Professing Faith: Egyptian god Thoth is linked with writing on papyrus
Since the pipe will never be moved, I moved a planter underneath. But the constant dripping quickly turned the potted plant into a swamp. What on earth could I plant on the patio that would live in a swamp, in a back yard which otherwise is quite arid, given the drought conditions?
Such a plant would need bright sun, warm air, mud and ongoing sludge.
Like a vision from the immortal gods, it came to me. The answer is, of course, papyrus, an old friend of mine from my Egyptology studies. As I write this, I can see a big blue pot with a cluster of tall slender spines rising from the muck, each with a pompon-shaped flower at the end. And, most curiously, the stems are triangular in shape.
There are people, my family for instance, who see it as a noxious swamp grass. But I find it very elegant. It was grown in Egypt and Nubia since time immemorial, and the early histories of the human race have been written on its sides. In a basket made of its fibers, the infant Moses was saved from death at the hands of Pharaoh, and Mary and Joseph probably rested by clusters of it on their flight into Egypt.
It was the god Thoth who the Egyptians believed first taught them to write on papyrus. Thoth was credited with inventing the hieroglyphic alphabet, or the “medoo neter,” the “sticks of the gods.”
Thoth was depicted as a man with the head of an ibis. He was also the messenger of the gods, who had the power to enter both the upper and the underworld to carry messages between various spiritual forces. He was believed to be self-begotten, had always existed and served to maintain the balance between the forces of good and evil.
His Egyptian name was probably Djehuty, which we have corrupted to Thoth. The Greeks identified him with Hermes, the messenger among their own pantheon.
But above all, Thoth was the god of scribes, writers, record keepers and writing.
Papyrus “paper” was made by Thoth’s deputy scribes on earth, and little boys in the temple scribal schools had to master the art of making the material they would write on. It was made in historic times by the Egyptians, and later others, by harvesting the reed and then removing the harder outer husk of the plant. The softer inner fibers were then cut into long strips and laid in rows, with other strips being laid crossways.The white sap of the plant makes a kind of natural glue that binds the strips together. This moist weave was then placed on a flat stone floor and then another flat stone was placed on top to press it thin. In the brutally hot Egyptian sun, it dried to a thin wafer-like cloth, which could be used for writing as well as for baskets, sandals, purses and a number of other manufactured goods.
But its use as a place to keep records was the most important to the Egyptians. As long as it stays away from moisture, it can resist rot for incredible periods of time.
The oldest surviving piece of papyrus is a manuscript from the reign of King Khufu, better known as Cheops, whose huge pyramid adorns the Giza Plateau outside Cairo. Predictably, the text describes the work on the famous pyramid.
Virtually all the written records from ancient Egypt, other than those carved in stone, come to us on papyrus, including the famous Book of the Dead and the oldest known medical manuscript, the Ebers Papyrus, which dates to about 1550 B.C. That latter papyrus text carries the oldest known descriptions of artificial birth control and diagnosis for depression.
Other Middle Eastern cultures, and later the Greeks, used papyrus as well, and some of the oldest Greek poets come to us only on papyrus. Only the Romans and the ancient Hebrews tended to prefer vellum, made from the more durable and moisture-resistant calfskins.
Although our word paper is derived form the older word papyrus, the two kinds of writing sheets are not the same thing. Papyrus is made from the layering and pressing of strips of plant, while true paper is made from an oatmeal-like soupy pressed pulp made from cellulose derived from wood or grasses.
True paper was invented in the second century B.C. in China, where it became common for records and literature among the upper classes.
From China, paper spread to the Middle East, where the Arabs quickly adopted it. Islamic trade with Europe in medieval times brought paper into use by the Christian world, where it gradually replaced papyrus. All papal decrees were written on papyrus for 1,000 years. The last papal decree written on papyrus was issued by Pope Victor II, the last German pope until Benedict XVI, in A.D. 1057.
Sadly, papyrus became extinct in Egypt, but it was revived in modern times, by being reimported from Sicily. Today it is grown in a special plantation as a cultural heritage by the Egyptian government, and there is also a modern papyrus trade used by merchants to sell colorful pictures to tourists.
And now, finally, it is in my back yard, where it belongs.
Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is a professor of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. Write to him at Professing Faith, P.O. Box 8102, Redlands, CA 92375-1302, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Fatherelder.