Category: Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics

The Hieroglyphic Alphabet – Biliterals

In addition to the uniliteral symbols, there are a large number of hieroglyphs which have a biliteral meaning – that is to say that their sound is best approximated by two western charters.

AA 𓅀 bd 𓊺 Hw 𓄑 sT 𓋫
Ai 𓌗 pA 𓅮 Hb 𓎱 sd 𓄢
Aw 𓄫 pr 𓉐 Hp 𓐑 SA 𓆷
Ab 𓍋 pH 𓄖 Hm 𓍛 Sw 𓆄
Ar 𓌗 pq 𓆀 Hn 𓆰 Sm 𓈝
Ax 𓅜 pt 𓇯 Hr 𓁷 Sn 𓍲
ii 𓇍 pd 𓌒 HH 𓁨 Sd 𓄞
iw 𓈀 pD 𓌔 Hz 𓎿 qn 𓐖
ib 𓄣 mA 𓌳 HD 𓌉 qs 𓌟
im 𓐛 mi 𓏇 xA 𓆼 qd 𓐪
in 𓆛 mw 𓈗 xa 𓈍 kA 𓂓
ir 𓁹 mm 𓅔 xw 𓋽 kp 𓊶
iH 𓌤 mn 𓏠 xm 𓋉 km 𓆎
iz 𓇩 mr 𓌸 xn 𓅯 gb 𓅬
it 𓌾 mH 𓎔 xr 𓀒 gm 𓅠
id 𓈞 ms 𓄟 xt 𓆱 gH 𓂾
aA 𓉻 mt 𓂸 XA 𓆞 gs 𓐛
ab 𓃁 md 𓌃 Xn 𓄚 tA 𓇾
aH 𓉥 mD 𓎆 Xr 𓌨 ti 𓍘
aq 𓅧 nw 𓏌 zA 𓅭 tp 𓁶
ad 𓆝 nb 𓎟 zw 𓇳 tm 𓍃
aD 𓎙 nm 𓌰 zb 𓊄 tr 𓆵
wA 𓍯 nn 𓇒 zp 𓊗 TA 𓅷
wa 𓌡 nr 𓆂 zH 𓉲 Tb 𓋸
ww 𓅳 nH 𓅘 zS 𓏞 Tz 𓋭
wp 𓄋 ns 𓄓 sA 𓐟 di 𓏙
wn 𓃹 nD 𓐩 sw 𓇓 db 𓄏
wr 𓅨 rA 𓂋 sf 𓋵 dd 𓊽
wx 𓋂 ra 𓇳 sm 𓇐 DA 𓍑
wz 𓊩 rw 𓃭 sn 𓌢 Dw 𓈋
wD 𓎗 rs 𓌘 sr 𓀙 Db 𓅙
bA 𓅡 rd 𓂾 sS 𓍱 Dr 𓇥
bH 𓄑 hb 𓍁 sk 𓎝 Dd 𓊽
bz 𓆟 HA 𓇉 st 𓊨 DD 𓆕

Phonograms, Ideograms, Determinatives

Hieroglyphic symbols were an incredibly flexible approach to language. Rather than just representing a sound (as with modern languages) hieroglyphs were also visual representations of objects or ideas that were familiar to readers – you will have noticed that most are either animals, objects or parts of the body.

Ideograms.

Although each hieroglyph had an associated sound, which, when coupled with another symbol could be used to “spell out” a word with its own meaning, each hieroglyph could also be used independently, as a picture. When used in this sense, hieroglyphs are referred to as ideograms.

For example:

Let’s take two hieroglyphs 󳛳 (b) and 󳰎 (w)

Both of these work just fine as ideograms.

 

Phonograms

When a hieroglyph is instead used to represent a sound, its known as a Phonogram. Using phonograms, scribes would spell out words which were not represented by their own  ideogram. The two hieroglyphs taken together, have a whole new meaning.

󳛳 (b) and 󳰎 (w) used instead as phonograms sound out

bew, which is the middle Egyptian word for “place”.

 

 

Determinatives

A given hieroglyph could also have a third value, known as a determinative. Determinatives help to clarify the meaning of a word, and appear after the Phonograms.

While this might sound complicated, it actually made the language even more flexible!

For example, let’s take the Egyptian word “re” which means “sun” sun

Splitting it into individuals symbols, we have

󳚢 “r” and󳛆 “eh”

The two could be used as ideograms, to represent a mouth and arm arm, but here, together they are used as phonograms, spelling out the word “re” or “sun”.

 

However, to make the meaning clear we also have the sun hieroglyph ?.

By changing the determinative, we can actually change the whole word:

Lets swap ? for ?, the ideogram for god.re

The word still says “re” but now its referring to the sun god, re, rather than the sun itself!

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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  • 2 wooden rods made from durable beech wood, non-dyed, just natural wood.

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How to count in Hieroglyphs

Contrary to popular belief, the building of the pyramids and the running of the Egyptian state did not require complex mathematics. There’s no question that the construction of such impressive monuments and the running of the world’s first nation state relied on a great deal of precision, but we must be careful not to confuse precision and care with complexity!

In fact, most of the mathematics required in ancient Egypt was simple addition, subtraction and the recording of amounts. For this reason, Egyptian mathematical symbols are quite simple.

Counting 1-9

The hieroglyphs for the numbers from 1 to 9 were simple strokes. If you wanted to say “one star,” you wrote the word for star, followed by a stroke:

????

 

To say “three stars” you would simply use three strokes:

??????

 

The Egyptians always put the noun before the numbers, so in a literal sense you would say “star one” or “star three”

 

 

Counting above 9

The simple strokes work for 1 to 9, but when we get to 10 and above, we have a new hieroglyph: the hoop

?

 

Twenty stars would therefore be:

  ???? ? 

Literally, ‘stars twenty’.

 

Twenty-three stars would be: :

???? ? ???

The larger unit—in this case the 10s—comes first.

 

There are additional hieroglpyhs for bigger numbers – much like we find with Roman numerals.

For 100, we use a coil of rope:  ?

For 1,000, we use the lotus flower: ?

For 10,000, we use a finger: ?

For 100,000, we use a tadpole: ?

For 1,000,000, we use the god Heh with his arms up: ?

 

10 ?
20 ?
30 ?
40 ?
50 ?
100 ?
200 ?
300 ?
400 ?
500 ?
1000 ?
10000 ?
10E4 ?
10E5 ?

 

The Hieroglyphic Alphabet

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

There is a simpler version of this chart here which is ideal for kids!

Hieroglyphic 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

Read and Write Hieroglyphs

Learning to read and write hieroglyphs is just like learning any other language – except you don’t really need to learn the speaking element!

On this site you will therefore find pages mainly dealing with reading and writing, although the combination of the two will also give you all the tools you need to try speaking if you wish!

 

Where should I start?

The very first thing to do is to familiarise yourself with some of the key concepts needed to properly understand hieroglyphs. Once you’ve got the basics – start with learning the basic hieroglyphic alphabet (the uniliterals). These are surprisingly quick to learn and will very quickly get you into the right frame of mind to learn more. Use the translator to spell out our name and some other words, then try some yourself!

Suggested order:

First, learn about Hieroglyphic Reading order

Next, check out Phonograms, Ideograms and Determinatives

The learn a bit about how to use ancient Egyptian vowels

Finally, start on the Hieroglyphic alphabet, and check out the translator to translate your name!

 

Going further

Once you have an understanding of the basic hieroglyphs, spend some time working on simple grammar and word order. We use the simplest symbols possible in all our examples, so you don’t need to learn all of the more complicated bilateral, trilateral and multilateral symbols before beginning to put together some simple sentences, or spell your name!

Once you have a grasp of the fundamentals, then start to explore the more complicated glyphs.

Hieroglyphic reading order

Hieroglyphics inscriptions consist of rows of individual hieroglyphs which can be arranged either in vertical lines (like in western writing) or in vertical columns (like Chinese writing).

Hieroglyphic writing usually reads from right to left however they can sometimes read left to right. Above all the Egyptians valued artistic balance and symmetry wherever possible – this was often the reason for a left to right reading order to be used for a panel.

Incidentally, modern texts dealing with hieroglyphics tend to work left to right to conform with modern writing preferences (WE do this on this site too – that’s why all of our symbols face left!)

Despite the various ways in which hieroglyphs can be written it is quite easy to see where to start – the beginning of the inscription is indicated by the direction that the characters (people, birds, snakes etc.) are facing.

 

In this sentence, you would read left to right, since all the animals face left.

l m f  w

However, in this situation you would read right to left – since the birds face right.

A(1)right r r wright S(1)

 

Hieroglyphs in an upper position have a preference over those in a lower position.