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Easy Lessons in Egyptian Hieroglyphics

Easy Lessons in Egyptian Hieroglyphics

by E. A. Wallis Budge

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Written by perhaps the most prolific, erudite Egyptologist of the 20th century, this solid guide to hieroglyphics remains the standard introduction. Budge gives the history of hieroglyphic writing, its evolution into hieratic and demotic scripts, and the fascinating tale of its decipherment by Young, Champollion, Åkerblad, and others.


Written by perhaps the most prolific, erudite Egyptologist of the 20th century, this solid guide to hieroglyphics remains the standard introduction. Budge gives the history of hieroglyphic writing, its evolution into hieratic and demotic scripts, and the fascinating tale of its decipherment by Young, Champollion, Åkerblad, and others.

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Easy Lessons in Egyptian Heiroglyphics

By E. A. Wallis Budge

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1983 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14056-8



The ancient Egyptians expressed their ideas in writing by means of a large number of picture signs which are commonly called Hieroglyphics. They began to use them for this purpose more than seven thousand years ago, and they were employed uninterruptedly until about B. C. 100, that is to say, until nearly the end of the rule of the Ptolemies over Egypt. It is hardly probable that the hieroglyphic system of writing was invented in Egypt, and the evidence on this point now accumulating indicates that it was brought there by certain invaders who came from north-east or central Asia; they settled down in the valley of the Nile at some place between Memphis on the north and Thebes on the south, and gradually established their civilization and religion in their new home. Little by little the writing spread to the north and to the south, until at length hieroglyphics were employed, for state purposes at least, from the coast of the Mediterranean to the most southern portion of the Island of Meroë, that is to say, over a tract of country more than 2000 miles long. A remarkable peculiarity of Egyptian hieroglyphics is the slight modification of form which they suffered during a period of thousands of years, a fact due, no doubt, partly to the material upon which the Egyptians inscribed them, and partly to a conservatism begotten of religious convictions. The Babylonian and Chinese picture characters became modified at so early a period that, some thousands of years before Christ, their original forms were lost. This reference to the modified forms of hieroglyphics brings us at once to the mention of the various ways in which they were written in Egypt, i. e., to the three different kinds of Egyptian writing.

The oldest form of writing is the hieroglyphic, in which the various objects, animate and inanimate, for which the characters stand are depicted as accurately as possible. The following titles of one Pta-etep, who lived at the period of the rule of the IVth dynasty will explain this; by the side of each hieroglyphic is its description.

In the above examples of picture signs the objects which they represent are tolerably evident, but a large number of hieroglyphics do not so easily lend themselves to identification. Hieroglyphics were cut in stone, wood, and other materials with marvellous accuracy, at depths varying from 1/16 of an inch to 1 inch ; the details of the objects represented were given either by cutting or by painting in colours. In the earliest times the mason must have found it easier to cut characters into the stone than to sculpture them in relief ; but it is probable that the idea of preserving carefully what had been inscribed also entered his mind, for frequently when the surface outline of a character has been destroyed sufficient traces remain in the incuse portion of it for purposes of identification. Speaking generally, celestial objects are coloured blue, as also are metal vessels and instruments ; animals, birds, and reptiles are painted as far as possible to represent their natural colours 5 the Egyptian man is painted red, and the woman yellow or a pinky-brown colour ; and so on. But though in some cases the artist endeavoured to make each picture sign an exact representation of the original object in respect of shape or form and colour, with the result that the simplest inscription became a splendid piece of ornamentation in which the most vivid colours blended harmoniously, in the majority of painted texts which have been preserved to us the artists have not been consistent in the colouring of their signs. Frequently the same tints of a colour are not used for the same picture, an entirely different colour being often employed ; and it is hard not to think that the artist or scribe, having come to the end of the paint which should have been employed for one class of hieroglyphics, frequently made use of that which should have been reserved for another. It has been said that many of the objects which are represented by picture signs may be identified by means of the colours with which they are painted, and this is, no doubt, partly true; but the inconsistency of the Egyptian artist often does away entirely with the value of the colour as a means of identification.

Picture signs or hieroglyphics were employed for religious and state purposes from the earliest to the latest times, and it is astonishing to contemplate the labour which must have been expended by the mason in cutting an inscription of any great length, if every character was well and truly made. Side by side with cutters in stone carvers in wood must have existed, and for a proof of the skill which the latter class of handicraftsmen possessed at a time which must be well nigh predynastic, the reader is referred to the beautiful panels in the Gizeh Museum which have been published by Mariette. The hieroglyphics and figures of the deceased are in relief, and are most delicately and beautifully executed ; but the unusual grouping of the characters proves that they belong to a period when as yet dividing lines for facilitating the reading of the texts had not been introduced. These panels cannot belong to a period later than the IIIrd, and they are probably earlier than the 1st dynasty. Inscriptions in stone and wood were cut with copper or bronze and iron chisels. But the Egyptians must have had need to employ their hieroglyphics for other purposes than inscriptions which were intended to remain in one place, and the official documents of state, not to mention the correspondence of the people, cannot have been written upon stone or wood. At a very early date the papyrus plant was made into a sort of paper upon which were written drafts of texts which the mason had to cut in stone, official documents, letters, etc. The stalk of this plant, which grew to the height of twelve or fifteen feet, was triangular, and was about six inches in diameter in its thickest part. The outer rind was removed from it, and the stalk was divided into layers with a flat needle ; these layers were laid upon a board, side by side, and upon these another series of layers was laid in a horizontal direction, and a thin solution of gum was then run between them, after which both series of layers were pressed and dried. The number of such sheets joined together depended upon the length of the roll required. The papyrus rolls which have come down to us vary greatly in length and width ; the finest Theban papyri are about seventeen inches wide, and the longest roll yet discovered is the great Papyrus of Rameses III, which measures one hundred and thirty-five feet in length. On such rolls of papyrus the Egyptians wrote with a reed, about ten inches long and one eighth of an inch in diameter, the end of which was bruised to make the fibres flexible, and not cut ; the ink was made of vegetable substances, or of coloured earths mixed with gum and water.

Now it is evident that the hieroglyphics traced in outline upon papyrus with a comparatively blunt reed can never have had the clearness and sharp outlines of those cut with metal chisels in a hard substance ; it is also evident that the increased speed at which government orders and letters would have to be written would cause the scribe, unconsciously at first, to abbreviate and modify the picture signs, until at length only the most salient characteristics of each remained. And this is exactly what happened. Little by little the hieroglyphics lost much of their pictorial character, and degenerated into a series of signs which went to form the cursive writing called Hieratic. It was used extensively by the priests in copying literary works in all periods, and though it occupied originally a subordinate position in respect of hieroglyphics, especially as regards religious texts, it at length became equal in importance to hieroglyphic writing. The following example of hieratic writing is taken from the Prisse Papyrus upon which at a period about B. C. 2600 two texts, containing moral precepts which were composed about one thousand years earlier, were written.

Now if we transcribe these into hieroglyphics we obtain the following :–

1. a reed

2. a mouth

3. a hare

4. the wavy surface of water

5. see No. 4

6. a kind of vessel

7. an owl

8. a bolt of a door

9. a seated figure of a man

10. a stroke written to make the world symmetrical

11. see No. 1

12. a knee bone (?)

13. see No. 2.

14. a roll of papyrus tied up

15. an eye

16. see No. 6

17. a goose

18. see No. 9

19. see No. 4

20. a chair back

21. a sickle

22. an eagle

23. see No. 7

24. a tree

25. see No. 14

26. an axe

27. see No. 10.

On comparing the above hieroglyphics with their hieratic equivalents it will be seen that only long practice would enable the reader to identify quickly the abbreviated characters which he had before him ; the above specimen of hieratic is, however, well written and is relatively easy to read. In the later times, i. e., about B. C. 900, the scribes invented a series of purely arbitrary or conventional modifications of the hieratic characters and so a new style of writing, called Enchorial or Demotic, came into use; it was used chiefly for business or social purposes at first, but at length copies of the "Book of the Dead" and lengthy literary compositions were written in it. In the Ptolemaic period Demotic was considered to be of such importance that whenever the text of a royal decree was inscribed upon a stele which was to be set up in some public place and was intended to be read by the public in general, a version of the said decree, written in the Demotic character, was added. Famous examples of stelae inscribed in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek, are the Canopus Stone, set up at Canopus in the reign of Ptolemy III. Euergetes I. in the ninth year of his reign (B. C. 247—222), and the Rosetta Stone set up at Rosetta, in the eighth year of the reign of Ptolemy V. Epiphanes (B. C. 205—182).

In all works on ancient Egyptian grammar the reader will find frequent reference to Coptic. The Coptic language is a dialect of Egyptian of which four or five varieties are known ; its name is derived from the name of the old Egyptian city Qubt, through the Arabic , which in its turn was intended to represent the Gr. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]. The dialect dates from the second century of our era, and the literature written in it is chiefly Christian. Curiously enough Coptic is written with the letters of the Greek alphabet, to which were added six characters, derived from the Demotic forms of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, to express sounds which were peculiar to the Egyptian language.

Hieroglyphic characters may be written in columns or in horizontal lines, which are sometimes to be read from left to right and sometimes from right to left. There was no fixed rule about the direction in which the characters should be written, and as we find that in inscriptions which are cut on the sides of a door they usually face inwards, i. e., towards the door, each group thus facing the other, the scribe and sculptor needed only to follow their own ideas in the arrangement and direction of the characters, or the dictates of symmetry. To ascertain the direction in which an inscription is to be read we must observe in which way the men, and birds, and animals face, and then read towards them. The two following examples will illustrate this :–

Now on looking at these passages we notice that the men, the chicken, the owls, the hawk, and the hares all face to the left ; to read these we must read from left to right, i. e., towards them. The second extract has been set up by the compositor with the characters facing in the opposite direction, so that to read these now we must read from right to left (No. 3).

Hieratic is usually written in horizontal lines which are to be read from right to left, but in some papyri dating from the XIIth dynasty the texts are arranged in short columns.

Before we pass to the consideration of the Egyptian Alphabet, syllabic signs, etc., it will be necessary to set forth briefly the means by which the power to read these was recovered, and to sketch the history of the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics in connection with the Rosetta Stone.



The Rosetta Stone was found by a French artillery officer called Boussard, among the ruins of Fort Saint Julien, near the Rosetta mouth of the Nile, in 1799, but it subsequently came into the possession of the British Government at the capitulation of Alexandria. It now stands at the southern end of the great Egyptian Gallery in the British Museum. The top and right hand bottom corner of this remarkable object have been broken off, and at the present the texts inscribed upon it consist of fourteen lines of hieroglyphics, thirty-two lines of demotic, and fifty- four lines of Greek. It measures about 3 ft. 9 in. × 2 ft. 4½ in. × 11 in. on the inscribed side.

The Rosetta Stone records that Ptolemy V. Epiphanes, king of Egypt from B. C. 205 to B. C. 182, conferred great benefits upon the priesthood, and set aside large revenues for the maintenance of the temples, and remitted the taxes due from the people at a period of distress, and undertook and carried out certain costly engineering works in connection with the irrigation system of Egypt. In gratitude for these acts the priesthood convened a meeting at Memphis, and ordered that a statue of the king should be set up in every temple of Egypt, that a gilded wooden statue of the king placed in a gilded wooden shrine should be established in each temple, etc. ; and as a part of the great plan to do honour to the king it was ordered that a copy of the decree, inscribed on a basalt stele in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek characters, should be set up in each of the first, second, and third grade temples near the king's statue. The provisions of this decree were carried out in the eighth year of the king's reign, and the Rosetta Stone is one of the stelae which, presumably, were set up in the great temples throughout the length and breadth of the land. But the importance of the stone historically is very much less than its value philologically, for the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphics is centred in it, and it formed the base of the work done by scholars in the past century which has resulted in the restoration of the ancient Egyptian language and literature.

It will be remembered that long before the close of the Roman rule in Egypt the hieroglyphic system of writing had fallen into disuse, and that its place had been taken by demotic, and by Coptic, that is to say, the Egyptian language written in Greek letters ; the widespread use of Greek and Latin among the governing and upper classes of Egypt also caused the disappearance of Egyptian as the language of state. The study of hieroglyphics was prosecuted by the priests in remote districts probably until the end of the Vth century of our era, but very little later the ancient inscriptions had become absolutely a dead letter, and until the beginning of the last century there was neither an Oriental nor a European who could either read or understand a hieroglyphic inscription. Many writers pretended to have found the key to the hieroglyphics, and many more professed, with a shameless impudence which it is hard to understand in these days, to translate the contents of the texts into a modern tongue. Foremost among such pretenders must be mentioned Athanasius Kircher who, in the XVIIth century, declared that he had found the key to the hieroglyphic inscriptions ; the translations which he prints in his Oedipus Aegyptiacus are utter nonsense, but as they were put forth in a learned tongue many people at the time believed they were correct. More than half a century later the Comte de Pahlin stated that an inscription at Denderah was only a translation of Psalm C., and some later writers believed that the Egyptian inscriptions contained Bible phrases and Hebrew compositions. In the first half of the XVIIIth century Warburton appears to have divined the existence of alphabetic characters in Egyptian, and had he possessed the necessary linguistic training it is quite possible that he would have done some useful work in decipherment. Among those who worked on the right lines must be mentioned de Guignes, who proved the existence of groups of characters having determinatives, and Zoëga, who came to the conclusion that the hieroglyphics were letters, and what was very important, that the cartouches, i. e., the ovals which occur in the inscriptions and are so called because they resemble cartridges, contained royal names. In 1802 Akerblad, in a letter to Silvestre de Sacy, discussed the demotic inscription on the Rosetta Stone, and published an alphabet of the characters. But Akerblad never received the credit which was his due for this work, for although it will be found, on comparing Young's "Supposed Enchorial Alphabet" printed in 1818 with that of Akerblad printed in 1802, that fourteen of the characters are identical in both alphabets, no credit is given to him by Young. Further, if Champollion's alphabet, published in his Lettre à M. Dacier, Paris, 1822, be compared with that of Akerblad, sixteen of the characters will be found to be identical; yet Champollion, like Young, seemed to be oblivious of the fact.


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