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Starting from ca. 5,000 BCE just until the end of the Ptolemies rule over Egypt (about 100 BCE), the most eminent characteristic associated with ancient Egyptian documentation is the hieroglyph. To the ancients, writing was not just a method of expressing one's thoughts or recording information, but it was of sacred quality. It is evident that this is so because of the appellation the ancient Egyptians gave to describe them: medw netjer ("the god's words", in ancient Egyptian). Of course, "hieroglyph" is not ancient Egyptian; rather it is derived from the Greek words "hieros", which means "sacred", and "glypho", meaning, "carved". We use this word to describe the ancient writing because, in the Graeco-Roman Period (more prominent during this time, but equally employed during the Egyptian rule over Egypt), hieroglyphic writing was exclusively employed for religious inscriptions on temple walls or public monuments. Some of the surfaces on which hieroglyphs have been written are stone, whether on temple or tomb walls, or on stelae or the sides of sarcophagi; wooden coffins; gold jewelry; calcite vessels; and papyri.
Wherever they were written and in whatever context, hieroglyphs were very elaborate and detailed. Sometimes, scribes added color to their hieroglyphic writing: celestial objects, metal vessels, and water were painted blue; animals, birds and reptiles were painted as close to their natural colors as was possible; Egyptian men and body parts were painted red; Egyptian women were painted yellow or a pinky-brown; and plant life was indicated with green. However, it should be noted that identifying hieroglyphs with color is only partially useful, for some artists or scribes were not consistent with colors.
Just like hieratic--the cursive form of hieroglyphs--one can write/read them from left to right or from right to left; vertically or horizontally. In other words, there was no real set rule for direction. The only thing to remember in reading hieroglyphic inscriptions is the way the figures face will be the way one will read them. It should be further noted that the ancient Egyptians utilized symmetry in writing their inscriptions: one might see an inscription on a tomb wall that is read from right to left on the left side of the wall and from left to right on the right side of the wall.
In addition, hieroglyphs can be described in the following ways:

As An Ideograph

Idea:  falling Idea:  council

In this case, one uses certain hieroglyphs that represent ideas. The hieroglyph to the left represents a falling down wall that represents the idea of falling. The following hieroglyph on the right represents a hall in which deliberations by wise men were made. This ideograph represents the idea of "counsel".

With Phonetic Value

Phonetic:  maatPhonetic:  kheper

A hieroglyphic inscription can be expressed by a sound either syllabically or alphabetically. Examples of syllabically expressed hieroglyphs include the following, above...
A hieroglyph that has alphabetical value is best illustrated with the ancient Egyptian alphabet--
click here
to view.

With Poly-Phonetic Value

Hieroglyphs that have poly-phonetic value have more than one phonetic value or more than one syllabic or alphabetic value. The hieroglyph above, if described as what it is--an owl--would be indicated as "mulotch" which is of syllabic meaning. However, the sign itself has an alphabetic value: "m" in the ancient Egyptian alphabet.

With Homo-Phonetic Value

Hieroglyphs with homo-phonetic value are ideographs that represent entirely different objects, but have similar values. In other words, two different phonetic hieroglyphs (above) that mean the same basic thing have homo-phonetic value. For example, in English, words that are synonymous to another or other words have homo-phonetic value.

As A Word With One Or More Determinatives
Determinatives are hieroglyphic signs that were primarily used in post-dynastic texts and were added signs to word-signs that helped indicate the meaning and the sounds of written words. Determinatives appear in two forms: those that determine a single species and those that determine a whole class. There are words that use no, one, or more determinatives. An example of a word with no determinative is labeled
#1. An example of a word with one determinative is labeled
#2. For this hieroglyphic word, the glyph in red is the determinative and indicates that the word "ankh" means flower. An example of a word with two determinatives is labeled
#3. For this hieroglyphic word, the first glyph in red is a determinative and represents a bud; the second glyph in red is a determinative that represents a flower. Together, along with the alphabetical hieroglyphs, form the word renpit which means "flowers". The three vertical lines below the second determinative, in red, indicate that the word is plural.

As A Word With A Phonetic Compliment
A hieroglyph with a phonetic compliment is where there is an alphabetic sign at the end of the word that helps in the reading of the word. This may sound similar to the duty of a determinative, except for one difference: in many words, the last letter of the value of a syllabic sign is often written in order to guide the reader as to its pronunciation, rather than its meaning. An example of a word with a phonetic compliment is found below. The hieroglyph in dark yellow, by itself, is mester; the hieroglyph in green is a phonetic compliment that indicates that this word should be read as mestem: the hieroglyph in red is a determinative, which indicates that this word means "eye paint" or "that which is painted under the eye".

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To put it simply, hieratic is the cursive form of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, dating ca. 3100 BC. Typically, this variation of writing was used by priests and scribes, to document long text concerning the political, economic, agricultural, etc. aspects of the area in which a ruler reigned. Hieratic was also used to record religious and literary text.

As one can see, hieroglyphs takes some time to write--what with all the details one must put into drawing each pictoglyph--thus, using hieratic to record important things is less time-consuming. Just like hieroglyphs, one can write them horizontally or vertically and read them from right to left.

It was extremely rare for one to use hieratic to inscribe monuments, but not rare for it to be used to decorate limestone ostraca--basically, flakes of limestone that was popular as surface material for writing--or on the walls of tomb and temples, often in the form of graffiti.
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Enchorial or demotic writing is yet another derivative of writing, this time of hieratic writing, which is the derivative of hieroglypics. This form of writing was employed ca. 900 BCE, around the Bubastite/Libyan rule over Egypt, during the 22nd Dynasty. It was used primarily for business or social purposes. The usage of demotic came about because of the growing length of particular works, such as royal decrees. A leading example of such usage of demotic is that which can be found written on the Canopus Stone or Decree--a stelae that is inscribed in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek and dates to about 247-222 BCE. This document proved useful to scholars engaged in the decipherment of the ancient Egyptian language (hieroglyphs and the derivatives that follow) because it could be compared with the Rosetta Stone, which was also written in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek.

The Canopus Decree

The Rosetta Stone

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Budge, E.A. Wallis. First Steps in Egyptian: a book for beginners. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., Ltd. 2005.

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