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.

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

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3 thoughts on “Ancient Scripts of Egypt: An Introduction

    Egyptian Book of the Dead « said:
    April 22, 2012 at 10:39 pm

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    GraecoMuse Turns One « GraecoMuse said:
    October 13, 2012 at 12:51 am

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