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Hieroglyphs: the writing of the records

A distinctive feature of hieroglyphs is their absolute graphic diversity compared to all other ancient writings.

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Published in 
 · 3 Apr 2024
Hieroglyphs: the writing of the records
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Anyone, by comparing a hieroglyphic text with other examples of ancient writings, whether they function as phonograms or ideograms, can see that the former graphically represent the world around us in its many aspects (animals, plants, people, etc.) with images of absolute clarity and precision; the latter express signs that are incomprehensible in their entirety or almost entirely. This, it is appropriate to reiterate, also applies to those writings represented by pictograms functioning as ideograms(1).

These, in fact, are expressed with images that are generally extremely crude, with approximate graphic strokes and therefore often difficult to interpret even by specialists themselves(2).

Example of logographic hieroglyphs (there are 8000 and probably even more)
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Example of logographic hieroglyphs (there are 8000 and probably even more)

This peculiar characteristic of hieroglyphs has not, in my opinion, been sufficiently emphasized in popular works, especially the causes that have led to such diversity. This originality, however, marked a very significant moment in the history of writing, as will be illustrated later. At the dawn of civilization, when humans felt the desire, the need, to express their thoughts through writing, they did so, in every place and era, using pictograms with an ideogram function, always intending to express their thoughts broadly, without any restrictive form. Over time, however, most writings underwent a slow evolutionary process, moving from those with an ideogram function to those with a phonogram function, thus conventional signs no longer adhering to reality.

When one reads the letter "b" in our alphabetical writing, they know that this sign represents a grapheme expressing a phoneme, precisely a monoliteral or monoconsonantal "b", nothing more. Obviously, no one will investigate the graphic aspect of such a sign, no longer adhering to the objective reality of images, because it has the exclusive function of conventionally expressing a consonantal sound today.

Example of syllabic hieroglyphs, divided into biliterals and triliterals (there are about 200 glyphs
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Example of syllabic hieroglyphs, divided into biliterals and triliterals (there are about 200 glyphs)

For example, cuneiform scripts, contemporaneous with hieroglyphs and used in the Akkadian language as well as in diplomatic relations throughout the ancient East, express signs that are graphically incomprehensible yet they represent the rationale of a long evolutionary process that has its origins in Sumerian ideograms.

Generally, albeit not exclusively, a slow evolution of graphic traits in most writings emerges, with a gradual loss of the objective reality of images. Obviously, there were periods of "interregnum" in these writings, in the sense of the coexistence of signs with an ideogram function and signs with a phonogram function: an evolutionary process characterized by the transition from the logographic to the logophonetic system.

Hieroglyphs underwent this syntactic-grammatical evolution as well.

All the alphabetic hieroglyphs (24 glyphs, sometimes 27)
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All the alphabetic hieroglyphs (24 glyphs, sometimes 27)

The great insight that Champollion had compared to other scholars of his time (Åkerblad, Young, etc.) was precisely to realize that in the context of a Middle Kingdom hieroglyphic text(3), only a few signs take on the function of ideogram(4), the vast majority of them have phonogram functions, just like our writings, and, what is even more important as mentioned before, these signs no longer adhere to the images they represent(5).

However, beyond this evolutionary process, common to the majority of writings, hieroglyphs differ from others for a particular reason: they are special, sectoral writings, in the sense that their field of use was exclusively for sacred purposes. The Egyptians called them m-d-w-n-T-r(6), meaning "word of god, word of the divinity"; the same name of Greek origin, hieroglyphos, takes on the meaning of sacredness sculpted, that is, "sacred writings carved in stone."

Now, the cosmic conception of that ancient civilization, where the primordial order of the world dictated by Maat required that everything pertaining to the hieratic, to the sacred, had to remain immobile, immutable until the end of time, ensured that these writings retained almost entirely their graphic form throughout their very long existence(7). This leads to a record in the history of human writing: that of longevity. No writing in the world has lasted so long without undergoing appreciable changes in graphic order.

But there's more.

There are no hieroglyphic writings made in an accurate manner and others in a crude, approximate manner. Hieroglyphs are always made in an extremely accurate, precise manner whether carved in stone, generally in granite, or painted - limited to tombs - with vibrant colors that are still well preserved in many cases. It took a lot of time to carve or paint them, and the scribes who created them were true artists. This extreme accuracy, and also refinement, was always due and I would say imposed by the requirement of sacredness of these writings. This leads to another record of hieroglyphs in the history of writing, that of aesthetics, of beauty. Graphologists agree in attributing this primacy to hieroglyphs due to the significant number of signs expressing the world in its many configurations(8), for the extremely accurate graphic trait, for the multicolored colors, often true works of art, limited of course to writings found in tombs or covered locations.

Hieroglyphs: the writing of the records
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Therefore, two records in the history of writing, that of longevity and beauty, both stemming from a single matrix: their exclusive use for sacred purposes, a unique peculiarity in the history of human writing. Naturally, there was a parallel writing to hieroglyphs, the everyday one for epistolary, commercial, or accounting uses in general, derived from these but with a simpler, more approximate graphic trait. This form of writing, called cursive, or enchorial as it was called in the nineteenth century, or even hieratic(9), then underwent further changes in the 7th century BC during the Saite period with the advent of Demotic, but that is another story.


  1. A pictogram is a writing mechanism that uses images; when this image represents the intended object, it becomes an ideogram.
  2. For a thorough examination and comparison, see, among many, Aramaic, Ethiopian, Libyan, Tifinagh (ancient Tuareg scripts), Sanskrit, Amharic, Hebrew, cuneiform characters (Ugaritic alphabet), Sumerian ideograms, Hittite hieroglyphs, ancient Chinese ideograms, Linear A and B.
  3. The classical period of ancient Egyptian language, which is the main subject of study and research by Egyptologists.
  4. Scribes used to mark the sign functioning as an ideogram by adding a diacritical stroke below or beside it.
  5. An example for all: the adjective "good, beautiful," from which words like Nefertari, Nefertiti, etc., are derived, is represented by an animal trachea (F35 nfr from the Gardiner list - a triconsonantal or triliteral sign, conventionally read as nefer).
  6. Transliteration adopted in the Manuel de Codage, the term conventionally read as medu-netjer.
  7. The earliest findings date back to the beginning of the 4th millennium BC, the latest to the 4th century of our era.
  8. About six thousand signs have been discovered, which scholars have grouped by image type using appropriate coordinates to easily identify them (see the lists of A.H. Gardiner and E.A.W. Budge).
  9. A word of Greek origin meaning sacred writings, but with a semantic value different from that attributed to hieroglyphic writings. In this case, it should be simply understood as "writings of the priests." It's important to remember that in the Pharaonic era, the priestly caste, in addition to administering the religious cult, was the earthly representative of the god Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing. Therefore, the priestly caste was the depository of knowledge in the broad sense and thus had the monopoly of writing, which was carried out with the help of scribes, simple technicians at its service.

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