What do you think of when I say the words ‘Ancient Egypt’? Perhaps you’re imagining the Great Pyramid of Giza, stately, protective cats; maybe even the vibrant hieroglyphs on the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
In other words, I doubt you’re thinking about literature. Why? Because why would you? History has obliterated most of this ancient civilisation’s stories and poems written on fragile, honey-coloured papyrus.
Imagine it like this. A future archaeologist discovers the ancient, fallen city of London. The sign for Waterstones has survived, including a sign displaying its tasty and reasonably priced coffee. The books however, have mostly been lost to the sands of time.
Aside from a couple of full and partial works, all the archeologist has to go on is the memorial inscription on the Cenotaph. In other words, no Harry Potter. Oh. My. God.
As Ancient Egypt was one of the first civilisations to create that which is so precious: the written word, I thought it was only right to explore this world, and discover: how to write fiction like an Ancient Egyptian. By the end of this article you will:
- Have a better understanding of how stories developed in a previous civilisation.
- Use these discoveries to shed new light on craft and writing life.
Treat Words with Respect
Since its inception, the written word was considered sacred, a gift from the gods. Writing originally developed hand in hand with the religious culture and in understanding this connection, you can see why it would carry a magical undertone.
Imagine if written English today was directly linked to your beliefs about the afterlife and your eventual experience of it? Where even a misspelled word or dodgy comma could affect what happened to your soul?
So next time you write a story, reflect on how amazing the written word is. This civilisation was one of the first to care about good writing and if you want to write fiction like an Ancient Egyptian, you need to care too.
Work on Your Posture
Being a writer was so esteemed that scribes were often depicted in a way that reflected their authority in society. Although we can’t presume scribes sat this way all the time, for all intents and purposes, it’s a cross-legged sitting position.
You sit with your back straight, your work laid out comfortably over your lap with a flat support. I’m so guilty of slouching that I’m definitely going to discipline myself to sit right, and Ancient Egyptian writing posture? It’s something a bit special.
Pick Your ‘Reeding’ Materials
Sorry. But it’s true that the Ancient Egyptians used reed pens to write both hieroglyphs and hieratic script (cursive writing). Aside from papyrus, other materials such as pottery or limestone flakes were used to write on. As for ink: an organic material mixed with gum and water. Time for Thoth’s terrific tips (the god of writing):
- Use a felt-tip brush pen (our modern equivalent of the reed pen).
- Get creative with your writing surfaces!
- If you decide to go one step further with your calligraphy, use good quality black and red ink.
- Invest in other portable materials such as an ink holder or a rectangular box to keep your pens flat.
Ay Oh Whey Oh, Ay Oh Whey Oh: Write like an Egyptian
Creative writing includes both fiction and non-fiction, and so here is where things get tricky. I chose the word ‘fiction’ in the title of this post as a catchy, near-rhyme, but feel free to do whatever kind of creative writing you wish to write.
In truth these categorisations are a modern concept. Ancient Egyptians would certainly not have thought about literature in the same way we do today.
So I’m giving you licence to do whatever you want. Write an autobiography or tomb inscription about a fictional king, or write a poem based on the time you went on an overcrowded Nile-cruise with insufferable family members.
Common things to write about included: present and past pharaohs, important officials, ‘the gods,’ the afterlife, prophesies, magic, ‘good and evil’ and popular stories inspired by everyday life and relationships.
Want to read some famous Ancient Egyptian works? The Story of Sinuhe, The Eloquent Peasant and the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor are good places to start.
Choose Your Form, Egyptian Style
Because the Ancient Egyptian civilisation spanned thousands of years, it would be foolish to think there weren’t changes in form over time. Writing began with inscriptions and autobiographies during the period Egyptologists call the ‘Old Kingdom’; moving towards ‘creative writing’ as we reach the ‘Middle Kingdom.’
‘The Middle Kingdom’ was the period in which writing flourished, asserted itself and settled into a kind of golden age. By this time, Egyptians were also getting their freak on with:
- Prose fiction.
Choose Your Style, Egyptian Style
One popular style was the use of direct speech and the rhetorical device: ‘Parallelism.’ This is something very common in the Old Testament and some historians believe that the Bible itself was influenced by the writing style of the Ancient Egyptians.
I’ll give you an example: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime (English proverb).
Another tip on style is to really pare down your sentences. Think Hemingway. Although reading a Middle Kingdom poem might convince you otherwise, once you get down to the nitty gritty, this civilisation did not like to beat around the bush.
As Miriam Lichtheim notes in her book: Ancient Egyptian Literature: The Old and Middle Kingdoms:
‘Egyptian grammar is synthetic. Expressions are compact. Sentences are short. Analytic English grammar requires more words and builds longer sentences. Thus, in order to come within hailing distance of the Egyptian, it is necessary to pare the English sentences to the bone and to shun all paraphrastic additions.’
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I think we can learn a lot from these points, from taking writing seriously to improving posture. But what do you think? Is there another ancient civilisation whose literature or approach to writing really captures your attention? Let me know in the comments section below!
Until next time,
Erman, A. (1927) Ancient Egyptian Literature, Methuen.|Lichtheim, M. (1973) Ancient Egyptian literature. Volume I, The Old and Middle Kingdoms, University of California Press.