Egyptian hieroglyphs

Egyptian hieroglyphs (/ˈhaɪrəˌɡlɪf, -roʊ-/[5][6]) were the formal writing system used in Ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphs combined logographic, syllabic and alphabetic elements, with a total of some 1,000 distinct characters.[7][8] Cursive hieroglyphs were used for religious literature on papyrus and wood. The later hieratic and demotic Egyptian scripts were derived from hieroglyphic writing, as was the Proto-Sinaitic script that later evolved into the Phoenician alphabet.[9] Through the Phoenician alphabet's major child systems, the Greek and Aramaic scripts, the Egyptian hieroglyphic script is ancestral to the majority of scripts in modern use, most prominently the Latin and Cyrillic scripts (through Greek) and the Arabic script and Brahmic family of scripts (through Aramaic).

The use of hieroglyphic writing arose from proto-literate symbol systems in the Early Bronze Age, around the 32nd century BC (Naqada III),[2] with the first decipherable sentence written in the Egyptian language dating to the Second Dynasty (28th century BC). Egyptian hieroglyphs developed into a mature writing system used for monumental inscription in the classical language of the Middle Kingdom period; during this period, the system made use of about 900 distinct signs. The use of this writing system continued through the New Kingdom and Late Period, and on into the Persian and Ptolemaic periods. Late survivals of hieroglyphic use are found well into the Roman period, extending into the 4th century AD.[4]

With the final closing of pagan temples in the 5th century, knowledge of hieroglyphic writing was lost. Although attempts were made, the script remained undeciphered throughout the Middle Ages and the early modern period. The decipherment of hieroglyphic writing would only be accomplished in the 1820s by Jean-François Champollion, with the help of the Rosetta Stone.

Egyptian hieroglyphs
Hieroglyphs from the tomb of Seti I
Hieroglyphs from KV17, the tomb of Seti I, 13th century BC
Logography usable as an abjad
LanguagesEgyptian language
Time period
c. 3200 BC[1][2][3] – AD 400[4]
Parent systems
  • Egyptian hieroglyphs
Child systems
Hieratic, Demotic, Coptic, Meroitic, Proto-Sinaitic
ISO 15924Egyp, 050
Unicode alias
Egyptian Hieroglyphs


The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek adjective ἱερογλυφικός (hieroglyphikos),[10] a compound of ἱερός (hierós 'sacred')[11] and γλύφω (glýphō 'Ι carve, engrave'; see glyph).[12]

The glyphs themselves since the Ptolemaic period were called τὰ ἱερογλυφικὰ [γράμματα] (tà hieroglyphikà [grámmata]) "the sacred engraved letters", the Greek counterpart to the Egyptian expression of mdw.w-nṯr "god's words".[13] Greek ἱερογλυφός meant "a carver of hieroglyphs".

In English, hieroglyph as a noun is recorded from 1590, originally short for nominalised hieroglyphic (1580s, with a plural hieroglyphics), from adjectival use (hieroglyphic character).[14]

History and evolution


Ägyptisches Museum Berlin 057
Paintings with symbols on Naqada II pottery. 3500-3200 BC.

Hieroglyphs may have emerged from the preliterate artistic traditions of Egypt. For example, symbols on Gerzean pottery from c. 4000 BC have been argued to resemble hieroglyphic writing.

Design of the Abydos token glyphs dated to 3400-3200 BCE
Designs on some of the labels or token from Abydos, carbon-dated to circa 3400-3200 BC and among the earliest form of writing in Egypt.[15][16] They are similar to contemporary tags from Uruk, Mesopotamia.[17]

Proto-hieroglyphic symbol systems develop in the second half of the 4th millennium BC, such as the clay labels of a Predynastic ruler called "Scorpion I" (Naqada IIIA period, c. 33rd century BC) recovered at Abydos (modern Umm el-Qa'ab) in 1998 or the Narmer Palette (c. 31st century BC).[2]

The first full sentence written in mature hieroglyphs 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 (28th or 27th century BC). There are around 800 hieroglyphs dating back to the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom Eras. By the Greco-Roman period, there are more than 5,000.[7]

Geoffrey Sampson stated that Egyptian hieroglyphs "came into existence a little after Sumerian script, and, probably [were], invented under the influence of the latter",[18] and that it is "probable that the general idea of expressing words of a language in writing was brought to Egypt from Sumerian Mesopotamia".[19][20] There are many instances of early Egypt-Mesopotamia relations, but given the lack of direct evidence for the transfer of writing, "no definitive determination has been made as to the origin of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt".[21] Instead, it is pointed out and held that "the evidence for such direct influence remains flimsy” and that “a very credible argument can also be made for the independent development of writing in Egypt..."[22] Since the 1990s, the discoveries of glyphs at Abydos, dated to between 3400 and 3200 BCE, may challenge the classical notion according to which the Mesopotamian symbol system predates the Egyptian one. However, Egyptian writing does make a sudden apparition at that time, while on the contrary Mesopotamia has an evolutionary history of sign usage in tokens dating back to circa 8000 BCE.[16]

Labels from the tomb of Menes

Labels with early inscriptions from the tomb of Menes (3200-3000 BC)

Ebony plaque of Menes in his tomb of Abydos (photograph)

Ivory plaque of Menes (3200-3000 BC)

Ebony plaque of Menes in his tomb of Abydos (drawing)

Ivory plaque of Menes (drawing)


The first full sentence written in mature hieroglyphs. Seal impression of Seth-Peribsen (Second Dynasty, c. 28-27th century BC)

Mature writing system

Hieroglyphs 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.

Hieroglyphs on a funerary stela in Manchester Museum

Late Period

As writing developed and became more widespread among the Egyptian people, 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 – hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek.

Late survival

Hieroglyphs continued to be used under Persian rule (intermittent in the 6th and 5th centuries BC), and after Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt, during the ensuing Ptolemaic and Roman periods. It appears that the misleading quality of comments from Greek and Roman writers about hieroglyphs came about, at least in part, as a response to the changed political situation. Some believed that hieroglyphs 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 Egyptian culture generally. Having learned that hieroglyphs were sacred writing, Greco-Roman authors imagined the complex but rational system as an allegorical, even magical, system transmitting secret, mystical knowledge.[4]

By the 4th century, few Egyptians were capable of reading hieroglyphs, and the "myth of allegorical hieroglyphs" was ascendant.[4] Monumental use of hieroglyphs ceased after the closing of all non-Christian temples in 391 by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I; the last known inscription is from Philae, known as the Graffito of Esmet-Akhom, from 394.[4][23]

The Hieroglyphica of Horapollo (c. 5th century) appears to retain some genuine knowledge about the writing system. It offers an explanation of close to 200 signs. Some are identified correctly, such as the "goose" hieroglyph (zꜣ) representing the word for "son".[4]


Ibn Wahshiyya's 985 CE translation of the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph alphabet
Ibn Wahshiyya's translation of the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph alphabet

Knowledge of the hieroglyphs had been lost completely by the medieval period. Early attempts at decipherment are due to Dhul-Nun al-Misri and Ibn Wahshiyya (9th and 10th century, respectively).[24]

All medieval and early modern attempts were hampered by the fundamental assumption that hieroglyphs recorded ideas and not the sounds of the language. As no bilingual texts were available, any such symbolic 'translation' could be proposed without the possibility of verification.[25] It wasn't until Athanasius Kircher in the mid 17th century that scholars began to think the hieroglyphs might also represent sounds. Kircher was familiar with Coptic, and thought that it might be the key to deciphering the hieroglyphs, but was held back by a belief in the mystical nature of the symbols.[4]

The breakthrough in decipherment came only with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon's troops in 1799 (during Napoleon's Egyptian invasion). As the stone presented a hieroglyphic and a demotic version of the same text in parallel with a Greek translation, plenty of material for falsifiable studies in translation was suddenly available. In the early 19th century, scholars such as Silvestre de Sacy, Johan David Åkerblad, and Thomas Young studied the inscriptions on the stone, and were able to make some headway. Finally, Jean-François Champollion made the complete decipherment by the 1820s. In his Lettre à M. Dacier (1822), he wrote:

It is a complex system, writing figurative, symbolic, and phonetic all at once, in the same text, the same phrase, I would almost say in the same word.[26]

Acta Eruditorum - I geroglifici, 1714 – BEIC 13384397
Illustration from Tabula Aegyptiaca hieroglyphicis exornata published in Acta Eruditorum, 1714

Hieroglyphs survive today in two forms: directly, through half a dozen Demotic glyphs added to the Greek alphabet when writing Coptic; and indirectly, as the inspiration for the original alphabet that was ancestral to nearly every other alphabet ever used, including the Latin alphabet.

Writing system

Visually, hieroglyphs are all more or less figurative: they represent real or abstract 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.

Phonetic reading

Egypt Hieroglyphe4
Hieroglyphs typical of the Graeco-Roman period

Most non-determinative hieroglyphic signs are phonetic in nature, meaning that the sign is read independently 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 the word, 'I'.

Phonograms formed with one consonant are called uniliteral signs; with two consonants, biliteral signs; with three, triliteral signs.

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 (Egyptian 3 symbol.png, two half-rings opening to the left), sometimes replaced by the digit '3', is the Egyptian alef).

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 , independently of any vowels that 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"

As in the Arabic script, not all vowels were written in Egyptian hieroglyphs; 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 and ʾ are commonly transliterated as a, as in Ra.

Hieroglyphs are written from right to left, from left to right, or from top to bottom, the usual direction being from right to left[27] (although, for convenience, modern texts are often normalized into left-to-right order). The reader must consider the direction in which the asymmetrical hieroglyphs 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 hieroglyphs face the beginning of the line.

As in many ancient writing systems, words are not separated by blanks or by punctuation marks. However, certain hieroglyphs appear particularly common only at the end of words, making it possible to readily distinguish words.

Uniliteral signs

Amada ( 110 miles south of Aswan, left bank ). Temple founded by Tuthmosis III
Hieroglyphs at Amada, at temple founded by Tuthmosis III.

The Egyptian hieroglyphic script contained 24 uniliterals (symbols that stood for single consonants, much like letters in English). It would have been possible to write all Egyptian words in the manner of these signs, but the Egyptians never did so and never simplified their complex writing into a true alphabet.[28]

Each uniliteral glyph once had a unique reading, but several of these fell together as Old Egyptian developed into Middle Egyptian. 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 Egyptian 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.

Phonetic complements

Egyptian writing is often redundant: in fact, it happens very frequently that a word is followed by 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 that 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 still 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 Egyptian 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 hieroglyphs, 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".
ḫ +p +ḫpr +r +j (the four complementaries frame the triliteral sign of the scarab beetle) → it reads ḫpr.j, meaning the name "Khepri", with the final glyph being the determinative for 'ruler or god'.

Notably, phonetic complements were also used to allow the reader to differentiate between signs that 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 of the three readings to choose:
  • 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
    HQ1m&t E17
    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 Egyptian: 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 Egyptian, 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.)

Semantic reading

Comparative evolution of Cuneiform, Egyptian and Chinese characters
Comparative evolution from pictograms to abstract shapes, in cuneiform, Egyptian and Chinese characters.

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 determinatives).[29]


A hieroglyph 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:

  • ra
    rꜥ, meaning "sun";
  • pr
    pr, meaning "house";
  • swt
    swt (sw+t), meaning "reed";
  • Dw
    ḏw, meaning "mountain".

In some cases, the semantic connection is indirect (metonymic or metaphoric):

  • nTrZ1
    nṯr, meaning "god"; the character in fact represents a temple flag (standard);
  • G53Z1
    bꜣ, meaning "" (soul); the character is the traditional representation of a "bâ" (a bird with a human head);
  • G27Z1
    dšr, meaning "flamingo"; the corresponding phonogram means "red" and the bird is associated by metonymy with this color.


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 that 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 hieroglyphs") by Jean Capart, which illustrate their importance:

  • nfrwA17Z3
    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;
  • nfrf&r&t B1
    nfr.t (.t is here the suffix that forms the feminine): meaning "the nubile young woman", with
    as the determinative indicating a woman;
  • nfrnfrnfrpr
    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,
  • nfrf
    nfr : meaning "clothing" with
      as the determinative for lengths of cloth;
  • nfrW22
    nfr : meaning "wine" or "beer"; with a jug
      as the determinative.

All these words have a meliorative connotation: "good, beautiful, perfect". The Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian by Raymond A. Faulkner, gives some twenty words that are read nfr or which are formed from this word.

Additional signs


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";

Filling stroke

A filling stroke is a character indicating the end of a quadrat that 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.

Grammatical signs

  • The vertical stroke, indicating the sign is a logogram;
  • 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:

  • Redundancies;
  • Omission of graphemes, which are ignored whether or not they are intentional;
  • 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, which are 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 constitute 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 though it were acceptable in English to use archaic spellings in modern texts. Most often, ancient "spelling errors" are simply misinterpretations of context. Today, hieroglyphicists use numerous cataloguing systems (notably the Manuel de Codage and Gardiner's Sign List) to clarify the presence of determinatives, ideograms, and other ambiguous signs in transliteration.

Simple examples

Hiero Ca1.svg
Hiero Ca2.svg
nomen or birth name
in hieroglyphs

The glyphs in this cartouche are transliterated as:

"ua" l
y (ii) s


though ii is considered a single letter and transliterated y.

Another way in which hieroglyphs work is illustrated by the two Egyptian words pronounced pr (usually vocalised as per). One word is 'house', and its hieroglyphic representation is straightforward:

Name of Alexander the Great in Hieroglyphs circa 330 BCE
Name of Alexander the Great in hieroglyphs, c. 332 BC, Egypt. Louvre Museum

Here, the 'house' hieroglyph 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.

Encoding and font support

Egyptian hieroglyphs were added to the Unicode Standard in October 2009 with the release of version 5.2 which introduced the Egyptian Hieroglyphs block (U+13000–U+1342F) with 1,071 defined characters.

As of July 2013, four fonts, Aegyptus, NewGardiner, Noto Sans Egyptian Hieroglyphs and JSeshFont support this range. Another font, Segoe UI Historic, comes bundled with Windows 10 and also contains glyphs for the Egyptian Hieroglyphs block. Segoe UI Historic excludes three glyphs depicting phallus ( Gardiner's D52, D52A D53, Unicode code points U+130B8-U+130BA).[30]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ "...The Mesopotamians invented writing around 3200 bc without any precedent to guide them, as did the Egyptians, independently as far as we know, at approximately the same time" The Oxford History of Historical Writing. Vol. 1. To AD 600, page 5
  2. ^ a b c Richard Mattessich (2002). "The oldest writings, and inventory tags of Egypt". Accounting Historians Journal. 29 (1): 195–208. JSTOR 40698264.
  3. ^ Allen, James P. (2010). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press. p. 2. ISBN 9781139486354.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Allen, James P. (2010). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press. p. 8. ISBN 9781139486354.
  5. ^ Jones, Daniel (2003) [1917], Peter Roach; James Hartmann; Jane Setter (eds.), English Pronouncing Dictionary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-3-12-539683-8
  6. ^ "Hieroglyph". Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  7. ^ a b There were about 1,000 graphemes in the Old Kingdom period, reduced to around 750 to 850 in the classical language of the Middle Kingdom, but inflated to the order of some 5,000 signs in the Ptolemaic period. Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995), p. 12.
  8. ^ The standard inventory of characters used in Egyptology is Gardiner's sign list (1928–1953). A.H. Gardiner (1928), Catalogue of the Egyptian hieroglyphic printing type, from matrices owned and controlled by Dr. Alan Gardiner, "Additions to the new hieroglyphic fount (1928)", in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 15 (1929), p. 95; , "Additions to the new hieroglyphic fount (1931)", in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 17 (1931), pp. 245-247; A.H. Gardiner , "Supplement to the catalogue of the Egyptian hieroglyphic printing type, showing acquisitions to December 1953" (1953). Unicode Egyptian Hieroglyphs as of version 5.2 (2009) assigned 1,070 Unicode characters.
  9. ^ Michael C. Howard (2012). Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies. P. 23.
  10. ^ ἱερογλυφικός, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  11. ^ ἱερός, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  12. ^ γλύφω, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  13. ^ Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995), p. 11.
  14. ^ "Hieroglyphic | Definition of Hieroglyphic by Merriam-Webster". Retrieved 2016-08-27.
  15. ^ Scarre, Chris; Fagan, Brian M. (2016). Ancient Civilizations. Routledge. p. 106. ISBN 9781317296089.
  16. ^ a b "The seal impressions, from various tombs, date even further back, to 3400 B.C. These dates challenge the commonly held belief that early logographs, pictographic symbols representing a specific place, object, or quantity, first evolved into more complex phonetic symbols in Mesopotamia."Mitchell, Larkin. "Earliest Egyptian Glyphs". Archaeology. Archaeological Institute of America. Retrieved 29 February 2012.
  17. ^ Conference, William Foxwell Albright Centennial (1996). The Study of the Ancient Near East in the Twenty-first Century: The William Foxwell Albright Centennial Conference. Eisenbrauns. p. -24–25. ISBN 9780931464966.
  18. ^ Geoffrey Sampson (1 January 1990). Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction. Stanford University Press. pp. 78–. ISBN 978-0-8047-1756-4. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  19. ^ Geoffrey W. Bromiley (June 1995). The international standard Bible encyclopedia. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 1150–. ISBN 978-0-8028-3784-4. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  20. ^ Iorwerth Eiddon Stephen Edwards, et al., The Cambridge Ancient History (3d ed. 1970) pp. 43–44.
  21. ^ Robert E. Krebs; Carolyn A. Krebs (December 2003). Groundbreaking scientific experiments, inventions, and discoveries of the ancient world. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 91–. ISBN 978-0-313-31342-4. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  22. ^ Simson Najovits, Egypt, Trunk of the Tree: A Modern Survey of an Ancient Land, Algora Publishing, 2004, pp. 55–56.
  23. ^ The latest presently known hieroglyphic inscription date: Birthday of Osiris, year 110 [of Diocletian], dated to August 24, 394
  24. ^ Ahmed ibn 'Ali ibn al Mukhtar ibn 'Abd al Karim (called Ibn Wahshiyah) (1806). Ancient alphabets & hieroglyphic characters explained: with an account of the Egyptian priests, their classes, initiation time, & sacrifices by the aztecs and their birds, in the Arabic language. W. Bulmer & co. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  25. ^ Tabula Aegyptiaca hieroglyphicis exornata. Acta Eruditorum. Leipzig. 1714. p. 127.
  26. ^ Jean-François Champollion, Letter to M. Dacier, September 27, 1822
  27. ^ Sir Alan H. Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, Third Edition Revised, Griffith Institute (2005), p.25
  28. ^ Gardiner, Sir Alan H. (1973). Egyptian Grammar. Griffith Institute. ISBN 978-0-900416-35-4.
  29. ^ Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian, A Linguistic Introduction, Cambridge University Press (1995), p. 13
  30. ^ "Segoe UI Historic Phallus Microsoft Censorship - Fonts in the Spludlow Framework". Retrieved 2019-05-13.

Further reading

  • Adkins, Lesley; Adkins, Roy (2000). The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs. HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 978-0-06-019439-0.
  • Allen, James P. (1999). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-77483-3.
  • Collier, Mark & Bill Manley (1998). How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: a step-by-step guide to teach yourself. British Museum Press. ISBN 978-0-7141-1910-6.
  • Selden, Daniel L. (2013). Hieroglyphic Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Literature of the Middle Kingdom. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-27546-1.
  • Faulkner, Raymond O. (1962). Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. Griffith Institute. ISBN 978-0-900416-32-3.
  • Gardiner, Sir Alan H. (1957). Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs, 3rd ed. The Griffith Institute.
  • Hill, Marsha (2007). Gifts for the gods: images from Egyptian temples. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9781588392312.
  • Kamrin, Janice (2004). Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical Guide. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 978-0-8109-4961-4.
  • McDonald, Angela. Write Your Own Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007 (paperback, ISBN 0-520-25235-7).

External links

Akhet (hieroglyph)

Akhet (Ancient Egyptian: Ꜣḫt; Gardiner: N27) is an Egyptian hieroglyph that represents the sun rising over a mountain. It is translated as "horizon" or "the place in the sky where the sun rises". Betrò describes it as "Mountain with the Rising Sun" and an ideogram for "horizon".Akhet appears in the Egyptian name for the Great Pyramid of Giza (Akhet Khufu) and in the assumed name of Akhetaten, the city founded by pharaoh Akhenaten. It also appears in the name of the syncretized form of Ra and Horus, Ra-Horakhty (Rꜥ Ḥr Ꜣḫty, "Ra–Horus of the Horizons").

In Egyptian architecture, the pylon mirrored the hieroglyph.


The ankh is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol that was most commonly used in writing and in Egyptian art to represent the word for "life" and, by extension, as a symbol of life itself.

The ankh has a cross shape but with an oval loop in place of an upper bar. The origins of the symbol are not known, although many hypotheses have been proposed. It was used in writing as a triliteral sign, representing a sequence of three consonants, Ꜥ-n-ḫ. This sequence was found in several Egyptian words, including the words meaning "mirror", "floral bouquet", and "life". In art the symbol often appeared as a physical object representing either life or substances such as air or water that are related to it. It was especially commonly held in the hands of ancient Egyptian deities, or being given by them to the pharaoh, to represent their power to sustain life and to revive human souls in the afterlife.

The ankh was one of the most common decorative motifs in ancient Egypt and was also used decoratively by neighbouring cultures. Coptic Christians adapted it into the crux ansata, a shape with a circular rather than oval loop, and used it as a variant of the Christian cross. Since the late 20th century, in the Western world, the ankh has again come to be used decoratively, as a symbol of African cultural identity, Neopagan belief systems, and the goth subculture.


Atef is the specific feathered white crown of the ancient Egyptian deity Osiris. It combines the Hedjet, the crown of Upper Egypt, with curly red ostrich feathers on each side of the crown for the Osiris cult. The feathers are identified as ostrich from their curl or curve at the upper ends, with a slight flare toward the base. They are the same feather as (singly) worn by Maat. The crown is also worn by Sobek. They may be compared with the falcon tail feathers in two-feather crowns, such as those of Amun which are more narrow and straight without curve.

The Atef crown identifies Osiris in ancient Egyptian painting. Osiris wears the Atef crown as a symbol of the ruler of the underworld. The tall bulbous white piece in the center of the crown is between two ostrich feathers. The feathers represent truth and justice. The Atef crown is similar, save for the feathers, to the plain white crown (Hedjet) used in the Predynastic Period and later as a symbol for pharaonic Upper Egypt.


The Bennu is an ancient Egyptian deity linked with the sun, creation, and rebirth. It may have been the inspiration for the phoenix in Greek mythology.


In Egyptian hieroglyphs, a cartouche is an oval with a horizontal line at one end, indicating that the text enclosed is a royal name. The first examples of the cartouche are associated with pharoahs at the end of the 3rd Dynasty, but did not come into common use until the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty under Pharaoh Sneferu. While the cartouche is usually vertical with a horizontal line, if it makes the name fit better it can be horizontal, with a vertical line at the end (in the direction of reading).

The Ancient Egyptian word for it was shenu, and it was essentially an expanded shen ring. In Demotic, the cartouche was reduced to a pair of brackets and a vertical line.

Of the five royal titularies it was the prenomen, the throne name, and the "Son of Ra" titulary, the so-called nomen name given at birth, which were enclosed by a cartouche.At times amulets were given the form of a cartouche displaying the name of a king and placed in tombs. Such items are often important to archaeologists for dating the tomb and its contents. Cartouches were formerly only worn by Pharaohs. The oval surrounding their name was meant to protect them from evil spirits in life and after death. The cartouche has become a symbol representing good luck and protection from evil. Egyptians believed that one who had their name recorded somewhere would not disappear after death. A cartouche attached to a coffin satisfied this requirement. There were periods in Egyptian history when people refrained from inscribing these amulets with a name for fear they might fall into somebody's hands, conferring power over the bearer of the name.

The term cartouche was first applied by French soldiers who fancied that the symbol they saw so frequently repeated on the pharaonic ruins they encountered resembled a muzzle-loading firearm's paper powder cartridge (cartouche in French).As a hieroglyph, it is used to represent the Egyptian language word for "name". It is Gardiner sign listed no. V10.

Cursive hieroglyphs

Cursive hieroglyphs, or hieroglyphic book hand, are a form of Egyptian hieroglyphs commonly used for handwritten religious documents, such as the Book of the Dead. This style of writing was typically written with ink and a reed brush on papyrus, wood, or leather. It was particularly common during the Ramesside Period, and many famous documents, such as the Papyrus of Ani, utilize it. It was also employed on wood for religious literature such as the Coffin Texts.

Cursive hieroglyphs should not be confused with the truly cursive form of hieroglyphs known as hieratic. Hieratic has many ligatures and signs unique to itself. However, there is a certain degree of influence from hieratic in the visual appearance of some signs. One significant difference is that the orientation of cursive hieroglyphs is not constant, reading right to left or left to right depending on the context, whereas hieratic is always read right to left. A right-to-left reading direction is also most common in the writing of cursive hieroglyphs, but they are usually arranged in columns rather than rows.


Deshret, from Ancient Egyptian, was the formal name for the Red Crown of Lower Egypt and for the desert Red Land on either side of Kemet (Black Land), the fertile Nile river basin. When combined with the Hedjet (White Crown) of Upper Egypt, it forms the Pschent (Double Crown), in Ancient Egyptian called the sekhemti.

The Red Crown in Egyptian language hieroglyphs eventually was used as the vertical letter "n" . The original "n" hieroglyph from the Predynastic Period, and the Old Kingdom was the sign depicting ripples of water.


A determinative, also known as a taxogram or semagram, is an ideogram used to mark semantic categories of words in logographic scripts which helps to disambiguate interpretation. They have no direct counterpart in spoken language, though they may derive historically from glyphs for real words, and functionally they resemble classifiers in East Asian and sign languages. For example, Egyptian hieroglyphic determinatives include symbols for divinities, people, parts of the body, animals, plants, and books/abstract ideas, which helped in reading, but none of which were pronounced.


The djed (Ancient Egyptian: ḏd 𓊽, Coptic ϫⲱⲧ jōt "pillar", anglicized /dʒɛd/) is one of the more ancient and commonly found symbols in ancient Egyptian religion. It is a pillar-like symbol in Egyptian hieroglyphs representing stability. It is associated with the creator god Ptah and Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife, the underworld, and the dead. It is commonly understood to represent his spine.

Eye of Horus

The Eye of Horus, also known as wadjet, wedjat or udjat, is an ancient Egyptian symbol of protection, royal power, and good health. The Eye of Horus is similar to the Eye of Ra, which belongs to a different god, Ra, but represents many of the same concepts.

Funerary amulets were often made in the shape of the Eye of Horus. The symbol "was intended to protect the pharaoh [here] in the afterlife" and to ward off evil. Ancient Egyptian and Middle-Eastern sailors would frequently paint the symbol on the bows of their vessels to ensure safe sea travel.


A hieroglyph (Greek for "sacred writing") was a character of the ancient Egyptian writing system. Logographic scripts that are pictographic in form in a way reminiscent of ancient Egyptian are also sometimes called "hieroglyphs". In Neoplatonism, especially during the Renaissance, a "hieroglyph" was an artistic representation of an esoteric idea, which Neoplatonists believed actual Egyptian hieroglyphs to be. The word hieroglyphics refer to a hieroglyphic script.

The Egyptians invented the pictorial script. The appearance of these distinctive figures in 3000 BCE marked the beginning of Egyptian civilization. Though based on images, Egyptian script was more than a sophisticated form of picture-writing. Each picture/glyph served three functions: (1) to represent the image of a thing or action, (2) to stand for the sound of a syllable, and (3) to clarify the precise meaning of adjoining glyphs. Writing hieroglyphs required some artistic skill, limiting the number chosen to learn it. Only those privileged with an extensive education (i.e. the Pharaoh, nobility and priests) were able to read and write hieroglyphs; others used simpler 'joined-up' versions: demotic and hieratic script.


The khepresh was an ancient Egyptian royal headdress. It is also known as the blue crown or war crown. New Kingdom pharaohs are often depicted wearing it in battle, but it was also frequently worn in ceremonies. It used to be called a war crown by many, but modern historians refrain from defining it thus.No original example of a khepresh has yet been found. Based on ancient artistic representations, some Egyptologists have speculated that the khepresh was made of leather or stiffened cloth covered with a precise arrangement of hundreds of sequins, discs, bosses, or rings. As with many other royal crowns, a uraeus (cobra) was hooked to the front of the khepresh.

List of Egyptian hieroglyphs

The following is a list of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The total number of distinct hieroglyphs increased over time from several hundred in the Middle Kingdom to several thousand during the Ptolemaic Kingdom.

The most widely used list of hieroglyphs is Gardiner's sign list (1928/9), which includes 763 signs in 26 categories.

Georg Möller compiled more extensive lists, organised by historical epoch (published posthumously in 1927 and 1936).

The Unicode Egyptian Hieroglyphs block (Unicode version 5.2, 2009) includes 1071 signs, with organisation based on Gardiner's list. As of 2016, there is a proposal by Michael Everson to extend the Unicode standard to comprise Möller's list.See the following pages for notable subset of hieroglyphs:

Egyptian uniliteral signs

Egyptian biliteral signs

Egyptian numerals


Renpet was, in the Egyptian language, the word for "year". Its hieroglyph was figuratively depicted in art as a woman wearing a palm shoot (symbolizing time) over her head. She was often referred to as the Mistress of Eternity and also personified fertility, youth and spring. The glyph regularly appears on monuments and documents throughout Egyptian history as the beginning of the phrase recording the regnal year of the pharaoh.


A serekh was a specific important type of heraldic crest used in ancient Egypt. Like the later cartouche, it contained a royal name.

Shen ring

In ancient Egypt a shen ring was a circle with a line tangent to it, represented in hieroglyphs as a stylised loop of a rope. The word shen itself means, in ancient Egyptian, encircle, while the shen ring represented eternal protection.

The shen ring is most often seen carried by the falcon god Horus, but was also carried by the vulture goddess Nekhbet. It was used as early as the Third Dynasty where it can be seen in the reliefs from Djoser's Step Pyramid complex.

The symbol could be stretched to contain other objects, which were then understood as being eternally protected by the shen ring. In its elongated form the shen ring became the cartouche, which enclosed and protected a royal name.

The Goddess Heqet, (the 'Frog'), is often seated on a shenu.

For Eternity, the renpit, papyrus stalk is usually based on top of a Shen ring. See the Egyptian god Huh. (Senusret I has a famous Lintel relief showing this.)

The Shen ring is often attached to various types of staffs, the staff of authority, or power, symbolizing the Eternal authority of that power.

The Goddess Isis, and the Goddess Nekhbet are often shown kneeling, with their hands resting upon a shenu.

The Hawk (Horus), and the Vulture (Goddess Mut) have the shenu in their talons, wings outstretched, over the scene portrayed. The "Horus with Outstretched Wings", shenus in its talons, is an example from the Louvre of a Pectoral Brooch, possibly for royalty.

Sia (god)

Sia or Saa, an ancient Egyptian god, was the deification of perception in the Heliopolitan Ennead cosmogony and is probably equivalent to the intellectual energies of the heart of Ptah in the Memphite cosmogeny. He also had a connection with writing and was often shown in anthropomorphic form holding a papyrus scroll. This papyrus was thought to embody intellectual achievements.It was said that Atum created the two gods Sia and Hu from his blood spilled while cutting his own penis, a possible reference to circumcision.Sia appeared standing on the Solar barge during its journey through the night in New Kingdom underworld texts and tomb decorations, together with Hu, the "creative utterance," and Heka, the god of magic. These gods were seen as special powers helping the creator, and although Heka had his own cult Sia did not.


The tyet (Ancient Egyptian: tjt), sometimes called the knot of Isis or girdle of Isis, is an ancient Egyptian symbol that came to be connected with the goddess Isis. Its hieroglyphic depiction is catalogued as V39 in Gardiner's sign list.

In many respects the tyet resembles an ankh, except that its arms curve down. Its meaning is also reminiscent of the ankh, as it is often translated to mean "welfare" or "life".

The tyet resembles a knot of cloth and may have originally been a bandage used to absorb menstrual blood.An early example of a tyet sign comes from a First Dynasty tomb at Helwan, excavated by Zaki Saad in the 1940s. This example predates the first written references to Isis and may not have been connected with her at the time. In later times, it came to be linked with her and with the healing powers that were an important aspect of her character.Tyet amulets came to be buried with the dead in the early New Kingdom of Egypt (c. 1550–1070 BC). The earliest examples date to the reign of Amenhotep III, and from then until the end of dynastic Egyptian history, few people were buried without one placed within the mummy wrappings, usually on the upper torso. Ancient Egyptian funerary texts included many passages describing the use of different types of amulets and include spells to be recited over them. Chapter 156 of the Book of the Dead, a New Kingdom funerary text, calls for a tyet amulet made of red jasper to be placed at the neck of a mummy, saying "the power of Isis will be the protection of [the mummy's] body" and that the amulet "will drive away whoever would commit a crime against him." Such amulets were often made of red jasper or similarly colored materials, such as carnelian or red glass. However, many others were made of green materials such as Egyptian faience, whose color represented the renewal of life.Another type of knot is sometimes called the "Isis knot": a large knot in a mantle worn by Egyptian women from the Late Period onward. It is associated with Isis because it often appeared on statues of her in Hellenistic and Roman times, but apart from the name it is not related to the tyet.The tyet can be compared with the Minoan sacral knot, a symbol of a knot with a projecting loop found in Knossos, Crete.

Winged sun

The winged sun is a symbol associated with divinity, royalty and power in the Ancient Near East (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Persia).

Egyptian hieroglyphs


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