Almost since the art of writing hieroglyphs was lost myths and rumors about their usage and purpose have been circulating – many of these have only recently been disproved! Today lets take a look at some of the most common myths about Hieroglyphics.
Almost since the study of hieroglyphics began there was the assumption that the symbols were pictographic – that is to say, they were pictures of the things they represent. In fact, each hieroglyph has a sound value associated with it just as we have in western languages today.
So they’re not Pictograms?
Well, sometimes they are. Hieroglyphs can, in fact, be used as ideograms, phonograms and as determinatives. When used as an ideogram, they represent the thing they show, so in this instance they are pictographic. However, when used as a phonogram, they instead represent a sound – when used as a determinative they instead help to convey the meaning of a preceding word.
While this seems quite confusing, It makes a lot more sense once you start reading!
You can read more about this here.
There are only a small number of glyphs
This assumption which was also fairly widespread until the language was fully understood is understandable, given that many hieroglyphic inscription’s use similar symbols. In fact, we now know that there are over 700 individual hieroglyphs.
Hieroglyphs belong on temple walls for spells and prayers.
While the above notion isn’t wrong – we do find a great number of hieroglyphs on temple walls, and they certainly were used for spells and prayers, they were used far more widely than that! We find evidence of hieroglyphs being used to record all sorts of information, from military records to tax receipts and even to tell personal stories.
Hieroglyphs, and their shorthand version hieratic script were also frequently written on papyrus sheets, which were far easier to transport than stone tablets! Glyphs also decorate many pieces of ancient Egyptian art, some pottery and personal possessions.
All Egyptians could read hieroglyphs
While this is a pleasant notion, it’s likely that only a few well educated individuals could read and write hieroglyphs. Like most ancient civilisations, the majority of ancient Egypt’s citizens were probably illiterate. However, they could follow along with important stories and teachings via the colorful wall paintings and sculptures which depicted so many of the key events from Egyptian history.
That being said, most people could probably have understood at least some of the glyphs, since their meaning is very clear when used pictographically.
Most of the writing and reading of hieroglyphs was done either by the priesthood, or by overseers and professional scribes. While this isn’t the level of literacy we expect today, it was still a vast improvement on societies who depended purely on word of mouth and storytelling to record their history.