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Hieroglyphics

ἱερογλυφικὰ, sc. γράμματα) or Hieroglyphs (in Egyptian, called Neter kharu or “divine words”). Pictures of objects used to express either sounds, words, or ideas. Hieroglyphs have been used by several nations, among them the Mexican Aztecs, but the word is oftenest employed of the system of the ancient Egyptians. Their invention in Egypt was ascribed to the god Thoth. Pliny the Elder speaks of Menon as their inventor. There is no evidence that any of the early Greeks acquired an understanding of them, but Philo in his Vita Moysis says that Moses could read them. In Egypt they were universally employed by the educated classes, but were practically a mystery to the people at large, whence a belief in their divine origin prevailed. Democritus of Abdera (B.C. 460), in a work now lost, described both the hieroglyphs of Egypt and the Assyrian cuneiform; and under the Greek rulers of Egypt (after B.C. 300) considerable attention was paid to the language and literature of the country. Under the Romans, Chaeremon, librarian in the Serapeum, compiled a dictionary of hieroglyphs, and they are spoken of by Diodorus, Strabo, Tacitus, Ammian us Marcellinus, Iulius Valerius, and the novelist Heliodorus (about A.D. 400), who in his romance Aethiopica, describes a letter written in hieroglyphs by Queen Candacé. Clemens Alexandrinus (A.D. 211) is the first writer to speak of the twofold nature of the hieroglyphs, which he divides into phonetic and symbolic characters.

After the sixth century A.D. all knowledge of them was lost until about the beginning of the seventeenth century when the learned Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher, endeavoured to interpret them, but had little success owing to his theory that the signs were purely ideographic. That they were at least partly phonetic was asserted by Zoega in 1787, and a certain clue to their decipherment was found in 1799 by the discovery of the celebrated Rosetta Stone during the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt. This is a slab of black basalt inscribed with


1.

hieroglyphics;


2.

demotic (enchorial, cursive), and


3.

Greek. It gives a decree of the priests of Memphis in honour of Ptolemy V. The labour of many scholars was devoted to the study of these inscriptions. Dr. Young in 1818 partly proved that the characters were alphabetic, a fact surely established in 1822 by the French scholar Champollion, who used for comparison an inscription found on an obelisk at Philae. His methods were subsequently used and his discoveries largely extended by Rosellini, Salvolini (1832), Lepsius (1837), and more recently by Bunsen, De Rougé, Birch, Chabas, Brugsch, and others.

Hieroglyphs are either ideographic (representing ideas) or phonetic (representing sounds). Phonetic signs are found dating back at least as early as B.C. 3800, and are partly alphabetic and partly syllabic. There are found in the earliest hieroglyphic writing 24 alphabetic signs. In all, there are about 1700 different hieroglyphic characters. Many of them are used as determinatives, that is as signs which aid in determining the meaning of the phonetic symbols which have preceded them. Thus after the phonetic signs for “dog,” is placed a picture of a dog; after those for “tree,” the picture

The Rosetta Stone. (British Museum.)

of a tree, etc. Abstract ideas are expressed by some figures which symbolize them or denote the objects which possess and illustrate them. Thus, “joy” is pictured in a man dancing; “craft” by a jackal, etc. Many of these determinatives get to be largely conventional, as where all actions of moving, standing, or stretching are signified by Λ, originally representing two legs. There are about 150 of these determinative signs in all, and they have their fellows in the cuneiform system of the Assyrians. In the cuneiform, however, the determinatives precede the word and in Egyptian follow it. The Egyptian determinatives are also more numerous and oftener used than the Assyrian.

There are two cursive or running forms of the hieroglyphs. The first, which is known as the hieratic, which was very extensively used, being found in legal and governmental documents, accounts, in nearly all books and rituals, and in private accounts and memoranda. Its characters were fewer in number than the hieroglyphs proper, and the vocalic complements of the consonants are regularly employed to prevent ambiguity. For a specimen of hieratic writing, see the article Aegyptus, p. 28.

The second cursive form is known as the demotic, used as early as the sixth century B.C., and continuing down to the third century A.D. It was the last native form of writing to survive in Egypt, and was gradually supplanted by the characters of the Greek alphabet introduced by the Christians. It appears on the Rosetta Stone side by side with the hieroglyphs. A specimen of it will be found on p. 494.

The language of the hieroglyphs is best represented by the Coptic, which ceased to be spoken about a century ago, but in which the services of the Egyptian Christians are still conducted. The Coptic forms are largely those of the ancient Egyptian, modified by phonetic decay.

Hieroglyphs have been found inscribed upon granite, porphyry, basalt, and sandstone; and cut or carved on wood and plaster. They were also written upon papyrus and leather. (See Papyrus.) In writing upon papyrus, a reed pen (qash) was employed. The colours most used were black, red, and green, and the inks were held when in use in a sort of wooden or ivory palette, with holes hollowed out of it as receptacles. On the Ani papyrus in the British Museum, thirteen colours are employed. The characters are written either in horizontal lines or in perpendicular columns, and are read in the order in which the pictures face. See Alphabet.

On the subject of the hieroglyphics, see Birch, Introduction to the Study of the Hieroglyphics (London, 1857); Brugsch, Grammaire Démotique (Berlin, 1855); Bunsen, Egypt's Place (vol. v. 1867). There are dictionaries of hieroglyphics by Birch and Pierret, and in German by Brugsch. See also Berger, Histoire de l'Ecriture dans l'Antiquité (Paris, 1891), and Taylor, The Alphabet (2 vols. London, 1883). A very full account of the Rosetta Stone is given in Budge's work The Mummy (London, 1893).

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