Coptic

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)

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The Understanding of Hieroglyphs from Roman Times Onwards: An Overview

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Egyptian hieroglyphics have always been seen as a mysterious and exotic script 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.  This report looks into those influences passed down from generation to generation of scholars and within everyday 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,  right down to the eighteen hundreds, until Champollion decided to take a different view. 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.

Hieroglyphs typical of the Graeco-Roman period

The scholarship associated with the translation of hieroglyphs have greatly influenced the general interpretation of their meanings even in the Roman times.  Hilary Wilson demonstrates that the writings of early translators influenced the understanding of the script until the nineteenth century AD.  Robinson evaluates that the understanding of the Romans was misguided by an Egyptian priest by the name of Hor-Apollo.  Hor-Apollo wrote a book in Coptic which had a dramatic effect on the study of Hieroglyphs.  Hor-Apollo’s work insisted that each sign had a single pictorial or symbolic meaning, this indicates 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. Montet asserts that in the Graeco-Roman period it gave the Egyptian community great satisfaction to mislead foreigners.  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 tourists. 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.

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 point 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 understanding of the Romans set groundwork for future scholars.  Robinson outlines that with the renaissance, the revival of classical learning, came 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 attempting to look at them in any other way.  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, 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 and trying to link it to the translation of the hieroglyphs.  This was mainly because of the Egyptian connection to the biblical stories; so scholars alleged that the Bible would be confirmed by the ancient script.

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 hieroglyphs 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 distortion.

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 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 hieroglyphs.  This shows progress could only be made by those who took a more impartial view over their work.  For instance, Barthélemy discovered that the cartouches contained the names of Egyptian Kings and Queens 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.

The demotic language scripts on the Rosetta St...
The demotic language scripts on the Rosetta Stone, year 196 BC.

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.

In the decipherment efforts in the early nineteenth century, it was noted that there was a difference between the hieroglyphic and the Egyptian Demotic writings found on the Rosetta stone.  It was Thomas Young who first noted 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 but came unstuck.  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 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 only 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.

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 contemporary 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 hieroglyphs, 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.   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 determinatives.

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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