Literacy Among the Pharaohs?

When Semitists think of literacy, they tend to think of literacy (or lack of it) among the ancient Israelites and their Northwest Semitic neighbors or they think of the possibility of literacy among those who wrote in cuneiform. But Semitists seldom mentioned the elephant in the literacy room next door, the Egyptians. It’s not that everyone ignores it all together but I don’t see it discussed at any length either. My guess is that few think it very relevant. And truthfully, I’m not completely sure of its relevance to the question of Israelite literary in general. But how about the question of royal literacy in the ancient near east?
In several different places, often using similar language (sometimes the same language) John Baines has argued for literacy among Egyptian officials, a literacy that extended, on some occasions, even to the Pharaoh.

Several texts state that the king wrote their (sic) models himself. The earliest is the introduction to a letter of Izezi to Senedjemib Inti (Sethe 1933:60,9)” “His Person wrote with his fingers as a favour for me (?) concerning everything I had done [ ] . . .’. Two other closely comparable texts of the reign lack this detail (Sethe 1933:14-63, 11, same tomb as the last; 179, 12-180, 10). The preservation of three texts suggests that they belong to an established genre, but this does not affect whether the king wrote them.
In the Prophecy of Negerti, Snofru ‘stretched out his hand to his box of writing materials and took a papyrus roll and a palette (gstj). Then he wrote down what the chief lector priest of Negerti said’ (Helck 1970: 12-3, IIo-q) Neferti was composed about 650 years after the time of Snofru, but the picture given works best if it is credible for a king. His writing himself may be a mark of his ‘democratic’ character, which is also visible in P Westcar (cf Blumenthal 1982:25-6), but since the action is not essential to the general subject of the text there is no reason why it should be make implausible. . . .
A letter of Amenhotpe II to the viceroy of Nubia Usersatet, which is recorder on a stela of the latter, is introduced as the ‘copy of a command (i.e.) royal letter which his Person made with his own hand to (the viceroy) . . .’ [“Four Notes on Literacy,” 77-78]

There’s more but I find the Amenhotpe II example abnormally interesting so I’ll stop with it. I guess I need to check out this stela. I also need to see if anyone challenges Baines’ suggestion on the issue of literacy among the kings of Egypt.
In my view there are alternative ways of understand even the most explicit of these examples. In fact, Baines says as much in his exposition. But, even if these Egyptian kings could not actually read and write at any level that we might think literate, parts of the Egyptian tradition surely wanted other literate folks to think they could.
Baines would certainly place the ability to write (and presumably read) a letter well with in his definition of literacy. Richard Hess recently reminded us how important such definitions are.

Baines, John and Christopher Eyre, “Four Notes on Literacy,” Göttinger Miszellen, 61 (1983), 65-96
Baines John, “Literacy, social organization, and the archaeological record: the case of early Egypt” in Gledhill J., Bender B., Larsen M. T. eds, State And Society: The Emergence And Development Of Social Hierarchy And Political Centralization, London: Unwin Hyman, 1988, 192–213
Baines, John, Visual and written culture in ancient Egypt, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, 63-94 (This is a republication of Baines and Eyre, “Four Notes on Literacy,” but the volume contains other relevant material from other Baines essays.) and 95-116 (This is a republication of Baines “Literacy, social organization. . . “) This volume contains a couple of other relevant essays by Baines.
Baines, John, “Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society,” Curl Lecture, 1981
Hess, Richard “Some Views on Literacy,” The Bible and Interpretation, October 2010

One thought on “Literacy Among the Pharaohs?”

  1. Illiterate pharaohs? Great thought-provoking question to challenge our notions (or assumptions?) of history. Personally I just assumed that pharaohs were all literate and never thought about this. Perhaps I should pay more attention.
    Honestly when I ponder on it, how could the regular Egyptian townsfolk tell the difference between a literate pharaoh and an illiterate one coddled by scribes and priests? We all know that the Egyptian pharaoh was marketed as an infallible god. So did his/her literacy matter all that much? Perhaps not. What was so vital about a literate pharaoh? I frankly don’t know. I suppose Tutankhamen is one pharaoh that didn’t have much of an opportunity to be educated in his short life, did he? Whereas, I have the general impression that Hatshepsut must have been quite savvy as a female ruler in a male-dominated role. Likewise, surely Cleopatra too was more than literate, renowned for speaking several languages.
    Yummy food for thought.

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