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Call number 493.18242 MCD Author McDermott, Bridget. Title Decoding Egyptian hieroglyphs : how to read the secret language of the pharaohs / Bridget McDermott ; foreword by Joann Fletcher. Publication info San Francisco : Chronicle Books, 2001. Physical descrip 171 p. : col ill. ; 24 cm. Bibliography note Includes bibliographical references (p. 171) and index. Subject term Egyptian language--Writing, Hieroglyphic. DBCN (Sirsi) AED-5639 ISBN 0811832252 (pbk.)

Read a chapter or excerpt Author Biography Bridget McDermott is at work on her doctoral thesis on the ancient Egyptian military, and is also a media consultant on Egyptian archaeology. She lives in England Joann Fletcher, Ph.D., is director of the NILE educational organization, as well as a frequent university lecturer. She divides her time between Egypt and her home in England Distributed by Syndetic Solutions, Inc.

Summary The French linguist who decoded the Rosetta Stone took 14 years to do so; amateur translators would find the task much simpler with Decoding Egyptian Hieroglyphs: How to Read the Secret Language of the Pharaohs by British doctoral student Bridget McDermott. For instance: "a water pot on a human leg, a bread loaf and a flesh sign together" means "meat." The colorful text, a marriage between coffee-table picture book and high school language workbook, offers photographs of ancient inscriptions with sidebars clarifying their meaning as well as pronunciation and grammar guides, magic spells, maps, mythology and basic Egyptian history. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. Distributed by Syndetic Solutions, Inc.

Table of Contents

  Foreword Dr Joann Fletcher 6 
  Chapter 1 First Steps 8 
    Discovery and Decipherment 10 
      The Rosetta Stone 11 
      The History of the Language 12 
    The Scribal Legacy 14 
      The Role of the Scribe 15 
    How Hieroglyphs Work 18 
      The Arrangement of Signs 19 
      Spelling and Pronunciation 20 
      The Alphabet 22 
      Determinatives 24 
  Chapter 2 Origins of the Signs 26 
    Signs from Nature 28 
      On the Banks of the Nile 28 
      Bodies Human and Divine 30 
      The Animal World 34 
      Hosts of the Air 36 
      Reeds and Flowers 38 
      The Divine Elements of Life 41 
    Life on Earth 44 
      Dwellings of Men and Gods 45 
      The Harvest of the Fields 50 
      Eating and Drinking 53 
      Recreation and Sport 56 
  Chapter 3 The Sacred Art Of Writing 58 
    The Magical Dimension 60 
      Worship of the Gods 60 
      The Art of Magic 64 
      Tomb Inscriptions 66 
      Reading a Tomb Inscription 68 
      The Pyramid Texts 70 
      Coffin Texts 72 
      The Book of the Dead 74 
    How to Read Objects 76 
      Statues 76 
      Jewelry 78 
      Weapons of War 80 
    The Power of Names 82 
      The King's Titles 82 
      Gods and Goddesses 86 
      Reading a Temple Inscription 90 
  Chapter 4 Realms of Meaning 92 
    A Healthy Life 94 
      The Body Beautiful 94 
      The Healing Arts 96 
      Death and the Afterlife 98 
    Relationships 104 
      Generations 104 
      Expressing Emotions 106 
      Love and Family Life 108 
    Trades and Skills 110 
      Mining 111 
      Servants of the Gods 112 
      Servants of the State 115 
      A Life of Work 118 
      Soldiers 120 
    Weapons and War 122 
      The Force of Egypt 122 
      Military Records 124 
    Egypt and Beyond 126 
      The Black Land 126 
      The Forty-Two Nomes 128 
      Sacred Sites 130 
      Peoples Beyond the Black Land 134 
    Calculation and Measurement 138 
      Time 138 
      The Seasons of the Year 140 
      Mathematics 142 
    Celestial Worlds 144 
      Creation Myths 145 
      Day and Night 146 
      The Waters of Heaven 148 
  Chapter 5 Reference File 150 
    The Grammar of Hieroglyphs 152 
    Sample Translations 160 
    Sign Index 166 
  Index 172 
  Acknowledgments 176 

Distributed by Syndetic Solutions, Inc.


The French linguist who decoded the Rosetta Stone took 14 years to do so; amateur translators would find the task much simpler with Decoding Egyptian Hieroglyphs: How to Read the Secret Language of the Pharaohs by British doctoral student Bridget McDermott. For instance: "a water pot on a human read more... Appeared in: Library Journal, Nov 01, 2002 (c) Copyright 2003, Cahners Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Holdings Stanley A. Milner Library Copies Material Location 493.18242 MCD 1 Book Checked Out


Copyright © 2001 Bridget McDermott.

Terms of Use

Chapter One


In 1799 a French officer at Fort Julien in el-Rashîd in Egypt uncovered a granitic rock carved with three scripts: hieroglyphs, demotic or popular Egyptian, and ancient Greek. The slab was the key to deciphering hieroglyphs.


The officer was a member of a French expeditionary force to Egypt, and copies of the inscription on the slab — later called the Rosetta Stone after European versions of el- Rashîd — were sent to Paris. By examining the Greek text on the slab, scholars saw that the carving commemorated the coronation of Ptolemy V and had been commissioned by priests of Memphis in 196BCE. But it was years before the fourteen lines of Egyptian hieroglyphs were deciphered.

   Jean-François Champollion, a precocious 

French linguist, obtained a copy of the Rosetta Stone inscription in 1808 when he was only eighteen. Fluent in ancient Greek, he compared the hieroglyphs in oval enclosures — which were believed to contain royal names — to the royal names listed in the Greek section of the inscription. Other scholars had identified Ptolemy in Greek and Egyptian. Champollion assumed that the name should be read alphabetically and that each hieroglyph represented a separate letter, and by reading from right to left established the name p-t-o-l-m-y-s. He was able to draw up a small alphabet.

   When he saw a copy of an inscription 

containing the name Cleopatra, he made a longer sign list that enabled him to read names on other monuments. He realized that hieroglyphs used signs that represented both sounds and ideas and he examined the grammar of the language, making his findings public in 1822.


Around 3000BCE developments in trade brought about crosscultural relationships between Egypt, Mesopotamia and neighbouring countries. The Sumerians of Mesopotamia had developed a system of writing that used pictograms or picture signs and for many years scholars believed that this system was the basis of Egyptian writing. Recent excavations at Abydos, however, have revealed that Egypt had used a pictorial language several hundred years before Mesopotamia.

   The oldest surviving examples of written 

Egyptian date from c.3250BCE. At first the pictorial script was used primarily to record royal possessions but by the Old Kingdom (2625-2130BCE) the script appeared mainly in religious or commemorative inscriptions on palaces, temples and tombs, on statues, coffins and sarcophagi and on amulets and jewelry. For this reason the Greeks who ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great in 323BCE called the writing "hieroglyphics" from the Greek words hieros (meaning "sacred") and gluphe ("carving"). Hieroglyphic writing was in use for more than 3,000 years from the fourth millennium BCE to the fourth century of the Christian era, when — in a Roman-dominated Egypt — it faded into obscurity. The latest known inscriptions in hieroglyphs date from 24 August 394CE and were discovered on the island of Philae in the River Nile in southern Egypt, where a temple to the goddess Isis was still in use in the sixth century CE.

   Hieroglyphic signs were written in 

columns and rows and read from right to left, from left to right or from top to bottom — but never from bottom to top (see page 19). A simplified form of hieroglyphic writing probably first appeared shortly after the introduction of the original hieroglyphs. In the Old Kingdom this simplified form was used for secular administrative papyri as well as for temple accounts and religious texts. In the Greco-Roman period (332BCE-CE395), however, it was used only by priests and in religious contexts — the Greeks named it "hieratic", from hieratikos ("priestly"). Scribes wrote hieratic in columns and rows; in rows it read from right to left.

   A more rapid form of writing — best 

described as a shorthand used for administrative documents — first appeared in 724-712BCE and continued in use until the late Roman period (fourth century CE). The Egyptians identified it by a phrase meaning "writing of documents", but it is widely known as "demotic" from the Greek demotikos ("popular"), because it was used in secular writing.

   A fourth form of written Egyptian was 

Coptic. This was written in the Greek alphabet but retained seven characters from the ancient Egyptian language. While earlier forms of Egyptian used only consonants in their alphabets (see pages 22-23), Coptic used vowels as well and has helped scholars reconstruct the vowel sounds of hieroglyphic writing. The earliest Coptic texts, which date from the first and second centuries CE, were Egyptian magical writings. The name comes from the Greek Aiguptia, "Egypt". After the Arab conquest of Egypt in 640-642CE, Arabic largely replaced Coptic in Egypt.

   The language of Egypt is divided by 

historians into Old, Middle and Late Egyptian. Old Egyptian is dated to 3180-2240BCE and was used in official, funerary and biographical inscriptions. Middle Egyptian (2240-1990BCE) was developed in literary compositions of the Middle Kingdom and continued in use well into the Eighteenth Dynasty (1539-1292BCE). Because it is grammatically consistent, Middle Egyptian is the best place to start when learning to read hieroglyphs. Late Egyptian, dating to 1573-715BCE, is found in official documents, inscriptions and letters.


In ancient Egypt, those able to read or write the elaborate hieroglyphic script were held in great esteem, and often became prominent figures in the religious, military or political realms. Literacy was limited to members of the élite. Highly trained scribes used hieroglyphs to facilitate the administration of the state and to document political and religious events.


From the age of seven, boys from Egypt's upper classes attended school at temple, where they practised their writing on ostraca (fragments of pottery or limestone) or on wooden writing boards that were coated with gypsum. Pupils probably also learned words and phrases by heart by chanting them. Boys are also known to have studied literary compositions including stories and wisdom texts.

   It is thought that Egyptian further 

education began between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, when students were expected to embark on an apprenticeship. Among the many trades open to educated young men, the military and scribal professions were particularly highly regarded. Those who chose to become scribes enjoyed promising prospects — qualified scribes could expect to graduate to prestigious administrative positions in a range of sectors. Military scribes were responsible for recruiting and organizing the army and its supplies. Some scribes acted as architects, while others designed the plans for decorating royal tombs and temples with hieroglyphs and pictures, and supervised the artists and craftsmen who carried the plans out.

   Individual scribes, even if they came 

from relatively humble backgrounds, were sometimes promoted to positions of high office. Imhotep, the scribe and architect of the step pyramid at Saqqara, was even worshipped as a god after his death, as was another famous scribe, Amenhotep son of Hapu (see page 17).

   The ancient Egyptians revered literacy, 

and even élite men who were not scribes sometimes commissioned statues of themselves kneeling crosslegged on the ground in the pose that characterized the profession. The scribe is usually depicted with rolls of writing material stretched across his knees. The Egyptians wrote on bone, clay, ivory, linen, metal and vellum, but ostraca and papyrus were more widely used. Scribes selected small rectangular sections or rolls of papyrus, which were several metres in length. Egyptian books, in the form of scrolls, were usually stored in boxes or jars.

   The hieroglyphic word for "scribe" 

?? ss/sesh (see pages 20-23 for transliteration and pronunciation of hieroglyphs) starts with an image of the scribal palette and tools; the determinative sign (see page 24) is a kneeling male figure that represents a scribe at work. The scribal palette consisted of black and red inks that were used to distinguish between sections of text. The black pigment was derived from carbon, while the red was extracted from two types of iron oxide and ochre. Both pigments were moulded into small cakes which were mixed with gum and water. Pens and brushes were crafted from the firm, straight stems of reeds or from slivers of wood which were bruised at one end until the fibres separated and formed bristles. The word "to write" ?? ss/sesh is almost identical to the word for "scribe", and was pronounced in the same way. It shows the scribal palette and pen followed by the image of a sealed papyrus roll.


For centuries hieroglyphs were an unbreakable code because scholars were misled by the ancient Egyptians' use of symbols in writing. To break the code modern readers had to understand — as Jean-François Champollion did — that the symbols represent both sounds and ideas (see page 20). The first step of all, however, is to examine how scribes arranged the hieroglyphs.


Ancient Egyptian scribes wrote hieroglyphs in both rows and columns with no spaces between the words. Inscriptions can be read from left to right or from right to left along a row and in a column from top to bottom.

   When reading a row you can work out 

in which direction to read because signs containing humans, animals or birds always face toward the beginning of the inscription. For example, when the word for "drink" is written like this ?? it should be read from the left because the human figure and the bird are facing toward the left. If it is written in this way ?? it is read from the right.

   When a row of hieroglyphs appears 

vertically reading should begin at the top, for hieroglyphs were never written from the bottom to the top of a column. Within a row if two signs are put together vertically — as the bird and the mouth sign are in "drink" — the upper one should be read first. The signs in "drink" should therefore be read in this order ?? (folded cloth) ?? (sparrow), ?? (mouth), ?? (reed), ?? (water ripples) and ?? (man).

   The signs reproduced in this book are 

printed as we are accustomed to read English — in a straight line from left to right. However, scribes used hieroglyphs as part of the decorative scheme of the monument, tomb or other object on which they were writing, often arranging the signs in the way most pleasing to the eye. When carving an inscription on a monument, they would group the signs to fill the space available. Sometimes they repeated pieces of text in opposing directions for symmetrical effect.


Before Jean-François Champollion made his inspired breakthrough in the decoding of hieroglyphs (see page 11), scholars believed that all hieroglyphic symbols stood for concepts or things and that none was used to represent sounds in the way that the letters of the English alphabet are used. In fact hieroglyphic writing, as Champollion understood, combines ideograms (signs that represent ideas and things) and phonograms (signs that represent sounds).

   Many signs depict recognizable creatures 

or things — for example, ?? (bull), ?? (horse) or ?? (child). Many depict stylized versions of the thing to which they refer, as in ?? (lotus pool), ?? (lotus flower) or ?? (palm branch stripped of leaves). Sometimes a sign is used as the word for the object it depicts. For instance, the word for "mouth" ?? consists of the mouth sign written with a single stroke that indicates, among other things, that this word refers to the thing that is represented. Similarly the words for "sun" ?? and "arm" ?? are written with the signs that represent those objects. More usually, however, hieroglyphic signs represent sounds in the Egyptian language — they are used as phonograms. Two picture signs representing different sounds can be put together to make a new word, which often has nothing to do with the things represented by the picture signs themselves. A hypothetical English equivalent usually quoted by scholars would be to write "belief" by combining the images of a bee and a tree's leaf: bee-leaf. If you were trying to decode this hypothetical English hieroglyph and expected the resulting word to relate to bees, leaves, honey or trees, you would be heading in entirely the wrong direction.

   By careful comparison of the use of 

hieroglyphic signs in different contexts, scholars have identified specific signs with individual sounds. Where possible they have matched these sounds with the letters of the English alphabet. But some sounds in ancient Egyptian do not have exact equivalents in English and so cannot be represented using letters of the alphabet; in these cases scholars have developed a set of signs to represent the sounds (see pages 22-23). The translation of hieroglyphic pictures into sounds is called "transliteration". Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs did not represent vowel sounds (a,e,i,o,u) and so only consonants are used in transliteration.

   In the word for "house" ?? the rectangle 

represents a house; the pronunciation of the word combined the consonant sounds p and r — and the sign is transliterated using those letters: pr. The word for "to go forth" ?? made the same sound combination. In this context the sign of the house works to represent the sound combination pr(i); the mouth sign reinforces this, because it represents the sound r; the sign for walking legs helps to distinguish between the house symbol used as an ideogram in ?? and the same symbol used as a phonogram in "to go forth" — the leg sign indicates that the word is to do with movement and is an example of a determinative (see page 24).

   Scholars do not know for certain how 

the ancient Egyptians pronounced the words represented by hieroglyphs, but they have a good idea based on comparative research in Coptic (see page 13). As well as transliterating hieroglyphic signs into recognizable letters (but using only consonants), we can write out the word's probable pronunciation complete with vowel sounds. The word house ??, transliterated pr, was probably pronounced "pair". In this book the hieroglyphic words cited are followed firstly by the transliteration, then the pronunciation, thus: "house" ?? pr/pair; "mistress of the house" ?? ?? nbt-pr/nebet -pair; the ancient name for Egypt ("the black land") ?? ?? ?? kmt/Kemet.


Ancient Egyptian used a standard alphabet of twenty-four "letters" each of which represented a single consonant. The letters are shown in the box below alongside their transliteration (see pages 20-21) — either a letter from the English alphabet or a transliteration sign devised by scholars — and their probable pronunciation.

   The sounds represented by the 

transliteration signs given in the alphabet box below are as follows: 3 — glottal stop, similar to "thro'le" (for "throttle") in Cockney English; i — like "y"; ?? — guttural "ah" sound; h — emphatic "h"; h — similar to "ch" in Scottish "loch"; h — similar to "ch" in German "ich"; š — "sh" as in "shimmy"; k — "kw" like "q" in "queen"; t — similar to to "t" in "tube"; d -"dj" similar to "j" in "joker".

   The language also used a number of 

signs that represented combinations of two consonants (these are known as "biliteral signs") or combinations of three consonants (known as "triliteral signs"). A list of biliteral signs and a selection of triliteral signs is given on pages 158-9 in the Reference File section at the end of this book.


Two English words can sound identical but have different meanings — for example, "pear" and "pair". In hieroglyphs, where no vowels were written, words commonly shared a spelling. The adjective ?? "old" and the noun ?? "praise" both read i3w/ah-oo. When words looked alike in this way, Egyptian scribes added what scholars call determinatives — ideograms used to determine or make clear the meaning. The determinative for ?? "old" is a stooping, elderly man while the determinative for "praise" is a figure raising hands in worship. Determinatives do not have a phonetic function — they represent no sound. Ideograms of a man ?? or parts of the male anatomy including the penis ?? and ?? were used to determine words with male aspects: for example, ?? s3/sar "son" and ?? h3y/hay "husband". Ideograms of a woman ?? were used to determine words with female aspects such as ?? mwt/moot "mother".

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