Our knowledge of ancient Egyptian is
the result of modern scholarship, for since the Renaissance, a symbolical
and allegorical interpretation was favored, which proved to be wrong.
The learned Jesuit
antiquarian Athanasius Kircher (1602 - 1680) proposed
nonsensical allegorical translations (Lingua Aegyptical restituta, 1643).
Thomas Young (1773 - 1829), the author of the undulatory theory of light, who had assigned the correct
phonetical values to five hieroglyphic signs, still maintained these alphabetical
signs were written together with allegorical signs, which, according to him, formed the bulk.
The final decipherment, starting in
1822, was the work of
the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion, 1790 - 1832, cf. Précis
du système hiéroglyphique des anciens égyptiens par M.Champollion le jeune,
Champollion, who had a very
good knowledge of Coptic (the last stage of Egyptian), proved the
assumption of the allegorists wrong. He showed (especially aided by the presence
of the Rosetta Stone) that Egyptian (as
any other language) assigned phonetical values to signs. These formed consonantal
structures as in Hebrew and Arabic. He also discovered that some were pictures
indicating the category of the preceding words, the so-called
After Champollion's death in 1832, the lead in egyptology passed to Germany
(Richard Lepsius, 1810 - 1884). This Berlin school shaped Egyptian philology for
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in particular scholars such as Adolf
Erman (1854 - 1937), Kurt Sethe (1869 - 1934), who, together with Francis
Griffith (1862 - 1934), Battiscombe Gunn (1883 - 1950) and Alan Gardiner (1879 -
1963) in England, laid the systematic basis for the study of Egyptian. Later,
Jacob Polotsky (1905 -1991) established the "standard theory" of
These efforts finally made the historical record available to scholars
of other disciplines, so that through interdisciplinarity, the impact of
Pharaonic Egypt on all Mediterranean cultures of antiquity could be weighed. The
result being, that Ancient Egypt is no longer neglected in the history of the
formation of the Western intellect.
all dates BCE
- earliest communities - 5000
- Badarian - 4000
- Naqada I - 4000 - 3600
- Naqada II - 3600 - 3300
- Terminal Predynastic Period : 3300 -
- Early Dynastic Period : 3000 - 2600
- Old Kingdom : 2600 - 2200
- First Intermediate Period : 2200 -
- Middle Kingdom 1940 - 1760
- Second Intermediate Period : 1760 -
- New Kingdom : 1500 - 1000
- Third Intermediate Period : 1000 - 650
- Late Period : 650 - 343
In order of difficulty, the reader may study the following recent books &
dictionaries to be able to read classical Egyptian, i.e. hieroglyphic
Middle Egyptian. When this is acquired, a large section of the literature can be
directly addressed. Middle Egyptian was first introduced in the Middle Kingdom
and used in religious contexts until the Late Period (italics refer to the
presence of outdated entries or grammar) :
: Reading the Past : Egyptian Hieroglyphs, 1987.
: écriture et langue des Pharaons, CD-Rom, Khéops - Paris, 2001.
& Manley, B. : How to read Egyptian hieroglyphs, 2001.
A. : Egyptian Grammar, 1982.
P. : Grammaire Egyptienne, 1980.
G. : Grammaire de l'Égyptien classique, 1955 (2 volumes).
Allen, J.P. :
Middle Egyptian, 2000.
E.A.W. : A Hieroglyphic Vocabulary to the Book of the Dead, 1911.
E.A.W. : An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary, 1920 (2 volumes).
Erman, A. :
& Grapow, H. : Aegyptisches Handwörterbuch, 1921.
R.O. : A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, 1972.
Van der Plas,
D. : Coffin Texts Word Index, 1998.
Hannig, R. : Ägyptisches
Wörterbuch I, 2003.
hieroglyphs of the Egyptian language, often attached as labels on commodities, were written
down towards the end of the terminal predynastic period (end of the fourth
There is a continuous recorded until the eleventh
century CE, when Coptic (the last stage of the language) expired as
a spoken tongue and was superceded by Arabic.
Egyptian knew six stages :
Archaic Egyptian (first two Dynasties), Old Egyptian (Old Kingdom), Middle
Egyptian (First Intermediate Period & Middle Kingdom), Late Egyptian (New Kingdom & Third
Intermediate Period), Demotic Egyptian (Late Period) and Coptic (Roman Period).
In the last two stages, new scripts emerged and only in Coptic is the
vocalic structure known, with distinct dialects. Archaic Egyptian
consists of brief inscriptions. Old Egyptian has the first continuous
texts. Middle Egyptian is the "classical form" of the language.
Late Egyptian is very different from Old and Middle Egyptian (cf. the
verbal structure). Although over 6000 hieroglyphs have been documented,
only about 700 are attested for Middle Egyptian (the majority of other
hieroglyphs are found in Graeco-Roman temples only).
Egyptian hieroglyphs is a system of writing which, in its fully developed
form, had only two classes of signs : logograms and phonograms.
logogram (word writing)
A logogram is the representation of a complete word (not individual
letters of phonemes) directly by a picture of the object actually
denoted (cf. the Greek "logos", or "word"). As
such, it does not take the phonemes into consideration, but only the
direct objects & notions connected therewith.
For example :
, depicting the sun, signifies :
"sun", is a logogram
, depicting a mouth, signifies :
"mouth", is a logogram
A writing system exclusively based on logography would have thousands of
signs to encompass the semantics of the spoken language. Such a large
vocabulary would be unpractical. Moreover, which pictures to use for
things that can not be easily pictured ? How to address grammatics ?
Egyptian phonography (a word is represented by a series of
sound-glyphs of the spoken sounds) was derived through phonetic
borrowing. Logograms are used to write other
words or parts of words semantically unrelated to the phonogram but with
which they phonetically shared the same consonantal structure.
The logogram , signifies
"mouth". It is used as a phonogram with the phonemic value
"r" to write words as "r", meaning "toward"
or to represent the phonemic element "r" in a word like
"rn" or "name".
"rn" or "name" : the
logograms of mouth and water
This pictoral phonography is based on the principle of the rebus : show
one thing to mean another. If, for example, we would write English with
the Egyptian signary, the word "belief" would be written with
the logograms of a "bee" and a "leaf" ... The shared
consonantal structure allows one to develop a large number of phonograms.
They are the solid architecture of the language. In Egyptian, the
consonantal system was present from the beginning.
Three main categories
hieroglyphs : 26 (including
variants) - they represent a single consonant and are the most
important group of phonograms ;
hieroglyphs : a pair of successive consonants (ca. 100) ;
hieroglyphs : three successive consonants (ca. 50).
The last two categories are
often accompanied by uniconsonantal hieroglyphs which partly or completely
repeat their phonemic value. This to make sure that the
complemented hieroglyph was indeed a phonogram and not a logogram and/or
to have some extra calligraphic freedom in case a gap needed to be filled
This phonography allowed a
word of more than one consonant to be written in different ways. In
Egyptian, economy was exercized and spellings were relatively
standardized, allowing for variant forms for certain words only.
ideogram or semogram
Logograms are concerned with direct meaning and sense, not with
sound. Likewise, Egyptian used so-called "determinatives",
derived from logograms, and placed them at the end of words to
assist in specifying their meaning when uncertainty existed.
A stroke for example was the determinative indicating that the function of
the hieroglyph was logographic. The determinative specified the
intended meaning. Some were specific in application (closely connected
to one word), while others identified a word as belonging to a certain
class or category (the generic determinatives or taxograms).
Determinatives of a word would be changed or varied to introduce nuance.
The same hieroglyph can be a logogram, a phonogram and a determinative.
For example :
The logogram , depicting the sun, signifies :
"sun" (in continuous texts, a stroke would be put underneath the
hieroglyph to indicate a purely logographic sense). Placed at the end of
words, it is related to the actions of the sun (as in "rise",
"day", "yesterday", "spend all day",
"hour ", "period") and so the hieroglyph is a determinative.
In the context of dates however, it is a phonogram with as phonetic
Besides these purely semantical functions, the determinatives also marked
the ends of words and hence assisted reading. They helped to identify the
"word-images" in a text. Once established, these were slow to
change, causing, as early as the Middle Kingdom, great divergences between
the written script, becoming increasingly "historical", and the
spoken, contemporary pronunciations.
Logograms and determinatives are both ideograms. Pictoral ideography (a variety of
hieroglyphs representing idea's, notions, contexts, categories, modalities or
nuance's) conveys additional meaning. Ideograms are purely semantical (or semograms).
To the objective sound-glyph (the phonetics, in this case, being the consonantal
structures with no vocalizations) an ideogram is added changing the
Hieroglyphic writing remained a consonantal, pictoral system, allowing for
both phonograms and ideograms to convey meaning.
Ante-rational cognition and Archaic, Old and Middle Egyptian.
in Egyptian literature
stages of growth in the formation of Middle Egyptian
Gerzean ware design schemata,
hieroglyps, no texts, no grammar, cartoon-like style
of Snefru, Biography of Methen, Sinai
Inscriptions, Testamentary Enactment
words with archaic sentences, a very rudimentary grammar applied to simple sentences in the
"record" style of the Old Kingdom
Maxims of Ptahhotep, Coffin Texts, Sapiental literature, ...
Great Hymn to
the Aten ...
simple sentences to the classical form of a literary language capable of
further change and refined meanings
• Neolithic Period
Before the differentiation between the spoken and the written language, no
identification and transmission of meaning was possible, except through oral
means. Insofar as the ability to identify conscious activity was concerned,
only anonymous cultual productions prevailed. Mythical memory produced its
tales, legends and typical designs. No individual consciousness can be
denoted. The differentiation between, on the one hand, nature and its
processes and, on the other hand, human consciousness is very small or
completely absent. The graven images found in graves, point to the start of
the first decentration and the rise of the idea of objectifying meaning in
picture-glyphs (beginning of logography ?).
• Middle to Terminal Predynastic - Archaic Egyptian
This slow process of objectification gave rise to the experience of spatiality
: navigation on the Nile and the emergence of cult centers and urban
centers, associated with chiefdoms, principalities,
provincial states and village corporations, finally united into regional kingdoms.
Trade continued to flourish and wealth distinctions became more salient. The
subject experienced itself for the first time as
source of cultural actions. Differentiation (between object
and subject) led to logico-mathematical structures, whereas the
distinction between actions related to the subject and those related to the
external objects became the startingpoint of causal relationships. The
grammar of ware design is used, allowing for the decentration of actions with
regard to their material origin, for now myths could be recorded in schemata
which could be objectified by later subjects. The linking of objects was also
evident. Means/goals schemata rose. The dependence between the external
object and the acting body was mediated by elementary rules of design and
cultural dressing. These schemata led to spatial & temporal
This process of interiorization (starting with the first decentration
and ending with the exhaustion of the mythical mode of thought) led in the
terminal predynastic period to an entirely new subjective focus which
exteriorized itself in single hieroglyphic writing. This event defined
the most important breach with the past : the end of the exclusivity of the
mythical mode of thought and its already complex spoken language and the start
of the history of Ancient Egypt. The advent of political unification is
consistent with this radical change.
In the mythical "first time" (zep tepy), the "primordial hill"
emerged out of the undifferentiated. In the passive principle (Nun), the
active (Tatenen) lay dormant. In the resulting Ennead, 4 feminine & 4
masculine deities formed a balanced Ogdoad + a "Great
One" (Atum or Re or Ptah or Thoth or Amun-Re). The active pole drew its
"force" out of the balanced passive Ogdoad (reminiscent of the
pre-creational primordial Ogdoad of chaos-deities - cf. Hermopolitan
The final unification of the Two Lands became possible thanks to the
centralizing, masculine role of Pharaoh and his justice & truth. He was the
falcon who oversaw everything, the witnessing eye. Instead of the
emergence of conscious focus out of the inert, there came the conscious
awareness drawn from the panoramic overview. This presence of the
"Followers of Horus", was like the divine-on-earth (not the
divine-in-the-sky). The masculine is not drawn from (or constructed upon) the
feminine (as in the natural order), but the feminine is assimilated by the
masculine (as in the cultural order). The "onanism" of Atum may
be linked with this connotative field, for masturbation does not serve
procreation (neither does taking seed in one's mouth). The proto-typical battle
between Horus and Seth is one in which the feminine is totally absent.
This formidable political unification needed its landmarks. The
"Followers of Horus" became divine ancestors. They had to create a
material blueprint of their presence. The divine power of words being very
firmly established, no elaborate hieroglyhic writing was called upon. A few
signs in stone sufficed.
The rise of semiotics transformed the
sound-glyph into logograms & phonograms. The fact phonograms and logograms
were used in an outstanding, monolithic
way (hand in hand with artistic pictoral representations) shows the need to
exteriorize, in heraldic fashion, this collosal attainment around 3000 BCE (unification) and the foundation of the
Dynastic Age (Dynasty I
• Early Old Kingdom (Dynasty
3 - 5) - Old Egyptian
When the difference between subject and object became a sign, a
higher mode of cognition could be expressed. This involved the written
language to realize its first internal structure, so words could be joined
together in simple sentences.
Internalization led to the formation of pre-concepts, i.e. word-images created
through imagination and the interplay of meaningful objective relational
contexts. Subjectivity was expressed as a function of an objective state. The
actions of the "I"-form are objective states which are not yet (self)
reflective. The opacity of the material side of presence prevailed. The
subject has no transparancy of its own.
The Relief of Snofru (first Pharaoh of Dynasty IV, ca. 2600-2571) shows
Pharaoh with the Atef-crown and upraised war-club (hedj) about to smite a Bedwi, whom
he has forced to kneel, holding him by the hair of his head. During Snefru's
mining operations in the Sinai, he probably had to battle with the Bedwin of
the region. The inscriptions accompanying the relief contain only titles and
attributes of Pharaoh. It reads :
"King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Favorite of the Two
Goddesses, Lord of Truth, Golden Horus : Snefru, Great God, who is given
satisfaction, stability, life, health, all joy forever. Horus : Lord of Truth. Smiter of Barbarians."
Sinai Inscriptions of Snofru, rock-walls
of the Wadi Maghara in the Peninsula of Sinai and palace façade (the
"banner"), translated by :
2001, p.75, § 169.
The earliest biography is of Methen, who died in the reign of Snefu, but
who's affiliations were with the preceding Pharaohs. His was the story of the
gradual rise of a scribe to overseer of provisions, and governor of towns and
districts in the Delta. He also was deputy in the eastern part of the Fayum
and the 17th Anubis nome (Upper Egypt). He was amply rewarded and tells the
reader about the size of his house with an account of the grounds. He was buried
near the terraced pyramid of Zoser of the earlier part of Dynasty III.
"He was made chief scribe of the provision
magazine, and overseer of the things of the provision magazine. He was made
(...) becoming local governor of Xois, and inferior field-judge of Xois. He
was appointed judge, he was made overseer of all flax of the king, he was made
ruler of Southern Perked and deputy, he was made local governor of the people
of Dep, etc ..."
Biography of Methen,
from his mastaba-chamber in Sakkara, Berlin Nos.1105-1106, translated by :
p.77, § 172.
In 400 years, the written language had considerably developed. But although
words could be joined together in simple sentences and the latter in
pragmatical groups (dealing with honors & gifts, offices, legacies,
inventories, testaments, transfers, endowments, etc.), the additive, archaic quality of
the style remained. The composition between these groups was loose or absent.
Subjectivity was still objectified. Pre-operatoric activity is limited by the
immediate material context. Writing reflected the part one had played in the
The Pyramid Texts have their own particular problems and difficulties.
They are a set of symbolical "heraldic" spells
mainly dealing with the promotion of Pharaoh's welfare in the afterlife. These
spells were recited at various ceremonies, mostly religious and especially in
connection with the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Pharaoh. These
texts are to a large extent a composition, compiling and joining of earlier
texts which circulated orally or were written down on papyrus a couple of
centuries earlier. Some of them go back to the oral tradition of the Predynastic
era, for they suggest the political context of Egypt before its
final unification. The relative rarity of corruptions is another
important fact making their study rewarding.
However, these texts are pre-rational because they are an amalgam of thoughts
in which contradictions occur which are left intact (between the Heliopolitan and Osirian elements). In harmony with the writing practice of the Egyptians,
older structures were mingled with new ones and many traces of earlier periods
remained. The extent with which this layeredness took shape is rather
pronounced. The language itself has the style of the "records" of
the Old Kingdom, often additive and with little self-reflection (which
starts with the First Intermediate Period). These Pyramid Texts are the
culmination of pre-rationality.
"While there is
some effort here to correlate the functions of Re and Osiris, it can hardly be
called an attempt at harmonization of conflicting doctrines. This is
practically unknown in the Pyramid Texts. (...) But the fact that both
Re and Osiris appear as supreme king of the hereafter cannot be reconciled,
and such mutually irreconcilable beliefs caused the Egyptian no more
discomfort than was felt by any early civilization in the maintenance of a
group of religious teachings side by side with others involving varying and
totally inconsistent suppositions. Even Christianity itself has not escaped
this experience." -
In this collection, no epics or drama
is to be found. Didactic poetry (precepts) and lyrics in which personal
emotions & experiences are highlighted are nearly absent. The texts mainly
deal with religious & political literature. One of the common forms
of this literature was the litany-like scheme. We also find hyms & songs of
triumph. Stylistically, the texts reveal that parallelism and paranomia are
numerous. Various types of parallelism can be observed : synonymous (doubling
or repetition), symmetrical, combined, grammatical, antithetic, of contrast,
of constraint, of analogy, of purpose and of identity. Metrical schemes of
two, three, four, five, six, seven or eight lines occur (the fourfold being
the most popular). The play of words is the commonest literary feature and
depends on the consonantal roots of the words. Alliteration, metathesis,
metaphors, ellipses, anthropomorphisms and picturesque expressions are also
early proto-rational writing
• Late Old Kingdom (Dynasty 6) - Old Egyptian
The administration of the Pharaonic State
was considerable. The need to develop the language rose.
In the Old Kingdom, we see the rise of three independent literary genres :
religious poetry, sapiental instructions and the biography. The literary style
of the period reflects the tranquil security of and unshaken faith in the
power of kingship.
At a certain point,
these realized interiorizations became operations, allowing for transformations. The latter make it
possible to change the variable factors while keeping others invariant.
Conceptual and relational structures arise. We see an increase in the formation
of coordinating conceptual structures capable of becoming closed
word-images by virtue of a
play of anticipative and retrospective constructions of thought (imaginal
thought-forms). This anticipation is clearly attested in the legal
documents. Retrospection was also firmly established.
A good example of this early proto-rational writing are the
Maxims of Ptahhotep. Here the rhetorical device of playing with words
having identical consonantal skeletons was used. In other texts, identical
grammatical formulæ are repeated, and ready made groups of word-images are
"Ensuite, il faut avouer qu'à notre goût la
composition paraît décousue. Des conseils de civilité puérile et
honnête voisinent avec des fines remarques psychologiques. Mais si la forme
de notre exprit exige une organisation rationnelle et un classement de
matières, l'alternance de conseils de politesse et une tentative, requérant
l'effort, pour modifier son propre caractère, est peut-être pédagogiquement
excellente et résulte d'une grande expérience de l'enseignement."
1987, p.354, my italics.
The Middle Egyptian of this and other text from Dynasty VI (cf. the Instructions
of Kagemni), may be explained as resulting from only minor alterations, for
the end of Dynasty VI and the beginning of Dynasty XI are only a hundred years
apart. Moreover, many of the forms characteristic of Middle Egyptian are
found in the biographical inscriptions from Sixth Dynasty tombs. Dynasty
VI is hence transitional. Also politically, for the importance of the
provinces had risen, preparing the great changes introduced in the First
Intermediate Period and in the Middle Kingdom.
In the Discourse of a Man with his Ba
and the Complaints
of Khakheperre-sonb the acquired introspection leads to inner dialogues
(in the first work between the "I" and its "soul", in the
second between the "I" and its heart).
advances in proto-rational writing
First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom
- Middle Egyptian
The increase of individuality forced the language to
acquire more reflective capacities. The formal system underlying it became more complete. All necessary word-images were present and a variety of
literary styles existed (religious, funerary, legal, sapiental, poetic, prose,
etc.). The classical form of the language could already be sensed in the
(late VIth Dynasty), and the
Discourse of a Man with his Ba
(First Intermediate Period) but clearly emerged
in works like the Instruction to Merikare (XIIth Dynasty), the Prophecies of Neferti
(XIIth Dynasty), the Eloquent
Peasant (XIIth Dynasty), the Admonitions of
Ipuwer (late XIIth Dynasty), the Story of Sinuhe (late XIIth
Constructive abstraction, new,
unifying grammatical and semantical coordinations allowed for the emergence of
a total system and
its auto-regulation (or the re-equilbration caused by perfect regulation). That mental operations
"concrete", not "formal", i.e. they exclusively appeared in immediate contexts,
is evidenced by the inability of the writing to realize a system which :
Furthermore, the position
of a noun in the sentence determined whether it was the subject or the object of a
verb. The normal word order being : verb + noun-structure + noun-object.
Complex sentences (with more than one subsentence) were rare, and the meaning
of a sentence could only be derived one step at a time.
This concrete, proto-rational writing contained a paradox : a balanced
development of logico-mathematical operations was evident, but the limitations imposed
upon the concrete linguistic operations pushed the language to move beyond
The Story of Sinuhe shows the complexity arrived at. The
composition contained a lot of variety : narration, hymn, epic, monologue,
dialogue, copy of a royal letter and epistle-like response with stereotypical
expressions ... This work is also a psychological novel, explaining the
adventures of its hero on the basis of his character. The style of the writing
is of an elegant simplicity and the verbal forms have been carefully chosen.
The narrative style is organized by rhythmical prose using parallelism and
constituting a veritable religious song.
- Late Egyptian
Late Egyptian introduced considerable grammatical changes. As a result, the
differences between Late Egyptian and Classical Egyptian are as considerable
as those existing between modern French and Latin, although the literary
genres remained unchanged (with greater originality though) ...
The verbal structure developed, but the pictoral, consonantal and ideographic
limitations were kept in place. Just like the New Solar Theology was able to
naturalize the deities without eliminating the old pantheon, so were
new linguistic innovations introduced side by side the "old"
language. This conservative tendency was one of the chief causes of the
layeredness of the language and suited the "multiplicity of
approaches" (cf. Frankfort) extremely well. Old forms (although
syntactically problematic) were retained because of the divine nature of words
and the idealization of the Old Kingdom. In the New Kingdom as well as in the
Late Period, archaism were savoured because the ancient word-images were
believed to arouse the Kas of old and hence provide the necessary magical
succession. To change a pattern for formal reasons was deemed less important
than to maintain a wrong combination which had proven its magical merits.
We therefore see in pre-rational writing the remnants of mythical thought at work,
and this by virtue of its psychomorph features. The presence of Predynastic material in the pre-rational Pyramid
Texts is attested. In proto-rational writing, these confusions were at times
left behind (cf.
Great Hymn to the Aten). Amarna
theology banished the old pantheon. Only the light-presence of the Aten,
absolutely alone, was divine, just as Pharaoh, son of the Aten, receptacle of
the revelations of the Aten and teacher. However, after Amarna, the ante-rational confusion of object & subject was restored (together with its
foundational mythical identifications) and the plurality of contexts was never
conceptually transcended by means in a theoretical form.
Insofar as Ancient Egyptian civilization as a whole is concerned, the
decontextualization of meaning in an abstract theoretical form never took
place. The language remained layered and archaic elements were sometimes
introduced or copied to give the text a feeling of antiquity (for that
regarded as an
Old Kingdom text). Pictoral representations elucidating the text remained in
place (cf. the
vignette), as well as a type of ideogram called
"orthogram" or "calligram", which conveyed neither meaning
nor sound but was written for aesthetic reasons & pleasure. The cultural
form of Ancient Egyptian civilization remained at the level of the concrete
Egyptian = mythical :
the myth of divine writing - single hieroglyphs as divine passage-ways to
the divine - cartoon-like messages (pictures accompanied by logograms &
phonograms). This phase ends with single inscriptions without grammar,
culminating in loose pictoral narratives assisted by a few phonograms
(Palette of Narmer).
Egyptian = pre-rational & early proto-rational
: the actual initiation of writing - written monuments for practical
purposes - the first pre-rational linguistic structures appear - single
sentences with simple forms - the emergence of contextualizing
determinatives - beginning of anticipation & retrospection - single
word-images forming groups which convey a particular style - the
differentiation of literary genres - sapiental writings. This phase ends
(in the late VIth Dynasty) with sentences in a particular style, able to
convey in a short and laconical way insights of incredible depth (Maxims of Ptahhotep).
Egyptian = proto-rational
: the formation of the classical form - interiorization leading to a
stable, self-reflective first person singular - object & subject
conceptually & relationally distinguished - verbal structures and the form
of sentences allow for greater nuance and poetry - the explosion of
literature and a further differentiation of the literary genres. This
phase ends with sentences and styles competing with the classical
literatures of all times. The classical form was flexible enough to change
even further in the New Kingdom (Late Egyptian). However,
proto-rationality was never superceded ...
I and II
III - IV
VII - XI
XII - XVII
XVIII - XX
XXI - XXV
Besides the general principles developed in the context of my study of
mysticism, namely the
Ways of Holy Love
of Beatrice of Nazareth (1200 - 1268), and the last part
of the Spiritual Espousals by Jan of Ruusbroec (1293 – 1381), called
Third Life, Ancient Egyptian
literature calls for special
circumscription (Gardiner) : to those unaware of the semantical problem in
mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational thought and its literary products,
the differences between various translations may be disconcerting. Ancient
Egyptian literature is a treasure-house of this ante-rational cognitive
activity, and its "logic" is entirely contextual, pictoral,
artistic and practical. The meaning or conception of the sense of certain
words, especially in sophisticated literary context, is prone to large
discrepancies. Gardiner spoke of "interpretative preferences" (Gardiner,
1946). Furthermore, despite major grammatical discoveries, Egyptian writing
is ambiguous qua grammatical form. Some of its defects can not be overcome
and so a "consensus omnium" among all sign interpreters is
unlikely. The notion of "semantic circumscription" was derived
from this quote by Gardiner : "If the uncertainty involved in such
tenuous distinctions awake despondency in the minds of some students, to
them I would reply that our translations, though very liable to error in
detail, nevertheless at the worst give a roughly adequate idea of what the
ancient author intended ; we may not grasp his exact thought, indeed at
times we may go seriously astray, but at least we shall have
circumscribed the area within which his meaning lay, and with that
achievement we must rest content." (Gardiner,
1946, pp.72-73, my italics). To the latter, more attention to lexicography
(a discussion of individual words) and the rule that at least one certain
example of the sense of a word must be given were considered as crucial.
Personally, I would add the rule that one has to take into consideration all
hieroglyphs (also the determinatives) and try to circumscribe the meaning by
assessing the context in which words and sentences appears ;
of the doubt (Zába) : amendments should be introduced with great caution
and for very good reasons. Indeed, some egyptologists change the original
text with great ease, considering Egyptian scribes to be careless and
prone to mistakes. This is not correct.
(1956, p.11)) prompted us to respect the original text and made it his
principle. He wrote : "Pour ce qui est la traduction d'un texte
égyptien dans une langue moderne, l'étude de divers textes (...) m'a amené
au principe dont je me suis fait une règle, à savoir de considérer a
priori un texte égyptien comme correct et de m'en expliquer chaque
difficulté tout d'abord par l'aveu de ne pas connaître la grammaire ou le
vocabulaire égyptien aussi bien qu'un Egyptien. (...) et ce n'est donc
qu'après avoir longement, mais en vain, consulté d'autres textes et ne
pouvant expliquer la difficulté autrement, que je suis enclin à croire que
le texte est altéré."
approaches (Frankfort) : this notion implies one has to assimilate the
Egyptian way of thinking before engaging in explaining anything. Their
"method" not being linear, axiomatic (definitions & theorema)
or linea recta.
explains : "... the coexistence of different correlation of
problems and phenomena presents no difficulties. It is in the concrete
imagery of the Egyptian texts and designs that they become disturbing to us
; there lies the main source of the inconsistencies which have baffled and
exasperated modern students of Egyptian religion. (...) Here then we find an
abrupt juxtaposition of views which we should consider mutually exclusive.
This is what I have called a multiplicity of approaches : the avenue of
preoccupation with life and death leads to one imaginative conception, that
with the origin of the existing world to another. Each image, each concept
was valid within its own context. (...) And yet such quasi-conflicting
images, whether encountered in paintaings or in texts, should not be
dismissed in the usual derogatory manner. They display a meaningful
inconsistency, and not poverty but superabundance of imagination. (...) This
discussion of the multiplicity of approaches to a single cosmic god requires
a complement ; we must consider the converse situation in which one single
problem is correlated with several natural phenomena. We might call it a
'multiplicity of answers'."
acceptation (Zimmer) : in his study of Eastern religions and exegesis of
Hindu thought, the German scholar Heinrich Zimmer introduced a principle
which implies that before one studies a culture one has to accept it
exists or existed as it does and claims. One should approach and interprete
its cultural forms as little as possible with standards which does not fit
in, which focus on subjects which were of no interest to it (like the colour
of the hair of royal mummies) or which reduces it to what is already known.
This means one, as does comparative cultural anthropology with its
methodology of participant observation, accepts the culture at hand without
prejudices and projections.
p.3) explains himself :
"La méthode -ou, plutôt, l'habitude- qui
consists à ramener ce qui n'est pas familier à ce que l'on connaît bien,
a de tout temps mené à la frustration intellectuelle. (....) Faute d'avoir
adopté une attitude d'acceptation, nous ne recevons rien ; nous nous voyons
refuser la faveur d'un entretien avec les dieux. Ce n'est point notre sort
d'être submergés, comme le sol d'Egypte, par les eaux divines et fécondantes
du Nil. C'est parce qu'elles sont vivantes, possédant le pouvoir de faire
revivre, capables d'exercer une influence effective, toujours revouvelée,
indéfinissable et pourtant logique avec elle-même, sur le plan de la
destinée humaine, que les images du folklore et du mythe défient toute
tentative de systématisation. Elles ne sont pas des cadavres, mais bien des
esprits possesseurs. Avec un rire soudain, et un brusque saut de côté,
elles se jouent du spécialiste qui s'imagine les avoir épinglées sur son
tableau synoptique. Ce qu'elles exigent de nous ce n'est pas de monologue
d'un officier de police judiciaire, mais le dialogue d'une conversation
: egyptologists are aware the cognitive abilities of the Ancient
Egyptians were not the same as the Greeks. Thanks to Piaget's description of
the genesis of cognition, we can assess the Egyptian heritage with the
standards of ante-rational thought, to wit : the mythical, pre-rational and
proto-rational modes of thoughts, each having its specific modus
operandi. Hence, when we try to interprete a text, the question before us is
: in what mode or modes of thought was this written (which kind of text is
this) ? Indeed, because of the multiplicity of approaches, the Ancient
Egyptians left old strands of thought intact, with an amalgam of approaches
placed next to each other without interference as a result ;
semantics : Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was more than a way to
convey well-formed meaning (i.e. language), but tried to invoke the magic of
the "numen praesens", involving the use of artistic space (a contemporary
equivalent is the Zen garden) as a additional element in the composition of
meaning. The Shabaka Stone, is
only one (late) example of the principles of spatial organization which
governed Egyptian from the start (besides honorific or graphic
transpositions). Unsightly gaps and disharmonious distributions were
rejected. Groupings always involved the use of imaginary squares or
rectangles ensuring the proportioned arrangement. This allowed for slight
imperfections. Furthermore, important hieroglyphs were given their
architectonic, monumental or ornamental equivalent. Spatial semantics was at
work in large monumental constructions as well as in small stela or tiny
juwelery and important tools (for Maat is at work in both the big and the
small) ... Egyptologists have not given this aspect of Egyptian "sacred
geometry" the attention it deserves (besides
de Lubicz), leaving the horizon wide opened to wild stellar, historical
& anthropological speculations.
inclination : Ancient Egyptians "spoke in images". This holds true
in a linguistic sense (namely their use of pictograms), but also with regard
to their literary inclinations. When somebody grabbed his meat violently,
the Egyptian thought of the voracious crocodile who has no tongue and who
has to grab his food with his teeth and swallow it in one piece. When they
saw the Sun rise and heared the baboons sing, they associated this activity
with praise and the glorification of light, etc. Some hymns speak in images,
poetical phrases, metaphors and other sophisticated literary devices.
Literary and metaphorical meaning overlapped and interpenetrated (for
example : "He who spits to heaven sees his spittle fall back on his
face.) ... The epithets of the deities too are full of visual elements. Some
egyptologists tend to rewrite this to comfort the contemporary readers. This
offends the fluid nature of the texts and makes them dry and gray. The
contrary (leaving these images intact) works confusing when Egyptian
literature is new. As a function of their intention to try to really grasp
the sense, translators make a compromize between literal and analogical
renderings. I myself tend towards the analogical (which was closer to the
Egyptian way of life), leaving room for explicative notes and comments.
"The only basis we have for
preferring one rendering to another, when once the exigencies of grammar and
dictionary have been satisfied -and these leave a large margin for
divergencies- is an intuitive appreciation of the trend of the ancient
It goes without
saying, that all the hermeneutical rules-of-tumb in the world will not guarantee
a perfect translation, which simply does not exist. The Italian dictum
"traduttore traditore" (the translator is a traitor), is especially
true for Egyptian. As with all texts of Antiquity, large scale comparison is the
best option. Not only has the text to be contextualized, but one has to acquire
the habit of looking up the same word or expression in various contexts
across time (lexicography). But even then, one should be content with
Gardiner's view that to circumscribe sense is the best one can do.
"Although we can approach its grammar in an orderly fashion (...) we are
often puzzled and even frustrated by the continual appearance of exceptions to
the rules. Middle Egyptian can be especially difficult in this regard ..."
So the best one can do, given these difficulties -which can not be taken
away- is to publish the original hieroglyphic text along with new translations,
influenced as they are by consulting the original texts along with those of the
most published specialists at work in the field for the last century, i.e.
contemporary scholars. In this way, alternative translations can be made by
the competent sign interpreter. This process is unending. I wholeheartedly admit
to be an amateur compared with professional linguists like Gardiner, Lichtheim
or Allen. But to gain a good understanding of the context and its problem (the
reason why the original text had to be invoked), the amateur has to know
all available linguistic tools well enough to identify a possible rule at work,
and he must have the time to think all possible solutions over many times to
"untie the knot" ...
initiated : 2003 -
last update : 27 XI 2010
Wim van den Dungen
Antwerp, 2003 - 2016.