Ancient Egyptian composing is known as hieroglyphics ("sacred carvings") and also developed in ~ some suggest prior come the beforehand Dynastic period (c. 3150 -2613 BCE). Follow to some scholars, the principle of the composed word was first developed in Mesopotamia and came come Egypt with trade. If there certainly was cross-cultural exchange between the two regions, Egyptian hieroglyphics are fully Egyptian in origin; there is no evidence of early writings which define non-Egyptian concepts, places, or objects, and also early Egyptian pictographs have no correlation to early on Mesopotamian signs. The designation "hieroglyphics" is a Greek word; the Egyptians described their composing as medu-netjer, "the god"s words," as they believed writing had been provided to lock by the great god Thoth.

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According to one old Egyptian tale, in the beginning of time Thoth produced himself and, in the kind of one ibis, lay the cosmic egg i m sorry held every one of creation. In another story, Thoth emerged from the lips the the sun god Ra in ~ the dawn of time, and in another, he to be born of the contendings of the god Horus and Set, representing the forces of order and also chaos. In every one of these, however, the consistent is that Thoth was born with an enormous breadth of expertise and, among the most important, the expertise of the strength of words.

Thoth gave human beings this knowledge freely, but it was a responsibility he intended them to take it seriously. Words could hurt, heal, elevate, destroy, condemn, and even raise who from fatality to life. Egyptologist Rosalie David comment on this:

The key purpose of writing was no decorative, and it to be not initially intended for literary or advertisement use. Its many important function was to carry out a means by which details concepts or events can be brought into existence. The Egyptians thought that if something were committed to writing it can be repeatedly "made come happen" by means of magic. (199)


This ide is no as strange together it might an initial appear. Any type of writer knows that one frequently has no idea what one desires to say till the finish of the an initial draft, and also every avid reader understands the "magic" of finding out unknown worlds in between the covers of a book and making that magic take place again each time the book is opened. David"s recommendation to "concepts or events" coming right into existence through writing is a typical understanding amongst writers. American writer William Faulkner stated in his Nobel Prize resolve that he wrote "to develop out of the materials of the human spirit something i m sorry did not exist before" (1). This same an inspiration has been expressed in different words by numerous writers end the centuries, yet before any kind of of them even existed the ancient Egyptians interpreted this concept well. The an excellent gift the Thoth to be the capacity not only to express one"s self however to literally be able to adjust the civilization through the power of words. Prior to that can happen, however, before the gift might be placed to its full use, it had to it is in understood.

The development of Writing

However much Thoth had to carry out with giving humans their device of composing (and, come the Egyptians, "humanity" equaled "Egyptian"), the ancient Egyptians had actually to work out for themselves what this gift was and how to use it. Sometime in the latter part of the Predynastic duration in Egypt (c. 6000 - c. 3150 BCE), they started to use signs to represent simple concepts. Egyptologist Miriam Lichtheim writes exactly how this at an early stage script "was restricted to the briefest symbol designed to identify a human being or a place, an occasion or a possession" (3). Most most likely the earliest purpose writing served was in trade, to convey information around goods, prices, purchases, in between one allude and another. The very first actual extant proof of Egyptian writing, however, comes from tombs in the kind of supplying Lists in the early Dynastic Period.


Death was not the end of life because that the old Egyptians; it was just a transition from one state come another. The dead live on in the immortality and relied ~ above the life to mental them and present them v offerings the food and also drink. An providing List was an perform of the gifts due to a certain person and also inscribed ~ above the wall surface of their tomb. Someone who had performed great deeds, hosted a high place of authority, or led troops to success in battle were due better offerings than one more who had done fairly little v their lives. In addition to the list was a quick epitaph stating who the person was, what they had done, and why they were due such offerings. This lists and epitaphs can sometimes be quite quick but most of the time were not and became longer as this exercise continued. Lichtheim explains:

The providing List grew to substantial length it spins the day on i m sorry an inventive psychic realized that a quick Prayer because that Offerings would be an efficient substitute for the unwieldy list. Once the prayer, i beg your pardon may already have exist in talked form, was put into writing, it became the an easy element roughly which tomb-texts and also representations to be organized. Similarly, the ever lengthening list of one official"s ranks and also titles were infused v life as soon as the imagination started to flesh them out with narration, and also the Autobiography to be born. (3)

The autobiography and also the prayer came to be the an initial forms of Egyptian literature and were produced using the hieroglyphic script.

Development & usage of Hieroglyphic Script

Hieroglyphics emerged out of the beforehand pictographs. World used symbols, photos to represent concepts such as a human being or event. The problem with a pictogram, however, is the the information it includes is fairly limited. One may draw a picture of a woman and a temple and also a sheep but has no method of relaying their connection. Is the mrs coming indigenous or going to the temple? Is the sheep an providing she is resulting in the clergymans or a gift to she from them? Is the woman even going to the temple at all or is she merely walking a lamb in the vicinity? space the woman and sheep also related in ~ all? The early pictographic creating lacked any ability to answer this questions.

The Egyptians arisen the same device as the Sumerians but added logograms (symbols representing words) and ideograms to their script.

The Sumerians of old Mesopotamia had currently come top top this problem in writing and created an progressed script c. 3200 BCE in the city of Uruk. The concept that Egyptian script arisen from Mesopotamian writing is most sharply challenged by this development, in fact, since if the Egyptians had learned the art of composing from the Sumerians, castle would have actually bypassed the stage of pictograms and also begun v the Sumerian creation of phonograms - symbols which represent sound. The Sumerians learned to increase their composed language through symbols straight representing that language so that if lock wished come relay some specific information about a woman, a temple, and also a sheep, they might write, "The mrs took the lamb as an providing to the temple," and also the article was clear.

The Egyptians developed this same device but added logograms (symbols representing words) and also ideograms to their script. One ideogram is a "sense sign" that conveys a certain message clearly through a recognizable symbol. The best example of one ideogram is more than likely a minus sign: one recognizes that it way subtraction. The emoji is a contemporary example acquainted to everyone acquainted through texting; place the photo of a laughing challenge at the finish of one"s sentence lets a reader know that one is joking or find the subject funny. The phonogram, logogram, and ideogram consisted of the basis for hieroglyphic script. Rosalie David explains:

There space three species of phonograms in hieroglypics: uniliteral or alphabet signs, wherein one hieroglyph (picture) represents a solitary consonant or sound value; biliteral signs, whereby one hieroglyph represents two consonants; and triliteral signs where one hieroglyph represents 3 consonants. There are twenty-four hieroglyphic indicators in the Egyptian alphabet and also these room the phonograms most generally used. But because there was never a completely alphabetic system, these signs were placed alongside other phonograms (biliterals and triliterals) and also ideograms. Ideograms were frequently placed in ~ the finish of a native (spelled the end in phonograms) come clarify the meaning of the word and, when offered in this way, we describe them as "determinatives." This assists in 2 ways: the addition of a determinative helps to clarify the definition of a details word, because some indigenous look similar or identical to every other once spelled out and also written down only in the phonograms; and also beacuse determinatives stand at the finish of words they have the right to indicate whereby one word ends and also another begins. (193)


A modern-day instance of just how hieroglyphics were written would certainly be a text post in which an emoji of an angry confront is put after an image of a school. Without having to use any kind of words one might convey the principle of "I hate school" or "I am angry about school." If one wanted to make one"s problem clearer, one can place photo of a teacher or other student before the angry-face-ideogram or a collection of pictures telling a story the a difficulty one had actually with a teacher. Determinatives were necessary in the script, especially since hieroglyphics might be created left-to-right or right-to-left or down-to-up or up-to-down. Inscriptions over temple doors, palace gates, and tombs walk in every little thing direction was ideal served for the message. The beauty of the final work to be the only consideration in i beg your pardon direction the script was to it is in read. Egyptologist Karl-Theodor Zauzich notes:

The placement of hieroglyphs in relation to one an additional was administrate by aesthetic rules. The Egyptians always tried to team signs in balanced rectangles. Because that example, the word for "health" was written v the 3 consonants s-n-b. These would not be composed by an Egyptian since the team would watch ugly, it would certainly be taken into consideration "incorrect". The "correct" writing would be the group of the indications into a rectangle...The job of building was lightened somewhat by the reality that individual hieroglyphs could be enlarged or shrunk together the group required and also that part signs might be inserted either horizontally or vertically. Scribes would also reverse the stimulate of indicators if it appeared that a an ext balanced rectangle might be acquired by writing them in the wrong order. (4)

The script might easily be check out by recognizing the direction the phonograms were facing. Pictures in any type of inscription constantly face the start of the line of text; if the message is to be read left-to-right then the faces of the people, birds, and also animals will certainly be looking come the left. This sentences to be easy sufficient to check out for those who knew the Egyptian language but not for others. Zauzich notes how "nowhere among all the hieroglyphs is there a solitary sign that represents the sound of a vowel" (6). Vowels were put in a sentence by the leader who taken the spoken language. Zauzich writes:

This is less complicated than that sounds. Because that example, any kind of of us have the right to read an advertisement the consists almost entirely that consonants:

3rd flr apt in hse, 4 lg rms, exclnt loc nr cntr, prkg, w-b-frpl, hdwd flrs, skylts, ldry, $600 incl ht (6).

In this exact same way, the ancient Egyptians would be able to read hieroglyphic manuscript by recognizing what "letters" were missing in a sentence and applying them.

Other Scripts

Hieroglyphics were comprised of an "alphabet" that 24 straightforward consonants which would convey definition but end 800 different symbols come express that meaning precisely i beg your pardon all had actually to be memorized and used correctly. Zauzich answer the inquiry which may immediately come to mind:

It may well it is in asked why the Egyptians developed a complicated writing system that provided several hundred signs when they can have supplied their alphabet of part thirty signs and also made their language much easier to read and also write. This puzzling fact probably has a historic explanation: the one-consonant indications were not "discovered" till after the other indicators were in use. Since by the time the entire writing device was established, it might not be discarded, because that specific spiritual reasons. Hieroglyphics were related to as a priceless gift the Thoth, the god that wisdom. To avoid using plenty of of these signs and also to readjust the whole system of creating would have been taken into consideration both a sacrilege and an enormous loss, not to mention the truth that such a readjust would make all the older texts meaningless in ~ a single blow. (11)

Even so, hieroglyphics were obviously rather labor-intensive for a scribe and also so another faster manuscript was developed shortly after well-known as hieratic ("sacred writing"). Hieratic script used characters which were simplified versions of hieroglyphic symbols. Hieratic appeared in the early on Dynastic period in Egypt ~ hieroglyphic composing was already firmly developed.


Hieroglyphics ongoing to be supplied throughout Egypt"s background in all develops of writing yet came mainly to it is in the manuscript of monuments and also temples. Hieroglyphics, group in your beautifully formed rectangles, leant themselves to the grandeur of huge inscriptions. Hieratic came to be used first in religious texts however then in other areas such as business administration, miracle texts, personal and service letters, and also legal files such as wills and also court records. Hieratic was composed on papyrus or ostraca and practiced on rock and wood. It occurred into a cursive script around 800 BCE (known as "abnormal hieratic") and then was changed c. 700 BCE by demotic script.

Demotic manuscript ("popular writing") was provided in every kind of writing while hieroglyphics continued to be the script of monumental engravings in stone. The Egyptians called demotic sekh-shat, "writing for documents," and it became the most famous for the next 1,000 year in all kinds of written works. Demotic manuscript seems to have actually originated in the Delta an ar of reduced Egypt and spread south throughout the 26th dynasty of the third Intermediate duration (c. 1069-525 BCE). Demotic ongoing in use with the Late period of ancient Egypt (525-332 BCE) and the Ptolemaic empire (332-30 BCE) right into Roman Egypt once it was replaced by Coptic script.


Coptic was the script of the Copts, Egyptian Christians, that spoke Egyptian dialects but wrote in the Greek alphabet through some additions from demotic script. Due to the fact that the Greek language had vowels, the Copts included them in their script to do the meaning clear come anyone reading it, no matter what their aboriginal language. Coptic script was used to copy and preserve a number of important documents, most notably the publications of the Christian brand-new Testament, and additionally served to provide the vital to later generations for expertise hieroglyphics.

Loss & Discovery

It has been argued that the an interpretation of hieroglyphics was lost throughout the later periods of Egyptian background as civilization forgot just how to read and also write the symbols. Actually, hieroglyphics to be still in use as late as the Ptolemaic Dynasty and only fell out of favor with the climb of the brand-new religion of Christianity throughout the early Roman Period. There were lapses transparent the country"s background in the usage of hieroglyphics, however the arts was not lost until the human being the script stood for changed. As Coptic script ongoing to be used in the new paradigm of Egyptian culture; hieroglyphic creating faded into memory. By the moment of the Arab invasion of the 7th century CE, no one living in Egypt knew what the hieroglyphic engravings meant.

When the european nations started exploring the nation in the 17th century CE, they had actually no an ext of one idea the the hieroglyphics to be a composed language than the Muslims had. In the 17th century CE, hieroglyphics to be firmly asserted to be magical symbols and also this knowledge was primarily urged through the work-related of the German scholar and polymath Athanasius Kircher (1620-1680 CE). Kircher complied with the lead of ancient Greek writers that had additionally failed to recognize the definition of hieroglyphics and believed they to be symbols. Acquisition their translate as fact instead of conjecture, Kircher insisted on one interpretation where each symbol stood for a concept, much in the means the modern peace sign would be understood. His attempts to decipher Egyptian composing failed, therefore, since he was operating from a wrong model.


Many other scholars would certainly attempt come decipher the definition of the old Egyptian signs without success between Kircher"s work and the 19th century CE but had no basis for expertise what lock were working with. Also when it appeared as despite the symbols suggested a certain pattern such together one would find in a composing system, there to be no way to recognize what those patterns translated to. In 1798 CE, however, as soon as Napoleon"s army invaded Egypt, the Rosetta rock was found by one of his lieutenants, who recognized its potential importance and also had it sent out to Napoleon"s institute for examine in Cairo. The Rosetta stone is a proclamation in Greek, hieroglyphics, and also demotic from the power of Ptolemy V (204-181 BCE). All three messages relay the same information in keeping with the Ptolemaic best of a multi-cultural society; whether one read Greek, hieroglyphic, or demotic, one would be able to understand the message on the stone.

Work top top deciphering hieroglyphics v the aid of the stone was delayed till the English defeated the French in the Napoleonic Wars and also the stone was carried from Cairo come England. Once there, scholars collection about trying to recognize the ancient writing system however were still functioning from the earlier understanding Kircher had so convincingly advanced. The English polymath and also scholar thomas Young (1773-1829 CE) came to believe that the symbols stood for words and that hieroglyphics were very closely related to demotic and also later Coptic scripts. His work was developed upon by his sometimes-colleague-sometimes-rival, the philologist and also scholar Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832 CE).


Champollion"s surname is forever attached with the Rosetta rock and the decipherment the hieroglyphics since of the famous publication the his occupational in 1824 CE i m sorry conclusively confirmed that Egyptian hieroglyphics to be a writing system composed that phonograms, logograms, and also ideograms. Contention between Young and Champollion over who made the more significant discoveries and who deserves the greater credit is reflected in the very same ongoing controversy in the present day by scholars. That seems quite clear, however, the Young"s job-related lay the foundation on i m sorry Champollion to be able to build but it was Champollion"s breakthrough which ultimately deciphered the old writing system and also opened up Egyptian society and history for the world.

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A freelance writer and former part-time Professor of philosophy at Marist College, brand-new York, Joshua J. Mark has actually lived in Greece and Germany and traveled v Egypt. He has actually taught history, writing, literature, and also philosophy in ~ the college level.