Art and Writing in Ancient Egypt

Corinne Goss

Ancient Egypt has been described as an ideal setting for the study of the relationships between language, writing systems, and cultural ideology [1]. It is likewise ideal for an investigation of the relationship between written language and artistic practices. The two concepts are so closely linked that some scholars believe one cannot speak of each in isolation [2]. Much of what modern observers would consider art, including sculpture, painting, jewellery and decoration, is in fact written language. Additionally, Egyptian characters are easily conceived of as a form of art in their own right. In many cases, hieroglyphs are as beautifully detailed as the less linguistically significant images with which they appeared. It is interesting to note that Egyptians used the same word to refer to hieroglyphic inscriptions as well as their artwork [3]. Some aspects of Egyptian writing, such as the techniques used to create pictographs, are more closely related to art, while the conveyance of meaning is linguistic in nature, when referring to contemporary perspectives on Egyptian art and language. The importance of the relationship between art and written language can be seen through the interaction of the two disciplines in Egyptian civilization.

Richard Wilkinson states that “Egyptian hieroglyph writing is made up of pictures, yet it is seldom realized that a great deal of Egyptian art is in turn heavily influenced by, and on many occasions, made up of, hieroglyphic words and written signs” [4]. Someone unfamiliar with the Egyptian language that viewed low-relief Egyptian hieroglyphs may not understand the meaning (or meanings) intended by the maker. Similarly, in order to grasp the full meaning of a hieroglyphic inscription, one must have knowledge of the artistic and linguistic concepts behind the signs and their placement in regards to others.

There is an intended relationship between Egyptian art and language, which can be seen by a glance at any hieroglyphic inscription. The nature of the relationship is more tenuous.  Language often had a direct influence on artistic traditions, and vice versa; however, before it is possible to determine the details of this shared influence and the relevance it has to the greater study of Egyptian culture, some background information about the ancient Egyptian language and its writing systems is required.  It is difficult to speak of an ancient Egyptian language without first specifying a date or time period as a point of reference. By nature languages are developmental. The speech and writing system of the ancient Egyptians, like that of any other society, changed over time, along with their writing system. The written record of what is considered by scholars to be “Ancient Egyptian” spans from 3000 BCE to 1300 CE5, a span of time that is unmatched in the history of any other civilization. Even within a given time period, it is easy to find variations of style and structure in the language.6  Nonetheless, the Ancient Egyptian language is conventionally divided into five stages: Old Egyptian from 2600 to 2100 BCE; followed by Middle (or Classical) Egyptian until 1600 BCE, Late Egyptian from slightly before that time until 600 BCE, Demotic from about 650 BCE to the fifth century CE, and finally Coptic, which is recorded as a living language until the eleventh century CE. 7.

After the pre-Coptic era, many forms of Egyptian writing fell out of use, and the ability to write and read these varieties faded rapidly. A preference for the Greek language near the end of pharaonic Egypt meant that knowledge of hieroglyphs would eventually be lost entirely.8 In consequence, Egyptian texts written in hieroglyphic and hieratic, an abridged form of hieroglyphic, went undeciphered for centuries.  Only within the last two hundred years have scholars been able to transliterate and subsequently translate the writing of ancient Egypt. More recently, the principles of modern linguistic analysis have been applied to its study.9 Among the most prevalent misconceptions caused by a lack of knowledge, particularly among people whose languages use alphabetic writing systems, is “the myth that Egyptian writing is somehow “other””, which Tom Hare attributes primarily to assumptions about the superiority of such alphabetic systems.10 In reality, Egyptian writing was no more mysterious in its day than the Roman alphabet is at present, and any puzzlement it holds in modern times is due to the inherent challenges of reconstructing any dead language [11].

The concept of a “language” encompasses much more than the manner in which it is written; in fact, a language need not be recorded at all to qualify for the term, and the link between spoken and written language in ancient Egypt was no greater than that of any other literate society. As James Allen notes, hieroglyphs were “nothing more than the way the ancient Egyptians wrote their language” [12] Nonetheless, special attention is due to the orthography of Ancient Egyptian since no form of the language has been used in recent centuries and because of the relationship that writing was believed to have with the iconography of the culture. There were several systems of writing in use during each phase of the ancient Egyptian language. The most familiar is hieroglyphic, a system composed of pictographs that were usually carved or carefully painted, which were typically employed in religious or formal contexts.  Other systems included cursive hieroglyphs, which made use of simplified forms of the standard hieroglyphs and was painted with brushes and ink, as well as hieratic, an even more stylized handwritten form, often used in contexts requiring less permanence than hieroglyphic. Late in Egyptian history, hieratic writing more closely reflected the spoken language [13]. Demotic and Coptic scripts were used in the corresponding stages of the Egyptian language [14]. and in fact, Coptic is still a liturgical script of the Coptic Church [15].  However, because of its pictographic nature, hieroglyphic and its variations should be the central area of focus in an investigation of the relationship between visual art and written language.

In the Middle Kingdom, until the decline of the ancient Egyptian civilization, the variety of Ancient Egyptian spoken and written language was immense [16]. Allen states that there were about five hundred hieroglyphic signs in common use [17], while other sources have listed as many as seven hundred [18].  By the Ptolemaic period, the number of signs had expanded to over seven thousand [19]. These figures reflect significant changes in the use of hieroglyphic towards the end of its existence. However, the basic concept of the hieroglyphic system remained the same throughout the history of ancient Egypt.

Egyptian hieroglyphs were pictograms, illustrative of objects and ideas, rather than abstract symbols. These pictograms could be further classified as phonograms, representing consonantal phonemes [20], or ideograms (also called logograms) in which the pictogram depicted a concept [21].  Additionally, there were also a number of signs (determinatives) used to clarify the meaning of words composed partially or primarily of phonograms [22].  Many hieroglyphs could serve more than one of these functions [23], although in practice, only a few were regularly employed in all capacities [24].  Even the fraction of hieroglyphic script that is phonemically based is not comparable to alphabetic systems in which each letter roughly corresponds to one phoneme. In Egyptian hieroglyphs, a single phonogram could represent one, two, or three consonants [25].  Since vowels were not represented in writing, the same phonogram could be used to represent words (or parts of words) that contained different vowels; this is comparable to using a single sign to represent the English words “mess”, “miss”, “moss” and “mice”. Because of this ambiguity, the ideographic use of hieroglyphs was maintained throughout Egyptian history, and without this, the relationship between art and language could not be easily observed. Language’s degree of influence on art is one of the most important reasons for art historians to engage in the study of the Egyptian language. It is only through an understanding of the meaning of the shapes and figures illustrated by Egyptian artists that this art can be understood. Wilkinson writes:

It is probably not overstating the situation to say that the hieroglyphic signs do form the very basis of Egyptian iconography, which—just like the written inscriptions—is concerned with the practical function of making a clear and often specific symbolic statement. [26]

The most direct way in which language influenced art is seen in the way that hieroglyphs were often represented in all forms of artwork.  This influence relies on the rebus principle, the idea that symbolic representations of objects can represent meaningful sounds as well as the images themselves [27], which is a fundamental concept of the hieroglyphic writing system.

One statue from the reign of Ramesses II is an ideal example of the application of the rebus principle to sculpture. This statue is clearly composed of three primary parts: the pharaoh as a child, a large falcon representing Re, and a sculpted sedge plant.  Less obvious is the fact these three sections of the statue represent phonograms, which combine to read “Ramesses”: a visual pun on the name of the king [28]. Wilson notes that it would be unusual to see the king depicted as a child, and that the plant at first seems incongruous, but once the symbols are understood, the full meaning of the sculpture falls into place [29].  Beyond a simple reading of the signs, this sort of depiction displays a certain playfulness on the part of its creators that would have been entirely lost on a viewer without knowledge of the language.

There are also complete texts that demonstrate this unexpectedly humorous aspect of Egyptian culture. One example is a hymn to Sobek, the crocodile god, from the Temple of Esna. The inscription is composed of a long series of crocodile hieroglyphs.30 This would not be possible in a system of writing with a one-to-one correspondence of ideogram to meaning, where a picture of a crocodile would represent only a crocodile. In Egyptian writing, a pictograph of a crocodile could be read to mean “divine”, “time”, “one who seizes” and a number of other terms, often conceptually related.  Other artists took advantage of this ability of hieroglyphs, creating texts that could be read either vertically or horizontally with a different meaning in each direction.

The second way that language influenced art was subtler, involving the writing of individual signs. It can be seen in the application of one particular hieroglyph, the shen. This hieroglyph was a common motif in Middle Kingdom jewellery, with rings and amulets formed in its image and larger objects incorporating it into their designs.31  It was an image of an Egyptian religious concept, represented as a circular shape, rather than an illustration of a specific object from daily life, and was a logogram meaning “eternity” or “protection”.  The latter interpretation of this sign allowed it to develop into the familiar cartouche, an image used to surround and thus “protect” royal names. The application of this concept had additional implications beyond writing and art. The drastic religious reforms brought about in the Eighteenth Dynasty were accompanied by changes in artistic practices, which in turn helped to reinforce the new ideology of monotheism. While the bulk of these artistic changes were short-lived, the forms they took are telling. Hieroglyphic was always important to the Egyptians, even used in magical rituals with the belief that it could transform or animate itself [32].

Because of this, images of the new god, the Aten, that abound in the art of the Amarna period are not intended to be literal illustrations of the new solar deity. Rather, they are meant as elaborations of the normal hieroglyph meaning “light” [33]. This provides some insight into why the Egyptians themselves thought that their art and writing were so closely related that they could refer to the concepts with the same word.

Egyptians took advantage of the artistic nature of writing, with examples scattered throughout all branches of Egyptian art. This, then, raises the question: did art, in turn, influence language? Once again, the hieroglyphic script is key.  All hieroglyphs, be them artistic or simply linguistic, can be shown to have an effect on the reading and interpretation of written language. A scribe “required not only linguistic competence but also an understanding of the world of signs and symbols traced in the text” [34] if he was to convey a specific intended message to his readers and bridge the gap between art and language.

Due to its pictographic nature, hieroglyphic script had the intriguing ability to visually convey nuances of meaning in a way foreign to most alphabetic writing. While such connotative potential was lost over time in forms of Egyptian writing that were rarely used in artistic contexts, it was maintained throughout the history of hieroglyphic [35].  This was due to the strictness of Egyptian artistic tradition. If an artist wished to express himself visually, he did so quite literally within the lines “by working harder at the internal details of outlines which it would have been unnatural and improper to change” [36]. This adherence to traditional forms meant that the potential for written expression, which would otherwise have been lost, was maintained. This is not to say that there was no development at all in the formation of hieroglyphs.  Particularly in Old Egyptian, as the hieroglyphic system was still being developed and the artistic traditions solidified, could one find variations in the forms of hieroglyphs [37], and late in Egyptian history, the number of signs in use increased dramatically.  However, given the intricacy of their design, the shapes of individual hieroglyphs are remarkably consistent over time—even more consistent than other aspects of Egyptian art, which is significant when one considers that the Egyptians had a strong degree of interest in maintaining continuity, a notion that is evident in the records they kept of their own history [38]. Furthermore, if there were alterations in a sign, the original inspiration behind it usually remains clear [39]. This aspect of hieroglyphic writing is tremendously important to consider when weighing the influence that artistic practices had on the expression of the ancient Egyptian language.

A comparison of a specific hieroglyphic sign, a pictogram of an owl representing the phoneme /m/ [40], and its equivalent hieratic representation shows that the hieratic sign clearly diverged from its original pictographic inspiration.  The latest hieratic versions are formed of loosely curving lines and not recognizable at a glance [41].  However, because of the power of convention in Egyptian art, the representation of the owl pictogram at all stages of Egyptian history is easily identifiable as an owl.  This suggests that it still carried its primary and literary meaning as well as other subsequent connotations. The rebus statue of Ramesses II would be impossible if the Egyptians had used hieratic exclusively.  Beyond the signs themselves is the way the signs were arranged. In general, Egyptian was written from right to left, with smaller signs forming subgroups within words that were read from top to bottom. However, “text and image are complementary and although the natural way for Egyptian to be written is from right to left, the pictorial qualities of hieroglyphs mean that the writing has much more flexible, architectural uses” [42].

The Egyptians preferred symmetry, and hieroglyphs had the ability to be positioned in any of the four directions. The relief sculptures on one Twelfth Dynasty architrave—interestingly, from a temple to Sobek, bringing to mind the similarly tongue-in-cheek aspects of the aforementioned Sobek inscription— use symmetry to its fullest extent, as the left and right sides are nearly perfect mirror images of each other [43]. This sort of word play was exceptional in Egyptian artwork, but it is a good example of the capabilities of hieroglyphic. While the same groups of hieroglyphic signs would represent the same words from text to text, the arrangement of these groups varied quite drastically even within the same text.  Emphasis could be placed on different parts of a word or phrase, bringing a secondary level of meaning into the equation based on visual representation that might or might not be sounded out in speech. One example of a text where additional layers of meaning were certainly intended, but would not have been pronounced in a literal reading of the text, is the First Dynasty stele of King Djet. Read at its simplest, it denotes a cobra phonogram spelling out the king‟s name within the prescribed formula of a serekh (a precursor to the cartouche, depicting a stylized palace beneath a falcon Horus) [44]. However, the composition conveys more than just the name of the king.  While the presence of the snake identifies the pharaoh, who has taken on the divinity of the falcon, the position and size of the snake relative to the falcon emphasizes the humanity of the pharaoh.  These meanings are not spelled out in words, but they are clearly intended, and a literate Egyptian reading the text would not have needed a verbal explanation of them.

This stele illustrates why the arrangement of signs for aesthetic reasons, while perfectly acceptable to the people who read and wrote Ancient Egyptian, must necessarily alter the reading of a text. Modification in the size or position of a word’s component glyphs subtly alters the reading of a word. The meaning of entire passages of text can be restricted or reshaped because of features that could only be described as artistic. Unlike pieces of art that, while meaningful, had a primary purpose other than to convey linguistic information (such as the Ramesses statue or the Sobek inscription described above), text was intended to be read. The artistic features that affect meaning were used to the advantage of the writers.

The relationship between written language and artwork can now be summarized: language had an influence on artistic traditions, and artistic factors were used to alter the meaning of writing. However, the most significant feature of this relationship is its necessity for a complete understanding of other areas of Egyptian culture. Knowledge of religious practices, how the Egyptians saw their own culture, and the construction of an accurate historical record are all dependent on knowledge of ancient Egyptian writing, including more than the basic meaning of its signs. The prominence of the Aten hieroglyph in the art of the Amarna period implies that meaningful artwork had tremendous religious significance. The Egyptians believed that their hieroglyphic writing held power that went beyond the simple recording of speech. Additionally, much of modern knowledge about the history of the early Egyptians comes directly from their texts, accompanied by insights into the minds of the Egyptians. The discipline of Egyptology would not be comprehensive without an understanding of Egyptian writing and art and the mutually dependent relationship between them.

1. Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 237.
2. Tom Hare, Remembering Osiris: Number, Gender, and the Word in Ancient Egyptian Representational Systems, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 97.
3. Richard H. Wilkinson, Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture, London: Thames and Hudson, 1992, p. 10.
4. Ibid., p. 10.
5. Loprieno, p. 5.
6. This sort of variation is not unique to Egyptian; language use always varies depending on the social context, geography, along with many other factors in William O‟Grady and Michael Dobrovolksy, Contemporary Linguistic Analysis: An Introduction (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1996) 505.  Regional differences were not recorded in writing until the Coptic period of Ancient Egyptian, but they were known to exist in speech at other periods in Egyptian history because of first-hand accounts. James P. Allen, Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 2.
7. Allen, p. 1.
8. Loprieno, p. 24.
9. Antonio Loprieno‟s 1995 book, aimed at both Egyptologists and linguists, has been described as the first to apply these methods to Ancient Egyptian. Mu-Chou Poo, Review of Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction by Antonio Loprieno. The International Journal of African Historical Studies,  30, No. 2. (1997): 383-385.
10. Hare, p. 45.
11. For instance, some nuances of tense were not written, so though they certainly must have existed in the spoken language, though scholars do not know how they were expressed.  Penelope Wilson, Sacred Signs: Hieroglyphs in Ancient Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) 24.
12. Allen, p. 2.
13. Ibid., p. 6.
14. Loprieno, p. 11.
15. O‟Grady and Dobrovolsky, p. 369.
16. Penelope Wilson, Sacred Signs: Hieroglyphs in Ancient Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 35.
17. Allen, p. 2.
18. Wilson p. 27, p. 76.
19. Ibid. P. 76.
20. The phonological patterns of Ancient Egyptian can be traced to some degree with a number of comparative linguistic techniques, but a complete reconstruction of the phonological system at any specific point in time is not possible, and of course, there is very little concrete knowledge to be gained about the phonetic realities of the language: we will never know what the ancient Egyptians sounded like. (Loprieno, 28).
21. Loprieno, p. 13 and Allen, p. 3.
22. Allen, p. 3.
23. Hare, p. 71.
24. Allen, p. 4.
25. Loprieno, p. 12.
26. Wilkinson, p. 10.
27. Allen, p. 3.
28. Wilkinson, p. 21.
29. Wilson, p. 81.
30. Ibid., 79
31. Wilkinson, p. 193.
32. Wilson, p. 75.
33. Allen, p. 196.
34. Roccati, p. 62.
35. Loprieno, p. 18.
36. Kemp, p. 84.
37. Wilson, p. 60.
38. Kemp, p. 20.
39. Clear to the Egyptians, at any rate; the images that many individual pictograms represent are unclear to modern scholars, with various theories about each abounding. This is an interesting area of study in its own right, because the objects that the Egyptians chose to represent speak for what the Egyptians thought of in their daily lives.
40. G17 in Alan Gardiner‟s sign list, reproduced in Wilkinson, p. 214.
41. Hieratic versions of this sign written during different periods can be seen in Wilson, p. 88.
42. Wilson, p. 52 and Allen p. 5.
43. Twelfth Dynasty architrave. Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin (16953). Reproduced in Hare, 84, after Schäfer, Principles of Egyptian Art, pl. 36.
44. Hare, p. 81.