Hieroglyphs, hieratic, demotic: what were the writings of the Egyptians?

200 years ago, Jean-François Champollion managed to solve the enigma of Egyptian hieroglyphics, thereby opening a vast window on the civilization that was at its origin. But if the hieroglyphic writing is the best known, it is not the only one to have been used by the Egyptians of Antiquity who also gave birth to other systems.

This is precisely what allowed the French specialist to decipher the mysterious symbols after the discovery of the Rosetta stone at the end of the 18th century. The fragment indeed presents the texts of the same royal decree written in three scripts: in hieroglyphics, in demotic – another type of Egyptian writing -, and in ancient Greek.

From the archaeological remains and the documents found, the specialists have highlighted three different systems used to transcribe the Egyptian language: hieroglyphs therefore, hieratic and demotic.

General knowledge quiz: test your knowledge of Champollion and hieroglyphics

How did the Egyptians use hieroglyphs?

The oldest hieroglyphic inscription was found in a tomb dating back to the 4th millennium BC. While the last known writing has been identified in a temple and dates from the 4th century. These traces indicate that hieroglyphs have been used for more than three millennia, making this writing one of the oldest but also one of the longest used.

The characters, however, were not used by just anyone, for anything or anywhere. Hieroglyphs (whose name derives from the Greek) were considered sacred writing associated with the gods which was complex and time consuming to produce. Far from being a simple mode of linguistic communication, they were thus used to transcribe information that the Egyptians wished to perpetuate for eternity.

This is why hieroglyphs are mainly present on the walls of monuments, temples or even graves, very often to give the name of the deceased, his function, etc. They are also found in many papyrus rolls containing sacred texts such as the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead excerpts from which were placed with the dead for their journey to the afterlife.

Later, the scribes – the only ones who knew how to read and write during ancient Egypt – also sometimes used hieroglyphs for important administrative or political texts.

How do hieroglyphs work?

If hieroglyphs have been used for more than three millennia, they have not remained fixed over time. On the contrary, the study of the characters showed that the system had evolved during the different periods of Egyptian history. Until the Third Dynasty, between about 2650 and 2575 BCE, the examples seem to suggest a regularization of some of the principles of writing and a multiplication of signs. After which the system seems to have changed very little until its decline.

Before the decipherment carried out by Champollion, hieroglyphs were considered symbols with an obscure meaning. The work of the French specialist has demonstrated that they actually constituted a complex combination where the signs are not just simple ideograms, in other words symbols representing a word or an idea. They can also constitute sounds (phonograms) or silent signs depending on their position and the context in which they are found.

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The work of Champollion and all those who followed him made it possible to establish a list of all the characters used as well as their meaning. Among them, a set of twenty signs constituting a “pseudo-alphabet”. This research has also shown that hieroglyphs can be written in rows or columns and be read from right to left, left to right or top to bottom depending on the case.

What is hieratic writing?

With its operation and its many characters, hieroglyphic writing was neither fast nor easy to use. This has led to the appearance of a simplified version of this system called “linear hieroglyphs” where the signs appear in reduced and less detailed forms. It is this simplification, pushed further, which led to the birth of the hieratic about 3,000 years ago.

This writing follows the same basic rules as hieroglyphs but its spelling is much simpler, made up of a few lines drawn with a brush or cut reed. Scribes used it in the usual way on papyri, wooden tablets, strips of leather, cut stones or pottery to record administrative, literary, scientific or religious texts.

Example of a text written in hieratic with the Ebers papyrus, a medical treatise dated to the 16th century BCE. DP

The hieratic is read from right to left and could initially be written in a column or a horizontal line before the latter configuration became standard. According to the traces found, this system lasted until half of the first millennium BC before gradually giving way to demotic for all administrative texts.

What is demotic writing?

Demotic is considered a simplification of hieratic, itself a simplification of hieroglyphics. It began to be used in the 7th century BC and gradually replaced hieratic as a script for documents of daily life, whether administrative, political, legal or commercial texts.

Like that of hieratic, the birth of demotic stems directly from the need for scribes to find a simpler and faster script to write their usual and less important documents. In the same way, we can therefore associate the signs of the demotic with their hieroglyphic origin.

The Rosetta Stone and its text in three scripts: in hieroglyphics (top), in demotic (bottom) and in ancient Greek (not visible here). © John Harper/Getty Images

Demotic writing is one of the three present on the Rosetta Stone and having enabled Champollion to find the key to deciphering hieroglyphs. According to the remains discovered, it was used until the 5th century AD. However, it would have started to lose ground from the Ptolemaic period (from the 4th to the 1st century BC) in favor of Coptic.

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After Demotic, Coptic

Coptic constitutes in a way the last stage in the evolution of Egyptian writing. It derives from demotic to which the characters of the Greek alphabet have been added, resulting in a set of about thirty signs. The transition from Demotic to Coptic was made gradually until the definitive disappearance of the former. After this disappearance, the art of writing and reading Egyptian scripts including hieroglyphs was completely lost, leading to a forgetting of their meaning.

Coptic is the third script found on the Rosetta Stone. A godsend for Champollion who, from the age of 17, had studied this language in depth, precisely believing that it could constitute an open door to better understand hieroglyphs. He was not mistaken since it was his very good knowledge of Coptic which notably made it possible to find the meaning and function of the mysterious symbols.

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Hieroglyphs, hieratic, demotic: what were the writings of the Egyptians?