Author: EH Team

Top 5 Myths about Hieroglyphs

Hatshepsut, the first female Pharaoh

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.

They’re Pictograms.

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.

What color were Hieroglyphics?

Color in the tomb of Horemheb

Color was very important in Ancient Egypt. Looking at the intricate carvings which the left us today, its easy to forget that the images would have originally been brightly coloured. Color was considered an integral part of an item’s or person’s nature in Ancient Egypt, similarly items with a similar color were believed to have similar properties.

Ancient Egyptian temple in color

Ancient Egyptian temple in re-created color

Since the Egyptians valued precision in their art, purity of color was very important – painting each was usually the job of one individual, at the least would be done in phases. The artists would usually complete everything in one color before moving on to the next. Paintings would be finished off with fine brushwork to outline the work and add limited interior detail.

The degree to which Ancient Egyptian artists and craftsmen mixed colors varied throughout their history. However, even at its most creative, color mixing was not widely spread – firstly, this process was not particularly easy, and secondly Egyptians liked their art to remain constant, creativity was much less important than order. The colours available to the Egyptian artists depended on what was able to made from the resources available in nature – there were no artificial pigments.  This is actually quite helpful to us as historians, since it allows us to know which colours were used!

 

Black

Black (Egyptian name “kem”) was the color of the silt left by the Nile inundation, which gave rise to the Ancient Egyptian name for the country: “kemet”– the black land.

Unlike today, in Egyptian art black usually symbolized fertility, new life and resurrection, it was also the color of Osiris, the resurrected god of the dead and of the Nile, and was considered the color of the underworld where the sun was said to regenerate every night. Black was often used on statues and coffins to invoke the process of regeneration ascribed to the god Osiris.

 

Green

Green was also an important color associated with fresh growth, vegetation, new life and resurrection (the latter along with the color black, due to the varying colours of the nile). The hieroglyph for green is a papyrus stem and frond.

Green was also the color often used for the “Eye of Horus,” which had healing and protective powers, and so the color also represented well-being. To do “green things” was to do behave in a positive, life-affirming manner.

 

White

White was the color of purity, sacredness and cleanliness. Tools, sacred objects and even priest’s sandals were white for this reason. Sacred animals were also depicted as white. Clothing, was usually depicted as white, although in reality it was probably more of a natural undyed color.

 

Silver

Silver represented the color of the sun at dawn, and the moon, and stars. Silver was actually a rarer metal than gold in Ancient Egypt and held a greater value. A mix of gold a silver known as electron was used to coat the very tips of the pyramids, so they gleamed as the sun shone on them.

 

Blue

Blue was the colour of the heavens, as well as the colour of water – even though the water of the Nile would frequently turn black then green during the inundation. Egyptians preferred imported blue stones for use in jewellery, but evidence suggests that technology was advanced enough to produce the world’s first semi-synthetic pigment, known since medieval times as Egyptian blue. Depending on the degree to which the pigment Egyptian blue was ground, the color could vary from a rich, dark blue to a very light, sky blue.

 

Turquoise

Turquoise, a particularly valued imported green-blue stone from the Sinai desert, also represented joy, as well as the color of the sun’s rays at dawn. Through the god Hathor, who controlled the destiny of new-born babies, and protected mothers, it is often considered a color of promise and foretelling.

 

Yellow

Yellow was usually the colour used to depict women’s skin, as well as the skin of the peoples who lived near the Mediterranean – Libyans, Bedouin, Syrians and Hittites. Incidentally, men were usually represented in a red or lighter brown color. Yellow was also the color of the sun and, along with gold, could represent perfection.

 

Gold

Gold represented the flesh of the gods and was used for anything which was considered eternal or indestructible. (Gold was used on a sarcophagus, for example.) Whilst gold leaf could be used on sculpture, yellow or reddish-yellows were used in paintings for the skin of gods.

 

Red

Red was primarily the color of chaos and disorder – the color of the desert which was considered the opposite of the fertile black land surrounding the Nile. One of the principal red pigments, red ochre, was obtained from the desert. Red was also the color of destructive fire and fury and was used to represent something dangerous.

While red was the most potent of all colors in Ancient Egypt, it was also a color of life and protection – derived from the color of blood

Color in the tomb of Horemheb

Color in the tomb of Horemheb

and the life-supporting power of fire. It was therefore commonly used for protective amulets.

 

Hieroglyphics could be coloured in a variety of colours for carvings and paintings, this may have been associated with the content of the message itself. Hieroglyphs themselves were often simply outlined in black or white, however when coupled with a depiction of a scene.

When writing on papyrus, hieroglyphs were always in back, or red.

 

How hard is learning Hieroglyphics? (Not very!)

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs

When you’re first getting interested in Ancient Egypt, it’s pretty normal to consider learning hieroglyphs – most people quickly decide that it’s too hard, but in many ways this isn’t true!

Firstly, lets quickly mention that ‘learning’ how to read hieroglyphic script means something different to everyone. Some people aspire to visit a museum and understand what a few of those strange Egyptian symbols mean, others plan on taking a trip to Egypt and want to know the basics to help them better enjoy the trip (and this is a really good idea!). At the far end of the scale, there are budding archaeologists and historians who want to eventually be able to read and write hieroglyphs fluently.

One of the real joys of hieroglyphs is that whatever your level of intention, learning some can be as simple or complicated as you like! Start by checking out the resources on this website – once you’ve got the hang of the basics, try picking up a book from the recommended list, or perhaps buy some papyrus and set about creating some historically accurate artwork!  If you want to take it further, we recommend some excellent courses on this site which can make you a real expert.

That being said, we think that learning hieroglyphics is really quite easy! Let’s see why:

You don’t need to speak them!

While you certainly can use the hieroglyphs and their associated Egyptian words to speak to a friend or write secret messages if you so wish, there’s really no need to learn how to ‘speak’ them. Middle Egyptian (for form of Egyptian which we generally study, since its applicable to the widest possible historical time frame) is a dead language – so no speaking exercises necessary!  To get the most out of your study, you can focus on reading – Mummies don’t talk!

 

You don’t conjugate verbs

In middle Egyptian there’s no need to conjugate verbs. If you’ve ever studied a language, you’ll understand how much time this will save you in learning!

 

You don’t need to be a linguist

If you’ve never studied a language before, starting with hieroglyphics actually makes a lot of sense! By learning to read hieroglyphs, you will be learning all of the key skills need for language learning more generally, however, you will be doing this with a set of symbols which are abstract and somewhat distant from your everyday life.

This actually makes it easier for most people to assimilate new language – especially when considering a language with an unfamiliar alphabet. If you ever planned on learning Russian or Chinese, learn some hieroglyphs first!

 

Masculine and feminine nouns…

Are also incredibly easy – with only a few exceptions, all feminine nouns have a ‘t’ at the end.

Again, if you’ve learning a language before, you’ll appreciate this one!

 

 A little makes a big difference

Finally, it’s really hard to stress just how big an impact learning only the very basics of hieroglyphics can have in terms of your understanding end enjoyment of ancient Egypt. The feeling of being able to look at an artifact in a museum, a temple on the Nile – or even just a picture on the internet, and have even a rough idea of what sound some of the hieroglyphs represent as a truly exciting and engaging one!