Ancient Egyptian Writing System – Hieroglyphic Writing

Hieroglyphic writing, a system that uses characters in the form of images. These individual characters, called hieroglyphs, can be read as pictures, symbols of objects or symbols of sounds.

The name hieroglyph (from the Greek word for “sacred engraving”) first appears in the writings of Diodorus of Sicily (1st century BC). Earlier, other Greeks had spoken of sacred signs with reference to the Egyptian script. Among the Egyptian scripts, the Greeks called the writing they found on temple walls and public monuments hieroglyphic; the signs were images carved in stone. The Greeks distinguished this script from two other forms of Egyptian writing, written with ink on papyrus or other smooth surfaces. These were hieratic, which was still used by the ancient Greeks for religious texts, and demotic, the cursive script used for ordinary documents.

Hieroglyphics, in the strict sense of the word, refers only to the writing on Egyptian monuments. Since the end of the 19th century, however, the word has also been used for the writing of other peoples, insofar as it consists of pictorial characters used as scripts. For example, the name hieroglyph is still used for the monumental inscriptions of the Indus and Hittite civilisations, which also had other scripts, as well as the script of the Maya, the Inca and the Easter Islands and the signs of the Phaistos disk on Crete.

Because of their pictorial form, hieroglyphs were difficult to write and were only used for monumental inscriptions. They were usually supplemented by other, more practical scripts when a people wrote. Of the living systems of writing, hieroglyphic scripts are no longer used.

Development of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
The earliest hieroglyphs date from the late 4th millennium BCE and include inscribed notes on earthenware jars and ivory plaques deposited in tombs, presumably to identify the dead. Although all these early characters are now far from legible, it is nevertheless likely that these forms are based on the same system as the later classical hieroglyphs. In some cases it can be said with certainty that it is not the copied object that is being referred to, but another phonetically similar word. This circumstance means that the hieroglyphs were phonetic symbols from the beginning. It is not possible to prove the existence of an earlier stage in Egypt which consisted exclusively of pictorial writing with real illustrations of the words referred to; indeed, such a stage can be excluded with great probability. There was no evolution from images to letters; hieroglyphic writing was never exclusively a system for writing images. It can also be said with certainty that the jar marks (marks at the bottom of clay vessels) that appear around the same time do not represent a primitive form of writing. Rather, these designs developed in parallel with hieroglyphic writing and were influenced by it.

It is not possible to demonstrate a relationship between hieroglyphic and cuneiform characters used by the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia. Such a relationship is unlikely because the two scripts were based on completely different systems. What is conceivable, however, is a general tendency to record words by the use of signs, without the transfer of special systems.

Invention and use of hieroglyphic writing
The need to identify a pictorial representation with a royal person or a specific and unique event, such as a particular hunt or battle, led to the use of hieroglyphic writing in a monumental context. Hieroglyphics added to a scene meant that the picture represented a particular war rather than an indefinite war or a war in general; the writing reflected a new attitude to time and a conception of history as separate events in time. From the 1st Dynasty (2925-275 B.C.) onwards, images of non-canonical persons were also annotated with their names or titles, a further step towards the expression of individuality and uniqueness. The so-called annalistic ivory tablets of the first two dynasties were pictorial representations of the events of a year with specifically designated names of persons, places and incidents. For example, a scene of the pharaoh’s triumph over his enemies is accompanied by the annotation “first occasion of the defeat of the Libyans”. At the same time, the Egyptian script appeared without pictures, especially on cylinder stamps. These curly carved stones were rolled onto the moist clay of jar stoppers. Their inscription prevented the clandestine opening of the sealed jar, while at the same time describing its contents and identifying the responsible official. In the case of wine, it mentioned the origin of a particular vineyard and often the destination of the shipment, as well as, as a rule, the name of the reigning king.

In the stone inscriptions of the 1st Dynasty only individual names are known, mainly names of kings. In the 2nd Dynasty titles and names of sacrifices appear, and at the end of this dynasty sentences appear for the first time. However, the discovery of a blank papyrus scroll in the tomb of a high-ranking official shows that longer texts may have been written much earlier, namely as early as the beginning of the First Dynasty.

Connection between writing and art
The form of these hieroglyphs from the Archaic period (1st to 2nd Dynasty) corresponds exactly to the artistic style of the period. Although precise traditions or conventions soon developed with regard to the choice of perspective – for example, a hand was only depicted through the palm, an eye or a mouth only from the front – the proportions remained flexible. The prerequisite for any writing system is a basic standardisation, but such standardisation is not equivalent to a canon (an established set of rules and principles) in the degree of stylistic conformity it requires. A recognised canon of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing emerged in the 3rd Dynasty and was maintained until the end of the script’s use.

Insofar as hieroglyphic characters represented images of living beings or inanimate objects, they remained closely associated with the fine arts. The same patterns formed the basis of writing and art, and the style of writing symbols usually changed with the artistic style. The main reason for this similarity is that the same craftsmen painted or carved the writing symbols and images. Deviations from the visual arts occurred when the writing, which was closer to convention, retained motifs that the visual arts had eliminated. The face in front view is an example. This representation was, with the exception of very special cases, eventually rejected as an art form, because the human face was only depicted in profile. The front view of the face, however, has been preserved as a hieroglyph from the Archaic period until the end of the use of hieroglyphic writing. Similar cases concern the depiction of various tools and instruments. Although some objects themselves fell into disuse in the course of history – for example, the general use of clubs as weapons – their representations, which were generally poorly understood, were preserved in hieroglyphic writing. The hieroglyphs corresponding to objects that had disappeared from everyday life were therefore no longer well known and were sometimes distorted beyond recognition. However, the style of representation of the hieroglyphs was still closely linked to the art of the period in question. Thus, depending on the artistic style of the time, there were tight and slender hieroglyphic forms, sensual and fleshy forms or even completely blown-up characters.

Media for hieroglyphic writing
In historical times, hieroglyphic writing was used to describe stone monuments and appears in Egyptian relief techniques, both in high and low relief; in painted form; on metal, sometimes cast and sometimes carved; and on wood. Hieroglyphs are also found in a wide variety of metal and wood inlays. All these applications correspond exactly to the techniques used in the visual arts.

Hieroglyphic texts are found mainly on the walls of temples and tombs, but also on memorials and tombstones, on statues, on coffins and on all kinds of vessels and objects. Hieroglyphic writing was used both for secular texts – historical inscriptions, songs, legal documents, scientific documents – and for religious texts – cult rituals, myths, hymns, all kinds of funerary inscriptions and prayers. These inscriptions were, of course, only decorative monumental script, unsuitable for everyday use. For popular use, the hieratic script was developed, a shortened form of the pictorial symbols that develop naturally in brush and ink writing on smooth surfaces such as papyrus, wood and limestone.

Writing and religion
The influence of religious concepts on hieroglyphic writing is evident from at least two common uses. First, in the third millennium, certain characters were avoided or used in a distorted form in funerary inscriptions, so that the living creatures represented by these characters would not harm the deceased who lay helpless in the grave. These taboo symbols included human figures and dangerous animals, such as scorpions and snakes. Secondly, in all periods and in all uses of script, symbols with positive religious meaning were regularly placed before other signs, even if they had to be read after them. These include hieroglyphs for God or individual gods, as well as those for the king or the palace. For example, the two hieroglyphic signs indicating the combination of words “servant of God” (priest) are written so that the symbol for God, hieroglyph, is before that of the servant, hieroglyph, although the former should be read last. Moreover, theology traced the invention of hieroglyphic writing back to the god Thoth, although this myth of his divine origin had no influence on the development of writing. Towards the end of the period, Egyptian texts referred to hieroglyphic inscriptions as “the writing of the words of God”; before that, however, they were simply called “images”.

Literacy and knowledge of hieroglyphic writing
Only a small circle of people understood hieroglyphic writing. Only those who needed this knowledge for their profession acquired the art of writing and reading. Such people were, for example, civil servants and priests (insofar as they had to be able to read rituals and other holy texts), but also craftsmen whose work included making inscriptions. Under Greek and especially Roman rule, this knowledge diminished and remained entirely confined to the temples, where priests taught their pupils to study hieroglyphic writing. From the time of the Ptolemies (305-30 B.C.) onwards, national consciousness became increasingly linked to religion, and hieroglyphic writing, rich in tradition, was an outward sign of pharaonic civilisation – in the fullest sense of the word, a symbol. Attempts were made to replace the cumbersome hieroglyphic script, which was becoming increasingly distant from the spoken language, with the simpler and more practical Greek script. These experiments were ineffective, however, precisely because of the emotional value that the ancient writing system had when the country was under the foreign domination of the Macedonian Greeks and Romans.

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