Pin Me

Signs & Symbols: Hieroglyphs

written by: Andrea Campbell • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 5/20/2014

How did Egyptian hieroglyphs originate? Learn about the history of as well as interesting facts about this ancient style of writing.

  • slide 1 of 10

    APT 4 Rent, 2 BD/2 BTH, UF, LNDRY, WB FRPLC 1200 SQFT. All Util. REFS REQ'D No SMKG*

    Hieroglyphs Homework Help Can you read this ad? We see this type of advertisement every day in the newspaper and the wording is based on using consonants. Another ancient language in 3,000 BC also used this style of wording, in addition to a type of pictogram foundation. Here’s more about Egyptian hieroglyphs.

  • slide 2 of 10

    Ancient Egypt

    The tomb reliefs—sculptures—monuments, and paintings left by the Ancient Egyptians have given us a peek into a cultured and civilized society. For example, agricultural scenes found in a tomb at Deir el-Medina offer great insights into farms and vineyards under the reign of pharaoh Sethos I.

  • slide 3 of 10

    Farm and Agra Symbols

    Beautiful scenes of farmers watering grapevines and picking and crushing grapes are often shown. Hieratic—hieroglyphic pictograms—have been found on wine labels in excavations and they demonstrate the name of vineyards and vintners, as well as the vintage of wines.

    These glorious and highly stylized and quite modern-looking paintings spawned the “pictures" used in language and for writing called hieroglyphs. The writing is comprised of icons, small symbols that are simplified and succinct. Egyptian storytelling and this type of writing fell in line with religious beliefs, glorious characters depicted in the afterlife, and papyrus and scrolls that celebrated daily life as well.

  • slide 4 of 10

    The Invention of Writing

    Singular change began in 3000 BC because of the writing that defined Egyptian history. This literacy period propelled the Near East ahead and set their culture apart from its contemporaries.

    The Egyptians called hieroglyphs “Gods’ Words" and considered them to be the creation of Thoth, who was depicted with the head of an Ibis holding a scribe's palette and stylus, or sometimes as a baboon. Thoth was the god famous for “Weighing the Heart," along with Anubis, who performed weighing a dead person’s heart against the feather of truth to determine a written record of the judgment of the deceased: will they move on to the next life? If their heart was heavier than the feather, they would be eaten by the Devourer instead.

  • slide 5 of 10

    The Literate Class

    All nobility, military, priests and kings were educated and literate. Special groups of chosen became scribes who were trained by other scribes. Scribes were children of important people and usually started their training at 12 years of age, rising up through the ranks to administrators.

  • slide 6 of 10


    Cursive writing was the foundational instruction that progressed to a proficiency in hieroglyphic script of the kind seen on monuments today. Language for the Egyptians eventually became syllabary—a collection of syllables—and they often arranged lists in a type of alphabetical order. Primarily, they learned by copying sentences, not by using individual words.

    Apart from administrative letters, cursive was used for:

    • Narrative fiction and instruction
    • Philosophical works
    • Cultural and religious hymns
    • Love poetry
    • Royal inscriptions
    • Medical and math language
    • Mortuary books and rituals

  • slide 7 of 10

    The Polite Text

    Hieroglyphs can be read from right to left or left to right depending on placement. The individual signs are always turned so they look the reader in the face; for example, humans and animals always look toward the beginning of the line. Little regard was paid to spelling, so many kings’ names and phrases had various spellings. How would a teacher of today like that?

  • slide 8 of 10

    School of Thought

    The scriptorium where scribes studied was called the “house of life" and was attached to a temple. A typical scribe palette, like an art box, was a smallish rectangular tool box with a slot for reed pens along with round depression wells for cakes of ink—red and black pigment mixed with gum—and included a water pot or bag and a papyrus smoother. The scribe painted holding his pen above the surface so as not to smudge the ink. The writer could complete about a dozen signs before recharging the pen.

  • slide 9 of 10

    Signs of Script: Merely Skeletons

    Phonograms were the phonetic or speech sound signs, and semograms—also called determinatives—were used to convey meaning. The language is also made up of consonants, no vowels, and translates into consonantal skeletons (somewhat like the ad at the beginning of this article). The writing was also supposed to be aesthetic—good looking—and arranged to create a picture with some icons on top of one another.

    Deciphering the 1000+ characters of historical script posed a conundrum for many historians and scientists. Countless experts speculated about their meanings but it wasn’t until a Frenchman named Jean-François Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone in 1822 that he opened the door to Egypt’s past and helped to foster Egyptology, the science of all things Egyptian.

  • slide 10 of 10

    Fun Facts

    There is a jumping free-spirited kid goat in the Egyptian word “imagine."

    A sharp-eyed ibis bird icon is in the word “discover."

    Two strongly woven sandals firmly planted on the ground are found in the words “never give up."

    Answer to Advertisement at the beginning of the article:

    APT 4 Rent, 2 BD/2 BTH, UF, LNDRY, WB FRPLC 1200 SQFT. All Util. REFS REQ'D No SMKG*

    Apartment for rent. Two bedrooms, two baths, unfurnished. Laundry, wood-burning fireplace; 1200 square feet, all utilities paid. References required, no smoking property.


More To Explore