An Introduction to Egyptian Hieroglyphics

The Egyptian god Thoth and hieroglyphics

“The main purpose of writing was not decorative, and it was not originally intended for literary or commercial use. Its most important function was to provide a means by which certain concepts or events could be brought into existence. The Egyptians believed that if something were committed to writing it could be repeatedly “made to happen” by means of magic.”

~ Egyptologist Ann Rosalie David (1946 – present)

The best known Ancient Egyptian writing is known as hieroglyphics “sacred carvings” and developed at some point prior to the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 -2613 BCE). The designation “hieroglyphics” is a Greek word; the Egyptians referred to their writing as medu-netjer, “the god’s words,” as they believed writing had been given to them by the great god Thoth. Thoth has been depicted in many ways depending on the era and on the aspect the artist wished to convey. Usually, he is depicted in his human form with the head of an ibis. Thoth was born with an immense knowledge and most importantly the knowledge of the power of words. He was also considered to have been the scribe of the underworld. Thoth was universally worshipped by ancient Egyptian scribes. Many scribes had a painting or a picture of Thoth in their “office”. Likewise, one of the symbols for scribes was that of the ibis. Thoth has played a prominent role in many of the Egyptian myths. Displaying his role as arbitrator, he had overseen the three epic battles between good and evil making sure neither had a decisive victory over the other.

Thoth

The ancient Egyptians regarded Thoth as One, self-begotten, and self-produced. He was the master of both physical and moral (i.e. divine) law. He is said to direct the motions of the heavenly bodies. Without his words, the Egyptians believed, the gods would not exist. His power was unlimited in the Underworld and rivaled that of Ra and Osiris. The Egyptians credited him as the author of all works of science, religion, philosophy, and magic. The Greeks further declared him the inventor of astronomy, astrology, the science of numbers, mathematics, geometry, surveying, medicine, botany, theology, civilized government, the alphabet, reading, writing, and oratory. They further claimed he was the true author of every work of every branch of knowledge, human and divine.

Thoth gave human beings this knowledge freely, but it was a responsibility he expected them to take seriously. Words could hurt, heal, elevate, destroy, condemn, and even raise someone from death to life. Sometime in the Predynastic Period in Egypt (c. 6000 – c. 3150 BCE), they began to use symbols to represent basic concepts. Egyptologist Miriam Lichtheim writes, “[the script] was limited to the briefest notations designed to identify a person or a place, an event or a possession.” The earliest writings purpose was most likely in trade, to convey information about goods, prices, and purchases. However the first actual extant evidence of Egyptian writing comes from tombs in the form of offering lists in the Early Dynastic Period.

Example of hieroglyphics

Death was not the end of life for the ancient Egyptians; it was only a transition from one state to another. An Offering List was an inventory of the gifts due to a particular person and inscribed on the wall of their tomb. Someone who had performed great deeds, held a high position of authority, or led troops to victory in battle were due greater offerings than another who had done relatively little with their lives. The autobiography and the prayer became the first forms of literature in Egypt and were created using the hieroglyphic script.

“The Offering List grew to enormous length till the day on which an inventive mind realized that a short Prayer for Offerings would be an effective substitute for the unwieldy list. Once the prayer, which may already have existed in spoken form, was put into writing, it became the basic element around which tomb-texts and representations were organized. Similarly, the ever lengthening lists of an official’s ranks and titles were infused with life when the imagination began to flesh them out with narration, and the Autobiography was born.”

~ Egyptologist Miriam Lichtheim (1914 – 2004)

Hieroglyphics developed out of the early pictographs. People used symbols, pictures to represent concepts such as a person or event.

“A modern-day example of how hieroglyphics were written would be a text message in which an emoji of an angry face is placed after an image of a school. Without having to use any words one could convey the concept of “I hate school” or “I am angry about school.” If one wanted to make one’s problem clearer, one could place an image of a teacher or fellow student before the angry-face-ideogram or a series of pictures telling a story of a problem one had with a teacher. Determinatives were important in the script, especially because hieroglyphics could be written left-to-right or right-to-left or down-to-up or up-to-down. Inscriptions over temple doors, palace gates, and tombs go in whatever direction was best served for that message. The beauty of the final work was the only consideration in which direction the script was to be read.”

~ Joshua J. Mark, Professor of Philosophy at Marist College

Simple hieroglyphics

“The placement of hieroglyphs in relation to one another was governed by aesthetic rules. The Egyptians always tried to group signs in balanced rectangles. For example, the word for “health” was written with the three consonants s-n-b. These would not be written [in a linear fashion] by an Egyptian because the group would look ugly, it would be considered “incorrect”. The “correct” writing would be the grouping of the signs into a rectangle…The labor of construction was lightened somewhat by the fact that individual hieroglyphs could be enlarged or shrunk as the grouping required and that some signs could be placed either horizontally or vertically. Scribes would even reverse the order of signs if it seemed that a more balanced rectangle could be obtained by writing them in the wrong order.”

~ Egyptologist Karl-Theodor Zauzich

Hieroglyphics were comprised of an ‘alphabet’ of 24 basic consonants which would convey meaning but over 800 different symbols to express that meaning precisely which all had to be memorized and used correctly.

“It may well be asked why the Egyptians developed a complicated writing system that used several hundred signs when they could have used their alphabet of some thirty signs and made their language much easier to read and write. This puzzling fact probably has a historical explanation: the one-consonant signs were not “discovered” until after the other signs were in use. Since by that time the entire writing system was established, it could not be discarded, for specific religious reasons. Hieroglyphics were regarded as a precious gift of Thoth, the god of wisdom. To stop using many of these signs and to change the entire system of writing would have been considered both a sacrilege and an immense loss, not to mention the fact that such a change would make all the older texts meaningless at a single blow.”

~ Egyptologist Karl-Theodor Zauzich

Hieroglyphics were obviously quite labor-intensive for a scribe and so another faster script was developed shortly after known as hieratic (‘sacred writing’). Hieratic script used characters which were simplified versions of hieroglyphic symbols. Hieratic appeared in the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt after hieroglyphic writing was already firmly developed.

Hieratic script

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