Month: March 2012

The Language of Trees: Ogham (Archaic Irish Script)

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One of the stranger ancient scripts one might come across, Ogham is also known as the ‘Celtic Tree Alphabet’. Estimated to have been used from the fourth to the tenth century AD it is believed to have been possibly named after the Irish god Ogma but this is debated widely. Ogham actually refers to the characters themselves, the script as a whole is more appropriately named Beith-luis-nin after the order of alphabet letters BLFSN.

Ogham and Pictish symbols on a stone from Brandsbutt in Aberdeenshire


The script originally contained twenty letters grouped into four groups of five. Five more letters were later added creating a fifth group. Each of these groups was named after its first letter. There are some four to five hundred surviving ogham inscriptions throughout Britain and Ireland with the largest number appearing in Pembrokeshire. The rest of the inscriptions were located around south-eastern Ireland, Scotland, Orkney, the Isle of Man and around the border of Devon and Cornwall. Ogham was used to write in Archaic Irish, Old Welsh and Latin mostly on wood and stone and is based on a high medieval Briatharogam tradition of ascribing the name of trees to individual characters. The inscriptions containing Ogham are almost exclusively made up of personal names and marks of land ownership.

Origin Theories

There are four popular theories discussing the origin of Ogham. The differing theories are unsurprising considering that the script has similarities to ciphers in Germanic runes, Latin, elder futhark and the Greek alphabet.

The first theory is based on the work of scholars such as Carney and MacNeill who suggest that Ogham was first created as a cryptic alphabet designed by the Irish. They assert that the Irish designed it in response to political, military and/or religious reasons so that those with knowledge of just Latin could not read it.

The second theory is held by McManus who argues that Ogham was invented by the first Christians in early Ireland in a quest for uniqueness. The argument maintains that the sounds of the primitive Irish language were too difficult to transcribe into Latin.

Page of the Book of Ballymote

The third theory states that the Ogham script from invented in West Wales in the fourth century BC to intertwine the Latin alphabet with the Irish language in response to the intermarriage between the Romans and the Romanized Britons. This would account for the fact that some of the Ogham inscriptions are bilingual; spelling out Irish and Brythonic-Latin.

The fourth theory is supported by MacAlister and used to be popular before other theories began to overtake it. It states that Ogham was invented in Cisalpine Gaul around 600 BC by Gaulish Druids who created it as a hand signal and oral language. MacAliser suggests that it was transmitted orally until it was finally put into writing in early Christian Ireland. He argues that the lines incorporated into Ogham represent the hand by being based on four groups of five letters with a sequence of strokes from one to five. However, there is no evidence for MacAlisters theory that Ogham’s language and system originated in Gaul.

Mythical theories for the origin of Ogham also appear in texts from the eleventh to fifteenth centuries. The eleventh century Lebor Gabala Erenn tells that Ogham was invented soon after the fall of the tower of Babel, as does the fifteenth century Auraicept na n-eces text. The Book of Babymote also includes ninty-two recorded secret modes of writing Ogham written in 1390-91.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)”]

Ogham alphabet [non-IPA]
Ogham Consonants

The Characters

  • Right side/downward strokesB beith [b] (*betwias)
    • luis [l]
    • fearn [w] (*wernā)
    • saille [s] (*salis)
    • nuin [n]
  • Left side/upward strokes
    • úath [j]?
    • duir [d] (*daris)
    • tinne [t]
    • coll [k] (*coslas)
    • ceirt [kʷ] (*kʷertā)
  • Across/pendicular strokes
    • muin [m]
    • gort [ɡ] (*gortas)
    • NG gétal [ɡʷ] (*gʷēddlan)
    • straif [sw] or [ts]?
    • ruis [r]Ogham alphabet (non-IPA)
      Vowels and Additional Characters
  • notches (vowels)
    • ailm [a]
    • onn [o] (*osen)
    • úr [u]
    • edad [e]
    • idad [i]
Examples of Ogham Texts
Irish Language in Ogham
The stone of Lugnaedon son of Limenueh


Latin in Ogham Script
Numus honoratur sine. Numo nullus amatur.
Money is honoured, without money nobody is loved
From: The Annals of Inisfallen of 1193

Additional Reading

Carney, James. The Invention of the Ogam Cipher ‘Ériu’ 22, 1975, pp 62 –3, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy
Macalister, Robert A.S. The Secret Languages of Ireland, pp27 – 36, Cambridge University Press, 1937
Macalister, Robert A.S. Corpus inscriptionum insularum celticarum. First edition. Dublin: Stationery Office, 1945-1949.
McManus, Damian. Ogam: Archaizing, Orthography and the Authenticity of the Manuscript Key to the Alphabet, Ériu 37, 1988, 1-31. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.
McManus, Damian. A Guide to Ogam, Maynooth 1991.
MacNeill, Eoin. Archaisms in the Ogham Inscriptions, ‘Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy’ 39, pp 33–53, Dublin

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Ammianus Marcellinus: Biographical Record in the Res Gestae

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Ammianus Marcellinus is often proclaimed as the ‘last great Roman historian’ and his Res Gestae (history from AD354-378) as an accurate and objective account of events in the fourth century.  But just how useful and reliable is this text in relation to the recounting of events? How does the author himself affect the way these events are portrayed in the Res Gestae?  And how does it stand as an autobiographical text?

The Res Gestae is often acclaimed as a reliable history as told by its author, Ammianus Marcellinus; but can this interpretation really be upheld? Matthews asserts that Ammianus’ depiction of the period from Nerva to the battle of Adrianoplein in 378 is an accurate representation of the authors own times.[1] An assessment of the Res Gestae could also suggest a different view.  Ammianus’ works are recognised as our fullest source for the period of the fourth century but their objectivity is also questioned.  Barnes maintains a conviction quite opposite to Matthews and states that “Ammianus failed in his obligation as a historian to strive to transcend personal bias.”[2]

Click Image for Book Information

Ammianus belonging to a select canon of great historians, who are known for reliability, immediately has an affect on the assessment of the Res Gestae.[3]  One is tempted to believe that Ammianus’ history is truly an objective account.  But how can any author really create a work, factual or fictional, that does not contain any amount of bias? When Gibbon examines the ecclesiastical politics of Constantius’ reign, he gives Ammianus praise as an ‘unbiased witness’[4].  This view of Ammianus and his Res Gestae is debatable because no writing can ever be free of the author’s own bias and self-involvement.

An analysis of the Res Gestae as a historical account of events suggests that it is highly subjective.  Barnes asserts that Ammianus writes with unusual violence and ferocity indicating a subjective view of depicted events.[5]  This is in contrast to the ideas of Gibbons and Matthews.  Matthews does not appear to regard Ammianus as a historian but as a writer of the present period.[6] Gibbons praises Ammianus as the author of an ‘objective history’. Matthews views the Res Gestae more as a narrative that accurately depicted the period of Ammianus through the eyes of the author and the ideologies of the time.  The Res Gestae has been critically discussed in two dimensions, one portraying it as a purely historical work and another as a narrative depicting the times as viewed by the author.

The Res Gestae in modern analyses is seen as a “work of imaginative literature” which “exhibits the creative and imaginative powers of a novelist.”[7]  Matthews even likens the author’s writing to scenes from a play.  The confrontation, for instance, between Leonitus and Peter Valvomeres[8] exhibits “contrasting emotions and postures” leading to “ritual violence.”[9]  This suggests that the Res Gestae was created in part as an entertainment piece, written for a certain audience.  In order to formulate this type of work the author has clearly emphasised and omitted several events.  This assessment indicates that as an account of the times, the Res Gestae may well be incomplete and inaccurate, more to the likening of a narrative than a distinctly objective work.When critically assessing the Res Gestae as an account of the author’s times one notices several inconsistencies within the text in comparison to contemporary works suggesting that the Res Gestae does not fully incorporate the most significant events and issues but more so those that concerned the mind of its author.  With this in mind, it is indicative that the Res Gestae does not serve the purpose of a history due to its inability to present events in an objective manner.  For instance, the lack of references to the uprising Christian values could be seen as a failing on behalf of Ammianus.  Ammianus leaves out the majority of ecclesiastical events and affairs such as those that occupied Constantius’ reign.  Elliot describes Ammianus as a pagan apologist who treats Christianity unfairly and it appears that there is an irremovable inconsistency in what the author does say about Christianity.[10] Despite the debates, the Res Gestae still is the fullest account of the fourth century that survives to the present day.  The surviving half of Ammianus’ works provides an overview of events and subjects from the Caesar Gallus to the siege of Adrianople.[11]  Particularly significant is its use as a source for Roman policy.  Seager examines the account of events on the Rhine and the Danube, asserting that such accounts show that policy was “fundamentally defensive” with a priority of keeping out barbarians or to drive them out.[12]  This theme of action in response to barbarian frontier violations is a constant throughout the narrative.

Ammianus also appears to manipulate events subtlety to imply alternate motives of those concerned.  This is seen in the account of Constantius on the Rhine against the Alamanni in 354; where Constantius took responsibility in the new found peace.[13]  Ammianus recounts that the peace was in fact a result of a fluke and offers religious grounds for the Alamanni seeking peace rather than the actions of Constantius.[14]  What Ammianus thought of those concerned shaped his narrative, such as his favourable tone with the emperor Julian and unfavourable tone in reference to Constantius.  This while showing the great bias, within the writings which would be unsuitable for a historian, gives the reader an important look at the character of important figures through the eyes of someone who lived under their influence.


The Res Gestae provides a look into the character of the empires and important people of the times.  This shows a biographical streak to the writing which is often not so closely associated with the writing of a history.  For example, Ammianus gives us an overview of Julian which is almost unrivalled.  Ammianus both praises and criticises Julian and provides a unique look into his personality. Ammianus tells us that Julian had an inclination towards pagan practices and gods from a young age but kept up the pretence that he was a Christian for survivals sake, and later his Christian education influenced his take on paganism.[15] This is a view which is in contrast with many others such as Browning’s who asserts that Julian broke completely away from Christianity.[16]  Ammianus in regards to this biographical theme discloses both his likes and dislikes of the individuals concerned with an unusual vigor.  The Res Gestae in terms of this could be seen as more a record of personalities and critics of them, rather than a history of the author’s times.

The question still remains whether or not Ammianus faithfully reflects the world that he describes or a completely subjective view.  Auerbach analyses Ammianus as portraying a highly grim view of the events of the fourth century and failing to adequately indicate historical and social contexts.[18]  This idea is criticised by Matthews who believes that scholars are purely being evasive and that the Res Gestae can not be judged in this manner.[19]  Ammianus should instead be seen as a writer of his own times; it will of course have been subject to Ammianus’ pessimistic and optimistic views on certain events which he himself witnessed and was affected by.

While the events of the Res Gestae are open to interpretation, Ammianus’ writing does give us a rare look into the attitudes of certain social groups.  Firstly, Ammianus was a military man and his writings were subject to the attitudes that accompanied this status.  One could assert that the Res Gestae can be used as a source for Military attitudes, especially those of the common soldier with which Ammianus was acutely conscious of.[20]  The use of the first person in the text within the campaigns he describes indicates that Ammianus had indeed lived and worked hard throughout his life and understood the workings of the military and war.[21]  Ammianus’ direct involvement in the events of the fourth century provides a rare outlook.  Matthews clearly defines this assessment, stating that “Ammianus deserves to be treated as the living product of time, place and memory.”[22]  With this in mind, the account of the author’s times in the Res Gestae regains ground as a significant fourth century text.

From the Res Gestae the reader also gets a look into the priorities and attitudes of the Roman upper classes from Ammianus’ treatment of them. One of the most defined of these is their attitude towards foreigners.  Thompson states that Ammianus doubted the existence of “sincere friendship at Rome.”[23]  The Res Gestae accounts several incidents where the attitude towards foreigners is severely negative in the minds of the Roman citizens.  Often Ammianus finds significant fault with the Upper classes and their prizing of pride, popularity, wealth and superstition over the intimacy of their fellows, lower classes and foreigners.[24] He also brings particular attention to how they quickly lost interest in new comers when they did greet them.

In the surviving books of the Res Gestae, Ammianus only makes one clear reference to his background.  This appears in the closing statements when he reveals ‘haec ut miles quondam et Graecus…pro virium explicavi mensura’[25] that he is writing as a soldier and a Greek.  Apart from this statement, the life of Ammianus must be interpreted through the many indirect references and the grammar used in the Res Gestae, which holds a strong autobiographical tone. This is firstly illustrated by the author’s use of the first person plural with the events of 363 onwards.[26]  The assessment that Ammianus was a military man who served in Julian’s expeditions is noted from his account of the crossing of the Khabur at Cercusium during Julian’s advance in book 23.[27] Here, Ammianus changes his writing to include first person plurals opposed to the third person plurals he had been using in previous books. The Res Gestae provides us with a fair timeline of the author’s life through his associations with the military campaigns he recounts, and an overview of his status and background.  Ammianus first appears on the staff of Ursicinus in 354 as it clearly states “…Ursicinus, to whose staff I had been attached by the Emperor’s order, was summoned from Nisibis…”[28] Ammianus’ personal involvement in events becomes more pronounced in progressing Books.  He often associates himself with the trials and tribulations of Ursicinus to whom he had great loyalty, as well as indicating his involvement in campaigns of Julian and events close toAntioch, where he may have originated from.  Ammianus’ on occasion seems to omit himself from the text where one may expect to see him.  This suggests that in the intervening years in Julian’s reign he was not himself held highly-regarded.  What the reader gathers from the Res Gestae about the life of Ammianus is itself bias material which is subject to the author’s own wish to glorify himself and his peers and proclaim his own ideas.

Scholars have made reference to a letter of Libanius to a Marcellinus residing in Rome, and regard it as a strong standpoint as to which one can reconstruct the background of Ammianus Marcellinus.  There is however argument for and against this Marcellinus being the Marcellinus who penned the Res Gestae.  Where Matthews asserts that this Marcellinus is indisputably the author of the Res Gestae, other scholars have critically analysed it with the belief that this letter could have been penned to another with a similar name.  Fornara, Bowerstock and Barnes are three such scholar that in recent years have challenged the traditional identification of the recipient.[29]  These three scholars have brought to light disputes concerning the place of origin for the recipient being Antioch, however in more recent debates Barnes has moved slightly towards Matthews’ view.

With this in mind the modern scholar should turn their attention back to the writing of the author himself and the indications that he personally makes to his life.  Barnes asserts that it is necessary to use both indirect indications within a text and any explicit external evidence to recreate the author’s life.[30]  While this is indeed an important way of exploring evidence and interpretation, in the case of Ammianus where the most accessible external reference is in dispute, the Res Gestae becomes the most significant source of information for the author’s own life. 

Ammianus Marcellinus’ Res Gestae can be assessed from several standpoints.  As a historical account it is full of bias and subjectivity that many scholars believe is a failing on the part of the author.  But when seen as an account of the author’s own life and times, as an account of the present day rather than a historical work these failings emerge as a unique eyewitness view of events.  In critically analysing the Res Gestae one sees that the inconsistencies in the text obscure much of the history and as an account of events may be seen as unreliable.  The Res Gestae on the other hand provides a record of social ideologies and caricatures, as well as an autobiographical streak that allows for a fair account of the life of the author through indirect references.  Ammianus is by no means an objective historian and his works are subject to fault and omission but as an account of his life and times they are invaluable.

[1] Matthews, J., ‘Ammianus’ (1989), p.228

[2] Barnes, T.D., ‘Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality’ (London, 1998), p.viii

[3] Such authors in this canon include Tacitus and Livy which Ammianus’ works are often read in relation and comparison to

[4] Gibbon, E., ‘A Vindication of Some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ (London, 1779), p.110-111; ‘The English Essays of Edward Gibbon’ ed. Craddock, P.A., (Oxford, 1972), p.299

[5] Barnes, op.cit., p.8

[6] Matthews, op.cit, p.28

[7] Barnes, op.cit., p.198

[8] Ammianus, op.cit., 14.11

[9] Matthews, J., ‘Homo Victor. Classical Essays for John Bramble’ (Bristol, 1987), p.279

[10] Barnes, op.cit., p.18

[11] Ammianus, op.cit, 15

[12] Seager, R., ‘Roman Policy on the Rhine and the Danube in Ammianus’ The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol.49, No.2 (1999), p.579

[13] Ammianus, op.cit., 10

[14] Seager, op.cit., p.580

[15] Ammianus, op.cit., 25.3-7

[16] Browning, The Emperor Julian (Los Angeles, 1978), p.109

[17] Ammianus, op.cit., p.248 – Julian’s extensive sacrifice made even the pagans uneasy, Ammianus’ criticism as a pagan scholar illustrates this uneasiness

[18] Auerbach, ‘Mimesis’ (1953), p.53-60

[19] Barnes, op.cit., p.14

[20] Thompson, E.A., ‘Ammianus Marcellinus and the Romans’Greece andRome, Vol.11, No.33 (1942), p.132

[21] ibid.134

[22] Matthews, J., ‘The Roman Empire of Ammianus’ (Baltimore, 1989), p.7

[23] Thompson, op.cit., p.133

[24] ibid.132

[25] Ammianus, op.cit., 31.16.9

[26] Barnes, op.cit., p.1, Ammianus, op.cit., 23.5.7

[27] Ammianus, op.cit., 23.5.7

[28] Ibid., 14.9

[29] Barnes, op.cit., p.56

[30] Ibid., p.55

Tools of the Trade: Archaeology

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An archaeologist is not an archaeologist without their trowel! So think again when describing Indiana Jones or Lara Croft as archaeologists! Impostors!

Bunnings in Australia only does so well when looking for archaeology tools. For the best tools one unfortunately has to look further afield. My first archaeological dig was when I was 17 years old; 12 weeks in the baking sun of the Australian summer (fortunately with a pub next door…but I was 17). The first week there I overheard some of the men betting on how long this little girl would last in archaeology, the bet rested at around a week. Never underestimate anyone my dears. After ten weeks at my 18th Birthday they presented me with my very own proper archaeologist’s trowel, among other tools, and respect. Well I use that trowel to this very day and it has served me in archaeology around the world.

Trowel Power!

Trowels are just the base of the archaeologist’s toolbox. We must not forget the range of excavation tools, surveying and drawing tools, finds and storage tools, specialist tools and kits that an aspiring archaeologist may eventually need as they are involved in more and more digs.

So here are the two suppliers I primarily recommend:

Archtools: Archaeology Tools, Trowels and Equipment

Archtools was established to offer a bespoke affordable solution on quality archaeology trowels, tools and equipment. Our products are trusted by professional archaeologists, institutions and universities the world over and have been tried and tested by qualified archaeologists. Because in archaeology, it’s the quality that really matters.

I recommend Archtools highly; fast delivery and great variety with reasonable prices.

Past Horizons: The Archaeologist’s Toolstore

Poetic License: An Introduction to Greek (and Latin) Meter

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The study of Greek poetry is not easy without at least a basic understanding of the Greek meter. Annis (2006) rightly states that scholars have a tendency to become over focused on the meter within a poem but for the those beginning their study of Greek poetry it is an essential point of comprehension. By understanding the meter of Greek poetry one can also appreciate the creation of the text and the art of the poets involved.

The Poet Sappho

First of all there are a few words that must be defined:

Prosody: Prosody is the study of the elements of a poem including meter, rhythm and intonation.

Meter: Meter is the definitive pattern established fir a verse.

Greek Meter

Unlike in English poetry, the Greek meter is based on patterns of long and short syllables.

A long syllable is represented by a macron “―”

A short syllable is represented by a “U”

A syllable which can be long or short is represented by “U

The length of a syllable is most easily identified in Epic verses. Note that syllable length in meter is determined by the line not the word.

When discussing Greek poetry one must comprehend the basic unit of time, which is in this case a mora. Shorts syllables are one mora and long syllables are two morae. Beyond two morae the one divides them up in a number of ways which form time division patterns forming the fundamental blocks of Greek verse. These are called feet. For instance:

3 Morae

iamb  =           U― (eg. describe or include)

trochee =      ―U (eg. picture or flower)

tribrach =     UUU

4 Morae

spondee =     ― ― (eg. enough)

dactyl =         ―UU (eg. an-no-tate)

anapest =      UU― (eg. com-pre-hend)

5 Morae

cretic =          ―U―

bacchius =    U― ―

6 Morae

choriamb =  ―UU―

ionic =           UU― ―

Some Common Meters

The Hexameter

The Hexameter is the oldest of the Greek Meters. In epic hexameter two short syllables can be replaced by one long syllable but not the other way round. For more information regarding replacement see Halporn (1980).

There are too many variations and rules to include in an introduction so let us look at two of the more common and simpler meters to get an idea of the use of morae, feet, syllable length and use.

Dactylic Hexameter

Also known as heroic hexameter, the dactylic hexameter is traditionally association with epic poetry in both Greek and Latin. It was hence considered the Grand Style of classical poetry. It is used in both of Homer’s works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and in Virgil’s Aeneid. It also appears in Hesiod’s works.

Works and Days of Hesiod

Dactylic Hexameter is made up of six dactyls ―UU with the last foot appearing as an anceps syllable (a syllable which can appear either short or long). A dactyl never appears in the last foot. The last foot hence takes the form of a spondee ―― or a trochee ―U. It appears as:

―UU ―UU ―UU ―UU ―UU ―X

A caesura occurs in the middle of the hexameter within the third foot, either after the first long or short syllable. A caesura is a break where a word ends in the middle of a foot. It occurs as a naturally falling slight pause. It is generally indicated by a bar, |. So the third foot will appear as ―|UU or ―U|U. For more information on the Caesurae and Bridges I suggest reading Annis 2006.

Here is an example of Dactylic Hexameter in the  Odyssey 1.1:

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ

―   U  U ― U U ―  U  |  U  ―   U  U ―   U  U ―  ―

Iambic Pentameter

The Iambic Pentameter is commonly used in traditional verse and drama. The word Iambic refers to the type of foot being used (U―). Pentameter indicates that there are five of these feet. In English we see these Iambic morae in words like trapeze where the stress is laid on the last syllable. So a typical Iambic Pentameter would look like this:

U― U― U― U― U―

Poets have had a tendency to vary their use of the iambic pentameter but keeping the iamb U― as the most common foot.  However the second foot is almost always U―. The first foot though often changes through the reverse of syllables to become ―U. We see examples of this inversion in modern languages like in Shakespeare’s Richard III 1.1:

Now is the winter of our discontent

―    U   U  ―  U  U ―   ―  U  ―

Further Reading:

Halporn, J.W. The Meters of Greek and Latin Poetry (1980)

Dale, A.M. Lyric Metres of Greek Drama (2010)

If you are interested in a detailed study of Greek  scripts and how to learn them, have a look at THESE RESOURCES.

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Ancient Scripts of Egypt: An Introduction

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Obelisk at the Temple in Luxor

Writing and literature is a significant part in the development of all cultures and civilisations, Ancient Egypt is no exception.  Writing in ancient Egypt has a history of near three thousand years and in the study of this topic one sees that it can be broken down into a large amount of detail, documents and texts can be categorised based on diverse criteria. In order to gain a basic understanding of literature in Ancient Egypt it is important to focus on the process of development and in doing so look at the foundations of the topic.

Writing in ancient Egypt in the very beginning seems confined to a small group of the elite.  Literacy was generally a trait of the educated class and the upper-levels of the government, their audience being largely educated individuals like themselves.  Writing had a sacred quality for the ancient Egyptians and they were careful about what was written down as they believed that once something was written down it could became true.

The term ‘Egyptian literature’ generally refers to the entire surviving body of texts from the Pre-Ptolemaic periods, including texts of religious and funerary purpose, fictional or narrative texts and non-practical texts, but appears to have excludes the likes of practical texts such as letters and administrative works.  Particular periods of Egyptian history highlight different genres of texts and the introduction of different scripts.

The most revered of the Ancient Egyptian scripts is hieroglyphs; first attested to around the period of Naqada III, with the discovery of inscribed labels in the excavation of Tomb U-j at Abydos.  Hieroglyphs were used primarily for ornamental and monumental inscriptions and cursive hieroglyphs for religious texts.  Terms for scripts in ancient Egypt relate the different functions and institutional contexts of the scripts.  Hieroglyphs were known as ‘mdw ntr’ meaning ‘god’s words’, illustrating the sacred function of this script.  Cursive hieroglyphs are first attested in the first Dynasty and were used by scribes to write more easily in ink.

Aesthetic considerations were a determining factor in the layout of hieroglyphic inscriptions.  Although the hieroglyphic script is made up of pictorial symbols, the script was primarily phonetic rather than pictorial with signs mostly having phonetic values.

Hieratic is first encountered from the end of the first dynastic period as a development as the cursive form of hieroglyphs used for everyday purposes. However, finds of such hieratic documents are very rare before Dynasty 5. The script sees a reduction of the pictorial aspect with a tendency to write words out more fully with a greater use of phonetic complements. From the middle kingdom different forms of the hieratic script emerge, including formal and administrative. New kingdom hieratic appears more calligraphic but there was a reform to reintroduce the pictorial aspect of the signs.  Cursive hieroglyphs died out in the first millennium BCE, where as hieratic was used to the end for some religious and learned texts.

In terms of literature:

Pyramid Texts

The old kingdom was dominated by religious texts including funerary and pyramid texts. Pyramid texts were found in royal pyramids in dynasties 5 and 6 such as those found in the pyramid of UnasThe Pyramid Texts were funerary inscriptions that were written on the walls of the early Ancient Egyptian pyramids at Sakkara. However, the first Pyramid Text that were actually discovered were from the Pyramid of Pepi I. The pyramid texts eventually evolved into the Book of the Dead.

There is also evidence of medical texts but excavations have not yet recovered any from the old kingdom and no narrative literature is attested. The evidence of writing is at first fragmentary in the first dynasty, and full sentences only appear from the end of the second dynasty, when writing is more extensively used on monuments and in administration.

The middle kingdom saw the introduction of fictional literature including works such as the eloquent peasant, the tale of wonder and the tale of Sinuhe.

The eloquent peasant – Dyn 9/10, popular during the middle kingdom, illustrated a form of writing which appealed to the educated Egyptian. This tale tells of the eloquence of a peasant trader who is held wrongfully by the king so he can hear more of his eloquence.

The tale of Sinuhe – around the 12th dynasty, popularity shown by many copies that have survived; including a Limestone Ostracon with the concluding stanzas of The Tale of Sinuhe written in hieratic on one side.

Such stories also give us some understanding of Egyptian life. The tale of Sinuhe describes the return of an Egyptian courtier from exile which could be used as evidence of court life. These texts purport to be historical but details in the plots indicate fantasies to entertain and they provided a good counterpoint to official texts.

Coffin Text

The middle kingdom also saw the inclusion of the coffin texts. The Coffin Texts superseded the Pyramid Texts as magical funerary spells at the end of the Old Kingdom. Although they are mainly seen in the Middle Kingdom there are also examples dating from the Late Old Kingdom. The coffin texts illustrate the spread of afterlife ideas from the nobility classes to whole of the population and eliminated the exclusivity of the Pyramid texts.

A number of popular religious and philosophical texts are also attributed to the middle kingdom, such as the hymn to Hapy and the Dialogue between a Man Tired of life and his Ba.  These pieces and expanding genres of literature is an indication of Egypt’s increasing cultural achievements in the Middle kingdom as many different forms of literature flourished giving us a more widespread picture of the culture.

The new kingdom witnessed an expansion of existing genres and added categories including offering texts, hymns and funerary texts such as the book of the dead. And further texts were added to the list of fictional texts including the tale of the predestined prince and the tale of the capture of Joppai.

Such fictional texts of this period include the ‘the tale of two brothers’, which is considered as a historical allegory and a political satire.  The text is meant to entertain but also shows a sense of sophistication telling of two semi-divine protagonists and their adventures.  The text is dated to around the 19th Dynasty and comes fromMemphis around the time when Seti II was still crown prince.

The book of the dead or ‘the book of coming forth by day’ is a collection of magical spells derived mainly from earlier coffin and pyramid texts.  It was intended to guide the deceased through the various trials they would encounter before reaching the underworld.  Knowledge of the appropriate spells was considered essential in surviving and being happy in the afterlife.

Other examples of New Kingdom funerary texts include the ‘book of the gates’ which made its appearance in the 18th dynasty and referred to the 12 gates as barriers in reference to the hours of the night.

The Amduat or ‘the book of the secret chamber’ is another example of such funerary books which is aspired to be the oldest of the royal funerary books and appears in tombs such as that of Ramesses VI. The Amduat documents the sun god’s journey through the 12 divisions of the underworld, beginning on the western horizon and reappearing as Khepri, the newborn sun in the East. They correspond to the 12 hours of the night.

The late period saw the introduction of the demotic text. Which was initially used for commercial and administrative texts.  The demotic text was also used for literary purposes from at least the early Ptolemaic period onwards.  Demotion narrative fiction included exploits of heroic individuals such as the tale of Setne/khaemwaset and the cycle of inaros/pedubastis. This appearance and increase in popularity of the heroic exploits in Egyptian Literature suggests influence of Greek heroic texts.

Demotic was known as the popular script and was cursive, known to the Egyptians sekh shat (writing for documents), gradually replacing hieratic except with religious and funerary matters from the 26th Dynasty onwards. Demotic has been regarded as the primary cursive script of the north as early as 700BC and of all of Egypt by 550BC.. It’s survival was ensured by features such as in administration as the provision between greek and Egyptian law courts. It was used for business, literature, some religious texts and occasional stone inscriptions, such as seen on the Rosetta stone where it appears in stone along with hieroglyphs and Greek. Three phases can be distinguished in the development of the demotic script, early, Ptolemaic and roman.

Coptic which gradually developed from greek influence and then later gave way to arabic is debated about in regards to whether it can be counted as part of the ancient egyptian culture or a more modern cultural age. Either way I will leave it for later posts.

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