The Egyptian Hieroglyphs
The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek adjective ἱερογλυφικός (hieroglyphikos), a compound of ἱερός (hierós ‘sacred’) and γλύφω (glýphō ‘Ι carve, engrave’; see glyph), supposedly a calque of an Egyptian phrase mdw·w-nṯr (medu-netjer) “god’s words”. The glyphs themselves were called τὰ ἱερογλυφικὰ γράμματα (tà hieroglyphikà grámmata) “the sacred engraved letters”. The word hieroglyph has become a noun in English, standing for an individual hieroglyphic character. As used in the previous sentence, the word hieroglyphic is an adjective (in the same way photographic is an adjective), but hieroglyphic(s) has also become a noun in English, at least in non-academic usage.
Hieroglyphs emerged from the preliterate artistic traditions of Egypt. For example, symbols on Gerzean pottery from c. 4000 BC have been argued to resemble hieroglyphic writing. Proto-hieroglyphic symbol systems develop in the second half of the 4th millennium BC, such as the clay labels of a Predynastic ruler called “Scorpion I” ( Naqada IIIA period, c. 33rd century BC) recovered at Abydos (modern Umm el-Qa’ab) in 1998. The first full sentence written in hieroglyphs so far discovered was found on a seal impression found in the tomb of Seth-Peribsen at Umm el-Qa’ab, which dates from the Second Dynasty (28th or 27th century BC). There are around 800 hieroglyphs dating back to the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom Eras. By the Greco-Roman period, there are more than 5,000.
Geoffrey Sampson stated that Egyptian hieroglyphs “came into existence a little after Sumerian script, and, probably [were], invented under the influence of the latter”, and that it is “probable that the general idea of expressing words of a language in writing was brought to Egypt from Sumerian Mesopotamia”. However, given the lack of direct evidence, “no definitive determination has been made as to the origin of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt”. Instead, it is pointed out and held that “the evidence for such direct influence remains flimsy” and that “a very credible argument can also be made for the independent development of writing in Egypt…” Since the 1990s, and discoveries such as the Abydos glyphs, it has been held as doubtful whether the Mesopotamian symbol system can be said to predate the Egyptian one.
Mature writing system
Hieroglyphs consist of three kinds of glyphs: phonetic glyphs, including single-consonant characters that function like an alphabet; logographs, representing morphemes; and determinatives, which narrow down the meaning of logographic or phonetic words.
As writing developed and became more widespread among the Egyptian people, simplified glyph forms developed, resulting in the hieratic (priestly) and demotic (popular) scripts. These variants were also more suited than hieroglyphs for use on papyrus. Hieroglyphic writing was not, however, eclipsed, but existed alongside the other forms, especially in monumental and other formal writing. The Rosetta Stone contains three parallel scripts – hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek.
Hieroglyphs continued to be used under Persian rule (intermittent in the 6th and 5th centuries BC), and after Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt, during the ensuing Ptolemaic and Roman periods. It appears that the misleading quality of comments from Greek and Roman writers about hieroglyphs came about, at least in part, as a response to the changed political situation. Some believed that hieroglyphs may have functioned as a way to distinguish ‘true Egyptians’ from some of the foreign conquerors. Another reason may be the refusal to tackle a foreign culture on its own terms, which characterized Greco-Roman approaches to Egyptian culture generally. Having learned that hieroglyphs were sacred writing, Greco-Roman authors imagined the complex but rational system as an allegorical, even magical, system transmitting secret, mystical knowledge.
By the 4th century, few Egyptians were capable of reading hieroglyphs, and the “myth of allegorical hieroglyphs” was ascendant. Monumental use of hieroglyphs ceased after the closing of all non-Christian temples in 391 by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I; the last known inscription is from Philae, known as the Graffito of Esmet-Akhom, from 394.