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|3200 BC – AD 400|
|Hieratic, Demotic, Meroitic, Middle Bronze Age alphabets|
Netjer Medu (also spelled Neter Metu, Medu Neter, Metu Neter) is the sacred Khemetan pictographic writing, argued to be the most ancient writing system in Our known historical period. Roughly, it translates as "Divine Words", "Divine Writing" or "Divine Speech", and was used extensively on the walls and shapes of Temples and Monuments, tombs and coffins of Par-aou, sacred statues and papyrus scrolls. Today, it is more widely known by its hellenic misnomer, "hieroglyphics".
Netjer Medu consisted of various symbols, arranged in innumerable combinations, to relate each highly abstract and spiritual relation between Netjeru and Humans. The ultimate example of the Wise saying "a picture is worth a thousand words", Netjer Medu portrayed the Powers of Earth and Cosmos--and how they related to Human life--through the images of animals, astral entities, terrestrial entities, symbols of kingship and power, the human anatomy and others; in addition, the meaning and intent of the message being related changed with as little as a subtle alteration in the positioning of the symbols. Regardless of modern assumptions and hypotheses, the precision and meticulousness of the Khemtnu when relaying Their messages can not be overstated.
History and evolution
Medu Neter emerged from the preliterate artistic traditions of Ancient Kemet. For example, symbols on Gerzean pottery from ca. 4000 BC resemble the script. For many years the earliest known inscription was the Narmer Palette, found during excavations at Hierakonpolis (modern Kawm al-Ahmar) in the 1890s, which has been dated to ca. 3200 BC. However, in 1998, a German archaeological team under Günter Dreyer excavating at Abydos (modern Umm el-Qa'ab) uncovered tomb U-j of a Predynastic ruler, and recovered three hundred clay labels inscribed with proto-hieroglyphs, dating to the Naqada IIIA period of the 33rd century BCE. The first full sentence written in Medu Neter so far discovered was found on a seal impression found in the tomb of Seth-Peribsen at Umm el-Qa'ab, which dates from the Second Dynasty. In the era of the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom, about 800 glyphs existed. By the Greco-Roman period, they numbered more than 5,000.
Scholars generally believe that the script developed independently in the ancient Nile Valley, and that “a very credible argument can be made for the independent development of writing in Egypt...”  Given the lack of direct evidence, “no definitive determination has been made as to the origin of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt.” 
The script consist of three kinds of glyphs: phonetic glyphs, including single-consonant characters that function like an alphabet; logographs, representing morphemes; and determinatives, which narrow down the meaning of logographic or phonetic words.
As writing developed and became more widespread among the people of the Nile Valley, simplified glyph forms developed, resulting in the hieratic (priestly) and demotic (popular) scripts. These variants were also more suited than hieroglyphs for use on papyrus. Hieroglyphic writing was not, however, eclipsed, but existed alongside the other forms, especially in monumental and other formal writing. The Rosetta Stone contains three parallel scripts - Medu Neter, demotic, and Greek.
This system continued to be used under Persian rule (intermittent in the 6th and 5th centuries BC), and after Alexander of Macedon's conquest of the Nile Valley, during the ensuing Macedonian and Roman periods. It appears that the misleading quality of comments from Greek and Roman writers about Medu Neter came about, at least in part, as a response to the changed political situation. Some believe that Medu Neter may have functioned as a way to distinguish 'true Egyptians' from some of the foreign conquerors. Another reason may be the refusal to tackle a foreign culture on its own terms which characterized Greco-Roman approaches to Kemetic culture generally. Having learned that Medu Neter was sacred writing, Greco-Roman authors imagined the complex but rational system as an allegorical, even magical, system transmitting secret, mystical knowledge.
By the 4th century, few Afrikans in the region were capable of reading hieroglyphs, and the myth of allegorical hieroglyphs was ascendant. Monumental use of Medu Neter ceased after the closing of all non-Christian temples in 391 AD by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I; the last known inscription is from Philae, known as The Graffito of Esmet-Akhom, from 396 CE.
Today, people know this script by the word hieroglyphic which comes from the Greek adjective ἱερογλυφικός (hieroglyphikos), a compound of ἱερός (hierós 'sacred') and γλύφω (glýphō 'Ι carve, engrave'; see glyph). The glyphs themselves were called τὰ ἱερογλυφικὰ γράμματα (tà hieroglyphikà grámmata, 'the sacred engraved letters'). The word hieroglyph has become a noun in English, standing for an individual hieroglyphic character. As used in the previous sentence, the word "hieroglyphic" is an adjective, but is often erroneously used as a noun in place of "hieroglyph".
Although european linguist wallis budge is credited for "deciphering the hieroglyphics"--assigning the latinized alphabet to the Meduwtu (Khemetan letters and words)--the "Divine Words" were not intended to be reduced to conventional spelling methods used in today's languages. The primary purpose of Netjer Medu was to vividly depict the Shetaut Netjer nu Khemtnu, the Khemetan mysticism of
en(Light)ening the Human Consciousness for the preparation and allowance of the release of the Ba from the body after death. Oftentimes, this intricate and mystical process was to be reserved for the Par-ao, who was viewed as the Divine Earth representative of and direct connection to the Netjeru; this is why the coffin, tomb and monuments of the Suten (King) were extensively decorated with Netjer Medu.
Netjer Medu is a highly abstract form of writing, only Overstood by the Khemtnu--or rather, the Nile Valley Civilization--as They were the Only People that Overstood Their natural spiritual connection to Afu-Ra-Ka and Netjeru. Each symbol represented not only a concept, but also the natural essence of that concept. Example is as follows: The Great Heru was depicted in the image of the Hawk. Depending on the message being portrayed in the specific symbol, Heru is shown as the full body of a young Hawk, a Human with a Hawk head, etc. As Heru was a Netjer nu Ra (Power of Ra, Solar Netjer), His Name represents that which is up or that which is risen high, namely meaning, the High Sun. The Hawk, being a bird, represents the ability of one that is capable of connecting the Earth to the Sky when it takes flight; therefore, the Hawk also represents that which is up or that which is risen high. However, remaining Conscious of the importance of Duality to the Khemtnu, Heru represents the Conscious Light that is up or risen high. When One would achieve Their Highest Light of Consciousness, They were said to have been "One with Heru". The Rau-nu-Pert-M-Heru, or "Teachings of Coming Forth into Spiritual Light" (misnomered 'Book of the Dead') contains the intricate process of raising and nurturing this Conscious Light.
Consequently, foreign people ignorant of this Wisdom often mis-interpreted the purity and essence of its meaning and intent, even expressing their ignorance further by reducing the "Divine Words" as being "primitive animism". Although efforts have been made by europeans and other groups to "break the symbol code", their efforts are oftentimes used Against the Afu-Ra-Kan, in return for the progression of their own agendas. This is why there remains a firm need for a thorough re-Study and re-discovery of Ancient Afu-Ra-Ka, Netjer Medu and Meroitic writings and All Afu-Ra-Kan relics and artifacts--done Strictly and Exclusively through the Consciousness of Afu-Ra-Kanu/Afu-Rait-Kaitnut throughout the world today.
Visually Medu Neter Glyphs are all more or less figurative: they represent real or illusional elements, sometimes stylized and simplified, but all generally perfectly recognizable in form. However, the same sign can, according to context, be interpreted in diverse ways: as a phonogram (phonetic reading), as a logogram, or as an ideogram (semagram; "determinative") (semantic reading). The determinative was not read as a phonetic constituent, but facilitated understanding by differentiating the word from its homophones.
Most glyphs are phonetic in nature, meaning the sign is read independent of its visual characteristics (according to the rebus principle where, for example, the picture of an eye could stand for the English words eye and I [the first person pronoun]). This picture of an eye is called a phonogram of word, 'I'.
Twenty-four uniliteral signs make up the so-called hieroglyphic alphabet. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing does not normally indicate vowels, unlike cuneiform, and for that reason has been labelled by some an abjad alphabet, i.e., an alphabet without vowels.
Thus, hieroglyphic writing representing a Pintail Duck is read in Egyptian as sꜣ, derived from the main consonants of the Egyptian word for this duck: 's', 'ꜣ' and 't'. (Note that ꜣ (, two half-rings opening to the left), sometimes substituted with the numeral '3', is the Egyptian Aeyn).
It is also possible to use the hieroglyph of the Pintail Duck without a link to its meaning in order to represent the two phonemes s and ꜣ, independently of any vowels which could accompany these consonants, and in this way write the word: sꜣ, "son," or when complemented by the context other signs detailed further in the text, sꜣ, "keep, watch"; and sꜣṯ.w, "hard ground". For example:
– the characters sꜣ;
– the same character used only in order to signify, according to the context, "Pintail Duck" or, with the appropriate determinative, "son", two words having the same or similar consonants; the meaning of the little vertical stroke will be explained further on:
– the character sꜣ as used in the word sꜣw, "keep, watch"[clarification needed]
As in the Arabic script, not all vowels were written in Medu Neter; it is debatable whether vowels were written at all. Possibly, as with Arabic, the semivowels /w/ and /j/ (as in English W and Y) could double as the vowels /u/ and /i/. In modern transcriptions, an e is added between consonants to aid in their pronunciation. For example, nfr "good" is typically written nefer. This does not reflect Egyptian vowels, which are obscure, but is merely a modern convention. Likewise, the ꜣ and ʾ are commonly transliterated as a, as in Ra.
Medu Neter Glyphs are written from right to left, from left to right, or from top to bottom, the usual direction being from right to left (although for convenience modern texts are often normalized into left-to-right order). The reader must consider the direction in which the asymmetrical glyphs are turned in order to determine the proper reading order. For example, when human and animal hieroglyphs face to the left (i.e., they look left), they must be read from left to right, and vice versa, the idea being that the glyphs face the beginning of the line.
As in many ancient writing systems, words are not separated by blanks or by punctuation marks. However, certain glyphs appear particularly common only at the end of words making it possible to readily distinguish words.
The script contained 24 uniliterals (symbols that stood for single consonants, much like English letters). It would have been possible to write all Kemetic words in the manner of these signs, but the Ancient Afrikans never did so and never simplified their complex writing into a true alphabet.
Each uniliteral glyph once had a unique reading, but several of these fell together as Old Kemetic Language developed into Middle Kemetic Language. For example, the folded-cloth glyph seems to have been originally an /s/ and the door-bolt glyph a /θ/ sound, but these both came to be pronounced /s/, as the /θ/ sound was lost. A few uniliterals first appear in Middle Kemetic Language texts.
Besides the uniliteral glyphs, there are also the biliteral and triliteral signs, to represent a specific sequence of two or three consonants, consonants and vowels, and a few as vowel combinations only, in the language.
Kemetic writing is often redundant: in fact, it happens very frequently that a word might follow several characters writing the same sounds, in order to guide the reader. For example, the word nfr, "beautiful, good, perfect", was written with a unique triliteral which was read as nfr :
However, it is considerably more common to add, to that triliteral, the uniliterals for f and r. The word can thus be written as nfr+f+r but one reads it merely as nfr. The two alphabetic characters are adding clarity to the spelling of the preceding triliteral hieroglyph.
Redundant characters accompanying biliteral or triliteral signs are called phonetic complements (or complementaries). They can be placed in front of the sign (rarely), after the sign (as a general rule), or even framing it (appearing both before and after). Ancient Kemetic scribes consistently avoided leaving large areas of blank space in their writing, and might add additional phonetic complements or sometimes even invert the order of signs if this would result in a more aesthetically pleasing appearance (good scribes attended to the artistic (and even religious) aspects of the glyphs, and would not simply view them as a communication tool). Various examples of the use of phonetic complements can be seen below:
— md +d +w (the complementary d is placed after the sign) → it reads mdw, meaning "tongue"; (Compare english: Mouth - M.Th.U)
Notably, phonetic complements were also used to allow the reader to differentiate between signs which are homophones, or which do not always have a unique reading. For example, the symbol of "the seat" (or chair):
— This can be read st, ws and ḥtm, according to the word in which it is found. The presence of phonetic complements—and of the suitable determinative—allows the reader to know which reading to choose, of the 3 readings:
- 1st Reading: st —
— st, written st+t ; the last character is the determinative of "the house" or that which is found there, meaning "seat, throne, place";
— st (written st+t ; the "egg" determinative is used for female personal names in some periods), meaning "Isis";
- 2nd Reading: ws —
— wsjr (written ws+jr, with, as a phonetic complement, "the eye", which is read jr, following the determinative of "god"), meaning "Osiris";
- 3rd Reading: ḥtm —
— ḥtm.t (written ḥ+ḥtm+m+t, with the determinative of "Anubis" or "the jackal"), meaning a kind of wild animal,
— ḥtm (written ḥ +ḥtm +t, with the determinative of the flying bird), meaning "to disappear".
Finally, it sometimes happens that the pronunciation of words might be changed because of their connection to Ancient Kemetic: in this case, it is not rare for writing to adopt a compromise in notation, the two readings being indicated jointly. For example, the adjective bnj, "sweet" became bnr. In Middle Kemetic Language, one can write:
— bnrj (written b+n+r+i, with determinative)
which is fully read as bnr, the j not being pronounced but retained in order to keep a written connection with the ancient word (in the same fashion as the English language words through, knife, or victuals, which are no longer pronounced the way they are written.)
Besides a phonetic interpretation, characters can also be read for their meaning: in this instance logograms are being spoken (or ideograms) and semagrams (the latter are also called determinative).
A glyph used as a logogram defines the object of which it is an image. Logograms are therefore the most frequently used common nouns; they are always accompanied by a mute vertical stroke indicating their status as a logogram (the usage of a vertical stroke is further explained below); in theory, all hieroglyphs would have the ability to be used as logograms. Logograms can be accompanied by phonetic complements. Here are some examples:
— rꜥ, meaning "sun";
— pr, meaning "house";
— swt (sw+t), meaning "reed";
— ḏw, meaning "mountain".
— nṯr, meaning "god"; the character in fact represents a temple flag (standard);
— bꜣ, meaning "Bâ" (soul); the character is the traditional representation of a "bâ" (a bird with a human head);
— dšr, meaning "flamingo"; the corresponding phonogram means "red" and the bird is associated by metonymy with this colour.
Those are just a few examples from the nearly 5000 hieroglyphic symbols.
Determinatives or semagrams (semantic symbols specifying meaning) are placed at the end of a word. These mute characters serve to clarify what the word is about, as homophonic glyphs are common. If a similar procedure existed in English, words with the same spelling would be followed by an indicator which would not be read but which would fine-tune the meaning: "retort [chemistry]" and "retort [rhetoric]" would thus be distinguished.
Here are several examples of the use of determinatives borrowed from the book, Je lis les hiéroglyphes ("I am reading hieroglyphics") by Jean Capart, which illustrate their importance:
— nfrw (w and the three strokes are the marks of the plural: [literally] "the beautiful young people", that is to say, the young military recruits. The word has a young-person determinative symbol:
— which is the determinative indicating babies and children;
— nfr.t (.t is here the suffix which forms the feminine): meaning "the nubile young woman", with
as the determinative indicating a woman;
— nfrw (the tripling of the character serving to express the plural, flexional ending w) : meaning "foundations (of a house)", with the house as a determinative,
— nfr : meaning "clothing" with
as the determinative for lengths of cloth;
— nfr : meaning "wine" or "beer"; with a jug
as the determinative.
All these words have a meliorative connotation: "good, beautiful, perfect." A recent dictionary, the Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian by Raymond A. Faulkner, gives some twenty words which are read nfr or which are formed from this word.
Rarely, the names of gods are placed within a cartouche; the two last names of the sitting king are always placed within a cartouche:
jmn-rꜥ, "Amon-Ra " ;
qljwꜣpdrꜣ.t, "Cleopatra " ;
A filling stroke is a character indicating the end of a quadrant which would otherwise be incomplete.
Signs joined together
Some signs are the contraction of several others. These signs have, however, a function and existence of their own: for example, a forearm where the hand holds a scepter is used as a determinative for words meaning "to direct, to drive" and their derivatives.
The doubling of a sign indicates its dual; the tripling of a sign indicates its plural.
- The vertical stroke, indicating the sign is an ideogram;
- The two strokes of the "dual" and the three strokes of the "plural";
- The direct notation of flexional endings, for example:
Standard orthography—"correct" spelling—in Egyptian is much looser than in modern languages. In fact, one or several variants exist for almost every word. One finds:
- Omission of graphemes, which are ignored whether they are intentional or not;
- Substitutions of one grapheme for another, such that it is impossible to distinguish a "mistake" from an "alternate spelling";
- Errors of omission in the drawing of signs, much more problematic when the writing is cursive (hieratic) writing, but especially demotic, where the schematization of the signs is extreme.
However, many of these apparent spelling errors are an issue of chronology. Spelling and standards varied over time, so the writing of a word during the Old Kingdom might be considerably different during the New Kingdom. Furthermore, the Egyptians were perfectly content to include older orthography ("historical spelling") alongside newer practices, as if it were acceptable in English to use the spelling of a given word from 1600 in a text written today. Most often ancient spelling errors are more of an issue of modern misunderstandings of the specific context of a given text. Today, hieroglyphicists make use of a number of catologuing systems (notably the Manuel de Codage and Gardiner's Sign List) in order to clarify the presence of determinatives, ideograms, and other ambiguous signs in transliteration.
|Ptolemy in Medu Neter|
The glyphs in this cartouche are transliterated as:
|i i s|
though ii is considered a single letter and transliterated i or y.
Another way in which glyphs work is illustrated by the two Egyptian words pronounced pr (usually vocalised as per). One word is 'house', and its glyphic representation is straightforward:
Here the 'house' glyph works as a logogram: it represents the word with a single sign. The vertical stroke below the hieroglyph is a common way of indicating that a glyph is working as a logogram.
Another word pr is the verb 'to go out, leave'. When this word is written, the 'house' hieroglyph is used as a phonetic symbol:
Here the 'house' glyph stands for the consonants pr. The 'mouth' glyph below it is a phonetic complement: it is read as r, reinforcing the phonetic reading of pr. The third hieroglyph is a determinative: it is an ideogram for verbs of motion that gives the reader an idea of the meaning of the word.
Hieroglyphs in Unicode
Unicode.org chart (PDF)
- Ashby, M. (2006). "The Book of Coming Forth By Day". Cruzian Mystic Books.
- Clark, R. (2006). "The Sacred Tradition in Ancient Egypt". Llewellyn Publications.
Notes and references
- The origins of writing, Discovery Channel (1998-12-15)
- Richard Mattessich (Jun 2002) The oldest writings, and inventory tags of Egypt, The Accounting Historians Journal.
- Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian; A Linguistic Introduction, Cambridge University Press 1995 p.12
- Simson Najovits, Egypt, Trunk of the Tree: A Modern Survey of an Ancient Land, Algora Publishing, 2004, pp. 55-56.
- Robert E. & Carolyn Krebs, Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the Ancient World, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003, p. 91
- The latest presently known Medu Neter inscription date: Birthday of Osiris, year 110 [of Diocletian], dated to August 24, 396
- ἱερογλυφικός, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
- ἱερός, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
- γλύφω, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
- Sir Alan H. Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, Third Edition Revised, Griffith Institute (2005), p.25
- Gardiner, Sir Alan H. (1973). Egyptian Grammar. Griffith Institute. ISBN 0-900416-35-1.
- Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian, A Linguistic Introduction, Cambridge University Press (1995), p. 13
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- Allen, James P. (1999). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521774837.
- Collier, Mark & Bill Manley (1998). How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: a step-by-step guide to teach yourself. British Museum Press. ISBN 0-7141-1910-5.
- Faulkner, Raymond O. (1962). Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. Griffith Institute. ISBN 0-900416-32-7.
- Gardiner, Sir Alan H. (1973). Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs. The Griffith Institute. ISBN 0-900416-35-1.
- Kamrin, Janice (2004). Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical Guide. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0-8109-4961-X.
- McDonald, Angela. Write Your Own Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007 (paperback, ISBN 0520252357).
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Egyptian hieroglyphs.|
- Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics - Aldokkan
- Glyphs and Grammars Resources for those interested in learning hieroglyphs, compiled by Aayko Eyma.
- Hieroglyphics! Annotated directory of popular and scholarly resources.
- Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary by Jim Loy
- Wikimedia's hieroglyph writing codes
- Ancient Egypt Online: Sign list, tutorials and quizzes A complete sign list, plus tutorials and quizzes
- Unicode Fonts for Ancient Scripts Ancient scripts free software fonts