I have always been fascinated with ancient Egyptian history and their hieroglyphs tell their story. But how to read and understand them? Here I will attempt to give the Virily community a brief overview on how to read and decipher hieroglyphs. By all means, I do not pretend that I am an expert but after reading on the subject I have gathered some knowledge that I want to pass along.
First off, the basis of hieroglyphs was finally deciphered in the X1Xth century by Jean-François Champollion who managed to open up the secret of this ancient writing after Thomas Young deciphered a demotic section of a decree issued in Memphis in 196 B.C. (which included demotic, hieroglyphic and Greek writings) on the famous Rosetta Stone. After Thomas Young figured out the demotic writing, Champollion, with this information, discovered the code of the hieroglyphic text in 1822. And thus started the understanding of the Egyptian writing and hieroglyphs.
The term “hieroglyph” comes from the Greek language and literally means “sacred writing”. The Egyptians themselves called their writing “medou netjer” again meaning “divine word”. In fact, hieroglyphs are a figurative writing. In the English language, letters only represent themselves while the elements of egyptian writing, hieroglyphs, are figurative representing people, animals and objects of the universe of the pharaohs and of everyday life.
As such, to the uninitiated eye, anybody can identify from the first look, for example, the sun, a bird or a small boat. Hieroglyphs constitute then images, treated as the other pictures of the Egyptian pictorial. Thus, a sitting man is represented with his face in profile, his torso in front with his legs and his arms in profile mode etc. just like the above picture. But how is it possible to distinguish the Egyptian writing from simple representation because it is also an image? First by the density of its arrangement: while representations themselves are usually very large, hieroglyphs are disposed in a manner to occupy the most space allocated. They are distributed in “quadrants”, units dividing the drawn representations. There is also no space between words and sentences. Another differentiation is the orientation of hieroglyphs. They are aligned on a same line or column with all the signs oriented in the same direction which is the one at the starting point. Thus reading of hieroglyphs can be done from either right to left, left to right and also vertically from top to bottom. The starting point determines how to read hieroglyphs: for example, if a figure whether human or animal is pointing to the left, you read it left to right like the illustration below.
If it faces to the right you read it from right to left as the illustration below.
But what do those symbols represent or say, you ask? Hieroglyphic signs use in part ideograms which are signs that represent an idea or a concept. But the hieroglyphs you see right above are really letters that, yes, can be objects or animals as such but also a sound or a particular “phoneme”. You can see in the picture below all the Egyptian letters and their representations.
Since the Egyptian alphabet is made up of figures here is what these figures are: the letter A is a vulture, the letter B is a leg or a foot, the letter C is a folded cloth, the letter D is a hand, the letter E is a flower reed, F is a viper, G is a jar support, H is a reed shelter, I is also a flower reed, J is a cobra, K is a basket with a handle, L is a lying lion, M is an owl, N is water, O is a lasso, P is a stool, Q is the side of a hill, R is a mouth, S is again a folded cloth, T is a loaf of bread, U is a quail chick, V is again a viper, W is again a quail chick, X is a combination of a a basket with handle and a folded cloth, Y is two flower reeds, Z is a lock. But I have to warn you that there are several differences between internet sites and their presentation of the Egyptian alphabet. And this is not a complete list of Egyptian signs as there are apparently more than a thousand signs.
Egyptians were also numerically and mathematically minded and had a system of numerals which I present in the pictures below. Numbers were written with the highest number first.
Now here to finish my little presentation, I present you with my real name in hieroglyphs. Can you guess it? Sorry, you do not win a prize but you will receive my gratitude if you have read and applied yourselves to deciphering my real name.
Here is my first name:
And here is my last name:
So I will be waiting for your answers and accepting them no matter what they are. Thank you very much. I hope you enjoyed this very brief overview of Egyptian hieroglyphs because there is a lot more where this came from but it might be in another post.