Introductions to Egyptian Funerary Mythology: The Book of the Dead

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What was the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony and why was it considered important

The ‘Opening of the Mouth’ was the final ceremony in front of the portrait statue in accordance with the Book of the Dead Chapter 23 (formula for opening the deceased’s mouth for him in the necropolis).  The deceased’s head orifices were symbolically reopened by a priest. Adams explains that the ceremony was based on the legend of Osiris when it was first performed by Horus (Adams (1998): 20).  This is mirrored in early times when the son performed his father’s ceremony symbolizing inheritance which was an important aspect of Egyptian society.   The ceremony was essentially to restore the powers of sight, hearing and speech, to restore life.  Adams asserts that the Egyptians loved life and this was an insurance of eternal life/rebirth (Adams (1998): 20).  David explains that the ceremony was performed on objects in the tomb to ensure that they would “come to life for eternity” (David (2002): 33) for the use of the deceased.  The main importance of the ceremony was that it gave the deceased eternal existence through restoration, the idea and desire for immortality being of great importance to the Egyptians.

What role did the heart play in ideas about the afterlife?

David explains that the heart was considered the “seat of the mind and emotion” (David (2002): 31) and was the most important part of the body.  The heart was an essential tool in the judgement of the deceased, during which it would be weighed on a balance against the feather of Ma’at (truth).  The heart was instructed not to condemn the deceased (Book of the Dead, Chapter 30B – Formula for not letting the heart of the deceased oppose him in the necropolis).  The papyrus of Ani illustrates the final judgement, it shows the mythical figures of the divine judges along the top and the judgement of the heart against the feather below.  We see the figure of Anubis (guardian of the scales) weighing the heart overlooked by Thoth as the baboon and Thoth as the ibis-headed man recording the proceedings.  Ammit the devourer waits to devour the deceased if judged untrue and the three fates stand to the left who provide the deceased’s testimony.  The man-headed bird is Ani’s ba awaiting his fate.  The only two real figures are Ani and Tutu bowing to the gods.

What is the role of Osiris in the mythical events associated with judgement? Why is the deceased called ‘Osiris’?

Assmann explains that in Egyptian myth Osiris as the master of righteousness overlooked the judgement (weighing of the heart) of the deceased (Assmann: 149).  If the deceased was judged guiltless the soul of the dead was thought to be subject to one last judgement by Osiris to determine whether they were worthy of eternal life.  The deceased was called Osiris but this did not mean that he actually became Osiris.  It rather meant that he had taken on the role of the “victor over death” (David (2002): 159) that Osiris originally became.  An assessment of this relation to Osiris suggests that moral righteousness and worship of Osiris were important factors in ensuring the deceased “access to eternity” (David (2002): 159). It was the wish of the deceased to identify his fate with Osiris’, as displayed in Chapter 43 of the Book of the Dead (Book of the Dead Chapter 43 – Formula for not letting the head of the deceased be cut off in the necropolis).

What are the main concerns of the deceased in the ‘Declaration of Innocence’ from Chapter 125? What do these tell us about Egyptian ideas of Morality?

One of the main concerns of the deceased is that he has not done ill to the gods.  This is seen in the large number of references to the sins against the gods, for example “I have not blasphemed a god”, “I have not done what the god abhors” (Book of the Dead Chapter 125 – The Judgement of the Dead, the Declaration of Innocence).  Also the other main concerns such as doing ill to people and stealing are related to the gods in reference offerings and stealing from temples.  The concern of the deceased is that he has not cheated either man or god and is therefore pure.  In Egypt the gods were the force of universal order, and evil was a force of disorder.  The concerns of the deceased in relation to the gods show morality ideas were based around maintaining order provided by the gods by not doing evil to them or the earth that they influenced (Bains: 164).  Concerns in the declaration also include treating people equally showing another important moral idea.


Adams, B., Egyptian Mummies (Pembrokeshire, 1998), pp.20-22

Allen, J. P., Genesis in Egypt (Connecticut, 1988), pp.8-12

Allen, J. P., Religion and Philosophy in Ancient Egypt (Connecticut, 1989), pp.137-143

Assmann, J., The Search for God in Ancient Egypt (London), pp.145-149

Baines, J., Religion in Ancient Egypt (Ithaca), pp.160-164

Book of the Dead, Chapters 23, 30B, 43, 59, 105 &125

David, R., Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt (London, 2002), pp.30-33, 121-124, 158 & 159

Grajetzki, Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt (Norfolk, 2004), pp. 27, 45 & 78

Roberts, J.M., Ancient History, From The First Civilisations To The Renaissance, (London, 2004), pp. 102-133

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.


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)

Philology: Introduction to the Significance of Language Analysis

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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.

DSCN0428BB - Clay Tablets with Liner B Script
DSCN0428BB – Clay Tablets with Liner B Script (Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis))

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.

Cognitive philology studies written and oral texts in consideration of the human mental processes. It uses science to compare the results of research using psychological and artificial systems.

Reconstruction of the missing Greek text on th...
Reconstruction of the missing Greek text on the Rosetta Stone

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.

Significant Examples:

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.

Welcome to GraecoMuse!

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This site is aimed at similar people who are interested in archaeology, ancient history, philology and epigraphy. Interesting stories, archaeological tidbits and blogs will be put up as I partake in digs myself and come across things to share.

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Ancient Scripts of Egypt: An Introduction

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Obelisk at the Temple in Luxor

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

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

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

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

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

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

In terms of literature:

Pyramid Texts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coffin Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Lost in Translation: It’s all Greek to Us

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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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Review: Betz, H.D., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Chicago, 1986)

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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.”[1] 

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.[2]  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.[3]  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.  [4] 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.[5]

The fact that this work has remained at the forefront of sources for its topic speaks for itself. Having spoken to one of the contributors I am even more impressed by the time and the content of this work. Granted there are downsides; the lack of Greek text alongside the translations does not allow one to judge the translations for themselves. Though this would not be a problem for the general public, the academic reader who is far more likely to pick up this work for research purposes would have benefited significantly from this addition. But we can’t have everything.
Certainly worth a read for anyone interested in magic, papyri, Greek and Demotic and historiography.

[1] 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

[2] Betz, H.D., (1986), op.cit., p.xli

[3] Ibid., p.xli

[4] 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

[5] Stroumsa, G.G., (1988), op.cit., p.182