring parents and elders.

When a text is from a senior scribe to his pupil, the words of wisdom are more directly educational. The texts seem to have sometimes been copied by the students while the teacher dictated them. The students had to write praises of the teacher and lots of statements about how great it was to be a scribe and how badly behaved the students were.

Lets look at one example sometimes called The Satirical Letter. It is written on papyrus called Papyrus Anastasi I. It is in the British Museum collection.

This is an example of a text that was meant for teaching advanced scribal students. It is set up as a senior scribe writing to a junior scribe. The senior scribe has just received a letter from the junior scribe that he found to be very poorly written. He responds to gently correct the junior scribe who seems to want to have the rather glamorous job of army scribe. It gives us some ideas about proper behaviour, the way teachers thought it was good to teach, humour, and wisdom.

Lets have a look at some of what is written. First the students would have to copy great praises of the scribe:

"The scribe of superior intellect, with sound advice, over whose speech there is rejoicing, so skilled in reading and writing that there is nothing he doesn’t know..."

You get the picture!

The teacher then has them copy a series of descriptions of what the scribe did wrong in the letter:

"You have come knowing great secrets and have quoted one of Hardjedef's proverbs, but you do not know whether it is good or bad. What proverb comes before it and what comes after..."

Then there are a series of practical math problems. One thing that hasn’t changed is the emphasis for doing such things quickly. The instructor says:

"Answer quickly, you should not dawdle, press on." Reminds me of answering multiplication questions...

Here is an example:

"The group of soldiers that is under your charge is made up of 1,900 Egyptians, 520 Sherden, 1,600 Kehek, 100 Meshwesh, 800 Nubians, a total of 5,000 men not including their captains. You have the following rations 300 sweet loaves, 1,800 cakes, 120 assorted goats and sheep, and 30 jugs of wine. It is not enough, quick! How will you give it out to the men?"

Afterwards the students must write down practical problems with difficult vocabulary: This example includes plants, geographical terms, and chariot part terms:

"The narrow pass is dangerous, having Shasu-beduin hiding under the bushes. Some of them are 7 feet tall! Your path is filled with boulders and small stones, overgrown with reeds, thorns, brambles, and wolf-paw. Your chariot is overthrown. Your horse collar is left exposed and your harness falls. You unharness the team to repair the collar, but you do not know how to lash it. The clamp is left where it is, because the team is overburdened. You have undergone a terrible experience!"

So becoming a scribe was a hard business. But good students were promised a good life. They copied texts that told them:

"I have seen many beatings – set your heart on books. I watched those taken to labour in the fields – There is nothing better than books! I’ll make you love writing more than your mother!"

Proverbs and sayings

So once the student had finished school and taken up high office, what were the witty sayings that they would remember and guide them in life.

Guidance on relating to the family:

"If a man's son accepts his father's words, no plan of his will go wrong. Teach your son to be a hearer" (Ptahhotep)

"Double the food your mother gave you, support her as she supported you. She had a heavy load carrying you but she did not abandon you. When you were born after your months, she still had to carry you. She breast-fed you for 3 years. As you grew and your pooh became disgusting, she was not disgusted saying oh what will I do! When she sent you to school and you were taught to write she kept watch over you daily." (Ani)

"Do not dwell in a house with your inlaws" (Ankhsheshonq)

"Do not prefer one of your children to another; you do not know which one of them will be kind to you" (Ankhsheshonq)

"Choose a prudent husband for your daughter, do not choose for her a rich husband" (Ankhsheshonq)

Guidance for work:

"Walk the accustomed path each day, stand according to your rank. Rank creates its rules: a woman is asked about her husband, a man is asked about his rank." (Ani)

"Do not pamper yourself when you are young, lest you be weak when you are old." (Ankhsheshonq)

"You may trip over your foot in the house of a great man; you should not trip over your tongue." (Ankhsheshonq)

Guidance for a good life:

"Fill your hand with all flowers that your eye can see; one has need of all of them, it is good fortune not to lose them." (Ani)

"A crocodile does not die of worry, it does of hunger" (Ankhsheshonq)

"He who spits up into the sky will have it fall on him"

"He who is bitten of the bite of a snake is afraid of a coil of rope"

Some not so clear sayings:

"If a donkey goes with a horse it adopts its pace"

"If a crocodile loves a donkey it puts on a wig"

"Do not scorn a matter that concerns a cow"

"Don't laugh at a cat"

So what can we say about "Don't laugh at a cat"?

This is why I don't laugh (too often) at my cat. His tongue falls forward because he was a stray who was malnourished. He had to have his front teeth taken out as they were decayed. This means when he relaxes, his tongue comes out.

Dr Carolyn Routledge's cat

Cats in ancient Egyptian society

The first domestication of cats was in Egypt. It may have been mainly to keep the mice, rats and snakes away.
Pets. Egyptians seem to have kept cats as companion animals.
Divinity. Egyptians associated cats with several gods and goddesses. The image of the cat from the tomb of Nebamun, now in the British Museum, has gold leaf on its eyes. This may relate it to the sun god Re.

We have a number of mummies – it is a late period custom to offer them at the shrine of Bast, a cat goddess. It has been estimated that there were over 19 tonnes of cat mummies in the cemetery here.

The womans name 'Cat woman' (Tamiut) was very common. A stele in the gallery here at the museum shows a woman with that name.

Herodotus, who visited Egypt around 430 BC told many stories about cats. From these stories, we can conclude Egyptians liked cats and the neighbouring Greeks found the way they treated cats to be strange, though it may not seem that strange to us. He told the story that if a house caught fire, the people did not rush to put it out, but lined up to try to stop the cats from running back into the house. If some did get back in and died, it caused great sadness.

Diodorus Siculus, another Greek, was in Egypt around 30 BC. He also told stories about cats. He said he witnessed a Roman soldier run over and kill a cat accidentally with his chariot. The Egyptian king Ptolemy sent guards around to his house to protect him, but a mob of angry Egyptians killed him for killing the cat, even though they knew it was an accident.

Egyptians mustn't have always followed their own advice though! There are a number of cat cartoons, possibly the doodles of scribes. They tend to show role reversals between cats and mice or rats. The cats often act as servants to the rodents.

Ostracon from Thebes showing a servant cat giving offerings
to a seated mouse. Brooklyn Museum collection.
Photograph © Keith Schengili-Roberts