Egyptian Hieroglyphs: The Language of the Gods

Egyptian Hieroglyphs: The Language of the Gods

Egyptian hieroglyphs are among the oldest writing systems in the world, dating back some 5,200 years. Known in ancient Egyptian as the “language of the gods” and said to have been created by the god of knowledge Thoth, hieroglyphs were vital in the fulfilment of royal duties and were used by powerful pharaohs and their scribes to record the achievements of their reign. Today, millions of hieroglyphs in sacred texts, sarcophagi, tombs, and monuments remain as memories of a highly civilized, bygone era.

The ancient Egyptian writing system is a pictorial script with a huge number of characters: 24 of which stand for what would be recognized as letters, others stand for complete words or combinations of consonants. There are between 700 and 800 basic symbols called glyphs and there is no punctuation or indication of where words or sentences begin or end.

The glyphs are usually read from right to left, top to bottom and do not use spaces or punctuation. On the walls of temples and tombs in Egypt , they generally appear in columns.

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Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs inscribed on a wall. ( Paolo Gallo /Adobe Stock)

Priests used hieroglyphs to write down prayers and texts related to life after death and worship of the gods. When preparing their tombs, many citizens in Egypt had hieroglyphic guides of the afterworld written on the surfaces of tomb walls and on the insides of coffins. A cartouche was a type of name tag on a sarcophagi, often reserved for royalty and was shaped in an oblong fashion and can be also found on Egyptian monuments and papyri documents.

Hieroglyphic inscriptions on temple walls and other monuments were used for decorative and sacred purposes. Parts of the Book of the Dead , a compilation of spells the ancient Egyptians believed would assist them in the afterlife, were inscribed on sarcophagi.

Ramses II's cartouches at Tanis. (Horemweb/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Inscriptions found on temple walls, graves, and monuments were destined for ‘eternity.’ Hieroglyphs retained their importance as a means of communication with the Gods and the Egyptians believed their language was a gift from Thoth, their moon God of wisdom, and goddess Seshat.

Egyptian Hieroglyphs Drawn From the World Around Them

Compared to another ancient writing system, namely cuneiform, hieroglyphics are without an identifiable precursor and much more obscure. They also differ from the Sumerian cuneiform form of writing in that they represent consonants only while cuneiform script represents whole syllables, including vowels.

The Ancient Egyptians rejected the use of abstraction in their language and hieroglyphs drew from many elements in the physical world around them. The most complete and obvious glyphs are those devoted to people and parts of the human body however, animals and birds are another, just as equally important category. There are also glyph sections for tools and weapons, jewels etc.

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Detail of a bee hieroglyph from the tomb complex of Senusret I. ( Keith Schengili-Roberts/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Importance of the Ancient Egyptian Scribe

Not everyone in ancient Egypt could read and write hieroglyphics thus making their meaning incomprehensible to the common citizen. Only one group had this knowledge and they were called scribes. In order to become a scribe, one had to receive an education at a special school which could take several years to complete and it was usually young boys who entered in at the age of six or seven.

Scribes were indispensable to the Pharaohs. These scribes may also have something to do with how long the ancient Egyptian language was able to survive since hieroglyphs were seen as a gift from the gods - to alter or abandon them was as an act of sacrilege.

Sculpture of an ancient Egyptian scribe. (Jose Ignacio Soto /Adobe Stock)

The Rise of Hieratic, Demotic, and Coptic Scripts

Around 2700 BC, hieratic (meaning ‘priestly’ by the Greeks) script was introduced, which was a form of writing more akin to alphabet letters. Hieratic script eventually became widely used as a faster, more functional form of writing and it was used for monumental inscriptions. It remained the Egyptian script for about two millennia, or until Demotic script was introduced in the 7th century BC.

Demotic script was developed from hieratic and was an even simpler, more readable script favored throughout Egypt. It was used for administrative purposes and literary texts, scientific treatises, legal documents and business contracts. It marked a new development in language namely because it was a kind of dialect with its own grammar. During the Greco-Roman period demotic became the script of everyday life, while the older hieratic was reserved for sacred writings.

It is impossible to know exactly how the ancient Egyptian language sounded but by studying Coptic, the first alphabetic script of the Egyptian language, it is possible to gain an approximate idea. Coptic is written in the Greek alphabet and six signs are from demotic script. It was the language of the Christian period in Egypt from 395 - 641 AD.

The Coptic script eventually replaced Demotic as the commonly used script in Egypt. It was comprised of a series of dialects of which at least six had the status of written language and went out of fashion around the 14th century when the Arabs conquered Egypt and Arabic became the predominant language. The Coptic script and the language it represents were restricted to liturgical purposes in the Coptic Orthodox Church .

After the Roman Empire began its rule of the Egyptian nation, hieroglyphics began to fade from popular use. By the fourth century AD, Egypt had been converted to Christianity and summarily adopted the Greek alphabet and Coptic script, whereby the country’s traditional forms of writing fell into disuse. The last dated inscription in hieroglyphs was made on the gate post of a temple at Philae in 396 AD.

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The Famous Rosetta Stone

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were undecipherable for 1400 years - until the French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion, the father of Egyptology , decoded the Rosetta Stone in 1822. The Rosetta Stone itself is a tri-scripted document inscribed with a decree of 196 BC by the priests of Memphis.

The stone has a text written by a group of priests in Egypt to honor the Egyptian pharaoh. It is represented in three languages, including Egyptian hieroglyphics which was the script used for religious documents, Greek, which was the language of the rulers of Egypt at that time, and demotic. It took 20 years for the Rosetta Stone to be deciphered after being discovered during Napoleon’s Egyptian invasion in 1799.

The Rosetta Stone. ( Kalina Georgieva /Adobe Stock)

Today, Egyptian hieroglyphs survive in two forms: through the half dozen Demotic glyphs added to the Greek alphabet when writing Coptic, and indirectly as the inspiration for the original alphabet that was ancestral to nearly every other alphabet ever used - including the Roman alphabet . A weakened form of the Egyptian language is still spoke in the Coptic Church today.


Egyptian Hieroglyphs: The Language of the Gods - History

T he word hieroglyph literally means "sacred carvings". The Egyptians first used hieroglyphs exclusively for inscriptions carved or painted on temple walls. This form of pictorial writing was also used on tombs, sheets of papyrus, wooden boards covered with a stucco wash, potsherds and fragments of limestone.

H ieroglyphics are an original form of writing out of which all other forms have evolved. Two of the newer forms were called hieratic and demotic. Hieratic was a simplified form of hieroglyphics used for administrative and business purposes, as well as for literary, scientific and religious texts. Demotic, a Greek word meaning "popular script", was in general use for the daily requirements of the society. In the third century A.D., hieroglyphic writing began to be replaced by Coptic, a form of Greek writing. The last hieroglyphic text was written at the Temple of Philae in A.D. 450. The spoken Egyptian language was superseded by Arabic in the Middle Ages.

Hieroglyphs and their cursive equivalents

I t was not until the nineteenth century that Egyptian hieroglyphs were deciphered. Several people had been trying to crack the code when the brilliant young Frenchman, Jean-François Champollion discovered the secret to this ancient writing. A decree issued at Memphis, Egypt, on March 27, 196 B.C. was inscribed on the Rosetta Stone in three scripts: hieroglyphics, demotic and Greek. After Thomas Young deciphered the demotic text, Champollion used the information to break the code of the hieroglyphic text in 1822. In 1828, he published the famous "Précis" that marked the first real breakthrough in reading hieroglyphs.

HIEROGLYPH MEANING HIEROGLYPH MEANING
lands
world
hall in palace
or temple
king of
Upper Egypt
Osiris
phoneme wád
papyrus
Anubis
Wepwawet
phoneme sbá
star
time shine
lighten

H ieroglyphs are written in columns or in horizontal lines. They are generally read from right to left and from top to bottom. Sometimes, the script is read from left to right. The reader can determine the orientation by looking at the animal and human figures -- they face towards the beginning of the text. For example: if a figure faces right, the text should be read from right to left.

W ords and names written in hieroglyphs were believed to have magical powers. For this reason, funeral texts and the names of the deceased were written on coffins and tomb walls. This meant that the gods would hear the prayers and the individuals would be protected from harm. A name written in hieroglyphs embodied a person's identity. If it was obliterated, the person's identity was lost, along with his or her means to continue living in the afterworld. The names of pharaohs such as Tutankhamun and Queen Hatshepsut, for example, were removed from temple walls by their successors.


The methods of embalming, or treating the dead body, that the ancient Egyptians used is called mummification. Using special processes, the Egyptians removed all moisture from the body, leaving only a dried form that would not easily decay. The earliest mummies from prehistoric times probably were accidental.

How to Keep a Mummy (Japanese: ミイラの飼い方, Hepburn: Miira no Kaikata) is a Japanese manga series by Kakeru Utsugi. It has been serialized online via Comico Japan since 2014. Futabasha has published four tankōbon volumes since February 2016.


EGYPTIAN HIEROGLYPHS

The ancient Egyptians believed that writing was invented by the god Thoth and called their hieroglyphic script “mdju netjer” (“words of the gods”). The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek hieros (sacred) plus glypho (inscriptions) and was first used by Clement of Alexandria.

The earliest known examples of writing in Egypt have been dated to 3,400 BC. The latest dated inscription in hieroglyphs was made on the gate post of a temple at Philae in 396 AD.

The hieroglyphic script was used mainly for formal inscriptions on the walls of temples and tombs. In some inscriptions the glyphs are very detailed and in full colour, in others they are simple outlines. For everyday writing the hieratic script was used.

After the Emperor Theodsius I ordered the closure of all pagan temples throughout the Roman empire in the late 4th century AD, knowledge of the hieroglyphic script was lost. decipher the script.

DECIPHERMENT

Many people have attempted to decipher the Egyptian scripts since the 5th century AD, when Horapollo provided explanations of nearly two hundred glyphs, some of which were correct. Other decipherment attempts were made in the 9th and 10th by Arab historians Dhul-Nun al-Misri and Ibn Wahshiyya, and in the 17th century by Athanasius Kircher. These attempts were all based on the mistaken assumption that the hieroglyphs represented ideas and not sounds of a particular language.

The discovery, in 1799, of the Rosetta Stone, a bilingual text in Greek and the Egyptian Hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts enabled scholars such as Silvestre de Sacy, Johan David Åkerblad and Thomas Young to make real progress with their decipherment efforts, and by the 1820s Jean-François Champollion had made the complete decipherment of the Hieroglyphic script.

HIEROGLYPHS REPRESENTING SINGLE CONSONANT

These glyphs alone could be used to write Ancient Egyptian and represent the first alphabet ever divised. In practice, they were rarely used in the fashion.

HIEROGLYPHS REPRESENTING TWO CONSONANTS

HIEROGLYPHS REPRESENTING THREE CONSONANTS

DETERMINATIVES

Determinatives are non-phonetic glyphs which give extra information about the meanings of words, distinguish homophones and serve as word dividers.

By combining the following glyphs, any number could be constructed. The higher value signs were always written in front of the lower value ones.

SAMPLE TEXT

Transliteration: iw wnm msh nsw, this means “The crocodile eats the king”.


Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs overview

It is not known exactly where and when Egyptian writing first began, but it was already well-advanced two centuries before the start of the First Dynasty that suggests a date for its invention in Egypt around 3,000 B.C.E. The most well-known script used for writing the Egyptian language was in the form of a series of small signs, or hieroglyphs.

Some signs are pictures of real-world objects, while others are representations of spoken sounds. These sound signs are pictures that get their meaning from how the word for the object they represent sounds when said aloud. Some signs write one letter, some more, while others write whole words.

Like cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs were used for record-keeping, but also for monumental display dedicated to royalty and deities. The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek hieros ‘sacred’ and gluptien ‘carved in stone’. The last known hieroglyph inscription was 394 C.E.

Other scripts used to write Egyptian were developed over time. Hieratic was handwritten and easier to write so was used for administrative and non-monumental texts from the Old Kingdom (about 2613–2160 B.C.E.) to around 700 B.C.E. Hieratic was replaced by demotic, which means popular, in the Late Period (661–332 B.C.E.), and was a more abbreviated version. In turn demotic was replaced by Coptic, which may have been introduced to record the contemporary spoken language, in the first century C.E.

King Den’s sandal label, c. 2985 B.C.E., Early Dynastic Period, 1st dynasty, ivory, found at Abydos, Upper Egypt, 4.5 x 5.3 cm (© Trustees of the British Museum)

Labels

Most ivory plaques dating to the First Dynasty were made as labels. The pair of sandals incised on the back of this one indicates that it was a label for sandals, which were extremely prestigious items.

Labels such as these were usually decorated with representations of important events and this example shows Den, the fifth king of the First Dynasty, about to bring his mace down on the head of his vanquished enemy. The name of the king is written in the rectangular frame in front of his face, with the figure of a falcon, a symbol of royalty, above. The hieroglyphs behind the king give the name of one of his high officials, Inka.

This label is one of the few sources for information about activity inside or outside Egypt in the Early Dynastic period. The hieroglyphs on the right-hand side of the label read ‘first occasion of smiting the East’. That the enemy is an Easterner is indicated by his long locks and pointed beard. The gravel-spotted desert which serves as a ground-line rises to a hill on the right, suggestive of Egyptian depictions of foreign lands.

Such illustrations are a standard way of depicting kings and do not necessarily mean that any such campaign ever took place. Kings are shown, over a period of 2,000 years, smiting Libyan chiefs—some with the same name! However, all standard motifs must have a prototype, and, being one of the earliest known, this example might refer to a real historical event.

Two scribal palettes with ink wells and brushes, 18th Dynasty, 1550–1450 B.C.E., ivory, from Thebes, Egypt, 30.5 x 3.8 cm (© Trustees of the British Museum)

Written in black and red

The hieroglyphic sign for ‘write’ was formed from an image of the scribal palette and brush case. Statues of scribes are sometimes shown with a papyrus across their knees and a palette, the scribe’s trademark, over one shoulder.

From the late Old Kingdom on, the basic palette was made of a rectangular piece of wood, with two cavities at one end to hold cakes of black and red ink. Carbon was used to make the black ink and iron-rich red ochre to make the red. Both pigments were mixed with gum so that they congealed rather than turned to dust when they dried. The cakes of ink were moistened with a wet brush, rather like modern watercolors or Chinese ink. Brush-pens were made of rushes, the tip cut at an angle and chewed to separate the fibers. These were kept in a slot in the middle of the palette.

Black was the normal color for writing. Red was used to mark the start of a text, or to highlight key words and phrases, like quantities in medicines, or for the names of demons in religious papyri. More colors were needed for illustrations, such as those in the Book of the Dead.

© Trustees of the British Museum

Additional resources:

Brovarski and others (eds), Egypts golden age: the art of(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982)

E.R. Russmann, Eternal Egypt: masterworks of (University of California Press, 2001)

Parkinson, Cracking codes: the Rosetta St(London, The British Museum Press, 1999)


History of Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Scholars believe that Egyptian hieroglyphs developed around 3200 BC. At first, the Egyptians used between 700 and 800 signs. By 300 B.C. Over 6,000 signs were in the written language. Many hieroglyphs came from nature or daily life.

Animals like lions or owls represented sounds or ideas. Shapes represented loops of ropes or houses. While many animals or shapes represented the idea they resemble, not all of them did. People needed specialized training to read and understand hieroglyphs.

Only elite Egyptians, like royals, nobles, priests and scribes, could read hieroglyphs. These people made up about 3% of the population. Scribes went to special schools and some began training at age 12. Students had to begin by learning 200 different signs.

©Ivo Jansch - Statue of a Seated Scribe, displayed at the Louvre

People with a basic knowledge of hieroglyphs knew around 750 signs. A skilled scribe had to memorize over 3,000 hieroglyphs. Scribes earned a good living through their work, and were valued members of the community. They used special tools in their work.

Scribes painted inscriptions on buildings or objects before carvers engraved them. Scribes also used papyrus, a paper-like substance made from plants, as a writing surface. They wrote with reed brushes and different colors of ink. Scribes used red or black ink for words and colored ink for pictures.

© Quikwhitefox86 - Papyrus Exhibit

Over time, two other Egyptian scripts, hieratic and demotic, developed.

  1. Hieratic was a cursive form of hieroglyphics with less complicated and connected signs. Scribes used it to write documents and letters, because writing in hieratic was faster. Scribes always wrote hieratic right-to-left and used carved reed brushes.
  2. Demotic developed around 660 B.C. It was an abbreviated script with signs that did not look like the corresponding hieroglyphs. Writing with demotic was even faster than writing with hieratic.

After the Greeks conquered Egypt, knowledge of hieroglyphics began fading. The royal family and most of the elites spoke Greek. Use of hieroglyphs faded even more after Rome conquered Egypt. Another written form of Egyptian, Coptic, developed.

Coptic used only 30 signs, many of them Greek. Most Coptic signs only represent one sound. Some Coptic words helped scholars decipher hieroglyphics. Modern study of hieroglyphs flourished after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.


Notable features

  • Possibly pre-dates Sumerian Cuneiform writing - if this is true, the Ancient Egyptian script is the oldest known writing system. Another possibility is that the two scripts developed at more or less the same time.
  • The direction of writing in the hieroglyphic script varied - it could be written in horizontal lines running either from left to right or from right to left, or in vertical columns running from top to bottom. You can tell the direction of any piece of writing by looking at the way the animals and people are facing - they look towards the beginning of the line.
  • The arrangement of glyphs was based partly on artistic considerations.
  • A fairly consistent core of 700 glyphs was used to write Classical or Middle Egyptian (ca. 2000-1650 BC), though during the Greco-Roman eras (332 BC - ca. 400 AD) over 5,000 glyphs were in use.
  • The glyphs have both semantic and phonetic values. For example, the glyph for crocodile is a picture of a crocodile and also represents the sound "msh". When writing the word for crocodile, the Ancient Egyptians combined a picture of a crocodile with the glyphs which spell out "msh". Similarly the hieroglyphs for cat, miw, combine the glyphs for m, i and w with a picture of a cat.

Egyptian Culture

Although it´s difficult to make sure when they appeared, the first hieroglyphs dated to about 3000BC, in the Predynastic Period. The hieroglyphic language has suffered six periods during the History. After the Roman Empire began, hieroglyphs faded from popular use. When Napoleon invaded Egypt and discovered the Rosetta stone, hieroglyphic writing started to be known among the population. This stone was written in two Egyptian symbols: demotic and hieroglyphic. The second one was developed towards the end of the ancient language´s use and utilized a cursive script. If you want to write as the ancient egyptian gods did, follow these instructions.

  • The determinatives. They help to determine when a word ends. They haven´t a phonetic sense, they represent the nature of the thing they refer to. For example, if you want to write the name of a person, you must draw a man after the name .
    Symbols which represent sounds. They are always consonants, but we can also find weak vowels which are pronounced as consonants. This signs can represent only a letter, two letters (these are the most usual), three letters (for example, the famous beetle contains these three consonants “hpr”) or even four letters.
  • The ideograms. These symbols represent words, not sounds. It can become a logogram if the picture is the exact word that it means.

More ideas to understand hieroglyphs:

    Direction: the symbols which compose the hieroglyphs can not be lined-up. They must appear regrouped inside an imaginary square. It does not exist spaces between the words or sentences and this language does not own punctuation rules. Besides, some symbols can appear in a vertical or horizontal position to fit in that imaginary square.
    The Egyptian writing can be written in vertical or horizontal direction too. This is a real example of vertical hieroglyph from the Vatican Museum.
    Symbols can also be facing left or right: this fact will determine the direction on which we must read them.

If you follow these rules you are prepared to decipher a hieroglyph as a good egyptologist! And that is not all, you can also write your name in this ancient language, click here!


The final pieces of the puzzle

The essential clue came in 1822, from a newly discovered cartouche containing the name of Cleopatra. Champollion now had a hieroglyphic ‘alphabet’, mostly correct, that allowed him to translate the names of dozens of rulers including Alexander and Ramesses.

Over the next year or so, Champollion analysed the daunting combination of phonetic and non-phonetic signs in the hieroglyphic script. In 1824, he wrote: “Hieroglyphic writing is a complex system, a script all at once figurative, symbolic and phonetic in one and the same text… and, I might add, in one and the same word.’

When Tutankhamun’s cartouche was discovered in 1922 and deciphered thanks to Champollion’s work, it turned out that the ‘chick’ pictogram was a phonetic sign for the vowel ‘u’, the ‘three-handled cross’ stood for the word ‘ankh’ (or ‘life’) and the ‘shepherd’s crook’ was a symbol meaning ‘ruler’.

Thanks to our understanding of hieroglyphs, the secrets of a great civilisation could now begin to be uncovered.