basilicogrammate: the Egyptian royal secretary

U 15.2304: Lipoti Virag, basilicogrammate, chutes rapidly down through the chimneyflue and struts two steps to the left on gawky pink stilts.

Was basilicogrammate a word that Joyce created, or did he come across it in his ‘assiduously farraginous reading’ (Deane)? Bloom’s grandfather ‘Lipoti Virag’ appears from the chimney-flue, clutching a manuscript: ‘on his head is perched an Egyptian pshent’ (double crown), ‘two quills project over his ears’.

The background is Egyptian. Gifford and Seidman correctly cite Paul Van Caspel’s Bloomers in the Liffey (Groningen, 1980, p. 267), who suggests the meaning to be ‘secretary to a king’ or ‘royal scribe’. Andras Ungar (Joyce’s Ulysses as national epic (Gainesville, 2002), p. 61) also doubtless has a point in interpreting the word secondarily as ‘lord of language’. It turns out that the term has a long history before Joyce. The Greek basilikós grammateús (‘kingly scribe’) appears from the 2nd century B.C. in Egyptian papyri (L. Mitteis and U. Wilcken’s Grundzüge und Chrestomathie der Papyruskunde (Leipzig and Berlin, 1912), 233.2), so its protoform is ancient.

But we have to wait until the early nineteenth century before our word begins to appear in modern texts. This was a time of growing interest in things Egyptian. The great French classical scholar, Jean-François Champollion, decipherer of the Rosetta Stone, published his Notice descriptive des monumens égyptiens du Musée Charles X in 1827. On page 65 he states:

Salles Civile… G. 24. Granite brèche. Un Basilicogrammate, nommé Siési, agenouillé soutenant un naos, dans lequel est une image d’AnubisLycocéphale… La légende royale de Ramsès-le-Grand (Sésostris), sculptée sur le haut des bras du Basilicogrammate, donne la date précis de cette curieuse statue.

And from this point the word was picked up by the European antiquarians. As early as 1829 the Literary Gazette for 19 September excitedly translated some of Champollion’s correspondence:

We find among other subjects: - A picture representing an adoration of Ammon-Ra, Sevek (the god of the nome), and Bubastis, by the Basilico-grammate, charged with the execution of the palace of King Rhamses Meiamoun, in the western part of Thebes (the palace of Medines Habou). (p. 616/2)

By 1839 the British Museum was in on the act, though this time with a Romanised form of the word, in its List of additions made to the collections in the British Museum in the year MDCCCXXXV:

Antiquities, Coins, etc… Sepulchral naos; on the lintel and sides are engraved a prayer and sepulchral dedication for a deceased basilico-grammateus and priest of the god Month; in calcareous stone. (p. 465)

The basilicogrammate was a powerful scribe in the royal household. There were other ‘grammates’ or scribes, perhaps most notably the hierogrammate or ‘priestly scribe’/‘scribe of the sacred texts’ (the OED includes an entry for this variety). The recent multi-volume historical French dictionary, the Trésor de la Langue Française, contains entries for all three: grammate, hierogrammate, and basilicogrammate (this latter recorded from 1858).

By the mid nineteenth century the word was becoming familiar to the growing band of intrepid tourists to Egypt. English tourists might arm themselves with W. C. Wrankmore’s translation of Moritz Busch’s Guide for travellers in Egypt and adjacent countries subject to the Pasha (London, Trübner, 1858), who informed them in detail about Chamber 16 at the Egyptian complex at Memnonium (modern Ramesseum):

In the inner chamber, the inhabitant of the tomb, a basilicogrammate or king's secretary is placed before a tribunal of the deas, as in usual, previous to his admittance to Osiris. (p. 114)

The word basilicogrammate was well established in antiquarian and touristic circles from the middle years of the nineteenth century. How, then, did Joyce come across it?

We have a strong hint in Joyce’s Ulysses Notesheets in the British Museum, edited by Phillip Herring (University Press of Virginia, 1972). Circe Notesheet 19 (p. 356) reads:



Egypt fisheaters


Eg. not eat heads

Joyce typically filled his notesheets with snippets and ideas from books, newspapers, etc., that he was reading. It seems that W. C. Wrankmore’s translation of Busch’s Guide for travellers in Egypt and adjacent countries subject to the Pasha is likely to be the source of these notes (Gifford and Seidman link ‘basilicogrammate’ tentatively with ‘Blum pasha’ (U 17.1748; cf. Sir Julius Blum, Under-Secretary to the Egyptian treasury). We have already seen ‘basilicogrammate’ on p. 114 (Herring annotates this adverbially as ‘by royal writ’).

‘Egypt fisheaters’ finds its counterpart in:

The dry fish hanging up in the boat prove that Diodorus was right in saying, that fish were one of the principal means of subsistence among the Egyptians. (also p. 114)

<flay> appears on the next page:

Not far from this, an ox is slaughtered; servants flay it, cut it up and carry the joints away.

‘Eg. Not eat heads’: the following sentence on p. 115 reads:

The head is given to a beggar, by which it may be inferred, that Herodotus’ statement of the Egyptians not eating the heads of animals, is unfounded.

Only <plinth> is out of sequence, appearing as plinths on p. 123 (and later in the singular on p. 132):

A picturesque sphinx avenue interspersed with palms, - immense figures on high plinths with outstretched paws and powerful hips.

On the next page of the Circe notesheets, Joyce lists a further sequence of five tems: <nurtured>, <Yoke of buckets>, <painters singers>, and <1st. thing in the morning>. These terms appear in Busch on pages 14, 48, 83, 181, and 18 respectively (though not exactly in Joyce's order). Note also the figure of the left of the line-drawing between pages 10 and 11 (below), who has some of the features Joyce ascribes to the basilicogrammate.

So a close inspection of the literature shows that Joyce did not create the term ‘basilicogrammate’, but took the term from the literature of Egyptology. Perhaps he even found the term in Wrankmore’s translation of Busch’s travellers’ guide.

John Simpson (Harald Beck)

Some further additions from the Wrankmore translation of Moritz Busch’s Guide

The Herring columnar transcript has separated the phrases discussed in “basilicogrammate: the Egyptian royal secretary” from others collected by Joyce at the same time. Here is a transcript of the original Notesheet (Circe 19) with Joyce’s colour of strike-outs added. New phrases discussed below are highlighted in red; those discussed above are highlighted in blue:

basilicogrammate stud fee

plinth joists

Egypt fisheaters gag

flay the Pharaoh

Eg. not eat heads high jinks

bustle (dress) stand on trevets

party chest shaft


Manna white pearly pea melt in sun on twigs of tamarisk tree by bite of ?cacos insect

moated grange

¼ Egypt. adults monks

365 monasteries


The pillars are connected by joists witheach [sic] other and with the remains of the wall. (p. 99)

B <the Pharaoh>

Not far from the Pharaoh is his chariot of war. (p. 107 and elsewhere)

stand on trevets

In the first apartment on the left side, is the court-kitchen; where oxen are being slaughtered, and the joints thrown into copper vessels, which stand on trevets over the fire. (p. 110)


All the parts of the bowl itself which is a combination of several, like the shaft of the pillar, seem to be lost. Nor till the time of the Ptolomies did the primeval construction of the calix reappear. The shaft in the middle is perfectly round and smooth as far as the neck, with five fillets under the calix. (p. 99; and elsewhere)

Manna white pearly pea melt in sun on twigs of tamarisk tree by bite of ?cacos [= coccos] insect

The quail, which supplied the Israelites with food during their progress through the deserts, is still found, but never in flights. Manna is also rare; it is seen in sparkling drops on the branches and twigs (not on the leaves) of the turfa, a kind of tamarisk tree, from which it oozes out as a consequence of the sting of an insect of the coccos species. It is white, sweet, about the size of a small pea, and melts in the sun. It is to be had of all druggists in Cairo. (p. 160)

¼ Egypt. adults monks

Egypt, where the monasteries originated, and where at one time nearly a fourth of the adults led a monastic life, has at the present time, only counting the natives, i.e., Coptic monasteries, no more than seven for monks, and no nunneries. (p. 173)

365 monasteries

It is said that Egypt and its deserts formerly possessed no less than 365 monasteries. (p. 174)

Ronan Crowley

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Illustration from the 1858 German edition of Busch's travel guide (Google Books)