Also called:

Hieroglyph, Picture Writing

Egyptian Name:

Medu Netjer ("Sacred Carving" or "Divine Words")

An extremely ancient form of writing, hieroglyphics are dated to 33rd century B.C.E. Hieroglyphics may even have been the first language written - recent discoveries from Abydos in Egypt have turned up examples of hieroglyphics that are earlier than anything found in Mesopotamia. Hieroglyphics developed from pictorial representations of flora, fauna, buildings, people and objects of daily use that were familiar to the Egyptian people. Pictures and the act of writing were so connected in ancient Egyptian culture that the same word was used for both "drawing" and "writing."

Egyptian hieroglyphics were symbolic - "to walk" is signified by two legs; "house" was represented by a rectangle with an opening in its lower part, etc. The majority of hieroglyphics seen in any particular text, however, do not represent the objects they depict. They mostly represent sounds or were used as "determinatives" to show what conceptual category the word referred to. The Egyptians thus used a system that combined phonograms, that is, sound-signs that spelt out the word in an alphabetic system, and ideograms, sense-signs that were added to the spelled-out word to depict its meaning. Many signs expressed both ideas and their expressions, the actual objects or words or parts of objects having the like sounds: this is the rebus principal, from the Latin non verbis sed rebus, "not by words but by things."

Hieroglyphics could be written in the following ways: horizontal, left-to-right; horizontal, right-to-left; vertical, facing left-to-right; and vertical, facing right-left. It is generally an easy task to determine which way to read the hieroglyphs even if the meaning is not understood. Hieroglyphics with a definite front and back (for example, a human or animal) will generally face the beginning of the sentence, as well as being oriented in the same direction as any large human or divine figure in the associated art work. The doubling of a sign indicates its dual; the tripling of a sign indicates its plural.

The idea of standardized orthography—"correct" spelling—in Egyptian hieroglyphics is much looser than in modern languages. In fact, one or several variants exist for almost every word. Hieroglyphics also had no standard punctuation. Religious texts generally had no punctuation at all.

Hieroglyphics often illustrate the dual use of color - where objects are given the same hue they have in nature, or where objects are assigned colors to which they are symbolically linked. Each glyph had its own color or combination, which was faithfully kept whenever multiple colors were used. Sometimes the difference in color was used to distinguish between two otherwise identical signs. Color was omitted in everyday writing, in order to save time and expense, but it was nevertheless viewed as a very real part of a complete sign.

The colors assigned to the various signs are in most cases simply the colors of the objects themselves. So the signs for leg, arm, hand, or other body parts were usually in red, whereas reeds and other plants were green, water was blue, etc. Other objects had a more symbolic coloration - for example, the knife was red, the sickle was green, and the bread loaf was blue.

On hieroglyphics that wrote out things considered magical, such as spells or the Book of the Dead, hostile animal signs - scorpions, for instance - are sometimes pictures without their stings or pierced with knives, to render them harmless. Other animals are occasionally rendered incomplete so that they could not "run away" from the text.

The majority of the ancient Egyptian people were illiterate - knowledge of hieroglyphics was considered sacred to the deities Thoth and Seshat and usually only royalty, priests, military leaders, and scribes were taught how to read or write. In the era of the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom, about 800 hieroglyphics existed. By the Greco-Roman period, they numbered more than 5,000.

Because hieroglyphics were very time-consuming to write, a new form soon came into use, called hieratic (Egyptian sekh shat, or "writing for documents.") This shorthand cursive script was at first was used mainly for commercial and administrative documents, but then became employed for literary, scientific, and religious texts. With the Greek dynasty came into power, the Greek demotic replaced the hieratic.

The spread of Christianity in Egypt and the consequent development of the Coptic script sounded the death-knell for hieroglyphics. By the end of the fifth century C.E., knowledge of how to read and write the old scripts was extinct. Hieroglyphics remained a mystery to Egyptologists until the discovery of the famed Rosetta Stone in 1799. Even with the Rosetta Stone, however, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics are only partly understood today.

Important Terminology