A Brief History of Egyptian Hieroglyphics

Recent discoveries at the site of Abydos have demonstrated that Egyptian hieroglyphs date back at least to the 32nd century BC. Notably older than earlier estimates, these discoveries give Egypt pride of place for the oldest known system of writing. They have also forced a revision of some assumptions about the development of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The existence of ideograms alongside phonetic symbols led linguists to the conclusion that hieroglyphs began as a rudimentary series of ideographic characters, where one sign meant one thing, independently of the spoken word; and that the system gradually developed a phonetic component as greater sophistication was needed. The discoveries at Abydos seem to contradict this model.

At issue are small tags, perforated with a hole in one corner, bearing one or more primitive carvings similar to classic hieroglyphs. Some of these carvings are more obviously similar to known hieroglyphs than others, and the archaeologists dealing with them found that if these carvings were read like standard Egyptian writing, they not only made sense in a generic fashion, but they actually clarified the nature of the discovery: they were tied to goods that were brought to the tomb then under excavation, and identified the nature of those goods. Thus, Egyptian writing was already phonetic at that early date, and its primary function would seem to be the service of an already bureaucratic state.

If these conclusions are borne out by future work, the emergence of hieroglyphics might resemble more the invention of shorthand than the development of the modern Latin alphabet. A group of people who maintained records for their livelihood agreed upon a series of symbols to rapidly and interchangeably record the spoken word for future use. In the case of Egyptian hieroglyphs, this system remained in use for 3,500 years, with the number of symbols growing according to need, but never being replaced or significantly altered.

Early hieroglyphs appear in small groups in discoveries from the Archaic period and the early phases of the Old Kingdom, but never in volume. Kings are identified, presumably by name, on late Predynastic palettes and maceheads, and more certainly on Early Dynastic monuments, in which the king’s Horus name is presented inside of a stylized palace image known as a serekh; but lengthy works are absent. This need not suggest that writing was not yet used for lengthier compositions, but only that such compositions have not been discovered. It is more than likely that papyrus was already in use, and that the cursive form of the hieroglyphs known as hieratic had already been developed, but papyrus is far more fragile than stone. As for the great stone monuments, writing was sparse, especially with respect to the pyramids themselves. The early pyramids were devoid of decoration, and so our greatest source of knowledge about ancient Egypt, the testimony of the tomb, was denied to us.

Only in the Fifth Dynasty does this change. When it does so, it changes in dramatic fashion. Beginning in the Fifth Dynasty royal tombs are equipped with extensive magical texts covering the internal walls, providing the spells that will assist the dead king on his journey to the afterlife. Known as the Pyramid Texts, these spells are the precursors of the more famous Book of the Dead used in the New Kingdom.

The Pyramid Texts teach us much, from insights on Egyptian magic to samples of Old Kingdom syntax. They even provide us with the oldest known source of written Canaanite, as some foreign spells were integrated into the texts. They also demonstrate, however, the transformation of the written language from a system of accounting to the sacred magical force that, they believed, could only be the gift of the god Thoth. It is here, in the Pyramid Texts, that we can first see the evidence of the magical significance of the written word itself: the deliberate maiming of images of animate objects. To the Egyptian, the image of the thing (and here, the word describing the thing counts) is magically as good as the thing itself. This is the logic that underlies so much of the Egyptian funerary practice, from false doors and Ka statues to shabti figurines and the practice of effacing the names of one’s predecessors so that the current king can claim to have erected the monument in question. In the case of tomb art, therefore, caution must be used, lest the magic of the texts on the wall should awaken a potentially dangerous force inside the tomb, which was meant to be sealed against all harmful forces. For this reason, the images of potentially dangerous creatures, such as snakes, were damaged so that the image could not in some sense “come to life” and bring harm to the dead king.

Still, writing was not used solely for mystical purposes; it retained its importance to the administration, including in the capacity of training future scribes. Thus, at the end of the Old Kingdom we begin to find examples of didactic literature intended, presumably, for the moral edification of young scribes as much as it was meant to serve as a model for orthography practice. For the purposes of everyday writing, however, classic hieroglyphs are far too cumbersome; it was for this purpose that a streamlined version was developed. Called hieratic, this system corresponded directly to the full hieroglyphic system, but was formed more like stick figures than like a work of art. Hieratic and Hieroglyphic should be thought of like opposite poles in a unitary system, reflecting impermanence and permanence, profane and sacred, the world of the living and that of the dead. Just as stone was used for the gods and the afterlife, and brick for the living, Hieroglyphs and Hieratic served comparable niches.

For about two thousand years after that point, the language changed, as one might expect, but the writing system did not. Scholars have identified three distinct phases of Egyptian language tied to the great epochs of Egyptian history, with Ancient Egyptian in the Old Kingdom, Classical Egyptian in the Middle Kingdom, and New Egyptian in the New Kingdom. If one includes Coptic (which is derived from ancient Egyptian but uses the Greek alphabet), that would represent four key phases in the language, and give it a living presence. The writing system, however, did not change in any appreciable way until the invention of Demotic in the Late Period.

Demotic took over the profane function that hieratic had previously performed, leaving hieratic itself to sacred texts on impermanent media, such as scrolls. It is for this reason that the Greeks gave these two systems their names, meaning “popular” and “sacral,” respectively. Demotic was used for both practical and literary purposes, and demonstrated notable changes in the structure of the language.

While Demotic might therefore be viewed as the relatively modern and popular form of the language, it could never fully replace the Hieroglyphic system. It is worth noting that the Rosetta Stone, through which we learned how to decipher hieroglyphs in the first place, put both Hieroglyphic and Demotic writing alongside Greek. Still later, as Demotic was discarded in favor of the Hellenistic alphabet used with the Coptic phase of the Egyptian language, Hieroglyphics remained in use in the great temples until they were closed by force.


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