The Translation of Hieroglyphs since the Roman Period

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The slab stela of the Old Kingdom Egyptian princess Neferetiabet (dated c. 2590–2565 BC), from her tomb at Giza, with hieroglyphs carved and painted on limestone.

Egyptian hieroglyphics have always been seen as a mysterious and exotic area that has captured the interest of society from the Roman occupation of Egypt, right down to the present day.  Though they have always been a subject of interest, people’s understandings of this ancient script have been forever influenced by aspects that limited their understanding for hundreds of years.  This postlooks into those influences passed down from generation to generation of scholars and within normal society, from the days of the Roman tourists in Egypt, where Egyptian guides purposely gave the Romans misinformation and the interpretation of hieroglyphs was mistaken by the Roman views. Through the renaissance and classical periods, scholars were still influenced by early writings and the society, in which they themselves lived, right down to the eighteen hundreds, until one man, Champollion, decided to take a different view after being introduced to other ideas. But before this sudden change, he, like hundreds of others was unable to accept any other possibilities.  These early influences included the effects of Hor-Apollo’s writings, Kircher and Young, plus many others.  There are however some historians who don’t believe these writings were major influence.

The understanding of hieroglyphs, has like the majority of areas in society, been partial to the past writings on the subject.  Writers and in this case translators, can not help but be influenced by their own beliefs and understandings of the past.  J.B Bury assesses that writings are influences by the writer’s background.  R.M Crawford agrees, evaluating that there are always influences from training, from teacher to student, to teacher to student, down the generations.  It is evident that the translations of hieroglyphs have been effected by this transition of beliefs down the ages.  Therefore, the misinterpretations were also passed on, creating an obstacle that future generations were unable to avoid in their own interpretations.

The writings associated with the translations of hieroglyphs have greatly influenced the general interpretation of their meanings even in the Roman times.  Hilary Wilson demonstrates  in her book ‘Understanding Hieroglyphs’ that the writings of early translators influenced the understanding of the script until the nineteenth century AD.  Robinson, author of ‘The Story of Writing’, evaluates that the understanding of the Romans was misguided by an Egyptian priest by the name of Hor-Apollo.  Wilson asserts that Hor-Apollo wrote a book in Coptic which had a dramatic effect on the study of Hieroglyphs for many hundreds of years.  Hor-Apollo’s work insisted that each sign had a single pictorial or symbolic meaning, this makes it clear that he completely misunderstood the writing system used by his ancestors.  Unfortunately, because it was considered to have been written by someone informed, Hor-Apollo’s work was used as a guide for all future students of hieroglyphs.

Though the translations of Hor-Apollo were meant to be correct and did not intentionally lead people into thinking incorrectly, there were other influences on the Roman understanding of hieroglyphs that were purposely trying to lead them astray.  Pierre Montet asserts that under the Greek and Roman occupations, it gave the Egyptian community great satisfaction to mislead their foreign masters.  They did this by concocting unintelligible documents, of which the foreigners could make nothing.  Perrottet explains that because of this misinformation; it was misguidedly thought that hieroglyphs were only magical riddles, enchantments and spells.  Perrottet however disagrees with Hor-Apollo being the original major source of the misinterpretation.  He assesses that the Roman tourists were misled by spell books supposedly written ten thousand years earlier by Hermes Trismegistus.  These writings however were nothing more than items to entice tourist.

Hoijer is one of a group of historians who believe differently.  Hoijer evaluates that the Romans were not influenced by the writings and misinterpretations of others, but by the fact that like the majority of historians and society, they viewed the land and its culture through the distorted prism of their own culture.  Due to this, we can evaluate that as a result they misinterpreted almost everything.  Parkinson agrees with the point relating to culture, but also attributes the misinterpretation to the before-mentioned points concerning historians in the ancient world fueling the beliefs of the Romans, mentioning that the Egyptians also contributed to this, by fueling the disinformation.  The majority of translations supplied to the Roman tourists in the occupation of Egypt were catering for the tourist industry, showing that the first explanations of hieroglyphs were made to cater for needs of the ‘writers’.

Ostracon of ‘The Tale of Sinuhe’: a limestone ostracon with the concluding stanzas of ‘The Tale of Sinuhe’ written on one side in eight lines of hieratic (the other side is blank). Verse-points in red ink mark the ends of metrical verses.

This is an element of historical writing that can not be avoided, as assessed by J.B. Bury.  With the Roman’s great depth of superstition and with nobody to contradict the Egyptian guides’ explanations; they had no reason to doubt what they were being told. This concept is explained by Carl L Becker, that we write history according to own present purposes, desires, prepossessions and prejudices.  These influences corrupted the understanding of the Romans and the future understandings of the hieroglyphic script.

The understanding of the Romans set groundwork for classical writers, along with the influence of ancient writers.  Robinson outlines that with the renaissance, the revival of classical learning, came with a revival of the Roman belief in Egyptian hieroglyphic wisdom.  Due to this revival, renaissance writers continued to write and translate hieroglyphs to the standards set out by the Roman beliefs.  This led to the first book, written in the sixteenth century by Pierius Valerianus, on hieroglyphs, being basically fictitious.  This is because Valerianus took a narrow-minded view in his translations, taking his cue directly from Hor-Apollo’s incorrect translations and not even attempting to look at them in any other way.  Though, I must add even in the sixteenth century, they could be seen as obviously flawed as they accounted for little in the actual translations of texts.  Valerianus’ writings are in direct contradiction to Hoijer’s idea that the writers are influenced only by their beliefs.  This is evident because it was Roman influence that renaissance writers based their works on, if Hoijer was correct then Valerianus’ work would not have taken much, if any cue from Hor-Apollo, but more from his own culture and teachings.  This point is also conveyed by Sacks, who demonstrates the limitations of the sixteenth century interpretations.  Sacks assesses that because the translations of text were flawed and made no logical sense, classical scholars continued to believe long after the time of the Romans, that hieroglyphs were nothing more than riddles and enchantments.

Scholars and philosophers continued to attempt to translate the hieroglyphs as they believed they would find ancient wisdom and long-forgotten truths.  Wilson assesses that spiritual and religious scholars wished to find confirmation of biblical stories and some proof of the existence of figures such as Abraham, Joseph and Moses.  This is another example of how the writing of history affected the understandings of hieroglyphs.  In this case, the religious scholars were taking their experience of the Bible and religious areas, and trying to link it to the translation of the hieroglyphs.  This was mainly because of the writings in the Bible illustrating the land and culture of the Egyptians, so they alleged that the Bible would be confirmed by the ancient script.  Wilson is therefore acknowledging that the understandings were based on both ideas of influence: the writers and the cultures and experiences of society and individuals.

In the late seventeenth century, the Coptic language was revived and would later be essential in the deciphering of the hieroglyphs.  But scholars were still under the impression that the writing of Hor-Apollo and Valerianus held the key to translating the hieroglyphs.  In the renaissance, scholars were interested in Egypt and were anxious to discover the meaning of the hieroglyphic writing.  The Jesuit, Kircher, was the best known of these pioneers. Kircher outlined that Egyptian hieroglyphics for the most part, only expressed ideas, rather than sounds and ideas.  Due to this misinterpretation, Champollion was still possessed by this idea in the nineteenth century. In the mid seventeenth century, Athanasius translated a cartouche for a priest and came out with a long rambling paragraph, however the cartouche really only read the name ‘Psamtik’ spelt phonetically. This mistake is an example of how the ideas and experiences of others have caused a distortion in finding the truth and what is thought of as the truth.

Robinson evaluates that it was only later that the enlightenment made by the revival of the Coptic language brought about questions of the classical views of the hieroglyphs.  Though the views did start to be questioned by the few, the original views were still held by the majority.  It was the few who made progress towards the actual deciphering of the hieroglyphics.  This shows progress could only be made by those who took a more impartial view over their work.  As in the writing of history, scholars cannot create a reasonable view of the truth without looking at all the evidence; the academics on the path to decipherment had to do the same to find progress to a true understanding.  For instance, Barthélemy discovered that the cartouches contained the names of pharaohs only by looking outside society’s understandings and beliefs drawn from Hor-Apollo’s writings.  However it was Zoëga who finally commented that some hieroglyphs might be phonetic signs.  This was only because, unlike other academics, Zoëga thought more on his own terms, rather than further illustrating the writings of others, this independence of thought further contradicts the idea that it was only culture and experience that led to a misguided understanding.

Napoleon Bonaparte played a large role leading up to decipherment.  When he traveled to Egypt he took with him a large number of scholars.  These scholars studied and measured every site and every visible monument, finally publishing their findings in ‘La Description de l’Egypt’.  However the influence of past work in the decipherment of hieroglyphs prevented them from deciphering the elements they studied.  Scholars in the case of the Rosetta stone immediately concluded that the inscription was wholly non-phonetic, its symbols expressing ideas in the manner of Hor-Apollo.  This demonstrates that even in the early eighteen hundreds, scholars were bound by the words of Hor-Apollo.

In the mid-seventeenth century, certain European scholars theorized that Egyptian hieroglyphs were the source of inspiration for the ancient Hebrew letters.  This was because of their need to find a source for their own studies and a desire to inflate the importance of these studies by linking them to the ever mysterious hieroglyphs.  The wants and needs of these scholars show that in research and writing of history and historical elements, writers write for their own needs and desires, rather than looking at the full picture.  This reiterates Crawford’s explanation for writing history.  There was no real evidence that backed up their theory, but only small insignificant links that could have applied to a large number of scripts.  Therefore, the decipherment of hieroglyphics in 1823 didn’t agree with their theory, for the two scripts were shown to work on completely different principles.  None the less, the scholars were convinced for some time that their theory was correct because they were influenced by the mysterious and fantastic mystery behind the hieroglyphs, again showing that ideas of understanding are influenced by both writings and experiences.

Parkinson outlines that, in the decipherment efforts in the early nineteenth century, it was seen that there was a difference between the hieroglyphic and the Egyptian Demotic writings found on the Rosetta stone.  With the weight of the renaissance tradition concerning Egyptian hieroglyphs, scholars were convinced that the invisible principles of operation of the two scripts were completely different.  This, however, was later proven untrue, but the scholars could not see past the understandings of yesteryear.  It was Thomas Young who first noted what he called a ‘striking resemblance’ between some demotic symbols and the ‘corresponding hieroglyphs’, he noted that ‘none of these characters could be reconciled, without inconceivable violence, to the forms of any imaginable alphabet’.  Young put a step forward in right direction but came unstuck as the spell of Hor-Apollo’s writings was too strong.  The influence of the early work of Hor-Apollo and Young’s experience and teachings, made Young unable to accept anything but that all hieroglyphs (apart from foreign names) were non-phonetic.

Even Jean-Francois Champollion, the final decipherer of the hieroglyphic script, at first continued to believe that the hieroglyphs were entirely non-phonetic.  Champollion was not only influenced by Hor-Apollo and other past historians and translators, but also by the scholars of his own time.  He was mostly influenced by Young’s work.  Unlike Young, Champollion had an originality and rigour, which was based on a knowledge of Egypt and its languages far superior to his predecessors.  This was a key component in translating the hieroglyphs, as it allowed Champollion to look at a far bigger picture, yet he was still caught in the webs of disinformation from the past.  Robinson outlines that the early efforts of Champollion in 1822 were based on the premise that non-Egyptian names and words in both demotic and hieroglyphic were spelt alphabetically.

Champollion did not expect that this decipherment would apply to the entire hieroglyphic system.  The idea dating back from the classical times, that hieroglyphics for the most part only expressed ideas, rather than sounds and ideas, still possessed Champollion’s mind.  Champollion was also greatly possessed by the work of Kircher, therefore his progress was impaired because he did not want to even think of challenging the work of these writers who were said to be educated in the true values of the hieroglyphs, though this was not true.

Adkins evaluates that Champollion, though for unknown reasons, later changed his mind about the phonetic issues with hieroglyphs, this was most likely due to yet another outside influence.  A French scholar of the Chinese language suggested that there were phonetic elements even in the indigenous spellings of the Chinese script with its thousands of characters.  This outside influence, though not directed at hieroglyphics, could have made Champollion wonder whether the same philosophy could be assumed for deciphering Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

Champollion also realized that among the one thousand four hundred and nineteen signs in hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone it contained only sixty-six different signs.  Through his understanding of languages and his experience and teachings of them, Champollion grasped an understanding of hieroglyphs never before realized.  His experience told him that if the signs were truly and only semantic symbols, there would logically expected to be more than sixty six signs on the Rosetta stone, each one representing a different word as they would have been logograms.  It was only through Champollion’s change of mind that we today understand the true nature of hieroglyphics, that the writing system is a mixture of semantic symbols, phonetic signs, phonograms and pictograms.

The understanding of the Egyptian hieroglyphs has been influenced greatly by misguided writings and explanations.  It is only through evaluation of these influences that we can grasp an idea of how the writings have influenced and changed that understanding.  Though scholars have varying views on these influences, whether they believe that understanding was based on writings, culture and experiences, or solely on culture and distorted views, we see that understanding has indeed changed throughout time.  It has evolved from a misguided, narrow-minded view, to one only achieved by people thinking outside society’s understandings.

Bibliography

Adkins, L and R. (2001), The Keys of Egypt, Harper Collins, London, pp. 1-12, 34-35, 37-43, 63, 82

Baines, J., Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society, in Man, New Series, Vol.18, No.3 (September 1983), pp.572-599

Bloomfield, L. (1933), Language History, Holt Publishers, California, USA, pp. 288 – 291

Davis, C.S.H., The Ancient Egyptian Language, in Science, Vol.21, No.542 (June 23, 1893), p.345

Edgerton, W.F., Egyptian Phonetic Writing from It’s Invention to the Close of the Nineteenth Dynasty, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.60, No.4 (December, 1940), pp.473-506

Faulkner, R.O., Wente, E.F. and Simpson, W.K., The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions and Poetry, New Edition (London, 1973)

Flinders Petrie, W.M., Egyptian Tales Translated from the Papyri (London, 1895)

Gardiner, A., Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs (Cambridge, 2005)

Gardiner, A.H., The Nature and Development of the Egyptian Hieroglyphic Writing, in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol.2, No.2 (April, 1915), pp.61-75

Griffith, F.L., On the Writing in Ancient Egypt, in The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol.30. (1900), pp.12-13

Lichtheim, M., Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume One: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (London, 1975)

Lichtheim, M., Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume Two: The New Kingdom (London, 1976)

Ockinga, B.G., A Concise Grammar of Middle Egyptian (2005)

Parkinson, R., Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment (London, 1999)

Parkinson, R.B., The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940-1640BC (New York, 1998)

Parkinson, R.B., Voices From Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Middle Kingdom Writings (London, 1991)

Ray, J.D., The Emergence of Writing in Egypt, in World Archaeology, Vol.17, No.3, Early Writing Systems (February, 1986), pp.307-316

Shaw, I., and Nicholson, P., The British Museum: Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London, 2003)

Shaw, I., The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (New York, 2003)

2 thoughts on “The Translation of Hieroglyphs since the Roman Period

    michael9murray said:
    November 1, 2013 at 3:42 am

    Very very interesting! Hor-Apollo must have been laughing through the centuries.

    I have been doing work on the Tale of Sinuhe myself – in translation, though, I am afraid.
    You say as much here about the condition of education practices and academia as about translation. Very interesting.

    […] The Translation of Hieroglyphs since the Roman Period (graecomuse.wordpress.com) […]

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