Egyptian Writing

The ancient Egyptians thought it was important to write down information about religion and important events.  So they invented scripts (ways of writing).  There are three main Egyptian scripts.

  • Hieroglyphics, or ‘sacred writing’. The most famous script is hieroglyphic, which uses pictures as symbols.  Hieroglyphics were carved or painted on stone monuments, tombs where the dead were buried, and temples where the gods were worshipped.
  • Hieratic, or ‘priests’ writing’.  Hieroglyphics were too difficult to use as handwriting so a simpler form was invented so that the priests could write records on papyrus. Hieratic writing still used pictures as symbols.
  • Demotic, or ‘people’s writing’ developed from hieratic writing but was much simpler and had no pictures.  Unlike hieroglyphics or hieratic this was in common use. Like hieratic writing, it was written on papyrus, the earliest form of paper which was made from papyrus reeds.

Hieroglyphic writing

Hieroglyphics were carved or painted by the priests and scribes.  At first Egyptian hieroglyphics were simply pictures.  They showed simple things, such as the sun, plants, parts of the body and animals.  Later the hieroglyphics came to mean more.  A symbol of the legs not only meant legs, but also walking.  An arm not only meant an arm, but also strength.  A symbol of an eye meant first an eye, and an eye with a teardrop meant sadness.

This way of writing could not say everything.  For example, the scribes could not write ‘he’ or a person’s name.  They could not show the difference between ‘walk’ or ‘walked’.  So some symbols were chosen to represent sounds.

For example, the picture of a house meant the sound ‘pr’ because that was the Egyptian word for a house (we do not know exactly how Egyptian was pronounced).  So if, for example, you wanted to write the English word ‘price’ using ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, you would start with a picture of a house.  (This would not be the ancient Egyptian word for price, simply the English word using Egyptian hieroglyphics.)

There are nearly 2000 Egyptian hieroglyphs.  For example we have

Hieroglyphs showing single sounds; below we have the sounds k, h, s, t, and n.

Hieroglyphs showing what someone is doing: below we have five different hieroglyphs which mean 1) a man or, if there were more than one, people; 2) praying; 3) hiding; 4) being tired, 5) dying, a dead enemy.

Hieroglyphs of agriculture and crafts: below we have five hieroglyphs which mean 1) to loosen the soil, to dig the ground; 2) to cut the crops with a sickle; 3) to measure the cereal crops (the Egyptians grew barley and a cereal called emmet); 4) to crush salt (which came in blocks); this can also mean ‘heavy’; 5) to bake bread ( this is a picture of the long shovel which bakers still use to put loaves into a hot oven and to pull them out again).

All of these hieroglyphs can also be used to represent sounds. The last symbol above, the baking bread symbol, can also mean the sound of the letters rth, or hnr, or hnj. Vowel sounds, a,e,i,o,u are not shown at all (as they are not shown in modern Arabic or Hebrew writing) so you need to imagine what these combinations sounded like: hnr may have sounded ‘hanur’ but we really do not know.

So you can see that ancient Egyptian is a very, very difficult language to learn to read!

For nearly 2000 years after the end of Egyptian civilisation no-one could read these scripts. Scholars studied them but were unable to decipher them (work out what they meant). They thought the hieroglyphic writing was simpler than it really is: the pictures were taken as drawings of real things rather than symbols.

Hieroglyphic and demotic writing were finally deciphered by a French scholar called Champollion. He studied a piece of black stone which had been found in Egypt and which was covered with three kinds of writing. The upper part was in hieroglyphics, the middle part was in demotic, and the lowest part was in Greek.

Since he was able to read the Greek text, Champollion was able to work out the rest.  This black stone is known as the Rosetta Stone, after the place in Egypt where it was found.  It is one of the most important treasures of the British Museum in London.

Egyptian Literature

In addition to keeping records of religious rituals and government actions, the Egyptians wrote many other works from the time of the Old Kingdom.

  • collections of wise sayings, such as The Advice of an Egyptian Wise Man, which gave warnings to the king and foretold of better times ahead;
  • love poetry and religious humns, of which the best known is King Akhnaten’s hymn of praise to Aten, the sun’s dsic;
  • stories of seafaring and travel, such as the Story of Sinuhe from the 12th dynasty and the Journey of Unamon from the 20th dynasty. these both tell of voyages to the land of Canaan.