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Part One

Coming of Age > Chapter Eight



The seven of us also received blessings and a different Tutor took each one of us to a different part of the Great Djehouty temple. I thought we were not supposed to talk to anyone about what we were told, but when I asked my Tutor if there are such rules, he just laughed.
“We don’t need such rules,” he said. “You try to tell anyone what you have heard, seen and experienced and one of three things may happen: he will run away from you filled with fear that you have brought evil entities back from the realm of the spirits; he will stare at you without comprehending what you are trying to tell him; or he will laugh at you and say that you are a liar, or, at best, a good storyteller.”

Since I was the best scribal student among the seven Hathor children whom Heroo had engendered, my Tutor sent me with palette, reed pen and papyrus into the Hall of Columns on the afternoon of the second day. Horemheb was sitting there in the shade. He had just returned from the Sacred Lake with instructions from the Sage, Amenhotep Son-of-Hapu, also called Huy, to tell a scribe everything he could remember from the past day. He seemed to be just as surprised to see me assigned to be his scribe as I was to see him as my new Master. Like fools, we both giggled, then looked at each other not quite knowing what to do next. Finally, I asked Horemheb, “So, what happened?” He looked around, took a deep breath and began to describe his first day:

I followed Amenhotep, Son of Hapu, across the Inner Courtyard, through the Great Pylon of Djehouty-Moses Men-Kheper-Ra. We were in a hall filled with columns. My Tutor sat down on the lip of a column platform and looked up at the colorful wall. He gave me these instructions: “Close your eyes and tell me what is carved on the wall starting on your right.” Although the Hall of Columns looked dark as we approached it from the Inner Court, light diffused from the ceiling vents and reflected clearly from all the brilliantly painted surfaces inside the Hall. I closed my eyes and spoke:
“Djehouty, God of Wisdom, stands on the top register facing Djehouty-Moses Men-Kheper-Ra. Instructions for the High Priest: (Say the words) ‘I have given you the limits of the Two Lands to know. You will bring me their measure and their balance.’ Instruction for the King: (Say the words) ‘I have traveled the land from Dep and Pe in the north to Nekheb and Nekhen in the south. I have walked across the desert east of the Hapy and the desert west of the Hapy.’
“The next scene shows Djehouty-Moses Men-Kheper-Ra, the King, great-grandfather to our King, making offerings to Djehouty. Instruction for the King: (Say the words) ‘I have traveled to Naharin in the east and brought you back their writings; I have taken ships to the Islands of the north, and brought you back their wine; I have walked across the desert to the Libu in the west and brought you back their feathers; I sailed south to Kush, carried the riverboats across the cataracts, built you a temple and brought you back gold.’ Instructions for the High Priest: (Say the words) ‘My heart is pleased with the writing of the east; my belly is pleased with the wine of the north; the feathers of the west have been tied together into a fan that wafts cool wind upon me; my limbs are covered with the gold of the south. May you possess Life, Prosperity and Health for ever and ever.’”

“Stop now,” Huy said, “and tell me how do you know these sacred words?”
“When we were children,” I answered, “we ran around this Hall of Columns playing tag, hide-and-seek and other games. We were allowed and no one stopped us. We heard the procession of priests come through this hall many times. We mimicked the priests and when we became tired of saying the same spells over and over, we make up our own words even before we could read.
“After a few years, there were times when we were reluctant to learn. Some of the Tutors used to threaten us. They said they would take us into parts of the temple where we have not yet been and test us with scripts we have not seen before. If we could not read them perfectly, they would make their sticks dance on our backs.
“So every afternoon, when the Priests went to sleep, we would sneak into the temple. The newfound fear of those punishing sticks caused us to forget those processional chants that we knew in our heads from those times, years before, when we were still allowed to play in the temple. We had to read the words on the wall over and over again until we learned them unerringly. The more we learned to read them, however, the more the chanted words came back into our heads. At last we knew and remembered the processional chants in both ways. With my brothers and sisters we could chant the entire processional for every Feast Day of Djehouty.”

Amenhotep Son-of-Hapu seemed amused while I unfolded my story for him. He leaned forward, his nose nearly touching my forehead, and said: “First you learned the words with your ear, then with your feet and finally with your eyes. Now you can recite them with your mouth. Where did the words go in-between?”
“The words, My Father,” I answered, “remained on the wall of the Temple. I know that because every time I take a step in this temple, or touch a wall, the words above me jump into my feet and my hands, then right back into my head.”
“And what has Djehouty to do with these words jumping everywhere inside you?” Huy asked me.
“He stands looking into my heart, I think, as he does on the day of weighing the heart with Ma’at,” I continued. “The God makes sure that the right words pass through the heart at the right time.”
“Is it Djehouty who speaks through your heart right now, Horemheb?”
“No, I don’t think so, My Father Huy,” I said and fell silent. But moments later I spoke up again: “Look, My Father, it must be Djehouty, because this is his temple, the scribes are his servants and the words are under his guidance. It is true that I am speaking, but I cannot tell whether it is my will that causes words to come forth, or these words spring from the mouth of the God.”
Huy laughed. He had to sit up straight to take more air into his tremendous chest. I turned red, embarrassed, and shifted my weight from one foot to another. Noticing my discomfort, Huy took another breath, calmed himself and spoke: “The truth of what you say is refreshing after a month at the Residence where the Nobles speak words hewn from stone, as if they were on a permanent procession around the King, LPH.”

I looked at my Tutor in silence. In my heart I repeated Huy’s words and tried to visualize those acts he mentioned. In my imagination I saw impeccably dressed noblemen with layers and layers of fine royal linen wrapped around them, each in a different fashion, their black ceremonial wigs making them look so much taller than they really were. They walked around the King. All of them spoke at once. With every word a stone hieroglyph spewed forth from each mouth. Like bricks, their words piled up. Soon the entire circle was walled in with columns and columns of hieroglyphs. It was dark, but the noblemen did not dare stop speaking. Then I remembered a saying I had once heard, that ‘great men at the Residence spoke meaningless secrets to their King in dark rooms.’ My Tutor had given me the key to make a picture in my mind’s eye of that cryptic saying. My face brightened up and I laughed so loud, it echoed through the great columned hall.

“Now, now, my son,” Huy cautioned me, “it is first necessary to go to the Residence and see what words the God puts into your mouth before you laugh at the others.”
“I wouldn’t have any stone words, My Father,” I answered him with a grin.
“You just recited two scenes of stone words from the Temple wall, Horemheb!” the Sage objected. “You said yourself that those stone words jump right into your feet. Your head is full of stone words! It’s surprising you can still lift your feet and hold your head erect.”
I hung my head because it seemed to have grown heavier hearing my Tutor’s words. I said: “What I mean, then, My Father, is that I don’t know any stone words that have already been carved for Pharaoh, LPH!”
“You will, my son, you will!” Huy mumbled so that I could hear him clearly. Then his voice perked up and he continued: “There is a problem with words, my son. Whatever you and I say may come from the heart, especially when we don’t think about what we are going to say. But the words can also come from the spleen and cut your heart like a knife can cut your throat. Words can come from the belly and be propelled by greed or fear. Words can come from the anus, forcing their way out haphazardly like the farts of people with worms in their bellies. And those words can smell just as ghastly! The old Sages were aware of the dangers of words, and counseled the great and the small alike to keep their words few, remain silent and let their actions speak for their virtues. But that was a thousand years ago and more!”
“How do you know if your words come from your heart or your belly? How do I know?” I asked My Father.
“You learn to know by observing yourself,” he answered me, “because it is you who knows what you want to say. Only you know why you speak. When your words pass by your heart, without your heart mediating those words, you will hurt someone. That is why Ptah-Hotep, a thousand years ago, advised noble souls whose words or actions were disputed by others to remain silent.”
“I know all three verses that deal with disputants in action, My Father!” I said eagerly. “Recite them for me,” Huy said and leaned forward to encourage me.

“When you meet an argumentative man,
One, whose status is greater than yours,
Remain silent before him, do not speak.

When you meet an argumentative man,
One who is your equal, remain silent!
Let him vent his spleen before the people

When you meet an argumentative man,
One whose status is lower than yours,
Remain silent before him, let him talk,
And watch how he makes a fool of himself

Huy listened silently while I spoke the verses. When I finished, a thought jumped into my heart that must have turned my face as red as sandstone from the Sinai because I burned with the realization that I had just made a fool of myself. Out of sheer pride and without having been asked to speak, I had just recited verse after verse of an ancient teaching that eight years old children learn from their mothers.
Huy watched my face and nodded. “When you observe your words before they come out of your mouth, your heart has a chance to apply Ma’at to them,” he said. Then you don’t need to embarrass yourself. I must have turned even redder because my face burned as if I were under the noonday sun. But Huy asked me if I could give him one or two examples where I had noticed others speaking from different parts of the body.
“Just before the last Full Moon Festival,” I launched into a story with a deep breath that cooled me down, “Nakht-Min distracted me from doing my chores. I think he did it on purpose, wanting to see the Tutor’s stick dance on my back more often.” I made my eyes squint to illustrate the pain.
“What is he like?” Huy asked.
“Funloving and carefree, mostly,” I answered. “No one could ask for a better friend. He kept me occupied with games and contests under the Moon until we both fell asleep, exhausted. I missed my chore, grinding charcoal into powder to make ink blocs. In the middle of the night I awoke. I remembered the chore. I lit an oil lamp and sneaked past the sleeping doorkeeper of the storeroom. I loaded one arm with the mortar and pestle and a bag of charcoal, keeping one hand free to hold the lamp. I stole out of the storeroom like a mouse from the granary after a good meal. Hidden in a far corner of the temple I ground more ink powder than I was supposed to and returned everything to the storeroom without waking the doorkeeper.
“The next morning, when the Tutor, as usual, asked about the previous day, I reported all well, everything accomplished. Nakht-Min spoke up. He accused me of not grinding ink. The Tutor looked at me. He asked if I had finished my chores? All I said was that my report is true: all my chores had been accomplished. Nakht-Min continued talking. He said I was just trying to get away with a misdeed and make up for it another time. The Tutor took all the students to the storeroom. He asked the doorkeeper if I had been to the storeroom the previous evening or night? The doorkeeper complained loudly that I always came at different times and kept surprising him. He said that last night I did not come at all. I remained silent. We entered the corridor. We turned into the ink room with oil lamps lit. There, in its box, a large pile of dry ink powder waited to be mixed with gum. The Tutor looked at Nakht-Min, then glanced at the doorkeeper. Both of them spoke at once. What they said were silly excuses. Even the Tutor tired of them. I was vindicated. Nakht-Min and the doorkeeper were each assigned one grinding chore in my place; the one because he wrongly accused me, the other because he did not keep his mind on his job.”
“Where do you think Nakht-Min’s words came from?” Huy asked.
“His spleen, it seems,” I answered.
“And the words of the doorkeeper?” Huy continued his questions.
“From his anus,” I said. “It seems like he wanted to vent.”

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