One of the most enduring legacies of the ancient Egyptian civilization is their treasure trove of papyrus. Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) is a plant, which was once abundant in the Egyptian Delta. Today it is quite rare in the wild. Ancient Egyptians discovered a way to domesticate the 5 meters (16 feet) tall papyrus stalks in farms.
Papyrus found a use as a food crop, for weaving mats and baskets, for sandals, to make rope, toys and amulets to fend off diseases. Even local fishing boats were fashioned from this utilitarian material.
Table of Contents
Religious And Political Symbolism
Papyrus stalks were frequently woven to create an ankh icon and consecrated as a gift to the gods.
The papyrus was also incorporated into the political imagery of the day. Papyrus forms part of the “Sma-Tawy,” Upper and Lower Egypt’s insignia signifying its political unity. This symbol is represented as a sheaf of papyrus from Lower Egypt’s Delta tied with a lotus, which represented the Kingdom of Upper Egypt.
Images of the papyrus can be found inscribed on Egyptian monuments and temples. In this context, papyrus represents the Egyptian concepts of life and eternity. The Egyptian concept of the afterlife, referred to, as the ‘Field of Reeds’ was believed to reflect the fertile expanses of the Nile River Valley complete with vast expanses of papyrus.
A grove of papyrus also represented the unleashing of chaos and the unknown. Egyptian pharaohs are often shown hunting in the vastness of the Nile Delta’s papyrus fields symbolizing their restoration of order over the manifestation of chaos.
The forbidding and mysterious essence of the Nile papyrus landscape was a common motif in ancient Egyptian mythology. Papyrus swords are featured in several important myths. The most notable being Isis’ decision to hide Horus, her child with Osiris in the depths of the Nile marshland after Osiris’ brother Set murdered him.
The dense papyrus reeds concealed both mother and infant from Set’s murderous intentions. This symbolized in the minds of the ancient Egyptians order triumphing over chaos and light prevailing over darkness.
Origins Of The Papyrus Name
While papyrus is indelibly associated with ancient Egypt the word itself is derived from the Greek. Its origins may lie with the Egyptian ‘papuro’, which translates as ‘the royal’ or ‘that of the pharaoh’ as the king controlled all papyrus processing. The king also owned the land the papyrus grew on and later extended his control to include those farms the domesticated papyrus was cultivated on.
The ancient Egyptians also knew the papyrus plant by several names, from wadj or tjufi to djet. These names were all variations on the concept of ‘freshness’. Wadj also connotes verdant lushness and flourishing. Once the papyrus stalks were gathered and then processed into long rolls, the papyrus was known as djema, meaning ‘open’ or ‘clean,’ in ancient Egyptian possibly referring to the virgin writing surface freshly processed papyrus represented.
The English speaking world associates papyrus with writing, particularly the preserved scrolls of Egyptian hieroglyphics and the world-famous Dead Sea scrolls. Our English word ‘paper’ itself is derived from the word papyrus.
The systematic harvesting of papyrus in ancient Egypt is thought to have commenced during the early years of the Pre-Dynastic Period (c. 6000-c.3150 BCE) and was maintained on various scales during Egypt’s history through to the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323-30 BCE) and following its fall, in Roman Egypt (c. 30 BCE – c. 640 CE).
Workers would scythe the plants from the Nile marsh, lopping them off at their base and collecting the stalks into sheaths. Eventually, the harvested stalks made their way to a central processing area.
Prior to processing, the papyrus stems were cut into long, thin strips. The papyrus pith was carved out and beaten into thin strips with a rudimentary hammer. These were placed vertically side-by-side. A resin solution also extracted from the papyrus was lacquered over the sheet of papyrus strips. A second papyrus layer was added, this time aligned horizontally to the first layer. The two layers were then squeezed tightly together and left to dry in the sun. The individual pages were then glued together forming a standard twenty-page roll. Enormous rolls of papyrus could be manufactured simply by joining the single sheets.
The rolled sheets were then distributed to government buildings, temples, the markets or exported.
Applications For Processed Papyrus
While papyrus is most closely associated in our minds with writing, it was usually reserved for government correspondence, letters and religious texts. This was due to the high costs of processing the papyrus and manufacturing the final papyrus rolls.
The field labour required to venture into the marshes was expensive and processing the papyrus without damaging it required skilled artisans. Today, all of the examples of ancient papyri come from government offices, temples, or the personal archives of affluent personages.
Ancient Egyptian scribes spent years honing their craft. Regardless of whether their families were wealthy, they were required to practice on cheap writing materials such as wood and ostraca. Apprentice scribes were forbidden from frittering away precious papyrus on their lessons. Once a scribe had mastered writing he might be allowed to practice his craft on an actual papyrus scroll.
As a writing medium, papyrus was used to record spiritual admonitions, religious texts, magical treatises, hymns, official court and government documents, official proclamations, scientific treatises, or technical instruction manuals, medical texts, letters, love poems, record-keeping, and of course, literature!
Papyrus scrolls that have survived the ravages of time, harsh environmental hazards and neglect, span fragments, to a single page through to the stupendous Ebers Papyrus, which is an imposing 110 fully illustrated pages written on a papyrus scroll 20 metres (sixty-five feet) in length.
Scribes in ancient Egypt worked using both black and red inks. Red ink indicated the beginning of a new paragraph, to record the names of evil spirits or demons, to emphasise a particular word or paragraphs and to act as punctuation.
A scribe’s wooden case contained both black and red cakes of paint and a flask of water to dilute the concentrated cake of ink. The early pen of choice was a thin reed featuring a soft tip. This stylus replaced the reed pen sometime around the third century BCE. The stylus was a more robust version of the reed pen and was sharpened into an extremely fine point.
A scribe would work on one side of a papyrus roll, write until it was fully covered in text and then turn the scroll over to carry one writing the text on the reverse side. In some examples, we have a partly filled papyrus roll used for a totally different work by a second scribe.
Reflecting On The Past
Papyrus has helped bridge 6,000 years of human thought. The 4,000-year-old Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus is the world’s oldest medical treatise. Discovered in 1889 its rich illustrations discuss the diagnosis and treatment of several ailments.
Header image courtesy: British Museum [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons