Hieroglyphics: The Writings of Ancient Egypt


Both literal and highly lyrical, hieroglyphics bring alive a distant world, with descriptions of the natural environment, the art, the society, the religious beliefs, and even the philosophical basis of a culture that flourished 5,000 years ago. Presenting and explaining almost 600 of the figures used in the classic phase of Egypt's "sacred writing," this fascinating volume traces the origins and the meaning of each sign, as well as its graphic stylization. An opening essay reveals the secrets of the ...
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Both literal and highly lyrical, hieroglyphics bring alive a distant world, with descriptions of the natural environment, the art, the society, the religious beliefs, and even the philosophical basis of a culture that flourished 5,000 years ago. Presenting and explaining almost 600 of the figures used in the classic phase of Egypt's "sacred writing," this fascinating volume traces the origins and the meaning of each sign, as well as its graphic stylization. An opening essay reveals the secrets of the hieroglyphic system, including its development and its structural characteristics, and emphasizes the sacred, evocative, even magical power of the form, which — unlike our own abstract alphabet — is immediate and expressive. Concluding the book are a complete glossary, a bibliography, and an index, designed to make this book invaluable to the casual reader as well as the student and specialist.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780789202321
  • Publisher: Abbeville Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/28/1996
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 251
  • Product dimensions: 6.98 (w) x 9.52 (h) x 0.94 (d)

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Preface by Edda Bresciani

"A hieroglyphic inscription appears chaotic; nothing is in its place; everything is out of proportion; things opposed in nature are in immediate contact and produce monstrous alliances: nevertheless changeable rules, meditated combinations, a calculated and systematic method have undoubtedly guided the hand that drew this picture which seems so disorderly. These characters, so very diversified in their forms are, however, signs that record a regular series of ideas, express a fixed and continuous sense, and thus constitute real writing." (J. F. Champollion, Precis du système hieroglyphique des anciens Egyptiens, II ed. 1828)

Jean François Champollion, the man who deciphered hieroglyphic writing, finally restored its true character with this statement, freeing it of allegory and symbolic apparatus. But he also accurately expressed the discomfort hieroglyphic texts may cause in those who are not accustomed to them.

This illustrated volume contains a global repertory of the culture of the Pharaohs in its notes on the hieroglyphs. The realistic signs of hieroglyphic writing are accompanied by the elegant calligraphy of hieratic and the hard-to-recognize stylizations of demotic, as well as by images drawn from paintings and bas-reliefs. Together, these provide an iconographic inventory of the world of the Nile Valley's ancient inhabitants.

Through the author's rich observations, the signs of "the sacred writing"—phonetic and ideogrammatic, phonograms and determinatives—have gained an undeniable attractiveness. In an ingenious and pleasant new manner, this book re-introduces that arid list which appears at the end of A. H.Gardiner's Egyptian Grammar, well-known to generations of Egyptology students. This new list can now serve as a useful tool for students, as well as for others interested in the culture and life of ancient Egypt.

The attractive anatomy of the hieroglyphic writing will also encourage appreciation of how the ancient Egyptians communicated through their complicated and conservative writing. Not only did they record every aspect of their political, legal, administrative, and religious culture, but also a literature vibrant with every sort of thought, sentiment, meditation, and eternal human aspiration. While this literature is distanced from us by centuries, it is accessible to the modern reader, if only in translation.


The Origins

Many millennia passed between the first appearance of wall paintings (c. 30,000 B.C.) and the first known instances of writing (c. 3,300 B.C., in the southern Mesopotamian civilization of Sumeria). Both express a similar need for communication, but the nature of the methods are fundamentally different. Drawings and signs describe objects, states of mind, and events; writing expresses the word and defines the spoken language. It was certainly a long and laborious process to reach that extreme form of abstraction in which the object or the action was no longer represented by a sign but instead was evoked by pure sound. The first Sumerian written evidence is still fundamentally pictographic. Only around 3,000 B.C. does the passage to phonetics become complete.

Writing appears in Egypt around this time (c. 3,150 B.C.), contemporary with the series of kings—Scorpion, Ka, and Narmer—who reigned over a united Egypt before the First Dynasty. These sovereigns are confused in the lists of kings under the general label of the original semi-divine kings, whose presence has been confirmed by archaeology. Although it is archaic and rudimentary, the Egyptian writing of this time differs from the Sumeric tablets in that it has all the characteristics of the mature hieroglyphic system. The already fixed code recapitulates a nearly complete panoply of alphabetic and multiconsonantal signs, as well as the other categories of graphemes: ideograms, and determinatives (classifying signs which have no phonetic value).

The Sumerian texts let us follow the first stuttering steps of a graphic system searching for its own identity. We can note the perfection and development of an idea originally conceived to satisfy the practical demands of arithmetic and commerce. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, however, seems to break into history as a divine gift, ready for use. Perhaps the Egyptian sands still hide the texts that will one day allow us to trace the obscure evolution of this fascinating graphic code; or perhaps in those remote times perishable papyrus was already in use for the early experiments, intact rolls of papyrus were in fact found in a First Dynasty tomb at Saqqara. Archaeologists have uncovered much information about those formerly little-known epochs in the last few decades. Today's most credited theories about the birth of writing in Egypt will soon have to be re-examined.

Based on current research, though, the precedence of Sumerian writing (however slight) and the fact that the first Egyptian written texts appear in a period rife with objects, styles, and motifs borrowed from the Mesopotamian and proto-Elamitic cultures suggests that the idea of the writing came from the same source. (The Elamites flourished in what is now Khuzistan.) This is no more than an assumption, however. From the outset, hieroglyphic writing seems to be deeply rooted in the Egyptian culture and reality and is substantially different in its structural principles from Sumerian writing.

The repertoire of hieroglyphic signs, the majority of which can already be found in archaic inscriptions, is itself derived from an indigenous tradition. The study of the oldest hieroglyphs are a gold mine of anthropological information about the more remote phases of the formation of Egyptian civilization, and frequently paleography and archaeology are mutually illuminating. It is possible that the anonymous scribes who defined the hieroglyphic code drew from the predynastic stylistic tradition, which had perfected elaborate canons of representation in the preceding centuries.

The American scholar Arnett (1982) has hypothesized that the stylized signs and ornamental motifs which decorate the predynastic ceramics constitute the elements of a rudimentary script—but enticing as it may be, this theory can not yet be proven.

But why would the Egyptians have decided to adopt a Mesopotamian invention? Many answers to this query have been offered, some of which are not fully satisfactory, while others are to be rejected out of hand. Earlier speculations included an invasion of Egypt from the east, which would have brought this new technique of writing along with real civilization. A more credible theory is that trade relations brought restless Sumerian entrepreneurs to the ports and countries of the ancient Orient, distributing their art, culture, and perhaps the concept or technique of writing along with their merchandise.

In either case, the growing new Egyptian state (formed in the second half of the fourth millennium B.C.) began to need a means of recording the complex activities of its public administration. Among the oldest examples of hieroglyphic inscriptions are names of royal properties, engraved in the bodies of large amphoras that contained the foodstuffs produced on these estates. On other vessels, the name of the sovereign and the contents of the vase are written.

Hieroglyphic: The Writing of Kings and Gods

While administrative needs were crucial to the development of hieroglyphic writing, they were neither the only nor perhaps the first to use this powerful new technique.

Besides the engraved vases, the first labels, and the amphora covers of humble mud on which the warehouse-keepers' seals were impressed, the necropolises and sites of Upper Egypt have given us an impressive list of other contemporary objects. These consist of stone votive palettes decorated with scenes from the royal repertory, for the most part relating to war and conquest, on which the earliest hieroglyphs appear. From the beginning, the beauty and pictographic nature of these signs gave them an expressive quality, even apart from their semantic context. This rendered them particularly appropriate to becoming the language through which the Pharaohs would choose to express their power to the world. Stimulated by the splendor of stone—the essence of monumental material—they were indeed the meduneceru, the "divine words," as the Egyptians called their hieroglyphs, a term which is very similar to the much later Greek translation ierogluphikà.

Furthermore, the Egyptian state was much more than a bureaucratic organ occupied only with administration. Even at the beginning, the institution was thought by its very nature to be divine. As the state's means of communication, hieroglyphic immediately became a "sacred" script, initially used only by a small elect class who also possessed magical powers. The evocative power of these signs was such that they were considered to possess the property of life: the scribes took care, in the wall inscriptions of the Old Kingdom burial chambers in the pyramids or on sarcophagi, to render the signs harmless. To do this, they represent in a mutilated form those animals or men which might be inimical to the dead, or eliminated them. Even in later epochs, dangerous animals such as crocodiles or serpents were shown with a lance piercing the spine. On the other hand, the hieroglyphs representing desirable qualities, such as longevity, prosperity, or divine protection, were made into valuable and commonly used amulets.

Hieroglyphs, Registers, and Lists: the Coming of Order

The eruption of the hieroglyphic system onto the Egyptian scene accompanied the birth of a new artistic language, to which it was inextricably tied. Together they formed the semantic elements through which the ideology of the newly created state was expressed. In the severe and pure beauty of their stone, the decorated cosmetic palettes of the predynastic era show the fundamental characteristics of the two correlated systems. They demonstrate the courtliness of a graphic language born in a royal ambience and as an expression of royalty, with which is associated the monumentality of Egyptian art and writing. They also reveal a powerful impulse towards order and rigorous scansion of the elements, which the adoption of hieroglyphic writing brought into artistic representation, and into many aspects of cultural and social life as well.

With the first appearance of hieroglyphic signs on votive palettes, where they alternated with images, the elements of representation suddenly became arranged in regular horizontal rows: from then on this was the classic disposition of the scenes of ancient Egypt. The circular or spiral arrangements of the older tablets gave way to sequential organization. The same order was carried over into mental and social organization: the need to classify reality—which the Egyptians demonstrate in the numerous word lists (called onomastics by Egyptologists) recapitulating the Egyptian experience of life—is accompanied by the interminable administrative tables, inventories, land and fiscal registers which we find in the papyri. These relics are tangible witnesses to the "bureaucratic mentality" that guided the country.

Hieroglyphic was, however, not just a code, made up of abstract signs arbitrarily associated with linguistic meanings. Unlike Sumerian or Chinese signs, hieroglyphic writing conserved its pictorial nature for the whole of its long history. This conditioned the structure of Egyptian thought and culture in a manner different from that of writing systems more distant from their pictographic origins. If it is true that writing restructures thought, it must also be true that writing systems that remain closely tied to the image will have restructured it in a different way than those that are alphabetic or syllabic. The strongly symbolic nature of Egyptian thought must certainly be considered in this light. In a certain sense, the immediate expressivity of the hieroglyphic image, unlike the discrete neutrality of an abstract alphabetic code, frequently superimposed itself on the hieroglyph's own significance. Sometimes the image interacted with the meaning, sometimes obscuring it or providing a departure point for elaborate philosophical speculation.

The elaboration and enrichment of the graphic aspects of the single hieroglyphs and the continual exploration of the possibilities of writing became the constructive elements of philosophical-religious thought in ancient Egypt. Among the explorations in hieroglyphic writing were variants, new combinations of signs, and graphic puns—all the inexhaustible possibilities, in fact, offered by the two confluent aspects (graphic and phonetic) of a phonogram.

Writing as an Art

The constant relation between a hieroglyph and its value as an image explains the deep nature of its tie with art. Every hieroglyph may itself be a work of art, as often occurs in writing on monuments. Reciprocally, every artistic object from ancient Egypt should be read and decoded in its elements as a hieroglyphic whole, from which it frequently differs only in dimension.

Hieroglyphic writing is subject to the same rules as figurative representation in ancient Egypt. The little figures of men, animals, and objects which comprise the texts are represented as collections of parts seen from different points of view, alternately full-face, in profile, or in three-quarters profile. It is difficult to say if the texts are reduced-scale reproductions of the large scenes in temples and tombs, or whether these scenes are enlarged hieroglyphic compositions. The illustrations that accompany the notes in this volume are taken from ancient Egyptian artworks, and underline the close relationship between the codifying of the hieroglyph and the equally formalized artistic representation.

Text and image frequently interpenetrate: not rarely, especially in the Old Kingdom, a noble's portrait on a tomb wall functions as the determinative for his own name written nearby; the same occurs with statues, which are three-dimensional determinatives for the name written on the base. Some sculptures are truly three-dimensional hieroglyphs, gigantic stone rebuses. Even the disposition of the hieroglyphs is ornamental: like today's book designers with titles or other elements to be emphasized, ancient scribes could vary the size, spatial arrangement, or orientation of the signs to satisfy aesthetic concerns.

The Language

The language of the ancient Egyptians belongs to the so-called Hamitic-Semitic family, or as is preferred today, the Afro-Asiatic, which was distributed over a vast area between the Near East and North Africa. These two definitions are equally unsatisfactory; the exact position of Egyptian between Hamitic and Semitic is not easy to define. On one hand, its relation with North-African tongues, essentially Berber, appears much more vague and undefined than the relation it doubtlessly has with the Semitic language group. On the other hand many of its characteristics are extraneous to the latter group. It is possible that these characteristics came from North-African languages or dialects which have now disappeared entirely.

Hieroglyphic and its cursive forms, first hieratic and then demotic, do not record the presence of vowels. Because of this, it is very difficult to reconstruct the pronunciation of Egyptian and its dialectical varieties, up until the late phase of its evolution and, above all, before the adoption of the Greek alphabet in the first centuries A.D. It is also very difficult to distinguish the complex phenomena related to the changes in verb and noun forms during this period. Much work has been done and a great deal of valuable information has come from studies of Coptic—the later phase of the Egyptian language, which was transcribed into Greek and which obviously supplies the pronounciation only as it was after millennia of evolution. It is not yet possible to reconstruct with certainty the phonetic phenomena affecting the Egyptian language over the centuries, or through the dialect variants that spread over Egypt's broad territory.

Because of these uncertainties, Egyptologists who are transliterating from hieroglyphic customarily indicate the phonetic value for each hieroglyphic sign (without supplying any indication as to the possible presence and type of determinative), and avoid any dubious reconstructions of the real pronounciation of the words. A fictitious conventional pronounciation has been adopted: an e is inserted after every consonant except where the consonants 3 and []* occur; in these cases, a (pronounced ah) is inserted. The remaining special transliterations signs are as follows: [] is i (pronounced ee); [] is an emphatic h; [] corresponds to ch in the Scottish loch; [] is like ch in the German ich; [] sounds like sh; [] is like c in Italian ciao; and [] is like dj.

*note: heiroglypnic signs are not reproduced in this excerpt.

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Table of Contents

Key to the Notes


A Microcosm in Stone

Map of Egypt

Chronological Table




Trees and Plants

Sky, Earth, and Water

The House

The City, Palace, and Temples

Arts and Trades




Author Biography: Maria Carmelo Betrò, Egyptologist and Professor at the University of Pisa, Italy, is the author of many works on hieroglyphic and demotic texts.

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