Stereotyped Formulas

A Short History of Hieroglyphs

Stereotyped formulas
Offering Formula

The group of sign is the beginning of the offering formulas. It is found on many stela and tombs. The signs are here for the word written , ''nswt'', ''king''.

The sign is an ideogram/phonogram that reads Hetep, and can mean ''offering'', or ''to be gracious/appeased/in peace''.

The sign writes the verb ''rdi'', ''to give''. Remember it, we will meet it later.

The interpretation of the whole formula seems to have changed with time. It seems that, in the beginning, it meant ''May the king, and the gods X, Y and Z, be gracious and give offerings consisting of the dead''

and that later, the idea was that the king gave offering to the gods who, in turn, transfered a part of these to the cult of the dead. So, the formula was to be translated ''An offering which the king gives to the gods X, Y and Z, that they give offerings, consisting of ... to the dead''. On the Web, you can find an example in the Oriental Institute museum .

The King in Front of a God

Many a scene in Egyptian iconography, represents the king accomplishing some ritual in front of a god.

Usually, the name of the ritual is written in front of the king, and the discourse of the god is in front of him.

Important words, here, are:

  • ''Djed medou in'', Words spoken by (A god), which introduce the speech of a god.
  •  or , ''I give you'', which introduce the list of things the god gives to the king.

For example, in figure 2, The texts translate:


  • above him:
    • The lord of the Two lands, Ouser-Maat-Re-Setep-en-Amon, the Lord of the crowns, Ramesses, beloved of Amon, Ruler of truth.


  • in front of him:
    • giving Maat to his father Amon, after he had given (to Ramses) eternal life

    note that the name of Amon should in theory be spelled In this case, the name Amon is reversed and written in the normal direction for texts spoken by Amon, although it is part of the king's speech. It's yet another sign play: the figure of Amon is here used as a giant determinative for the word. But if the word was written


  • Words said by Amon-Re, Lord of the thrones of the Two Lands: ''I give to you life, stability, power, like (those of) Re''


  • Words said by Khonsu Nefer-Hotep: ''I give to you all health''

An interesting feature of this picture is that the offering of Maat, that is, ''justice'', ''cosmic order'', is usually depicted .Here, it's an elaborate hieroglyphic composition writing the name of Ramses, Ouser-Maat-Re: The hieroglyph which can be used to write both the adjective ''all'', ''every'', and the word ''lord'', can have here the two readings, to mean ''lord, possessor of Maat'', ''the Lord Ouser-Maat-Re'', and ''all the Maat''. This multiplicity of readings is most probably intended.

If you can write, you can draw...

This was an advertisement for a drawing method, and it was used as a pun in Asterix the Gaul's Asterix and Cleopatra ; a scribe said:

  • I learned in an excellent school. They said ''if you can draw, you can write.''

Nonetheless, it's quite true that the links are very close between art and writing in ancient Egypt.

We have already seen some examples: the absence of determinative in captions, , shows a fundamental continuity between text and drawing. Likewise, we said that if statues advance the left leg and not the right, it was because they were somehow three dimensional hieroglyphs.

On the other hand, hieroglyphs are also drawings, and they can retain this quality to add to the expressiveness of the text.

In later times, during the Ptolemaic and Roman era, this was used to an extreme extend, above all for god's names. The number of usable signs was much bigger than during the Pharaonic period; and lots of signs could be used alphabetically.

In Serge SAUNERON's Les prêtres de l'ancienne Égypte, (p. 138) the following example is given: Ptah, usually written , is written

The first sign is the sky, ''pt '', and stands for a ''p''. The second is the god , and stands for the . And the last is the earth, , and stands for the ''t''. But the three signs show a man separating the sky and the earth, which is sometime an attribute of Ptah.

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Serge Rosmorduc

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