When you first enter an ancient history or archaeology degree you are introduced to several sets of material evidence. Notably, the archaeology, material evidence, and philological evidence. But the philological side is more often than not rarely mentioned again. This is quite a shame considering some of the most interesting and revealing information comes from the ancient written sources. People generally fall into the trap of ignoring the writing in favour of the archaeology and artefacts and frankly you can’t really blame them because humans are naturally attracted to pretty visual things. I see this every day with the likes and shares on my Facebook page. But philology is all important too and if students can learn even a little about ancient writing and textual criticism, a whole new side to history and analysis opens up to them as it should.
Philology is derived from the Greek terms φίλος (love) and λόγος (word, reason) and literally means a ‘love of words’. It is the study of language in literary sources and is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics. Philology is generally associated with Greek and Classical Latin, in which it is termed philologia. The study of philology originated in European Renaissance Humanism in regards to Classical Philology but this has since been combined to include in its definition the study of both European and non-European languages. The idea of philology has been carried through the Greek and Latin literature into the English language around the sixteenth century through the French term philologie meaning also a ‘love of literature’ from the same word roots.
Generally philology has a focus on historical development. It helps establish the authenticity of literary texts and their original form and with this the determination of their meaning. It is a branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development and relationships of a language or languages. This makes it all the more significant to study as language is one of the main building blocks of civilisation.
There are several branches of philological studies that can also be undertaken:
Comparative philology is a branch of philology which analyses the relationship or correspondences between languages. For instance, the commonalities between Latin and Etruscan or further flung languages of Asian or African provinces. It uses pre-determined techniques to discover whether languages hold common ancestors or influences. It uses comparison of grammar and spelling which was first deemed useful in the 19th century and has developed ever since. The study of comparative philology was originally defined by Sir William Jones‘ discovery in 1786 that Sanskrit was related to Greek and German as well as Latin.
Decipherment is another branch of philology which looks at resurrecting dead languages and previously unread texts such as done and achieved by Jean-Francois Champollion in the decipherment of Hieroglyphs with the use of the Rosetta Stone. And more recently by Michael Ventris in the decipherment of Linear B. Decipherment would be key to the understanding of still little understood languages such as Linear A. Decipherment uses known languages, grammatical tools and vocabulary to find and apply comparisons within an unread text. By doing so more of the text can be read gradually as similarities and grammatical forms become better understood. The remaining text can then be filled in through further comparison, analysis, and elimination of incorrect solutions.
Textual philology editing is yet another branch of philology with includes the study of texts and their history in a sense including textual criticism. This branch was created in relation to the long traditions of Biblical studies; in particular with the variations of manuscripts. It looks at the authorship, date and provenance of the text to place it in its historical context and to produce ‘critical editions’ of the texts.
The importance of philology is exhibited in its use and achievements. Without philology the bible translation would be even more wrong, trust me read it in the original Greek. We would not be able to translate hieroglyphs, Linear B, Linear A, Sanskrit, any ancient language. Our entire written past would be blank, we would not have the information we have now on mathematics, social structure, philosophy, science, medicine, civilisation, transport, engineering, marketing, accounting, well anything really, knowledge would not have been rediscovered or passed on without the ability to study texts and language. Understand the love of words.
- The unsung heroine who helped decode Crete’s ancient script (bbc.co.uk)
- Rediscovering Philology (sites.tufts.edu)
- The Open Philology Project and Humboldt Chair of Digital Humanities at Leipzig (sites.tufts.edu)
- Genes and Languages: Not So Strange Bedfellows? (23andme.com)
- Bavinck on Comparative Religion and Comparative Philology (calvinistinternational.com)
- How to Teach yourself Ancient (and Modern) Languages (graecomuse.wordpress.com)
- Welcome to GraecoMuse (graecomuse.wordpress.com)
- Alice Kober: Unsung heroine who helped decode Linear B (adafruit.com)
- The Unsolved Mysteries of the World (secretsofthefed.com)
- Macquarie Ancient Languages School – Winter Session (graecomuse.wordpress.com)
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:
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 Unas. The 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.
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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When someone asks me what I am researching at university I admit that sometimes I am not all that keen on answering with ‘ancient history’. It’s not because I have any problem with it, I love ancient history in all respects and it will never cease to interest me, but I do know that often people do not understand why one studies it. It doesn’t earn much money for a start. And money has never interested me but to many in today’s society it is unfortunately the be all and end all. So being questioned about a ‘strange’ and ‘illogical’ career choice can be rather trying. Even though there is hardly a point arguing with some people about why ancient history is important in the grand scheme of things I think it is important to know at least personally that IT IS significant to the world. Ok so yes I’m never going to be a millionaire but I’m doing something I enjoy, not stuck in a repetitive job where I want to jump out the window to escape the monotony, and I am contributing to the world whether you think so or not.
So how does ancient history contribute to human knowledge, progression and the future? Well the common answer is that it lets us recognise the mistakes of the past so that we won’t repeat them in the future. To a point this is true but it can also be argued against as history does not always repeat itself as we are told and nothing ever happens in a straight line. So when this argument is made of ancient history it is likely less substantial than for modern history where we are still being more directly affected by past actions. Ancient history does though allow us to understand where we have come from and why we are here and hence shows us how the shaping of the future by the ancients may be related to the shaping of our own future.
Beyond this sentiment of avoiding mistakes there are numerous substantial ways that the study of ancient history does contribute to the modern day, if you argue otherwise then I suggest you get back in your cubicle and continue with the number crunching. Firstly, the study of ancient history contributes to our cultural understanding and intellectual development. If we don’t know where we come from and the trials and tribulations which faced our forebears how can we understand ourselves? The study of history on any level can potentially help to define our own identities. I know that if I didn’t know about my culture I wouldn’t be the person I am today. If Australia didn’t know about its past what would there be for them to celebrate or avoid in its future. History builds who we are and by furthering our understanding of our past we better understand ourselves. It may seem a little abstract to say the business man of the day but one cannot deny that understanding oneself is vital to the progression of humanity otherwise how could we better ourselves as a species?!
On a scientific level, history is again vital to progression. If we understand origins then we can better understand things that face us today. For instance, the origins of diseases that are embedded within history allow scientists to track the progression of the disease. In doing so they may be able to work out cause and/or cure. New evidence from mummies in Egypt of cancer is providing new information for scientists as to the progression of the disease over a larger temporal scale. Now I certainly think that that is significant! History is intertwined with hundreds of other areas that could not so easily progress without it, such as medical knowledge, sociology, psychology, social structure, health and safety, linguistics, forensics, construction, planning, the list goes on and on. After all those who study ancient history and archaeology are trained in analysis which can be put to use in basically any area. Would it surprise you to learn that I as an archaeologist am qualified to contribute to numerous scientific areas including surveying, forensics, computing and construction?
In addition to being able to explain certain modern situations, the study of history is essential to the progression of the human race. Understanding the past, for instance, gives us comfort because we are not the first people to experience things and we can see the potential of the future. A person moving to the other side of the world is comforted and enabled by the fact that hundreds of people have done it before them. A company sees potential in the future because of what people have achieved prior.
Studying history in itself is a tradition and one with a firm base, it is vital to the progression of humanity personally and on a wider stage, but above all it fulfills a moral obligation to our ancestors. It allows cultures to continue with an understanding of where they came from and a respect for their heritage. And it provides a better and wiser comprehension of things that have been passed down to us. We don’t need to argue with people that ancient history is important to the progression of humanity because to an independent mind it should be obvious! And stuff being a millionaire! I’ll take being a historian any day because as I often say, it is never dull when done right. *Indiana Jones Theme Tune*So let the research continue…
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You have no idea how many times while in Greece we used that joke ‘oh it’s all Greek to us!’ But fortunately in that environment the joke never gets too old hehe. Over my years at university there is one thing which is a constant issue with new students, the thought of learning ancient languages. DUM DUM DUUUUM!!!! Yes its very scary, new stuff, new ways of learning, yes i understand. But it is the key reason that so many people drop out of the ancient history courses, which is rather a shame because after a while, learning languages can be rather useful and fun.
By my honours year there was only, what, three people left from the original course four years earlier. And thats sad 😦 And the reason was because of the language component. So let me explain to you why it is necessary to keep going, to strive to pass the basics and continue with those pluperfects, infinitives, genitive sandwiches and adjectival clauses. Because when you get down to it, ancient languages are one of the key parts of starting a successfully ‘historic’ career in the area.
So my dear padawans to successfully succeed where others easily give up here is some important things to keep in mind: First of all there is a reason why it is a compulsory component, ancient languages are essential to the study of historical texts, primary sources, ancient attitudes and societies. If you want to be a serious archaeologist or historian, you can’t not do them! That’s the serious stuff. Plus if you have languages, its so much easier to get opportunities working in the area later or just being successful in applying for digs, post-grad and exchanges. I learnt Classical Greek from my second year at Uni and by the end of that year I had been to Greece, dug awesome sites, and was able to converse on a basic level with the natives…well i could order a drink at least, very important stuff. But just the fact that I made an effort to learn their language on some level, whether ancient or modern, made people more friendly and because of this I had a far better experience than otherwise and met some frankly awesome, slightly mad, people. ‘Oh you speak Greek?’ ‘A little’ ‘Good on you! I’m from Cyprus, here’s my life story, I’ll pay for that.’ Its the same in all countries. You make an effort to know the people and culture and it all adds up!
That’s two fabulous points for continuing ancient languages: Academic advantage and progression and cultural familiarity and opportunity.
Still not convinced that learning languages is a good plan? Still think its too hard to be worth the effort? Well I have more! Plus if i don’t convince a few people, one day no one might want to learn and I’m out of job, and we wouldn’t want that now would we! Picking up Greek or Latin or even Hieroglyphs is not actually as hard as it seems, remember that people who give you negative views usually exaggerate more than people with positive views so listen to the positive. You may think that because you found it hard to learn say French at high school that you will find Greek hard at Uni, but that is often that not, not the case. The way vocab and grammar is taught at uni is completely different to school. In fact it doesn’t even compare. Actually I don’t think I even learnt grammar till university and I’d done numerous modern languages at school…
Also learning languages at uni can be fun, after all the academics teaching them are doing so because they love them! They are far more enthusiastic usually. Ok like every subject you will get one lecturer that reads from the book and bores you half to death, but that happens with every subject, and you are only with them for an hour or two a week. The risk is worth the reward. And when you do have a handle on a language you do get a fantastic sense of achievement! You can read a dead language that no one else can read, you can explore texts that you were otherwise blind to. And you know what? That’s pretty cool!
The lost in translation idea is vital to ancient history, archaeology, philology, well almost any subject. Everything changes in translation at least a bit, why do you think there are so many versions of the Bible! By being able to read a text in the original language even a little bit is a HUGE advantage to your work, study or research. If you are doing honours and not have at least some knowledge of the associated language, frankly you are screwed…umm i mean…’thou art highly disadvantaged.’ With the changing of the text comes change in interpretation, if you can’t compare the original to the translations at least you are going to find it very difficult to comprehend the secondary texts.
So yes, learning an ancient language can be a boring and stressful thought. But that is all it is, a thought. If you put your head down and do the work like any other subject you can get it, and there are always people to help you! Its a cliche tosay that there are no such things as stupid questions but its true (as long as you have been listening and making an effort. Asking when lunch is is not usually a valuable question). But when you do get through the basics it can be fun, rewarding and really really useful. I’m bias but I love my languages so shoot me.
Learning Greek was the most useful part of my undergrad. So stick it out! Keep the number of ancient history students up! Its so much cooler to say ‘I have a degree in ancient history’ than ‘I have an arts degree’ (though that’s cool too)!!!
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If you would like to learn an ancient language, brush up on one or need a bit of extra tutoring then go to http://www.anchist.mq.edu.au/mals.html
Betz, H.D., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation(Chicago, 1986)
Betz (1986) is surprisingly one of the more recent studies of the magical papyri. . Betz, at the time was considered “a fresh and precise English translation of texts already known to scholars.”
And I believe this statement to be true. Betz’s collection is unique still with a huge amount of work having gone into it by numerous contributors, most of which are not even cited in the book itself. Betz’s study begins with a discussion on methodology and the difficulties that arose. This is particularly useful to one starting on their own study of the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), as it outlines problems and reasoning faced by other scholars and the decisions they made to best combat them.
Betz adds a note on the editions before setting out a useful introduction to the Greek Magical Papyri. He discusses the history of discovery and suppression due to modern negative connotations of magic and describes the Greek Magical Papyri as the original primary sources which were discovered by sheer luck. Betz pays particular attention to the Demotic papyri and how their inclusion changed the picture presented by the Greek Magical Papyri.
This provides, even for the modern reader, a positive appreciation of the corpus. Despite debate concerning Betz’ linkage of religion and magic, Betz allows us to see the individual spells in their context as part of the Greek Magical Papyri.  The main character and discussion in Betz’s work remain relevant to the introduction of the magical papyri, though apparently revealing an underlying ambivalence. He provides suitable parallels to be drawn between papyri because his work is substantial, concise and of high quality, referring to both parallels in ancient literature and contemporary scholarship.
 Stroumsa, G.G., Review: The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells by Hans Dieter Betz, in History of Religions, Vol.28, No.2 (Nov., 1988), p.182
 Betz, H.D., (1986), op.cit., p.xli
 Ibid., p.xli
 Gager, J.G., Review: A New Translation of Ancient Greek and Demotic Papyri, Sometimes Called Magical – The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, Vol.1, Texts by H.D.Betz, in The Journal of Religion, Vol.67, No.1 (Jan., 1987), p.81
 Stroumsa, G.G., (1988), op.cit., p.182