A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter 7: The Hieroglyphic Writing of the Ancient Egyptians." by Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards (1831-1892)
Publication: Pharaohs Fellahs and Explorers. by Amelia Edwards. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891. (First edition.) pp. 234-260.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 234]




A CELEBRATED definition of the genus homo classifies man as "a cooking animal." It is not a bad definition. Cooking implies the knowledge and use of fire; and not even the most intelligent of monkeys has yet been known to evoke sparks from a stick and a block. I should prefer, however, to define man as "a writing animal;" for writing implies language as its starting-point, and literature as its goal. Given the first barbarian attempt at transmitting intelligence by means of signs scratched on rocks or graven on the bark of trees, it is but a step–a long step, I admit–from the driftman to Shakespeare.

The infancy of writing has much in common with the infancy of language. Of the actual beginnings of language [Page 235]  we have no positive knowledge beyond such evidence as is furnished by the syllabic particles known as "roots;" but it is quite certain that all speech was at first extremely simple–that words were monosyllabic, and that prehistoric man eked out his limited vocabulary with gestures. He was, in fact, a natural and involuntary pantomimist; and pantomime is picture-action.

Now, the immortal Dogberry, when he said that reading and writing came by nature, told quite half the truth. Writing is a spontaneous growth, like speech; and, like speech, it is the offspring of necessity. Man needs to communicate with his fellow-man; and when distance, or any other cause, makes viva voce intercourse impossible, he sets his brains to work to find a substitute for spoken words. No matter in what country, in what age, or under what circumstances, this problem is invariably solved in the same manner.

Just as prehistoric man supplements his lack of words with what I have ventured to call "picture-action," so, at a later stage of his career, he inevitably invents "picture-writing." This is true of every ancient script of which we have any knowledge. The writing of the Egyptians undoubtedly began as a picture-writing, pure and simple; and notwithstanding the many phases through which it passed in the course of thousands of years, a picture-writing, to some extent, it continued to the end of the chapter. The writing of the Hittites was a picture-writing; and even the arrow-head writing of the Babylonians and Assyrians, and the contorted characters of the Chinese, are abridged picture-writings in which the pictorial forms are yet in some instances discernible. But even the rudest stage of picture-writing must have been preceded by some yet more primitive effort, and the direction taken by that primitive effort may probably be traced in a curious story told by Herodotus. He relates how Darius, when he invaded Scythia, was led on continually by the retreating foe, till he and his army were outwearied by guerilla warfare without being able to bring the Scythians to a [Page 236]  pitched battle. At last, the Scythian princes despatched a herald to the Persian camp with gifts for the great King of Kings. These consisted of a bird, a mouse, a frog, and five arrows. In vain the Persians interrogated the herald. He but made answer that, if they were wise, they would find out the meaning of these things for themselves. Then Darius, the self-confident, proclaimed that the Scythian gifts signified that they gave up land and water, the bird for swift flight, the mouse for land, the frog for water, the arrows as a surrender of arms. But one Gobryas, wiser than Darius, interpreted the message thus:

"Unless, O Persians, ye can turn yourselves into birds and fly through the air, or become mice and burrow under the ground, or be as frogs and take refuge in the fens, ye shall never escape from this land, but die pierced by our arrows." (63) And this interpretation was the true one.

Now, in what way were these objects conveyed to Darius ?

Were they strung in a leash, like game; or carried as a horseman might be supposed to carry them, in a saddle-bag ?

I do not think so. I believe that they were pinned down upon a piece of board, so forming a high-relief group composed of natural objects.

Now, we may be very certain that this message of the Scythian generals was no isolated instance. It was the customary style of polite letter-writing in Scythia at that period, the Scythians being in just that stage of barbarism which the Persians, the Egyptians, and the other great nations of the East had left behind and forgotten. I imagine that all those nations had once upon a time invented the very same method. To pin objects on a board would always have been easier than to draw them; and our prehistoric man, of whatever race or climate, would assuredly have recourse to symbolism by means of things before he dreamed of symbolism by means of signs. Thus, "object-writing" would naturally precede "picture-writing."

The earliest writing of which we have any historic example is the hieroglyphic writing of the ancient Egyptians; [Page 237]  and the earliest of early hieroglyphs are carved in relief. I cannot help thinking that this fact is profoundly significant–significant of the origin of those hieroglyphs, a long way back, as "object-writing." The oldest Egyptian inscriptions are older than the Great Pyramid. The earliest date from the Second Dynasty, and carry us back to full four thousand three hundred years before the Christian era. But they testify to a foregone time, the extent of which it is impossible to estimate. For, although they are the oldest extant, the language they embody has already passed through its first stages of evolution. Its grammar is formed; its rules are fixed; the foundations of style are laid. As for the writing, it is already systematized, and the methods are fully developed by which sense and sound are expressed.

Some day, perhaps, as the work of exploration goes on, our labors may be rewarded by the discovery of yet earlier records. We have reason to believe that the most ancient necropolis of all–the necropolis of the kings of the First and Second dynasties–lies buried under a hundred feet of sand round about the base of the Great Sphinx. This huge amphitheatre is in course of excavation; and it is quite possible–possible and probable–that inscriptions in the earliest stages of the hieroglyphic writing may there be discovered.

Till then, if we desire to realize what the first attempts at writing were like in the East, we must turn for light to the West. We must go to America for specimens of the earliest picture-writing of Mexico, and for the picture-writing of the red Indians. In these we behold groups of what are called in Egyptology "ideographs;" that is to say, pictures of objects arranged for the purpose of conveying sequences of ideas, but without any of those connecting links which language supplies. The tribute-lists of the Mexican kings consist of long catalogues, in which there are signs for numerals, but nothing resembling a word. Thus, one hundred strings of beads, two hundred pitchers of honey, sixteen hundred cacao-nuts, and eight hundred loads of feather mantles are represented by a string of beads, a pitcher, a basket of nuts, [Page 238]  and a feather mantle neatly drawn and colored, with numeral signs to show how many of each were received. This is the merest picture-writing; yet, as a system of exact bookkeeping, it leaves nothing to be desired.

Other Mexican documents of the same period contain accounts of battles, executions, sacrifices, and even family histories, in which every fact is a picture. We see a youth bidding good-bye to his father; starting upon a journey; sitting at the feet of the sage by whom he is to be educated; serving his apprenticeship as a woodman; sending an old woman to treat with the parents of the girl whom he desires to wed; and, finally, the marriage ceremony, where bride and bridegroom are bound together by a scarf. This is neither more nor less than a "nutshell novel," and it is written in pictures only.

But the picture-writing of the North American Indian, though less graphic, is often more ingenious than the picture-writing of the Mexicans. I will take, for example, a petition addressed by certain Indian chiefs to one of the Presidents of the United States, reclaiming possession of a chain of lakes in the neighborhood of Lake Superior.


In this curious document, the head man of each tribe is figured by the "totem," or symbolic animal, of his clan, [Page 239]  the Crane, the Marten, the Sloth Bear, the Catfish, and so on. These creatures are represented as walking in procession, the Crane taking the lead, and the Catfish bringing up the rear. The eye and the heart of each is carefully indicated, the heart being just such a heart as we absurdly depict on our playing-cards and valentines. Beneath their feet is seen a sheet of water–probably intended for Lake Superior–and this sheet of water communicates by a tributary stream with the little lakes for which our Indians are making their petition. Now, from the eye of the Crane is drawn one line leading round to the coveted lake district, and another line going out into space, and supposed to lead to the eye of the President. Then, from the eyes of the Martens, the Sloth Bear, and the rest are drawn similar lines leading to the eye of the Crane, thus indicating that their views and his are the same. A line is also drawn from the heart of each creature to the heart of the Crane, showing that the heart's desire of all is identical. For combined simplicity and subtlety this is the best example of pure picture-writing with which I am acquainted.

And here let me say a word about the parallel so frequently drawn between the savage and prehistoric man, and about what is erroneously called the "picture-writing" of prehistoric times. A few fragments of bone scratched with spirited outlines of the cave-bear, the mammoth, and other extinct animals–a few specimens of delicate bone-carvings–a few rude attempts at depicting boats, men, and animals, cut here and there upon the face of a cliff in Scandinavia or Siberia, or the Maritime Alps, have come down to us from the ages before history. The immense antiquity of these is self-proven, since they can only have been executed by men who were contemporary with the animals they depicted. Those men were the cave-dwellers of the paleolithic period–that far-distant time when the hairy rhinoceros, the mammoth, the reindeer, and the hyena ranged the forests of France and Belgium; when there was as yet no English Channel; when the Thames was a tributary of the Rhine; [Page 240]  and when the bed of the German Ocean was one vast plain over which great herds of these formidable beasts migrated from north to south, or from south to north, as summer was succeeded by winter, and winter by summer. There are few things in this world more interesting than these pathetic relics of our remotest ancestors. They bring very near to us the life of the cave-man–that life which was a daily warfare with beasts of prey; and they are certainly the most ancient specimens of fine art in the world.


But they are not picture-writings. They are sketches–sketches done with a flint point by an artist clad in skins, who fashioned his own stone hatchets, chipped his own arrow-heads, and lived in an age when there was neither society nor government.

This cave-man was not, strictly speaking, a savage; nor is the argument either just or scientific which likens him to the red man, or the bush-man, or any other race of untamable aborigines. He was simply a man whose foot was on the lowest step of the ladder, but who was steadily working his way upward to civilization.

The historic age in Egypt begins with Mena, the first king [Page 241]  of the First Dynasty; but, as there was a prehistoric age in Europe, so there was also a prehistoric age in Egypt–the age of the "Horshesu." (64)

The land was divided at this time into petty principalities governed by hereditary chieftains. That was, in all probability, the era of mere picture-writing. How long it took the ancient Egyptians to emerge from this first stage of the art, it is impossible even to guess. Perhaps they had already emerged from it when Mena reduced the primitive chieftains to a state of vassalage, and converted their territories into the provinces of his new Empire. Be this as it may, we do know quite exactly, step by step, how the art and mystery of the scribe's craft was developed in the Valley of the Nile; and if we are unable to put a date to those successive stages, we can at all events trace them with unerring certainty.

The first stage is "ideography," or mere picture-writing, in which a man stands for a man, a ship for a ship, a camel for a camel, and so forth. But to construct a sentence by means of pure ideography is impossible. Tenses, parts of speech, and all those grammatical contrivances whereby we connect or separate ideas are wanting. The very pictures are liable to misinterpretation. Even now, the helpless tourist in a foreign land is sometimes reduced to picture-writing to express his modest requirements; but the result is seldom satisfactory. The Englishman who sketched a mushroom on the margin of the bill of fare at a Paris restaurant, was naturally disappointed when the waiter brought him an umbrella.

A long course of umbrellas, so to speak, and the confusion to which it must have led, paved the way for another kind of picture-writing, in which sounds were expressed instead of things–namely, pictorial phonetism; and pictorial phonetism registers the second stage in the art of writing. Now, in pictorial phonetism each figure stands for the sound of the word denoting the object represented, that word being generally, though not necessarily, used in a far-fetched sense. [Page 242]  The illustration gives us an example in our own language: an eye, a can, a sail, a round, and a globe.

If we but look at these figures, they have neither sense nor sequence. They are intelligible only when pronounced: "I can sail round the globe."

This is pictorial phonetism; and pictorial phonetism is, in fact, pictorial punning, of the sort commonly known as the rebus, or charade.

From picture-writing to pictorial phonetism was an enormous stride; but as we know nothing of the condition of the Egyptian vocabulary at that remote time, we cannot possibly estimate to what extent pictorial phonetism supplied a means of coherent communication between man and man. That the language contained a very large number of monosyllabic words is, however, certain; and as phonetism is necessarily syllabic, we may assume that the earliest Egyptian scribes had a rich mine of syllabic forms to draw upon. These syllabic forms represent the common objects of daily life, the names of which belonged to the earliest period of the language, when all words were monosyllabic; as: mer, a hoe; ma, a sickle; neb, a bowl, and so forth. These, and such as these, were readily adapted for phonetic syllables, and had the advantage of being so well known that a summary representation in outline was at once recognizable. In the autumn of 1889, and again in the autumn of 1890, I had the pleasure of examining Mr. Pe- [Page 243]  trie's most interesting collection of domestic objects discovered in the ruins of Kahun–a site of which I have already had occasion to say something in Chapter IV. of this volume–and I well remember the thrill with which I saw and handled some of these very objects. There was a hoe, for instance, exactly like the hoe of the hieroglyphs–a simple implement enough, of old brown wood, with the ancient cord of palm-fibre yet in its place.

There, too, was the handle of an adze–a very familiar hieroglyph, signifying sotep, which often occurs in royal names; and, above all, there was one perfect sickle, the handle and blade of wood, with three little flint saws cemented into the inner side of the curve–a most interesting implement, and the first of its kind yet discovered. All these tools and implements were of the extremely ancient period of the Twelfth Dynasty, about two thousand eight hundred years before the Christian era. That is to say, they were close upon five thousand years old. But that sickle carried with it a yet older history. It carried on the traditions of a time when the use of metals was unknown; and it pointed back, as with Time's own finger, to that far-off prehistoric age from which its shape and make had been handed down without alteration.

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Just as pictorial phonetism was evolved from ideography, or picture-writing, so was alphabetism evolved from pictorial phonetism. Now, when writing has reached the alphabetic stage, it enters upon the last, and by far the most important, phase of its development. Every real obstacle to the free transmission of thought is overcome. The foundations of history and science are laid. The instrument of literature is found. And it was the ancient Egyptians who found and fashioned that instrument. To them we owe the invention of the first alphabet–the most precious and momentous invention of all time. And they invented it so inconceivably long ago that they were in the full possession of vowels and consonants, and of the art of spelling words by means of letters instead of syllables, when they carved the oldest inscriptions in existence.

Other ancient writings passed through the same three stages of development–picture-writing, pictorial phonetism, and alphabetic writing; but the oldest alphabets of other nations are modern when compared with that of the Egyptians. The cuneiform writing of Babylonia and Assyria, after crystallizing for ages as a syllabic script, ended by becoming an alphabetic writing in the hands of the Medes and Persians; but by that time the Egyptians had been using their alphabet for some three thousand five hundred years. Again, the cuneiform never overleaped the great mountain range which divides Asia Minor from Asia; whereas that other alphabet whose origin lies so far back in the darkness before dawn that we cannot discern its beginning–the alphabet of the ancient Egyptians–was the parent stock of the Phoenician, of the Greek, and of all the alphabets of Europe, including, of course, our own.

But how was the Egyptian alphabet constructed ? Upon what principle was it founded ?

These are questions upon which Egyptologists differ; for even Egyptologists (who are by far the most amiable people on the face of the globe) do sometimes, like doctors, disagree. According, however, to the theory most commonly [Page 245]  accepted, the process was effected in this way. A monosyllabic word was selected, as, for instance, bu, the Egyptian for "leg," represented in simple picture-writing by a leg, thus: To convert bu into b, it was but necessary to drop the final vowel, and let the leg stand for b only. The same with ro, the mouth, represented thus in the picture-writing. The vowel sound being dropped, they obtained the letter r. A reed of the sort which grows abundantly in the Delta was called aak. It was conventionally represented thus. By preserving only the initial sound they obtained the vowel a. In this way, a certain number of vowels and consonants were detached from the old phonetic words, some being dropped from the beginning, and some from the end, of a familiar monosyllable. They were thus formed into a regular alphabet–the parent alphabet of all our European series.

But the parent was, in some respects, very unlike its children. It contained no letter e, no g, no d, no z; but it made up for these deficiencies by extreme liberality in other ways. It contained no less than three forms of a, three forms of t, and two forms each for i, u, m, n, k, and s. After this, it is some relief to know that they had but one b, one p, and one f.

Here is the hieroglyphic alphabet as it was commonly in use:

[Page 246] 

All these letters must have stood originally for monosyllabic words belonging to the earliest stage of the language; but it is no longer possible to identify the source of every letter, owing, doubtless, to the fact that many of the oldest words had become obsolete by the time when the alphabet had reached that point of development at which our knowledge of it begins.

And now it will naturally be concluded that our Egyptians threw aside their old childish picture-writing, their clumsy phonetic picture-punning, and all the swaddling-clothes in which their infant literature had till then been smothered. Not in the least. The Egyptians were, of all nations, the most conservative. A custom, a belief, a method once adopted was never wholly relinquished. Being in possession of an alphabet, they proceeded, of course, to write words as we do, spelling them letter by letter; but they still clung to the old ideographs, tacking them on at the end, so as to make quite sure that there should be no mistake about the meaning–like those sign-board artists who take the wise precaution of adding, " This is a lion," or " This is a cow."

Thus, in writing the word hetra, which is the Egyptian for "horse," they began by spelling it letter by letter, omitting only the vowel e, which did not exist in their alphabet. The word being now spelled, they next added the figure of the horse–a distinct survival of the old picture-writing. Finally, not being content with the word and the ideograph, they added the determinative sign representing a hide, a hide being the conventional symbol for all four-footed animals.

We will take another example. Ab, "thirst," is spelled a-b. Now ab, spelled in the same way, also signifies a kid. We would therefore expect to see the figure of the kid placed after the word when used in this sense, but we would not expect to see it if the word were used in the sense of "thirst." It was retained, however, all the same, [Page 247]  merely to express its original syllabic value; that is to say, the figure of the kid is added to emphasize the pronunciation of the word ab. Next, to show that the kid has nothing to do with the sense of the word, but that ab stands for "thirst," they added the hieroglyphic sign for "water." Even this was not enough. To clinch the sense of the whole, they finally added the figure of a man with his hand to his mouth, indicating his desire to drink. Thus, to a monosyllabic noun of two letters only, we have three determinatives: a determinative of sound –namely, the kid, signifying ab; a determinative of sense –namely, water; and the generic determinative commonly in use to denote actions performed by the mouth, such as speaking, eating, and drinking. A more cumbrous system could not be conceived; yet in so far as we are concerned, its complexity is its greatest recommendation. Had the Egyptians been less conservative, had they rejected their early methods when they invented the alphabet, we could not have traced the stratification of the language or the writing. In such an example as the last we clearly read the history of both.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the hieroglyphic writing is the extraordinary number and variety of the signs. Of these characters there are about 3000, including 29 alphabetic letters, 140 phonetic signs, and upward of 200 determinatives. This strikes us as an embarrassment of riches. It is certainly not the sort of writing which advertisers undertake to teach in twelve lessons. At the same time the study of hieroglyphs is much more fascinating, and much less difficult, than might be imagined.

The signs, we must remember, are not mere arbitrary and meaningless figures. They are more or less pictorial; and they represent an immense number of interesting objects of all kinds–tools, weapons, plants, and the like. The amount of information locked up in these little figures is quite incalculable. They show us with what kind of plough the ancient [Page 248]  Egyptian husbandman tilled the soil; the sickle with which he reaped his harvest; the wine-press in which he crushed his grapes. There, too, we see the drill and auger and chisel of the carpenter; the spear and shield of the soldier; the crown and sceptre of the Pharaoh; the harp and lute of the minstrel; the ink-bottle and pen-case of the scribe. And there, also, are the lotus lily and papyrus plant; the crocodile, the hippopotamus, and the fishes of the Nile; the jackal and hare of the desert; the hawk, the pelican, the crane, the ibis, the vulture, and every other bird that haunts the banks of the great river. The sacred beetle, the hooded cobra, the eared cerastes, the scorpion, the lizard, and all creatures that burrow in the sands or lurk in rocks and caves, have likewise their place in this wonderful picture-gallery–for that is just what it is. A hieroglyphic dictionary, or a list of hieroglyphic characters, is in fact a pictorial encyclopædia of all the objects, natural or artificial, animate or inanimate, which were known to the Egyptians.

The human figure plays a conspicuous part in the hieroglyphic system, being employed as a determinative sign in many different ways.

It continually occurs, for instance, as a determinative of gender. After such words as "youth," "slave," "father," "scribe," there follows the figure of a man sitting.

After "wife," "queen," "daughter," "sister," "maiden," and the like, we find the figure of a seated woman.

But there are also special determinatives. Say that an inscription refers to some high official, that official's name is followed by the figure of a man walking with a staff; the staff being the emblem of authority, as, indeed, it is in Egypt to this day. Or say that an old man is in question, then his name is followed by a stooping figure, leaning heavily upon a stick; this being the determinative for age or infirmity. An act of worship is recorded, and straightway the scribe adds a figure in [Page 249]  the attitude of adoration. A man standing with his arms flung up above his head signifies joy or exultation. A man with his hands and arms in the position of repelling means dissuasion, turning back, repudiation. It is a question of eating, drinking, or speaking, and we have a squatting figure with the hand to the mouth. Or it is a question of singing or declaiming, and the determinative figure at once assumes a parliamentary attitude.

Now, there is a special and peculiar interest attaching to these determinatives, which are of extreme antiquity, and belong to the earliest known stage of the writing. They are evident reminiscences of the old "gesture language"–that "picture action" to which I have referred as coeval with the beginnings of human speech. In this fashion our "rude forefathers" supplemented their scanty vocabulary. The gestures first employed as a necessity were continued at a later period as a matter of habit; and thus, when primitive man had so far advanced upon the path of civilization as to attempt picture-writing, he naturally had recourse to the representation of picture action in order to indicate emotions and conditions of being for which, in the absence of an alphabet, he had no other means of expression.

In addition to hieroglyphs of the whole figure, there is a considerable series representing only parts of the figure.

A nose, for instance, was the determinative for smelling or breathing; an ear stood for hearing; a head for command, precedence, superiority. Any reference to walking was followed by a pair of legs; and if it were a question of returning, the legs were reversed. Thus, when it is said in The Book of the Dead that the virtuous Soul is privileged to go in and out of Hades, the sentence concludes with both determinatives.

And this reminds me of a similar device in the Mexican picture-writing, where the act of going to and [Page 250]  fro is indicated by footprints–such footprints as are made by a bare foot upon the sands.

It may be objected that these are not in the least like footprints, for that is an observation frequently made; but it only shows how seldom we see the print of a bare foot, and how little we cultivate our powers of observation. For the Mexican ideogram is, in truth, strictly correct. We do not touch the ground with the inner side of the sole of the foot; consequently that side leaves no mark. Neither does the little toe make any sensible impression. It is, therefore, only the four first toes, the flat "tread" beneath them, and the outer side of the sole which are printed off at each step.

But to return to our Egyptians. Here is a sign composed of two arms, with the hands open and the palms turned downward. This is the determinative sign for denial. Here we have a palpable survival of the "gesture language." It is precisely the action of the modern conjurer who assures his audience that he has nothing whatever in his hands; and it distinctly points to an age when force was the law of the strong, and theft was the resource of the weak, and every man's hand was against his neighbor. Such an example is a piece of fossilized history.

To those who know anything (though never so little) about this curious and interesting subject, it sometimes happens to be asked whether the study of hieroglyphs is not, in truth, of extraordinary difficulty. To this question it may be replied that the study of hieroglyphs is sufficiently easy up to a certain point, after which it becomes more, and increasingly more, difficult. It needs but a very little perseverance to enable the student to master so much knowledge as may suffice for the translation of the ordinary run of funerary or dedicatory inscriptions; but it is when he comes to deal with the archaic forms of the earliest periods, or the corrupt and complicated forms of the latest periods, that his troubles may [Page 251]  be said to begin. Apart, however, from archaisms and corruptions, there is, as it seems to me, another and a very real difficulty which we moderns have to encounter when we begin to study the language and writing of the ancient Egyptians. It is not that the grammar is abstruse; on the contrary, the grammar is singularly elementary. It is not that the hieroglyphs are puzzling, or hard to remember. Being pictorial, they tell their own story, and are as easy to remember as the objects they represent. It is not even the alarming fact that there are 3000 of them; for of those 3000, only a limited number were in common use. It is for none of these reasons. Our real stumbling-block is the amazing and utterly childlike simplicity of the whole thing. It is a simplicity which belongs to the time "when all the world was young;" and now that all the world is old, we do not know what to make of it. We are born with nineteenth century brains; and we cannot put our brains back, as if they were the hands of a clock. Yet it is only by putting our brains back that we can possibly contrive to get behind the simplicity of ancient Egyptian thought. That simplicity of thought, joined to admirable powers of observation, a speculative turn of mind, and a curiously literal method of reasoning, led this singular people to construct a theory of the universe and an elaborate system of religion which so strongly affected their arts, their literature, and even their hieroglyphs, that unless one knows what they thought and believed on a great many subjects, it is impossible to grasp the meaning of many an ordinary looking character.

Here, for instance, is the ideograph for pet, the "sky." It represents a ceiling, or, rather, a crossbeam supporting a ceiling. This looks like a metaphor; but it is nothing of the kind. The Egyptians conceived the sky to be a ceiling, or overhead platform of iron, along which flowed the waters of the heavenly ocean. Daily, from east to west, this heavenly ocean was traversed by Ra, the sun god, in his golden bark. But at night the iron ceiling was lighted by lamps, each star in the firmament being a lamp [Page 252]  watched over by, an attendant god. We add a star suspended by a string (the loose end of the string hangs down at the other side of the beam), and this sign–the sign pet with the star added–is the determinative hieroglyph signifying "night," "darkness," "gloom," and all such notions. These suspended lamps were the fixed stars, and the gods of the fixed stars were stationary; but the planets were lamps carried on the heads of wandering gods who sailed the heavens as earthly mariners sail the seas, steering their barks by the divine chart, and following fixed courses according to the seasons.* In the mean while the iron ceiling, which formed the bed of the great upper ocean, was supported at the four corners by the four sons of Horus–the gods of the four cardinal points. They upheld it by means of four props shaped thus: forked boughs, in fact, such as were used to support the roof of the primitive house. When it rained, the rain was taken to be an overflow from the superincumbent ocean; and if it rained heavily (which is very unusual in every part of Egypt except the Delta), then every one was terrified lest the props should be giving way, and the ceiling and the ocean should both be coming down together.

Here we have the hieroglyph for rain, consisting of the ceiling and the four props. The props should, of course, stand at the four corners of the heavenly platform; but the Egyptians were hopelessly ignorant of perspective, so they placed them in a row. These props, it will be observed, support nothing, because the ceiling is in the act of descending, in order to convey the notion of rain. To express a heavy storm (shena), the ceiling is shown as half-way down. We ourselves are wont to say, when it rains very heavily, that "the sky is coming down." The Egyptians believed that it was literally doing so.

Now, they had also a word for "clear," "light," "crystalline," "shining," and the like–the word tahen. They spelled this word [Page 253]  alphabetically, but they required, as usual, a determinative of the sense, and for that purpose they had recourse to another hieroglyph, which represents the iron ceiling safely supported on its four props. This represents the clear sky of Egypt, when all is bright overhead.

It remains to be told how there came to be an overhead ocean. At the dawn of creation those waters covered the face of the earth, so that there were no living things except such as peopled the sea. Then came the god Shu, and he separated the waters from the earth, and uplifted them by main strength, "as a great god can;" and behold, the gods of the cardinal points stepped in with their four props and fixed it up forever. Thus we see how a whole chapter in the history of human thought may be preserved, like a fly in amber, in two or three little hieroglyphs. Here we have the Egyptian cosmogony, the Egyptian theory of the fixed stars and the planetary system, and their explanation of the familiar phenomenon of rain.

We will now turn to ta, the hieroglyph for "land." This sign is not of such far-reaching meaning as the last; but it is a very interesting sign, and I believe that it has not been analyzed till now. Here we see the level plain–the surface of the earth. The lower signs indicate what is below the surface. The object shaped as an acute angle is a cutting instrument–a wedge; it indicates mining. The three small balls stand for metals. The vertical line means a sunk shaft–the boring, perhaps, for an artesian-well. So here we have the earth and its riches, metals and water, and the little implement which symbolizes the enterprise and industry of man.

This is the ideograph for a city, used also as a determinative sign after the name of any special city. This object is described in hieroglyphic dictionaries as a "cake," and it certainly does resemble a kind of hot cross-bun frequently represented in pictures of offerings; but the sign (pronounced nu ) is really intended for a walled town, with [Page 254]  its two main streets crossing at right angles. At Benha, the site of the ancient city of Athribis, the lines of these two main streets are yet clearly distinguishable, as doubtless they are in other places.

Strange as the statement may seem, it is nevertheless true that we are all, quite unconsciously, using many and many an ancient Egyptian word to this day, like Molière's Monsieur Jourdain, who had been talking prose all his life without knowing it. For instance, the land of Egypt was known by many names to its ancient people–as Ta-meri, the "Beloved Land;" Nehi, the "Land of the Sycamore;" Khem or Khemit, the "Black Land," meaning the rich, dark soil annually deposited by the inundation; and so on. In the same way, Ireland, Erin, Hibernia, and the Emerald Isle, mean one and the same. Now, this word khem, khem-t, khemit, or khemi, has many applications. It is the name of a god, Khem, (65) the deity who presided over productiveness and "the kindly fruits of the earth." In this sense, he was also the god of curative herbs and simples, and so became associated in the popular mind with the arts of healing. Hence, from khem, our chemist and chemistry. But khem also meant "black," and in this connection it survives in "alchemy," the "black art." Here we have the hieroglyphic group for Khem-t, Egypt. The first sign is a syllabic hieroglyph standing for khem –"black." The owl, m, confirms the final consonant; and the half sphere, t, is the feminine determinative–a country, a province, a city, being feminine in Egyptian, as in many other tongues, both ancient and modern. The first sign has never been satisfactorily explained, but I venture to think that its meaning is not far to seek. In the square marked off by two diagonals, I recognize an ideograph for territory; and in these parallel lines the levels at which the dark alluvial mud is freshly deposited every year. The uppermost line is the shortest, because the Nile begins to subside again as soon as it has touched its highest point; and the lowest line is the longest, because it represents the nor- [Page 255]  mal level of the river. These words have come to us by a somewhat circuitous route, through the Arabic; the original word khem having first been picked up by the Arab conquerors of Egypt, and by them handed on to the Barbary Moors, who carried it to Spain, whence it has spread through Europe.

The word "camel" is Egyptian. It is spelled thus: k-a-ma-a-a-a-l. The a was evidently very broad, for it is repeated four times, the whole ending with the generic determinative of a hide, as in the word hetra, or "horse."

Although the cocoa-palm is not native to the soil, the name of the cocoa-nut, strange to say, is of Egyptian descent. A well-known text mentions a palm sixty cubits high, the fruit of which contained nuts in which there was water; and these nuts are called ku-ku. The little circle is the ideograph of the nut, and the three vertical strokes signify plurality.

The Egyptian for "knife" is kat; whence our "cut." And here is the name of a precious wood which often figures as tribute brought by Ethiopian vassals, and which is invariably painted black. Here we have a phonetic syllable pronounced Ha; the leg, b; the zigzag line, n; the two slanting lines for the vowel i, pronounced "e;" and finally the conventional determinative of a tree. The whole spells habni, which is "ebony." So here again is a word in which every stage of the hieroglyphic writing is present–the old picture-writing, preserved in the determinative tree; the punning phonetic syllable, of which the actual meaning is "house;" and the alphabetic spelling in b, n, and i.

Another coveted Ethiopian product was kami, a substance imported from the Somali coast and from the Soudan. This word passed into the Greek as kommi; thence into the Latin [Page 256]  as gummi, and now it is "gum." This is the gum which we call "gum-arabic;" and it continues to be an article of commerce, exported from the Soudan through Egypt, to this day. At Assûan, on the frontier of Nubia, we may see the swarthy Soudanese traders camping out, surrounded by great bales of this gum sewn up in buffalo hides, waiting for the cargo-boats which shall carry their goods to Cairo, just as in ancient days they journeyed with the self-same article of tribute or commerce to Thebes and Memphis.

This brief sketch of the origin and development of the hieroglyphic writing has already run to so great a length that I must pass but lightly over much else on which I would fain have dwelt longer. Nothing has yet been said about the cursive writings of the Egyptians; but they had two cursive writings–namely, the "hieratic," and the "demotic." For, as time went on, and the requirements of social and political life became more complex, there inevitably arose the demand for a popular script. It would have been impossible for literature to flourish, as it did flourish in Egypt from the Eleventh Dynasty onward, had the scribes, the poets, the letter-writers, and the professional copyists been fettered by a system so complicated and so cumbrous as the hieroglyphic. They were bound to discover some way of abridging it–of rendering it more flexible, more rapid, more simple. At what time they made their first efforts in this direction we know not. But we do know that by the time of the Eleventh Dynasty they were already in possession of a bold cursive writing, and of a material upon which to employ it. That writing bears the same relation to the hieroglyphic writing as our running-hand bears to printed matter. It is known as the hieratic script; and the material invented for the use of the scribe was papyrus.

Just as our own systems of cursive writing have undergone many changes in the course of centuries, so the hieratic writing of the Egyptians varied from age to age, the tendency of these variations being persistently in the direction of economy. It was massive and square-cut under the Elev- [Page 257]  enth and Twelfth dynasties; that is to say, from about two thousand eight hundred to two thousand five hundred years before our era. Under the Eighteenth and Nineteenth dynasties it lost something in the way of force, and gained something in the way of elegance. Later still it became small and cramped, and, if I may be permitted the use of a word so unacademic, "niggling."

Twenty-first Dynasty.

But even the hieratic–itself an abridgment–ceased by-and-by to satisfy the demand for increased simplicity and speed, and a third form of writing, which was an abridgment of the hieratic, came into use. This abridgment of an abridgment–which stands to hieratic as our short-hand stands to ordinary running-hand–is called the "demotic." It makes its first appearance as a fully developed system about the time of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, some seven [Page 258]  hundred years before our era. By this time the Egyptians had become a highly commercial, and an extremely litigious, people. They bought and sold, borrowed, mortgaged, and lent with feverish activity, and were so perpetually quarrelling over their bargains, their leases, their securities, their marriage-settlements, and their inheritances, that a writing better adapted to legal and commercial purposes than the literary hieratic was urgently needed. As usual, the demand created the supply, and demotic became the ordinary script of the people. In the mean while neither the hieroglyphic nor the hieratic writings had wholly died out. The hieroglyphic continued in use for stone-cut inscriptions as long as the ancient language endured; that is to say, it is found on monuments of the later Roman period, the names of all the Cæsars, from Augustus to Decius, being transliterated into Egyptian, carved in hieroglyphic characters, and enclosed in the royal ovals of the Pharaohs, on temples and tablets dating from the twenty-seventh to the two hundred and fiftieth year of the Christian era.

From a funerary inscription written with the reed pen upon a wooden tablet.

The hieratic writing was more short-lived than the hieroglyphic. Beginning from the time of the Eleventh Dynasty, it continued to be employed for literary purposes down to the period of the Twenty-fourth or Twenty-fifth Dynasty, when it was finally superseded by the demotic. Our museums contain thousands of hieratic papyri, consisting chiefly of extracts from The Book of the Dead, besides works on medicine and mathematics, tales, poems, essays, hymns, mag- [Page 259]  ical formulas, correspondence, State-papers, and the like;* and it is not too much to say that there are tens of thousands of demotic documents in the museums of Turin, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Leyden, and London. These are chiefly law-deeds, accounts, letters, and the miscellaneous memoranda of a trading population. The hieratic documents are principally written on papyrus. The demotic documents are scrawled on all kinds of materials–on papyrus, parchment, flakes of limestone, potsherds, and the like.

Just as I have compared the three writings of the Egyptians with type, running-hand, and short-hand, so I may roughly classify them as the monumental, literary, and commercial scripts of that ancient people.

Of the language itself, and of the laws by which it was governed, a few words must be said. The actual source of the Egyptian language is wrapped in obscurity. Some great authorities make it of Aryan origin, while others class it with the Semitic tongues. In all probability, neither classification is strictly correct. The Egyptian belongs, however, to what is called the "Khamitic" family of tongues–a group which includes the Ethiopian, Libyan, Berber, and other African languages. In all these the feminine takes the letter t  either as a prefix or a suffix; and they all conjugate the verb by agglutination. The one and only really certain fact is that the Khamitic and Semitic languages are derived from a common source. Their grammatical system is, in certain essential points, the same. Many of their roots are identical; their plural forms are closely related; and in all the feminine determinative is alike. But these two linguistic families–offshoots from one parent stem–separated in the ages before history, that parent being itself but a prehistoric idiom of very limited range and unknown antiquity. Whether its home were in the Hindoo Kush, or the plains of Mesopotamia, or the highlands of Scandinavia, may perhaps forever remain an open question.

The Egyptian grammar is of most elementary barren- [Page 260]  ness. Its structure, as compared with the grammar of other languages, is like the structure of the polyp as compared with the complex organism of the higher animals. Some parts of speech are altogether lacking. In the series of personal pronouns, for example, there is no first person plural. It exists as a suffix to the verb, but not as a word. Among the conjunctions there is no equivalent for "and." If an Egyptian needed to say "and" he used "with;" so that instead of saying "you and I," he would say "you with me." As a rule, however, he omitted the conjunction in this sense. As for the Egyptian verb, it has been concisely described by Mr. Le Page Renouf as "expressing being or action without any reference to time, or to the conception of the speaker," and as having "neither tenses, moods, voices, nor conjugations." The stock of prepositions and of compound prepositions was, however, very considerable, consisting of some sixteen or seventeen simple forms, and over thirty compound forms, many of which appear to us quite superfluous.

It must not be supposed for a moment that the rudimentary character of the Egyptian grammar helps to make it one jot easier. On the contrary, it would be a great deal easier if it were a little more difficult.

The Egyptian god of writing.

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


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* See chap. vi.

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* See chap. vi.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom