For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Satire of the Trades, in The Literature of Ancient Egypt

by Satire of the Trades, in The Literature of Ancient Egypt (2003)

Key Passage

1. The beginning of the teaching which the man of Tjel named Dua-Khety made for his son named Pepy, while he sailed southwards to the Residence to place him in the school of writings among the children of the magistrates, the most eminent men of the Residence.2. Thereupon he spoke to him: Since I have seen those who have been beaten, it is to writings that you must set your mind. See for yourself, it saves one from work. Behold, there is nothing that surpasses writings! They are like a boat upon the water. Read then at the end of the Book of Kemyet and you will find this statement in it saying: As for a scribe in any office in the Residence, he will not suffer want in it.3. When he fulfils the bidding of another, he does not come forth satisfied. I do not see an office to be compared with it, to which this maxim could relate: I shall make you love books more than your mother and I shall place their excellence before you. It is indeed greater than any office. There is nothing like it on earth. When he began to become sturdy but was still a child, he was greeted respectfully. When he was sent to carry out a task, before he returned he was dressed in adult garments.4. I do not see a stoneworker on an important errand or a goldsmity in a place to which he has been sent, but I have seen a coppersmith at his work at the mouth of his furnace. His fingers were like the claws of the crocodile and he stank more than fish eggs.5. Every carpenter who bears the adze is wearier than a laborer. His field is his wood, his hoe is the axe. It is the night that will rescue him, for he must labor excessively in his activity. But at nighttime he still must light his lamp.6. The jeweler pierces stone in stringing beads in all kinds of hard stone. When he has completed the inlaying of the eye amulets, his strength vanishes and he is tired out. He sits until the arrival of the sun, his knees and his back bent at the place called Aku-Re.7. The barber shaves until the end of the evening. But hs must be up early, crying out, his bowl upon his arm. He takes himself from street to street to seek out someone to shave. He wears out his arms to fill his belly, like bees who eat only according to their work.8. The arrowmaker goes north to the Delta to fetch himself arrows. He must work excessively in his activity. When the gnats sting him and the sand fleas bite him as well, then he is judged.9. The potter is covered with earth, although his lifetime is still among the living. He burrows in the field more than swine to bake his cooking vessels. His clothes being stiff with mud, his headcloth consists only of rags so that the air which comes forth from his burning furnace enters his nose. He operates a pestle with his feet, with which he himself is pounded, penetrating the courtyard of every house and driving earth into every open place.10. I shall also describe to you the like of the mason-bricklayer. His kidneys are painful [his work pains him]. When he must be outside in the wind, he lays bricks without a loin cloth. His belt is a cord for his back, a string for his buttocks. His strength has vanished through fatigue and stiffness, kneading all his excrement. He eats bread with his fingers, although he washes himself but once a day.11. It is miserable for the carpenter when he planes the roofbeam. It is the roof of a chamber 10 by 6 cubits. A month goes by in laying the beams and spreading the matting. All the work is accomplished. But as for the food which should be given to his household while he is away, there is no one who provides for his children.12. The vintner hauls his shoulder-yoke. Each of his shoulders is burdened with age. A swelling is on his neck, and it festers. He spends the morning in watering leeks and the evening with corianders, after he has spent the midday in the palm grove. So it happens that he sinks down at last and dies through his deliveries more than one of any other profession.13. The field hand cries out forever. His voice is louder than the raven's. His fingers have become ulcerous with an excess of stench. He is tired out in Delta labor, he is in tatters. He is well among lions but his experience is painful. The forced labor then is tripled. If he comes back from the marshes there, he reaches his house worn out, for the forced labor has ruined him.14. The weaver inside the weaving house is more wretched than a woman. His knees are drawn up against his belly. He cannot breathe the air. If he wastes a single day without weaving, he is beaten with fifty whip lashes. He has to give food to the doorkeeper to allow him to come out to the daylight.15. The weapon maker, completely worn out, goes into the desert. Greater than his own pay is what he has to spend for his she-ass for its work afterwards. Great is also what he has to give to the fieldhand to set him on the right road to the flint source. When he reaches his house in the evening, the journey has ruined him.16. The courier goes abroad after handing over his property to his children, being fearful of the lions and the Asiatics. He only knows himself again when he is back in Egypt. He reaches his household by evening, but the journey has ruined him. But his house by then is only a garment and a paved road. There is no happy homecoming.17. The furnace-tender, his fingers are foul, the smell thereof is as corpses. His eyes are inflamed because of the heaviness of the smoke. He cannot get rid of his dirt, although he spends the day cutting reeds. Clothes are an abomination to him.18. The sandalmaker is utterly wretched carrying his tubs forever. His stores are provided with carcasses and what he bites is hides.19. The washerman launders at the riverbank in the vicinity of the crocodile. `I shall go away, father, from the flowing water,' said his son and daughter, `to a more satisfactory profession, one more distinguised than any other profession.' His food is mixed with filth, and there is no part of him which is clean. He cleans the clothes of a woman in menstruation. He weeps when he spends all day with a beating stick and a stone there. One says to him, "Dirty laundry, come to me", the brim overflows.20. The fowler is utterly afflicted while searching out for the denizens of the sky. If the flock passes by above him, then he says, `Would that I might have nets'. But God will not let this come to pass for him for He is opposed to his activity.21. I mention to you also the fisherman. He is more miserable than one of any other profession, one who is at his work in the river infested with crocodiles. When the totaling of his account is subtracted for him, then he will lament. One did not tell him that a crocodile was standing there and fear has now blinded him. When he comes to the flowing water, so he falls as through the might of God. See, there is no office free from supervisors except the scribe's. He is the supervisor!22. But if you understand writings, then it will be better for you than the professions which I have set before you. Behold the official and the dependent pertaining to him. The tenant farmer of a man cannot say to him, `Do not keep watching me.' What I have done in journeying southward to the Residence is what I have done through love of you. A day at school is advantageous to you. Its work of mountains is forever, while the workmen I have caused you to know hurry and I cause the recalcitrant to hasten.23. I will also tell you another matter to teach you what you should know at the station of your debating. Do not come close to where there is a dispute. If a man reproves you, and you do not know how to oppose his anger, make your reply cautiously in the presence of listeners.24. If you walk to the rear of officials, approach from a distance behind the last. If you enter while the master of the house is at home, and his hands are extended to another in front of you, sit with your hand to your mouth. Do not ask for anything in his presence. But do as he says to you. Beware of approaching the table.25. Be serious, and great as to your worth. Do not speak secret matters. For he who hides his innermost thoughts is one who makes a shield for himself. Do not utter thoughtless words when you sit down with an angry man.26. When you come forth from school after midday recess has been announced to you, go into the courtyard and discuss the last part of your lesson book.27. When an official sends you on a mission, then say what he said. Neither take away nor add to it. The impatient man falls into oblivion, his name will not endure. He who is wise in all his ways, nothing will be hidden from him, and he will not be rebuffed from any station of his.28. Do not say anything false about your mother. This is an abomination to the officials. The offsprting who does useful things, his condition is equal to the one of yesterday. Do not indulge with an undisciplined man, for it is bad after it is heard about you. When you have eaten three loaves of bread and swallowed two jugs of beer, and the body has not yet had enough, fight against it. But if another is satiated, do not stand around, take care not to approach the table.29. See, it is good if you write frequently. Obey the words of the officials. Then you may assume the characteristics of the children of men and you may walk in their footsteps. One values a scribe for his understanding, for understanding transforms an eager person. Beware of words against it. Your feet shall not hurry when you walk. Do not approach only a trusted man, but associate with one more distinguised than you. But let your friend be a man of your generation.30. See, I have placed you on the path of God. The fate of a man is on his shoulders on the day he is born. He comes to the judgment hall and the court of magistrates made for the people. See, there is no scribe lacking sustenance, the provisions of the royal house l.p.h. [Life, Prosperity, Health]. It is Meskhenet [goddess of childbirth who provides the soul] who is turned toward the scribe who presents himself before the court of magistrates. Honor your father and mother who have placed you on the path of the living. Mark this, which I have placed before your eyes, and the children of your children.It has come to an end in peace. (p.432)


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Satire of the Trades, Work in Literature, Ancient Egypt


Simpson, W.



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