The most distinctive and well-known feature of ancient Egypt is the hieroglyphic writing on temple walls, obelisks, and stelae. These symbols have always been fascinating to the observer, no more so that when their meaning was completely unknown, and they were fancied to contain esoteric knowledge. They are, however, merely a means of writing the ancient Egyptian language, and express no more than that language did when it was current. If you want to learn how to read hieroglyphs, there is no better place to start than with Mark Collier and Bill Manley's How To Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs (Berkeley, CA: U. Cal. Press, 1998). In this short article, I will sketch the history of the understanding of hieroglyphs and some of their characteristics for anyone who would like to know a little more about them.

Writing begins with the pictures drawn to represent objects and occurrences. The critical step is when the pictures become a representation of the spoken language, rather than of the objects themselves. Nearly every culture drew pictures; only a few made the transition to writing. Hieroglyphs express the consonant sounds beginning the words the pictures originally represented, either one, two, or three consonants for each conventional symbol. Some hieroglyphs continued to represent classes of objects rather than sounds; these are the determinatives, and are optionally present in spelling a word. The vowels are not represented. The speakers of Egyptians could fill in the appropriate vowel sounds when the consonants and the general meaning of the word was known. These vowel sounds are not known, so we cannot speak ancient Egyptian correctly. Each hieroglyph is a small conventional drawing that can be elaborate, detailed and colored, or plain and drawn with simple lines. There are hundreds of different hieroglyphs, some very common and some very rare, but tens of thousands of Egyptian words. This was the original clue that hieroglyphs were syllabic and not ideographic. In Chinese, the pictures became abstract and conventional, but since they remained ideographic, thousands are required to write the language, although combined to express precise ideas.

In ancient Egypt, hieroglyphs were always used for monumental and official inscriptions in stone or other hard material, remaining remarkably uniform throughout their long history from before 4000 BC to about 300 AD. For writing on papyrus and other temporary materials, a cursive form called hieratic was used, that could be written with a reed pen dipped in ink, in which the symbols were greatly simplified. Later, in the XXVI dynasty and later, an even more abstracted hieratic script called demotic was used, that looked like a profusion of commas. Only the hieroglyphs have survived in reasonable quantity, because of the durability of the material in which they were engraved. The Egyptian language itself was later written in an alphabet resembling the Greek, and evolved into Coptic, which managed just to survive to the present, after rigorous persecution and suppression by Christians and Islam.

Hieroglyphs were still engraved and read until the triumph of Christianity, after which anything Egyptian was suppressed with fire and sword. They were never well-understood in Europe anyway, and after this their meaning became completely lost, in Egypt as well as in Europe. No works survived by authors who understood anything about them; there were such works, but they were lost. When Sixtus V decided to re-erect the still-standing obelisk that was brought to Rome by Augustus, the hieroglyphs on its flanks were exposed to view. Superstitious scholars concluded that these symbols were ideographs containing lost esoteric knowledge, perhaps secrets of necromancy, alchemy and magic, of the ancient Egyptian priests. This view, and its extensions, has not yet completely disappeared, and still attracts enthusiasts. Succeeding popes dug up and restored most of the fallen classical obelisks of Rome, which are still on view.

Absurd studies of hieroglyphs were written, but the meaning of hieroglyphs was sought by more intelligent scholars as well, such as Athanasius Kircher, SJ (1603-1682) who guessed that they might be syllabic, and that Coptic might hold a clue, but his conclusions fell wide of the mark. Rosicrucians, Illuminati, Masons, and suchlike were greatly attracted to the Egyptian mysteries and the cryptic writing. In spite of great effort, there was no success until Bonaparte's excursion in Egypt brought Egyptian antiquities to the public consciousness, and the Rosetta Stone, in parallel hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek texts offered a key. Even this did not make the job at all easy. Thomas Young and J. F. Champollion began work on the problem soon after the Stone was brought back in 1798. Twenty years later, Young had figured out the alphabetical significance of a few hieroglyphs, some correctly, some not. In 1827, Champollion, who used other sources, such as obelisks and Coptic, published a dictionary, having essentially solved the problem, based mainly on the recognition of proper names, which are usually spelled out alphabetically in hieroglyphs.

The next problem was to decipher the Egyptian language, a task of overwhelming difficulty, since Egyptian does not resemble any other language except its descendant Coptic. German scholars concluded it had affinities with Semitic languages, and this helped to reveal its nature. By 1867, the fundamentals were known, and inscriptions could be read with an understanding sufficient to piece together an official history of ancient Egypt. Temples and obelisks were found to be covered with the normal prayers and boasts of kings and other important people, not with any lost knowledge of the universe.

Although hieratic is written from right to left in lines, hieroglyphs can be written in either direction, or from top to bottom. One always reads toward the faces or fronts of the glyphs, and from top to bottom of stacks. Glyphs standing for gods are usually placed first, although read at the end. Hieroglyphs are arranged to fill the space available neatly, and sometimes pictures of actual objects intervene where this is appropriate. In a word, some glyphs give the consonant sounds and are called phonograms, some clarify the sounds and are called complements, and others specify the type of object described, and are called determinatives. All of these taken together gave a speaker of Egyptian a complete idea of the word written. Often there is more than one way to write a given word, some longer and some more abbreviated. The glyphs were chiseled into the stone, then filled with color to make them stand out.

A king had five names, of which the Horus-name and the two names included in cartouches, the praenomen and nomen, were often used in inscriptions. The Horus name began with the glyph for Horus (a hawk), followed by a proper name spelled out. The praenomen is in a cartouche preceded by glyphs for sedge and bee, symbols of Lower and Upper Egypt, and the nomen is in a cartouche preceded by glyphs meaning Son of Re. The nomen, transliterated into English, is what is generally used to refer to a king. Since this was generally a family given name, it is often repeated (e.g., Rameses), so we must use I, II, etc. Egyptians did not need this, since the full names were distinct.

There are 24 glyphs representing a single consonant sounds that could have been used for an alphabetical spelling of any Egyptian word. (The title graphic shows those for h, r, g, r, f, s.)This step was never taken, since the glyphs representing two and three consonants permit alternative spellings that are more distinctive and shorter. The sounds of Egyptian include as consonants several glottal stops and several guttural h's and k's that would make speaking it difficult for a speaker of English (or Latin or Greek). There appears to be no l. Egyptian is not heavily inflected like Latin or Greek, where an alphabetic system can better accommodate the variations, so the stimulus to change was not present. Phoenician alphabets, and subsequently the Greek alphabet, may have been derived from hieroglyphs by just this evolution, vowels entering only at the final step.

The typical content of an inscription is furnished by this sample from the Osiris Mysteries at Abydos: "I conducted the procession of Wepwawyet, when he set out to protect his father; I drove away the rebels at the Neshmet-bark; I felled the enemies of Osiris. I conducted the great procession, following the god at his travels; and I made the god's boat sail." Or, from the tomb of a reporter called Key: "An offering which the king gives to Osiris, lord of Djedu, great god, lord of Abydos, so that he may give a voice offering of bread and beer, ox and fowl, alabaster and linen, and everything good and pure on which a god lives to the ka of the revered one Key, a true king's adviser beloved of him who does what the king favors during the course of every day." There is not much either of mystery or of history in yards and yards of such inscriptions.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Last revised 30 July 1999