Origin of Heiroglyphics Origin of Heiroglyphics Ancient Egypt conjures up thoughts of a great civilization, one very advanced for its time. The Ancient Egyptians invented all different forms of literature, including poetry and short stories, and they were extremely advanced as far as art, medicine, science, and religion went. One of the more mysterious aspects to Ancient Egyptian civilization was their use of hieroglyphics. Very few people to this day can understand the complex language. The origin of these hieroglyphics seems to also to be misunderstood by many people.
Some think that since the Egyptians were such a close, rigid society that they invented the form of writing called hieroglyphics, but that is simply not true. The origin of using pictures to represent things can be traced all the way back to caveman times, but the main influence for the Egyptians came from the land of Sumer. In fact, the beginning of Egyptian civilization was very similar to that of the Sumerians. By 500 b.c., farming settlements were established all along the Nile River (Warburton, 69). Civilization in Egypt brought problems similar to those that arose in Sumer, but it was the growing government bureaucracy, not business, that created the need for writing, and the eventual development of hieroglyphics.
Because the Nile flooded every year, the Egyptian farmers had begun to build dikes to keep the floodwaters out of towns, basins to capture and hold the water after the floods receded, and irrigation canals to distribute the water throughout the fields (Warburton, 70). Those projects required a very organized effort among every one of the farmers, and a strong central government and bureaucracy developed to manage and control this effort. Eventually, this bureaucracy, including the king, the upper-class, and the ever powerful priests in charge, became a huge, rigid network that managed everyones life. By 3100 b.c., when the Sumerians had invented their picture writing, it had become impossible to run that network without an accurate record-keeping system (Warburton, 74). For a long time before then, the Egyptians had been trading gold and linen with many other countries from throughout the middle east.
In exchange, they got timber, gems, copper, and perfume (World Book Encyclopedia, 224). While trading in the land of Sumer, the Ancient Egyptian traders must have noticed how helpful a written language was and how it could help their governments bureaucracy function much more smoothly. Then, they brought back the idea back to Egypt, where it was quickly and openly accepted. The Egyptians, however, did not acknowledge the borrowing from Sumerian culture. Instead, they believed that writing had been invented by their god of learning, Thoth, so they called it “words of the gods” (Warburton, 70). And since written words came from the gods, they had magical powers. By carving a persons name on a tomb or monument, the Egyptians believed that they were helping to keep that person alive if they had passed on. Similarly, by erasing a persons name from the inscriptions would make the person disappear. Words were so powerful that putting a written list of objects in a tomb was the same as putting the objects in themselves.
Since the Egyptians believed that a persons life was bound up in his name, the Egyptian Kings often had five names, the most important being the throne and birth names (Harris, 18). Egyptians developed this gift from the gods into their own unique writing system, using the pictograms they borrowed from the Sumerians but drawing them in a very different style. When the Egyptians first started writing, they used simple pictures to represent objects, just as the Sumerians had. In combination, these pictures could also narrate an event. Egyptians, like Sumerians, must have quickly realized the limitations of writing with only pictograms.
Their population and business was growing rapidly, requiring an even more accurate record-keeping system. Also, the power of the kings was growing and so was their desire to glorify themselves, especially on the massive tombs they had built. They could not use pictograms to write “The King triumphed over his enemies in a mighty victory” (Helfman, 42). The priests, who at the time, were the only ones who could read and write, responded by developing ideograms and then phonograms, as the Sumerians had. Ideograms were pictorial symbols that were used to convery abstract ideas (Encyclopedia Americana, 179). For example, the symbol of the sun could also indicate the idea of day or light.
The symbol for the thorn could also mean sharp. At a later stage, the picture symbols came to be used to write other words that merely sounded like the name of the object drawn. A symbol used in this way is called a phonogram (Encyclopedia Americana, 179). For example, a symbol that looked like a star could also represent a word meaning door. While it is possible that the Egyptians borrowed the idea for ideograms and phonograms from the Sumerians, many experts think that would be very unlikely.
As mentioned before, Egyptian society was very rigid and closed. Because of this, Egyptian society changed very little throughout its existence, and borrowing from other cultures even less. Adopting the use of pictograms from the Sumerians was a very rare exception. Egyptian pictograms were given the name hieroglyphics in 300 b.c. by Greeks who visited Egypt (Encyclopedia Americana, 178). Hiero means holy and glyph means writing.
These hieroglyphs were more elaborate, more artistic, and much more accurately drawn than the Sumerian pictograms. Part of this difference is due to the fact that Egyptians seemed to have valued art more than the Sumerians. However, the main reason for the difference between Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Sumerian pictograms came from the difference in the writing materials used by the two ancient civilizations. Writing first on heavy clay with fragile reed styluses led the Sumerians to simplify their drawings. By the time the Sumerians began carving commemorative stone monuments around 500 years later, their style of writing was already well established (Encyclopedia Americana, 180).
The Egyptians first wrote by carving on stone. Carefully chiseling fine lines one by one into the stone enabled them to make each hieroglyph a small, intricate picture that was decorative and useful. And once the design of a hieroglyph was well established, it remained the same for as long as hieroglyphs were used in writing. It seems that Egyptians continued to use hieroglyphs from around 3000 b.c. until the time of the Roman Empire (Warburton, 73).
Hieroglyphics were not, as many people think, exclusive only to the Egyptians. In fact, it has been one of the very few things in their society that was adopted from another culture. Egyptian hieroglyphics, despite being so complex, and not in use anymore, are still one of the most fascinating languages of all time.