A Short History of Hieroglyphs

The Deciphering of Hieroglyphs

Royal names were historically, along with the Rosetta stone, the key to the understanding of the hieroglyphic system.

A. Kirsher had suggested, in the seventeenth century, that the liturgical language of the native Christian confession in Egypt, Coptic, was the last stage of the Ancient Egyptian language.

The Abbot Barthélémy had already suggested in the eighteen century that the cartouches enclosed royal names. Thus, after the Rosetta stone had been found, Akerblad and Young were able to read some Greek and Roman royal names. Champollion, using his knowledge of the Coptic language, proved that the phonetic system wasn't only used for foreign names, thus getting the clue that allowed him to translate quite accurately many texts during the ten years that followed his discovery.

Seeing the name , he thought that was a sign for the sun, in Coptic, ''Ra''; he knew from the Rosetta stone that was associated with the words ''to give birth'', ''mose'', so he thought it was the consonant ''m'', and he knew, from Ptolemaic names, that was an ''s''. So he got : ''ra-m-s-s'', Ramesses. The same system, on the cartouche gave him the name ''Tuthmosis''. Actually, he was wrong when he thought of as an ''m'', because it is a biliteral sign for ''ms''. But this wasn't a hindrance and his system allowed him to go on. As a matter of fact, in ptolemaic times, the number of signs that could be used as uniliteral signs was so great that it was quite natural to think of the system as composed of uniliteral consonantic signs, ideograms, and determinatives.

A Few Frequent Words

Most monumental texts are quite repetitive. So, knowing a few words helps guessing what a text is about.

Names of Gods

Usually, in a class on ancient Egypt, you are taught how to recognize a few gods: Osiris, Seth, Horus, Re, Amon ...

In fact, the most secure way to recognize a god is to read his name! So, here are a few current ones:


is usually written i-men,

You already know from table 1 that is a yod, a semi-consonant like y in English. Then, is a chessboard for the game called zenet. It reads men. The is a n, used both to nicely fit the square space with the , and to ensure the reading ''men'', although in this case there is no ambiguity.

The is the determinative for gods. It can be ommited if the name is a caption for a full-size image of the god, in which case, the said image is itself used as a determinative. Variants for this determinative are the signs used for writing the word god, and the hieratic equivalent, .


Is a name very frequently written. The god himself was frequently shown, but, as the deceased tended to be called Osiris themselves, lots of funerary inscriptions feature his name as a title of the dead.

it is most frequently written:

where the sign , a throne, usually used for writing the consonant , mainly in the word ''place'', is used for writing the sound . The eye writes the sound .

A frequent variant is where the first sign also has the value ''ws''

Isis is spelled

Anubis is written which you can read with the alphabet: inpw

You will notice that the frequent ''-is'' ending doesn't appear in the Egyptian spelling. It's simply a Greek case-ending, added to the Egyptian name as heard in the last part of the first millennium BC.

Names of People

There is much variety in people's names, so it's quite impossible to give rules here. Usually, in running text, the name of an individual is finished by the determinative sign of the seated man , but this sign is used in lots of other contexts.

In general, the representation of someone is preceded by the titles and name of the person.

Often, and especially in the most ancient texts, a full-scale representation can act as a determinative. In this scene , from the tomb of Heqa-ib at Assuan, the figure of the tomb owner stands under his names and titles. The last line translates:

  the prince

Written with the sign , , which is used to write the word ''front''; and the sign. It litteraly means ''he who is in front of the ''as'' (a group in the Egyptian population)''. Note that in titles, the words are often abreviated (after all, you wouldn't write ''Mister'' in full letters in an address). They are both difficult to read if you don't know it's a title and easy to read if you know them.

  the chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt

In fact, it should be read in reverse: the first word written is , ,
which means ''king of Lower Egypt''. The second sign represents a seal, for writing the word ''Chancellor''. Grammatically, the two words should have been written in the reverse order, but, as a rule, Kings' names and Gods' names are written first, out of respect.

  the sole friend (of the king); The word smr, ''friend'', is written with the glyphs s and mr.

  the lector priest

Litteraly: He who is under () the ritual scroll () . It's an interesting illustration of a modification of the order of the signs for visual sake. Normaly, one should write : (The final d is not written), but the b leg create some unpleasant empty space, which can be filled by the sign.

 , the personal name.

In stelas, offering bearers are often close relatives of the stela's owner. So you will frequently find things like: ' 'his son he loves'' or ''his daughter he loves'' in front of their names.

The duck is the sound '''', for ''son''; the is a ''t'', and a feminine ending; the is a personal pronoun for ''he'', and writes the verb ''to love'', because both the word ''canal'' and the verb to ''love'' have the consonant ''mr'' as consonantic skeleton.

Kings' Names

The kings had multiple names, the number of which varied with time. The classical titelature is five names long. These names are :

The Horus name

is the older name for Egyptian kings. It was written enclosed in a panel called a serekh, which represented a palace. The word ''serekh'' means ''make to know'', and thus indicate that the panel is a proclamation of the king's name.

 is the Horus name of Ramesses II;

it means strong bull loved by (or loving) Maat

The two mistress name

links the king to the patron goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt, Nekhbet and Ouadjet. It is indicated by the signs , and reads nebty so in this example

 which is the nbty-name of Ramses II:

The two mistress, the protector of Egypt, he who strikes the foreign countries

The golden Horus name

is another name, preceded by

still Ramesses :

The Golden Horus, powerful by his years of victory

The King of Lower and Upper Egypt name

is one of the two mostly used names of the king. Its is preceded by the signs which read ''king of Upper and Lower Egypt'', and is enclosed in a cartouche. Ancient Egyptian usually used this name for their king.

Ramesses for ever:

The king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Ouser-Maat-Re Setep-en-Re (Powerful by the Maat of Re, the chosen of Re)

The son of Re

is the ''birth name'', that is, the name of the king when he was still a prince. It is this name we use when we speak of ''Ramses II'' or ''Tuthmosis III''. It is preceded by and enclosed in a cartouche. writes the word ''son'', because the name of the duck and the word ''son'' have the same consonants in Egyptian, and spells ''Re'', the sun-god.

And, at last, Ramses:

The son of Re, Ra-mes-su meri-Amon (It is Re who gave birth to him, the one whom Amon loves)

And here is the full titelature for Ramses II:

Actually, the titelature of a king could change, not only during his reign, but also, especially when it came to the various epithets, according to the place. The titelature was some kind of a political program.

An interesting example is Sethy the first, whose name Sethy refers to the god Seth. As the relations between Seth and Osiris are quite bad since the murder of the latter by the former, in Osirian contexts, (for example, in Sethy's tomb) Sethy's name is written with the sign for Osiris instead of , which is Seth.

MORE (Stereotyped Formulas)

Serge Rosmorduc

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© Serge Rosmorduc

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