The History of Ancient Egyptian Writing
By Marie Parsons
By the Late Period of Egyptian History, just before Alexander the Great came and left his Hellenistic influence and the Ptolemies to reign over the land of Kemet, the scribes of Egypt used three distinct scripts in their writing: hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic. The latter two are merely cursive derivatives of hieroglyphic. By the Roman period, a fourth script, Coptic, appeared, which was based upon the Greek alphabet and used different principles.
The ancient Egyptians called their script mdju netjer, or "words of the gods." Hieroglyphs were the earliest form of Egyptian script, and also the longest-lived. It is the most familiar to the modern observer, when staring in awe at the columned halls at Karnak, the beautiful tomb paintings in the Valley of the Kings and Queens, and on sarcophagi and coffins.
The ibis-headed god Thoth was considered to be the patron deity of writing and scribes. A relief from the temple of Ramesses II at Abydos shows the god sitting on a throne, holding a long scribal palette in one hand and in the other, holding the reed with which he plans to write. King Ramesses himself is shown assisting the god by holding a water pot.
The first hieroglyphs appear on labels and pottery objects dated to about 3100 BCE in the late Predynastic Period, and the last glyphs appear on the island of Philae in a temple inscription carved in 394 ACE. Originally, hieroglyphs were used to write different kinds of texts on different surfaces, but as hieratic developed, hieroglyphic script became confined to religious and monumental useage, mostly carved in stone. Upon seeing these temple and other religious inscriptions, the Greeks called the script hiera grammata, "the sacred letters," or ta hieroglyphica, "the sacred carved letters."
A hieroglyphic inscription is arranged on its surface either in columns or in horizontal lines. There are no punctuation marks or spaces to indicate the divisions between words. The signs are generally inscribed facing rightward, (though the opposite orientation does appear in certain contexts) and are usually read from right to left; if they appear in horizontal lines, one reads from upper to lower.
Hieroglyphic script is largely pictorial in character. Most are recognizable pictures of natural or man-made objects, often symbolically color-painted. The ground plan of a simple house, or pr, might stand for the word for "house." These are called ideograms. We do something similar when we use a picture of a heart to represent the word "love" in this sentence "I love New York."
Hieroglyphic script also includes phonograms, sign-words for concepts that cannot be conveyed by a simple picture. The phonogram is best represented by the "rebus principle." A rebus is a message spelled out in pictures that represent sounds rather than the things they are pictures of: for example, the picture of an eye, a bee and a leaf in English might be used to make the English sentence "I Believe," or "eye-bee-leaf." The sentence itself has nothing to do with eyes, bees or leaves.
A broader example of this is found in the writing of the name Amun. "Amun" was the great state god of Thebes, and his name was written usually with the reed-leaf, i + the playing board with game pieces read as men and for final clarity the letter n.
One example of the rebus in statuary is a statue of Senenmut, adviser to the female king Hatshepsut. Her throne name was MaatKaRe. The statue shows Senenmut kneeling behind the horned cobra-uraeus, which represents Ra with the sun-disk between the horns, and also the goddess Maat, who is often called the daughter, or Eye of Ra. Below the uraeus is the upraised arm sign for the word ka.
Words spelled with phonograms usually have an ideogram added at the end. This extra sign is now called a determinative. It shows that the signs before it are to be considered phonograms and not ideograms, and it indicates the general idea of the word. Since the goose represents both the bird itself as well as the word "son," often the determinative of the man appears after the goose to show that that goose is not herein meant.
Hieratic is an adaptation of the hieroglyphic script, the signs being simplified to make their writing quicker. Hieratic was the administrative and business script throughout most of its history, and recorded documents of a literary, scientific and religious nature. It was most often used on papyrus rolls or sheets, or on bits of pottery or stone ostraca.
The earliest body of hieratic texts thus far are estate records that date from the Fourth Dynasty. It was supplanted by demotic script in the Late Period around 600 BCE. After that time the script was used only for religious documents, hence acquiring its name hieratika, meaning "priestly" in Greek.
Hieroglyphs were written with a reed brush and ink on papyrus, leather or wood, and on those surfaces it was harder to attain the crisp quality and detail of the signs as carved on stone. So cursive hieroglyphic was merely a simpler form of each hieroglyphic sign. A hieratic sign was not always as clear a counterpart to its hieroglyphic sign as was cursive hieroglyphic.
Hieratic should not be confused with cursive hieroglyphic script, though the two resemble each other. Cursive hieroglyphic script is usually written from right to left in columns, though just as with hieroglyphic it could vary, and is found almost exclusively in religious texts such as the Book of the Dead. Hieratic could be written in columns or horizontal lines, but it always read from right to left. It also sometimes contained punctuation in the form of a small dot to separate units of thought.
The word "Demotic" comes once again from Greek, meaning "popular script." By the Hellenistic period of the Ptolemies, demotic was the only native script in general daily use. It is a very cursive script, having been derived directly from hieratic, making it difficult to read and almost impossible to transcribe into any hieroglyphic counterpart.
Demotic texts were generally administrative, legal and commercial, though there are a few literary compositions as well as scientific and religious texts. The Rosetta Stone contains a section inscribed in demotic along with hieroglyphic and Greek.
Study of hieroglyphics
Hieroglyphics can be transliterated and translated today, as can hieratic. Demotic is usually transliterated directly into the letters of the English alphabet. Many texts can now be read to glimpse how the Egyptians spoke of themselves, their gods, and their history.
- Reading the Past: Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs by W.V.Davies
- Middle Egyptian by James P. Allen
- Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art by Richard Wilkinson
- Reading Egyptian Art by Richard Wilkinson
Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.