Category: Ancient Egyptian Hieratics

Nouns

Nouns (or naming words) are the names of things, book, house, bird etc. These are known as tangible nouns – names of physical things.

We also use intangible nouns, intangible nouns are the names of things which aren’t physical, like love, hate, fear or joy.

 

Genders

Like most languages, nouns in Egyptian have genders. We don’t have a gender structure in English, so the concept can seem a little strange, especially if you’ve never learned a foreign language. Thankfully, in middle Egyptian the system is very simple. Feminine nouns (almost) always end in a t ( 󴨿 )   Masculine nouns do not end in t.

The egyptian word for Son was Sa – it was written in hieroglyphs as

We know the word Sa is masculine, because it does not end in a T.

The egyptian word for Daughter was Sat – it was written in hieroglyphs as

We know the word Sat if feminine, because it does end in a T.

 

There are a handful of masculine nouns which do end in a t, but they are few and far between.

 

 

Plurals

Nouns can be either singular, or plural. Singular nouns refer to one thing, and plurals refer to a number of things – Temple, and Temples.

Forming plurals in middle Egyptian is also quite easy!

The Egyptian word for man was z – it could be written phonetically as    but was usually represented ideographically, using the man hieroglyph. 󳀀

 

The word for Woman was Zet – it was written phonetically as   but could also be represented by the woman hieroglyph. 󳍔

These are both examples of singular nouns.

 

The Egyptian word for people was retchu – this is a plural noun.  It was written with the man and woman hieroglyph, followed by three strokes – it’s the strokes which indicate the noun is plural.  󳀀󳍔󴪑

Hieroglyphics timeline

King Tutankhamen depicted on his tomb wall

Hieroglyphs have an interesting and rich history all of their own. From the first symbols appearing over 5,000 years ago, right through to discoveries which we are still making even today!

 

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!

Papyrus

Not all writing in ancient Egypt took place in tombs and on temple walls – in fact most everyday records were recorded instead on rolls of Papyrus. Papyrus was one of the first forms of paper as we know it today, being fear easier to write on and much more portable than stone, it was of major importance in ancient Egypt. Papyrus was viewed as less permanent than stone, but in Egypt’s dry climate, some papyri have survived for thousands of years quite well.

In addition to being very useful the Papyrus plant was considered to have special religious significance – this was because its flower was thought to resemble the rays of the sun, and its stalk (which is roughly triangular when cut and viewed face-on) looks like the shape of a pyramid.

Papyrus plants growing on the banks of the Nile

Papyrus plants growing on the banks of the Nile

Like most things produced in Egypt, Papyrus plants grew along the banks of the Nile. It could grow to more than 10 feet tall with a diameter of four inches. To create papyrus sheets, it was harvested and the stalks were cut into sections about 12 inches long.

The tough green outer casing of the stalk was removed with a sharp knife or similar tool to get at the white, pulpy center. The outer casing was not thrown away – being strong and supple it was useful for making things like baskets and sandals.

The cylinders of pulpy inner-stem were then cut into thin strips. Next the strips were placed on a board and overlapped. Then this was beaten with a wood mallet or pressed so the sap comes out and serves as the glue that binds the strips together. The overlapping strips were left in the sun, and when they dried, each sheet would be burnished with a smooth stone to prepare the surface for writing.

Individual sheets could be glued together to make a papyrus roll as long as desired. Some are more than 100 feet long. Papyrus was used for bureaucratic records, literary productions, international commerce, and religious texts such as the Book of the Dead.

Papyrus used to grow wild in Egypt on the banks of the Nile, but modern industrialization has ended that. Today it is farmed to make into sheets so artists can paint ancient scenes to be sold to tourists. You can still buy sheets of papyrus in most large art supply stores (find some links below!) so you can try writing on the real thing should you wish!

 

Try writing on Papyrus!

As mentioned above, some arts and craft shops carry papyrus. You can also get genuine papyrus delivered from amazon! We recommend the following:

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The Hieratic Alphabet

Below you can find a breakdown of the Hieroglyphic alphabet as defined by Gardiner.

 

Hieratic Gardiner code transliteration Represents
󴰀 G1 A Egyptian vulture
󴰁 M17 i reed
󴰂 Z4 y pair of strokes, river
󴰃 D36 a arm
󴰄 G43 w quail chick
󴰅 D58 b lower leg
󴰆 Q3 p reed mat, stool
󴰇 I9 f horned viper
󴰈 G17 m owl
󴰉 N35 n ripple of water
󴰊 D21 r mouth
󴰋 O4 h reed shelter, enclosure
󴰌 V28 H twisted wick, rope
󴰍 J1 x placenta
󴰎 F32 X animal belly with udder or tail
󴰏 O34 z door bolt, lock
󴰐 S29 s folded cloth, linen
󴰑 N37 S garden pool, basin
󴰒 N29 q slope of a hill
󴰓 V31 k basket with handle
󴰔 W11 g jar stand
󴰕 X1 t bun, bread
󴰖 V13 T tethering rope
󴰗 D46 d hand
󴰘 I10 D cobra
󴰙 Z7 W coil of rope
󴰚 J15 M unknown (i̓m)
󴰛 S3 N crown of Lower Egypt
󴰜 D153 R mouth, lips
󴰝 S56 K head cover
󴰞 E23 l recumbent lion
󴰟 M17A i-i reeds, pair of

Hieratic and Demotic script

Hieroglyphics were the earliest from of Egyptian writing, however other forms did emerge throughout the period. There are two noteworthy to consider:

Hieratic

An example of Egyptian Hieratic script

An example of Egyptian Hieratic script

Was a script used primarily by the priests, and was, in essence a simplified more cursive version of the original hieroglyphics. Originally hieratic was quite literally a version of the hieroglyphics script which was more rounded in form, thus allowing for quick writing.

During the Old kingdom, hieratic was hardly any different to hieroglyphic writing, except it was (As far as we can tell) always written from left to right.

During the Middle kingdom hieratic became invariably associated with writing on papyrus (Since writing on papyrus was done with a simple reed pen, which allowed the writer to benefit from its cursive nature). During the middle period hieratic evolved into a script in its own right and became easy to distinguish from traditional hieroglyphs. Religious texts, however were usually written in ‘full’ hieroglyphs, even when produced on papyrus. This began to change after Dynasty xxI, when even religious texts began to use hieratic.

 

 

Demoitc

Demotic (from the Greek Demos, popular, the people) was a further evolution of hieratic writing, adopted during the late period. Demotic, a very rapid form of

An example of Egyptian Demotic script

An example of Egyptian Demotic script

writing was used for virtually all writing during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods and has even been found used for stone inscriptions. The widespread introduction of demotic script is generally dated to 700 bce, and was favoured particularly for legal, business, and literary texts.

Demotic was developed in the north of Egypt and was used throughout the country after the conquest of Upper Egypt under Psamtek I. The oldest known example of a demotic papyrus dates to the 21st year of Psamtek I and is from el-Hiba – Like hieratic it was always written from right to left.

Since Demotic writing was a later development, the language used to write demotic is closer to what we could loosely call ‘Late Egyptian’ rather than the Middle Egyptian we work with on this site.

Demotic script is noticeably more cursive than even hieratic, having little or no resemblance to the original hieroglyphic symbols, although the underlying principles of the writing system are the same. In fact, Demotic does not look too dissimilar from contemporary forms of arabic script.

Currently, we believe that between the seventh and fifth centuries demotic was used only for administration and officialdom. The first literary demotic texts are from the fourth century BC, though most literary texts in the script date to the early Roman Period (a time when Greek was the main administrative language).

Why did Ancient Egypt need writing?

There were many ancient civilizations who did not develop a system of writing – indeed, there were many civilizations who existed much later then the Egyptians who did not develop writing, so why did Egypt?

 

The Nile

Central to the history of ancient Egypt is the river Nile. There is no question that the Nile was one of the most important, if not the most important factor in allowing Egyptian civilization to develop. The annual flooding of its banks with rich silts (inundation) which provided the ancient Egyptians with such bountiful harvests made farming relatively simple, and allowed the ancient Egyptians to concentrate their energies in other areas, such as technology, art and culture.

A farm on the river Nile

A farm on the river Nile

Egyptologists today are also convinced that Nile was one of the main reasons that Egypt had to develop a system of writing.

Each year, monsoons in Ethiopia bring torrential rains that wash rich topsoil into the Nile. In July, the Nile overflows its banks and deposits this soil on both sides of the river. Crops were then plated and, given almost ideal growing conditions they produced considerable surpluses. It was the surplus grains which led to the system of writing.  The Egyptians used grain itself as a form of money, the amounts produced therefore needed to be tracked in order to facilitate the collection of taxes – That’s where writing came in. The Egyptians needed writing to keep track of the taxes that were due and the taxes that were collected.

 

The Pharaoh

Egypt was the world first nation state led by a powerful king (the Pharaoh) – this brought many benefits and ensured that the civilization would last for thousands of years. In Egypt, the pharaoh was viewed as a god. He had absolute power and owned all the land. With such centralized power, the pharaoh was capable of

Hatshepsut, the first female Pharaoh

Hatshepsut, the first female Pharaoh

marshaling all the manpower of Egypt for his purposes.

For example, just before the inundation of the Nile, the pharaoh could organize farmers to begin digging irrigation canals so that more crops could be grown. Then, the pharaoh could collect even more taxes, which required writing.

Pharaoh also needed to publicise his victories and communicate key messages to the people – both in order to maintain control and to help to foster a sense of national pride. Happy citizens who felt protected by the state were more productive!  A system of writing meant that messages could be communicated without the need for storytellers or “town crier” type individuals.

 

Bureaucrats

A carving of Maya, thought to be king Tutankhamens treasurer.

A carving of Maya, thought to be king Tutankhamens treasurer.

While Egypt certainly benefited from being a homogeneous nation, running a state (just like today) required a small army of bureaucrats to organise, manage and oversee projects and activities. In order to do this effectively, ancient Egypt needed writing.

Since the Egyptians were able to produce much more food than they needed, they were able to support a large number of people who did not directly contribute to the economy. You no longer need to call out the farmers when invaders are coming because you have a trained and equipped army that can easily defeat them, nor do you need to rely on people to organise themselves since you can appoint overseers to coordinate action.

The bureaucracy had surpluses that had to be recorded, taxes to be collected, and armies to keep track of, and all this required writing.

 

 

 

The Army

Having a large standing army was one of the privileges of having a fully formed nation state – soldiers did not directly contribute to the economy, but could be

Model of soldiers from the tomb of  Mesehti,  the provincial governor in the 11th Dynasty Asyut

Model of soldiers from the tomb of Mesehti, the provincial governor in the 11th Dynasty Asyut

supported by the surpluses produced by the Nile flood.

Instead, the army was needed to fend off invasion and coerce neighboring tribes into paying a tribute (tax) to the pharaoh. Organising such a force was complicated however –  because scribes had to keep track of thousands of soldiers in different divisions, ensure the availability of supplies needed for campaigns and record individuals service, once again, they needed writing.