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Egyptian hieroglyphs: the words of the Gods.

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The Egyptian section within ROM World Cultures holds hieroglyphic art commissioned by renowned ROM Egyptologist Dr. Nicholas Millet. The art is used here to illustrate Gayle Gibson's discussion of this once-cryptic language.

The ancient Egyptians began using symbols to represent sounds, objects, and ideas in a system of writing about 5,000 years ago. Some of the earliest known glyphs are engraved on inventory tags attached to articles in royal tombs. Others, carved into cliffs, record historical events. The Egyptians' own name for their writing system, medew netjer, "divine words," is shown below. This phrase suggests that the earliest use for Egyptian hieroglyphs may have been to record hymns and prayers, or perhaps the name simply announces that writing is a gift from the gods.

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The hieroglyphic writing system was not the only writing system used in ancient Egypt, but it was the preferred script for recording, in stone, royal decrees and other texts meant to last forever.

Despite their use in funerary contexts, Egyptian hieroglyphic texts are alive with birds and cattle, men and women, houses and boats, gods, and the forces of nature. Beautiful glyphs emphasize the strength of life and the power of nature.

If, as a child, you learned to write out your name in hieroglyphs, you learned only a few of the hundreds of hieroglyphs available to the ancient Egyptians.

Some hieroglyphs represent consonant sounds. (Vowels in ancient Egyptian were not written out.) A hieroglyph can represent one consonant, or a combination of two, three, or even four consonants. The ancient Egyptians would have used single-consonant glyphs for sounding and spelling out the names of foreigners.

Other hieroglyphs represent what they picture--a man, a woman, a lion, a boat. Some hieroglyphs, called determinatives, are not pronounced, but help to define the word they are attached to. Finally, some hieroglyphs have different meanings in different contexts; they can represent sounds, objects, ideas, or act as determinatives.

The two hieroglyphic words shown at right would have sounded very much alike. We are not sure of the vowels, but they each include the consonants m, r, and t, and Egyptologists conventionally pronounce both "meret." Though they may have sounded similar, the words have different meanings and include different glyphs. Notice how some glyphs represent sounds and others represent ideas.

Hieroglyphs could be written left to right, right to left, or top to bottom. The orientation of people and animals tells where the text begins. If the people and animals are facing right, read from right to left; if they are facing left, read from left to right.

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Man and Woman: Different but Equal

Compare these glyphs of a man and a woman. Both people sit comfortably on the ground and both look relaxed. The man gestures as he talks--he is active, but not working or fighting--while the woman listens. The man's red skin associates him with the energy of the sun and shows that his place is outdoors. The woman's pale skin suggests that she spends more of her time in the shade. Egyptian women may well have had lighter skins than their brothers and husbands because of the nature of their work, but the difference was probably not quite as marked in life as it was in glyphs.

There are three ways to read these glyphs: as the word man (za) and woman (zat); as first-person pronouns (both pronounced "ee"); or as determinatives of gender.

The word remetj, "people," is spelled with a picture of a mouth for the sound r and a tethering rope for tj. The sound m was not written. At the end we see the glyphs for both man and woman. The three lines behind them make the word plural. The man and woman are shown equal in size, indicating equal respect for the two sexes even though human males are generally larger than human females and ancient Egyptian men had a more prominent role in public life.

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This is the word shemaew, "musician." The determinative at the end indicates that the musician is male.

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Egyptian women loosened their hair and threw dirt onto it as a sign of mourning. The two glyphs at the end of the word lakbyt, "mourning woman," are determinatives that illustrate its meaning. The other glyphs represent the sounds in the word.

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Layers of Meaning

The ancient Egyptians loved puns and often found them meaningful. The word below is remeet, "tears." A play on the sound of remeet and remetj, "people," became associated with a myth that humans were created from the tears of a god.

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We find deep meaning in the glyph of the scarab beetle. This glyph represents three consonants, hard h, p, and r, which together are pronounced "kheper" or "khepri," while the verb kheper means "to develop, to transform, to come into being." Scarabs are dung beetles--they feed on animal waste, and lay their eggs in balls of dead matter. They are an apt symbol of new life from old. Scarabs left with the dead were a prayer that what seemed to be merely a hollow corpse would transform again into a radiant being.

Scarabs are also a symbol of the most powerful and important Egyptian god--Re, the god of the sun. The way they roll their balls of dung into underground tunnels mirrors the action of the sun as it sinks below the horizon every night. The morning sun was called Khepri, and sometimes Khepri-Re-Atum, "the god of creation who came into being by himself."

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The Many Names of the King

A king's personal name and throne name were always written in ovals we call cartouches. Ramesses III's name is shown below. The first image is the sun god, Re. He is shown as a seated hawk-headed man crowned with a sun disk. The Uraeus, a divine serpent, protectively encircles the disk. Re holds an ankh, the symbol of life. The second sign shows three fox skins tied together at the noses. They represent the sound mes, which conveys the idea of birth. The two horizontal signs are the letter s. In ancient Egyptian, the name was pronounced something like "Ra-mes-su," which means "it is Re who caused his birth."

The shepherd's crook stands for the word for ruler, heka. The column with a tenon on top, which was pronounced something like u-wen, stands for the holy city of Iunu, or, as the Greeks called it, Heliopolis. These two signs at the end of the king's name allow the reader to distinguish Ramesses III (Ramessu-heka-Iunu, "Ramesses, ruler of Heliopolis") from the more famous Ramesses II (Ramessu-mery-Amun, "Ramesses, beloved of the god Amun").

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This handsome pintail duck represents the sound sa (I always think of an angry duck guarding its nest). Used on its own, it means "son." The duck, followed by a sun disk reads sa Re, "son of the sun god." This title usually precedes the Egyptian king's personal name.

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The Egyptian name for the bee was onomatopoeic--bit. One of the Egyptian king's more important titles was n-sw-bity, "he-of-the-sedge and he-of-the-bee." The bee represents the delta of Egypt, called Lower Egypt, and the title proclaims that the king rules over the whole nation, north and south, delta and Nile valley. This title always precedes the King's throne name.

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There is no word in Egyptian for a ruling queen. A woman's title would be King's Mother, King's Wife, King's Sister, King's Daughter, or two or three of these at once, but not "queen." In order to rule Egypt, the female pharaoh Hatshepsut had to use the masculine title "king" and show herself as wearing male clothing. But she was not trying to deceive her people. Her cartouche, shown above, contains her unmistakably feminine personal name.

In Hatshepsut's cartouche, the first signs are a lion and a little loaf of bread. Lions symbolize power and majesty. The lion's head and forelimbs, pronounced "hat," mean "in front of" or "foremost." The central sign in the cartouche is a seated noblewoman who carries a flail as a sign of power. This is pronounced "shepes." The three lines at the end make a plural (pronounced "oo") and when combined with the loaf of bread (t, the feminine ending), they make a feminine plural noun, shepsut, "noble women." Together, they spell the name Hatshepsut, foremost of noblewomen.

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An Egyptian king's throne name set forth a program for his reign. In the case of Hatshepsut, whose assumption of power was irregular and probably seen by some as blasphemous, it was important to announce that the gods accepted her and approved. The name she chose, Ma'at-ka-re, is rich in meaning.

The disk represents the sun god, Re; most Egyptian rulers incorporated his name into their throne name. The seated goddess is Ma'at, daughter of the creator god, Atum, and a representative of cosmic truth and justice, which underlie all kingship, all authority. Her ostrich feather represents breath, as well as the sometimes delicate balance between truth and falsehood, justice and injustice. The pair of arms extended outward--to embrace, to accept, and perhaps even to beg--represents the ka, an aspect of the human person. It is something we inherit from our parents and pass on to our children. It is born when we are born and leaves this life at the same time we do. Hatshepsut's throne name can be read as "truth is the ka of Re," or, more freely, "truth and justice are the soul of god."

Representations of Reality

Most of the Egyptian population lived along the banks of the Nile River. Trade moved upstream with the prevailing wind and downstream with the current. People travelled across the river and along its banks to visit friends, markets, and temples. Even the gods travelled by boat. The hieroglyphs for many different kinds of boats, from simple skiffs to barques, reflect the prominence of boats in daily life. The economy may have depended on trade and transport, but this was also a place where the idea of sailing down to Memphis for a holiday could make a man break out into song.

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The glyph below shows one of the eight Heh gods who hold up the sky. It can mean "millions." Could the Egyptians count to a million? Did they ever try? Perhaps the glyph's meaning is less a specific number than the sense of a huge number, as many as the stars in the sky--so many that even a god would throw up his hands at the attempt to count them.

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In the age of the pyramids, there were no horses in Egypt, not even for the kings. Horses and chariot warfare came to Egypt from the Levant. During the joint reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III, they were still such rare and exotic creatures that Senenmut, Hatshepsut's friend and minister, had his pet horse buried, near his own tomb, a curiosity to accompany him in the afterlife.

With the decoding of the Rosetta Stone, the meaning of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs was revealed to the world. In the words of Egyptologist James P. Allen, "The decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing is one of the great success stories of modern archaeology. Before 1822, the civilization of ancient Egypt was mute and mysterious, its images bizarre and incomprehensible to a world convinced that all thought of any worth began with the ancient Greeks."

The exquisite beauty of the glyphs may obscure the very practical role they played in the development of Egyptian civilization. Ultimately, the hieroglyphic system became inextricably identified with the entire culture, although literacy was available only to the governing elite. There are more people alive today who can read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs than were literate in the age of Tutankhamun.

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WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY DOUGLAS CHAMPION
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Author:Gibson, Gayle
Publication:ROM Magazine
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Sep 22, 2012
Words:1988
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