The ancient Egyptian written language is called hieroglyphics (“sacred carvings”) and developed sometime before the Early Dynastic period. According to some scholars, the concept of the written word first developed in Mesopotamia and came to Egypt through trade. Although there was certainly an intercultural exchange between the two regions, the Egyptian hieroglyphs are entirely of Egyptian origin; there is no evidence of early writings describing non-Egyptian concepts, places or objects, and early Egyptian pictographs have no correlation with early Mesopotamian characters. The term “hieroglyphics” is a Greek word; the Egyptians called their writing medu-netjer, “words of the gods,” because they believed that the writing had been given to them by the great god Thoth.
According to an ancient Egyptian story, Thoth created himself at the beginning of time and laid, in the form of an ibis, the cosmic egg that contained all of creation. In another story, Thoth emerged from the lips of the sun god Ra at the beginning of time, and in another he was born out of the battle between the gods Horus and Set, who represented the forces of order and chaos. In all these stories, however, the constant is that Thoth was born with an enormous breadth of knowledge and, among the most important, the knowledge of the power of the word.
Thoth gave this knowledge to the people freely, but it was a responsibility he expected them to take seriously. Words could wound, heal, elevate, destroy, condemn and even raise someone from death to life.
Scripture’s main purpose was not decorative, and it was not originally intended for literary or commercial use. Its main function was to provide a means by which certain concepts or events could be brought to life. The Egyptians believed that if something was written down, it could be repeatedly “made to happen” by means of magic.
This concept is not as strange as it may first seem. All writers know that you often have no idea what you want to say until the end of the first draft, and all avid readers understand the “magic” of discovering unknown worlds between the covers of a book and having that magic happen again each time the book is opened. David’s reference to “concepts or events” arising through writing is a common notion among writers. The American writer William Faulkner explained in his Nobel Prize speech that he wrote ‘to create out of the material of the human spirit something that did not exist before’. The same motivation has been expressed in different words by many writers over the centuries, but before any of them even existed, the ancient Egyptians understood this concept well. Thoth’s great gift was the ability not only to express himself but to literally change the world through the power of words. But before this could happen, before the gift could be fully used, it had to be understood.
The making of writing
As much as Thoth had to do with giving humans their writing system (and for the Egyptians, “humanity” equaled “Egyptians”), the ancient Egyptians had to figure out for themselves what this gift was and how to use it. Sometime during the latter part of the pre-Nazi period in Egypt, they began to use symbols to represent simple concepts. Egyptologist Miriam Lichtheim writes how this early writing “was limited to the briefest notations intended to identify a person or place, an event or a possession” (3). It is likely that the earliest purpose of writing was trade, to convey information about goods, prices, and purchases between different places. However, the first real surviving evidence of Egyptian writing comes from tombs in the form of sacrificial lists during the Early Dynastic period.
Death was not the end of life for the ancient Egyptians; it was merely a transition from one state to another. The dead lived on in the afterlife, relying on the living to remember them and give them offerings of food and drink. An offering list was a record of the gifts a particular person received and which was inscribed on the wall of the tomb. A person who had done great deeds, held a high position of authority or led troops to victory in battle was entitled to greater offerings than a person who had done relatively little in his life. Along with the list was a short epitaph stating who the person was, what he or she had done and why he or she was entitled to such offerings. These lists and epitaphs could sometimes be quite short, but usually were not and became longer as this practice continued.
The list of offerings grew to an enormous length until the day when an inventive mind realized that a short prayer for offerings would be an effective substitute for the unwieldy list. Once the prayer, which may have already existed in spoken form, was written down, it became the basic element around which funerary texts and petitions were organized. Similarly, the ever-extending lists of an official’s ranks and titles came to life as the imagination began to fill them with stories, and the autobiography was born.
Development and use of hieroglyphic writing
Hieroglyphics evolved from the early pictographs. People used symbols, images to represent concepts such as a person or an event. The problem with a pictograph, however, is that the information it contains is quite limited. You can draw a picture of a woman, a temple and a sheep, but have no way of conveying their relationship. Is the woman coming from or going to the temple? Is the sheep a sacrifice that she brings to the priests or a gift to her from them? Does the woman go to the temple at all or does she just go with a sheep nearby? Are the woman and the sheep related at all? Early pictographic writing lacked the ability to answer these questions.
The Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia had already figured out this problem of writing and created an advanced script around 3200 BC in the city of Uruk. Indeed, the theory that Egyptian writing evolved from Mesopotamian writing is most sharply challenged by this development, for if the Egyptians had learned the art of writing from the Sumerians, they would have bypassed the stage of pictograms and begun with the Sumerians’ creation of phonograms – symbols that represent sounds. The Sumerians learned to extend their written language using symbols that directly represent language, so if they wanted to convey some specific information about a woman, a temple and a sheep, they could write, “The woman took the sheep as an offering to the temple,” and the message was clear.
The Egyptians developed the same system but added logograms (symbols representing words) and ideograms to their writing. An ideogram is a “sign of the mind” that conveys a particular message clearly through a recognisable symbol. The best example of an ideogram is probably a minus sign: you can recognise it as meaning subtraction. Emoji is a modern example familiar to anyone familiar with text messaging: by placing the image of a laughing face at the end of a sentence, the reader can know that you are joking or that you think the subject is funny. The phonogram, logogram and ideogram formed the basis of the hieroglyphs.
There are three types of phonograms in the hieroglyphs: uniliteral or alphabetic signs, where a hieroglyph (image) represents a single consonant or sound value; biliteral signs, where a hieroglyph represents two consonants; and triliteral signs, where a hieroglyph represents three consonants. There are twenty-four hieroglyphic characters in the Egyptian alphabet and these are the phonograms most commonly used. However, since there was never a pure alphabetic system, these characters were placed together with other phonograms (biliteral and triliteral) and ideograms. Ideograms were often placed at the end of a word (which was spelled in phonograms) to clarify the meaning of the word and when used in this way we call them “determinatives”. This helps in two ways: the addition of a determinative helps clarify the meaning of a particular word, since some words look the same or identical when spelled and written down only in phonograms, and since determinatives are at the end of the word, they can indicate where one word ends and another begins.
A modern example of how hieroglyphs were written would be a text message where an emoji of an angry face is placed after a picture of a school. Without having to use any words, the concept of “I hate school” or “I’m angry at school” can be conveyed. If you want to make your problem clearer, you could place a picture of a teacher or a classmate before the angry face emoji or a series of pictures telling a story about a problem you had with a teacher. Determinatives were important in writing, especially since the hieroglyphics could be written from 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 the direction that was best suited for that message. The beauty of the finished work was the only thing that mattered in which direction the writing would be read.
The positioning of the hieroglyphs in relation to each other was governed by aesthetic rules. The Egyptians always tried to group the characters 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 to group the characters in a rectangle… Work on the design was made somewhat easier by the fact that individual hieroglyphs could be enlarged or shrunk as the grouping required, and that some characters could be placed either horizontally or vertically. Writers could even reverse the order of the characters if it seemed that a more balanced rectangle could be achieved by writing them in the wrong order.
The writing could be easily read by recognising the direction of the phonograms. The images in an inscription always face the beginning of the line of text; if the text is to be read from left to right, the faces of people, birds and animals will look to the left. These sentences were easy enough to read for those who knew the Egyptian language, but not for others. Zauzich notes how “nowhere among all the hieroglyphs is there a single character that represents the sound of a vowel”.
The hieroglyphics consisted of an “alphabet” of 24 basic consonants to convey a meaning, but over 800 different symbols to express that meaning precisely, all of which had to be memorized and used correctly.
One might ask why the Egyptians developed a complex writing system with several hundred characters when they could have used their alphabet of around 30 characters and made their language much easier to read and write. This puzzling fact probably has a historical explanation: the single-syllable characters were not “discovered” until after the other characters were in use. Since the entire writing system was established at that time, it could not be discarded for specific religious reasons. The hieroglyphs were considered a precious gift from Thoth, the god of wisdom. To stop using many of these signs and change the entire writing system would have been seen as both a sacrilege and a huge loss, not to mention that such a change would render all the older texts meaningless at a stroke.
Hieroglyphics continued to be used throughout Egyptian history in all forms of writing, but came to be used primarily for monuments and temples. The hieroglyphs, grouped in their beautifully shaped rectangles, lent themselves to monumental inscriptions. Hieratics came to be used first in religious texts, but then in other areas such as business management, magical texts, personal and business letters, and legal documents such as wills and court documents. Hieratics were written on papyrus or ostraca and executed on stone and wood. It evolved into cursive writing around 800 BC (known as “abnormal hieratic”) and was then replaced around 700 BC by demotic writing.