An Explanation of Hieroglyphics


Egyptian pedagogical traditions

To understand hieroglyphic writing, one must know about its tradition within Egypt . The Egyptian student of writing, who brought with him a knowledge of the spoken language as his mother tongue, began by learning the script picture corresponding to each word without having isolated its elements; i.e., its individual signs. Through centuries this pedagogical tradition in the schools helped Egyptian words retain the original established spelling, with only minor--usually stylistic--changes, even when the phonetic form had radically changed. Hieroglyphic writing thus conceals historical sound changes.

The mistakes in hearing made by pupils in the writing schools have helped scholars to understand the phonetic changes that occurred in the development of the Egyptian language. When the pupil who was learning to write the hieroglyphic script did not recognize a word dictated to him, he wrote it badly--that is, just as he heard it. Because he had not yet learned to spell in the orthodox manner, what appeared on his papyrus was usually a word that sounded similar to the dictated but misunderstood term and whose word picture was familiar. Thus, although Egyptian writing was originally composed of symbols that represented a phonetic value, the system was transmitted in the form of word pictures--that is, closed or indivisible groups, generally of several signs per word.

Cryptographic hieroglyphic writing

That knowledge of the hieroglyphic system and the principles upon which it was devised had not become lost is attested by two phenomena: cryptography and the development of the hieroglyphic writing during the last millennium of its existence. From the middle of the 3rd millennium but more frequently in the New Kingdom (from c. 1539 BC), hieroglyphic texts are encountered that have a very strange appearance. The absence of familiar word groups and the presence of many signs not found in the canon characterize these texts at first glance as cryptographic, or secret, writing. This kind of hieroglyphic writing was probably intended as an eye catcher, to entice people to seek the pleasure of deciphering it. Composed according to the original principles of the script, these inscriptions differed only in that certain features excluded when the original canon was formulated were now exploited. The new possibilities involved not only the forms of the signs but also their selection. For example, the mouth was not drawn in front view (), as in the classical script, but in profile (), although it had the same phonetic value. An example of a change in the choice of signs is the case in which a man carrying a basket on his head (), a deter minative without phonetic value in the classical script, was later to be read as f and was used in lieu of the familiar sign having this phonetic value, that of the horned viper. In the new selection of the sign, the phonetic value is obtained from the word f3 "to carry" (neglecting its two weak consonants), in accordance with a principle that the inventors of the writing had applied in 3000 BC. These cryptographic inscriptions prove that alongside the method of instruction in the schools, which was based on memorization or recognition, not upon analytical understanding, there was another tradition that transmitted knowledge of the basic principles of the hieroglyphic script. A command of the principles of hieroglyphics similar to that which the composers of the cryptic inscriptions had was presupposed for the puzzle-happy decipherers. Because the encoded texts often consisted of a petition by the inventor of the text to say a prayer on his behalf, the number of these decipherers must surely not have been small.


Growth of hieroglyphic writing during the 1st millennium BC

At about the middle of the 1st millennium BC, Egyptian writing experienced new developments and a revival of interest. Again the inscriptions abounded with new signs and sign groups unknown in the classical period, all generated according to the same principles as the classical Egyptian script and the cryptographic texts. The writing of this late period was distinguished from the cryptograms in that this script, like every normal system of writing, developed a fixed tradition, being intended not to conceal but to be read easily, whereas the cryptography strove for originality.

  Stages of hieroglyphic writing

The development of hieroglyphic writing thus proceeded approximately as follows: at first only the absolutely necessary symbols were invented, without a canonization of their artistic form. In a second stage, easier readability (i.e., increased rapidity of reading) was achieved by increasing the number of signs (thereby eliminating some doubts) and by employing determinatives. Finally, after the second stage had endured, essentially unaltered, for about 2,000 years, the number of symbols increased to several thousand in about 500 BC. This rampant growth process occurred through the application of hitherto unused possibilities of the system. With the triumph of Christianity, the knowledge of hieroglyphic writing was extinguished along with the ancient Egyptian religion.


The tools used by the craftsmen for writing hieroglyphic symbols consisted of chisels and hammers for stone inscriptions and brushes and colors for wood and other smooth surfaces. Only for the cursive scripts, hieratic and demotic, were special materials developed. Leather and papyrus became writing surfaces, and the stems of rushes in lengths of six to 13 inches (15 to 33 centimeters), cut obliquely at the writing end and chewed to separate the fibers into a brush like tip, functioned as writing implements. The split calamus reed was introduced into Egypt by the Greeks in the 3rd century BC.

Hieratic script

The Egyptian cursive script, called hieratic writing, received its name from the Greek hieratikos ("priestly") at a time when the script was used only for sacred texts. Everyday secular documents were written in another style, the demotic (Greek demotikos, "for the people" or "in common use") script.

The structure of the hieratic script corresponds with that of hieroglyphic writing. Changes occurred in the characters of hieratic simply because they could be written rapidly with brush or rush and ink on papyrus. In general, the picture form is not, or not easily, recognizable. Because their models were well known and in current use throughout Egyptian history, the hieratic symbols never strayed too far from them. Nevertheless, the system differs from the hieroglyphic script in some important respects:

1. Hieratic was written in one direction only, from right to left. In earlier times the lines had run vertically and later, about 2000 BC, horizontally. Subsequently the papyrus scrolls were written in columns of changing widths.

2. There were ligatures in hieratic so that two, but no more than two, signs could be written in one stroke.

3. As a consequence of its decreased legibility, the spelling of the hieratic script was more rigid than that of hieroglyphic writing. Variations from uniformity at a given time were minor; but, during the course of the various periods, the spelling developed and changed. As a result, hieratic texts do not correspond exactly to contemporary hieroglyphic texts, either in the placing of signs or in the spelling of words.

4. Hieratic used diacritical additions to distinguish between two signs that had grown similar to one another because of cursive writing. For example, the cow's leg received a supplementary distinguishing cross, because in hieratic it had come to resemble the sign for the leg of a man. Certain hieratic signs were taken into the hieroglyphic script.

All commonplace documents--e.g.., letters, catalogs, and official writs--were written in hieratic script, as were literary and religious texts. In the life of the Egyptians, hieratic script played a larger role than hieroglyphic writing and was also taught earlier in the schools. In offices, hieratic was replaced by demotic in the 7th century BC, but it remained in fashion until much later for religious texts of all sorts. The latest hieratic texts stem from the end of the 1st century or the beginning of the 2nd century AD.

Demotic script

Demotic script is first encountered at the beginning of the 26th dynasty, in about 660 BC. The writing signs plainly demonstrate its connection with the hieratic script, although the exact relationship is not yet clear. The demotic characters are more cursive (flowing and joined) and thus more similar to one another, with the result that they are more difficult to read than are the hieratic forms. Countering this difficulty, there is less freedom for the writer's individual variations. It appears that demotic was originally developed expressly for government office use--that is, for documents in which the language was extensively formalized and thus well suited for the use of a standardized cursive script. Only some time after its introduction was it used for literary texts in addition to documents and letters; much later it was employed for religious texts also. The latest dated demotic text, from Dec. 2, 425 , consists of a rock inscription at Philae . In contrast to hieratic, which is almost without exception written in ink on papyrus or other flat surfaces, demotic inscriptions are not infrequently found engraved in stone or carved in wood.

The demotic system corresponds to the hieratic and hence also to the hieroglyphic system. Alongside the traditional spelling, however, there was another spelling that took account of the markedly altered phonetic form of the words by appropriate respelling. This characteristic applied especially to a large number of words that did not occur in the older language and for which no written form had consequently been passed down. The nontraditional spelling could also be used for old, familiar words.

Decipherment of hieroglyphic writing

With the possible exception of Pythagoras, no Greek understood the nature of hieroglyphic writing. The Greeks did not obtain guidance from their Egyptian contemporaries, some of whom even lived on Italian soil and wrote proper hieroglyphic inscriptions on Roman obelisks. Rather, the Greek tradition taught that hieroglyphs were symbolic signs or allegories. The Egyptian-born Greek philosopher Plotinus interpreted hieroglyphic writing entirely from the viewpoint of his esoteric philosophy. Only one of the numerous works on the hieroglyphic script written in late antiquity has been preserved: the Hieroglyphica of Horapollon, a Greek Egyptian who probably lived in the 5th century AD. Horapollon made use of a good source, but he himself certainly could not read hieroglyphic writing and began with the false hypothesis of the Greek tradition, namely, that hieroglyphs were symbols and allegories, not phonetic signs.

The Middle Ages neither possessed any knowledge of hieroglyphic writing nor took any interest in it. But a manuscript of Horapollon brought to Florence in 1422 stirred great interest among the humanists. Without giving a thought to the possibility that ancient Egyptian originals might be available in Rome , Renaissance artists designed hieroglyphs after Horapollon's descriptions, as well as from their own imaginations. They used hieroglyphs as wisdom-laden symbols in architecture and also in drawings and paintings.

Kircher's attempts at decipherment

The great German scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602-80) began his attempts at decipherment with the Coptic language and with the correct hypothesis that the hieroglyphs recorded an earlier stage of this language. He also believed, again correctly, that the signs recorded phonetic values. In spite of this, he did not arrive at correct results--with the exception of a single character. This failure can be attributed not only to Kircher's erroneous assumption that the hieroglyphs must correspond phonetically to an alphabet but primarily to the fact that he was most interested in the Renaissance conception of a supposed symbolic meaning constituting the deeper significance of hieroglyphs. In his view, the phonetic value of the hieroglyphs was merely the commonplace, superficial part of the sign.

Discovery of the Rosetta Stone

Both the intellectual and the physical prerequisites for the deciphering of the hieroglyphic script first presented themselves at the end of the 18th century. By accident, a stone that exhibited three different scripts--hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek--was discovered by members of Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1799 near Rashid (French Rosette; English Rosetta) on the Mediterranean coast. The Greek text stated clearly that the document set forth the same text in the sacred script, the folk or popular script, and Greek. The stone was promptly made known to all interested scholars. Important partial successes in the effort of deciphering the scripts were achieved by the Swede Johan David ┼kerblad and by the English physicist Thomas Young, who mainly studied the demotic text, again beginning with the false hypothesis that the hieroglyphs were symbols. Young succeeded in proving that they were not symbols--at least that the proper names were not--and that the demotic and hieratic signs had come from the hieroglyphs.  He was the first to isolate correctly some single-consonant hieroglyphic signs. But a wrong turn in the course of his investigations then prevented him from fully deciphering the writing.  

Champollion's decipherment

This task of complete decipherment was first accomplished by the Frenchman Jean-Franšois Champollion (1790-1832) in 1822, after long years of intensive work and many setbacks. His success was due to the recognition that hieroglyphic writing, exactly like the hieratic and demotic scripts derived from it, did not constitute a writing system of symbols but rather a phonetic script. He arrived at this breakthrough by an exact comparison of the three Egyptian forms of writing, as well as by reference to Coptic, the late phase of the Egyptian language that was written with the Greek alphabet and was thus directly readable. The Coptic language was also understood at that time. Starting, as had his predecessors, from Ptolemy and Cleopatra, both ring-enclosed royal names, and adding the hieroglyphic spelling of Ramses' name, Champollion determined, essentially correctly, the phonetic values of the signs. Soon after, he also learned to read and translate a large number of Egyptian words. Since then, precise research has confirmed and refined Champollion's approach and most of his results.

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