Labels from Tomb U-j

At first glance this is a collection of rather unprepossessing little objects. Squares of ivory, with a small hole and hieroglyphic sign or two etched onto the surface. They’re not terribly big, just about the size of the museum’s number for the objects.

And that juxtaposition illustrates what they are – they are labels. Very very old labels with some of the first evidence for the use of hieroglyphs. They were found in Tomb U-j at Abydos, which had been looted in the distant mists of time but some of the labels remained.

It’s thought that they were attached to the various funerary goods that were buried with the tomb’s owner. There are numbers on some of them, others are thought to name towns – including what looks like the names of a couple of towns in the Delta region far to the north.

It’s not entirely certain whose tomb this is, but it probably belongs to a ruler called Scorpion – probably not the one with the famous macehead but an earlier one, who may’ve unified Upper Egypt around 3150 BCE.

Labels from Tomb U-j. From Tomb U-j, Abydos. Predynastic Period, Naqada III, c. 3100-2900 BCE.

These are now in the Cairo Museum, but I don’t have accession numbers for them.

See it on my photo site: https://photos.talesfromthetwolands.org/picture.php?/479/category/4

I’ve written about Egyptian writing on the blog before: https://talesfromthetwolands.org/2020/10/01/write-like-an-egyptian/

Jigsaw Puzzles:
easier: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=1c8ebb4a5b53
harder: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=03521a781453

Stela of Nebre (or Reneb)

This stela has the name of the second king of the 2nd Dynasty on it, who reigned some time around 2880 BCE. The name is his Horus name, and is written in a serekh which represents the royal palace with a falcon for the god Horus on top.

The name consists only of two signs, the sun disk (re) and the basket (neb). But whether you call him Nebre or Reneb depends on if you think the Re is written first because it was said first or to indicate respect for the god Re. It may mean “Lord of the Sun” or “Re is My Lord”.

Whichever way round his name is it’s actually the first time that the name of Re has shown up in the name of a king of Egypt. And there seems to be some doubt (from my brief reading) as to whether this is Re the god, or “just” the sun as it begins to become more important.

It was found near Memphis (probably) and perhaps indicates that Nebre/Reneb was buried at Saqqara rather than Abydos (as the 1st Dynasty kings had been), but there hasn’t been a tomb identified for him.

Stela of Nebre (or Reneb). Probably from Saqqara. Early Dynastic Period, Dynasty 2, reign of Nebre, c.2880 BCE. Acc. No.s: 60.144, 1975.149

It’s now in the Met Museum, acc. no. 60.144 for the front and 1975.149 for the back.

See it on my photo site: https://photos.talesfromthetwolands.org/picture.php?/1433

I’ve written about the names of kings on the blog before https://talesfromthetwolands.org/2019/08/11/the-naming-of-kings/ and I’ve also written about the Egyptian writing system https://talesfromthetwolands.org/2020/10/01/write-like-an-egyptian/ including honorific transposition.

Jigsaw Puzzles:
easier: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=13f89e4e8a37
harder: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=0366b00df16d

Write Like an Egyptian

Before I start to talk about Egyptian scripts I want to share one of my pet peeves – “language” and “script” are not synonyms! As an illustration look at these three sentences:

I write
J’écris
Ich schreibe

They are in three different languages (and all translate to the same meaning), but are all written in the same script – the Latin alphabet. But look at these three:

我寫
我写
Wǒ xiě

These three are in the same language – if you were to read them out loud you’d make the same vocalisations (and they all have the same meaning as the first three). But they are in three different scripts, two variants of Chinese characters (Traditional and Simplified) and the Latin alphabet.

Confusion of the two concepts is guaranteed to make me grind my teeth, hence explaining the distinction at length here!1

Having got that off my chest, let’s begin to look at how to write like an Egyptian. The Egyptian language was written in several different scripts over the course of time from the first writing in the Predynastic Period through to the modern day. The language itself changed over that period, of course – the modern version survives as the liturgical language of the Coptic Church (as a dead language, not anyone’s native tongue). And presumably it would be as incomprehensible to a Predynastic Egyptian as a Proto-Indo-European speaker would be to a modern speaker of English (or any of the other Indo-European languages).

The various scripts do not simply change as the language changes, nor are they divided into entirely mutually exclusive time periods or entirely mutually exclusive functions – their use overlaps and changes with time. There are four main scripts: hieroglyphs, hieratic, demotic and Coptic; plus a couple of variants: cursive hieroglyphs and abnormal hieratic. The names of these that we use today are not the Egyptian names – they instead derive from the Greek names for them which were in general not used until after Alexander’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BCE.2 Hieroglyphs are “sacred carved [letters]” (derived from the original Egyptian name which translates as “the god’s speech”), whereas hieratic means “sacred” or “priestly”. Demotic means “popular [script]” or “[script] in common use” and the Egyptian name was sekh shat, which means “writing for documents”. Coptic refers to the Christian period Egyptians – the Egyptian church is still called the Coptic Church today – and this script is used to write the Coptic phase of the language.

The only one of these scripts to write down the vowels of the words is the Coptic script, so we actually don’t know how the Egyptians pronounced their language for sure. Some clues can be found by extrapolating back from the Coptic script, but as I said the language has changed over the millennia and so the vowels used in the 3rd Century CE may not bear any resemblance to those used in the 3rd Century BCE let alone the 30th Century BCE! Other clues can be found in Egyptian names or other words that have been written in cuneiform or the Greek alphabet. It can be difficult to read unpronounceable groups of consonants so Egyptologists have conventions that are used to let us vocalise the words – useful, but not to be confused with an accurate rendition of the language. These conventions replace the letters ʿ and with “a” and inserting the vowel “e” where necessary to make the consonants pronounceable.

The hieroglyphic script was the first to be developed and hieroglyphs were in use from before 3200 BCE, perhaps as early as 3500 BCE, and were used until the late 4th Century CE. At first the texts weren’t very long – some of the earliest writing is found at Abydos, in the Predynastic Period cemetery there, and consists of small ivory labels with numbers, commodities and possibly place names on them. They and other early writings are recognisable hieroglyphs and coherent words & phrases, but no truly continuous texts survive from periods before the Old Kingdom. Even though the hieroglyphic script was used until the Roman Period it was only ever used to write Old Egyptian and Middle Egyptian. Once the spoken language developed into Late Egyptian (around the time of the Second Intermediate Period) the hieroglyphic texts no longer represented the language as it was spoken, and this only became more true with time. In addition spellings of words hadn’t always been updated from Old Egyptian to Middle Egyptian, so the texts had always lagged behind the spoken language.

Old Kingdom Hieroglyphic Inscription

The hieroglyphic script may be written horizontally in either direction, or vertically from top to bottom (and either right to left or left to right within the column). Most texts are written to be read from right to left, but the aesthetic aspects of the text were also important – a symmetrical pair of inscriptions would often be written facing each other in opposite orientations, and a text will have its signs facing in the same direction as the faces in an accompanying image. If you are faced with some horizontal hieroglyphic text the way to tell which way it’s to be read is to look for the hieroglyphs that have heads – they always look towards the front of the line. So as you read along you meet each sign’s eyes on the way past (a little fanciful I know, but I find that visual image a helpful mnemonic). Every once in a while a text is an exception to this rule – this is called “retrograde” writing, and is both rare and almost exclusively in religious texts.

Aesthetic considerations also came into play when organising the signs into groups to make up individual words. Although there was no punctuation nor space between the words in the script the signs of a word were generally organised into squares or rectangles. Within each block they were intended to read from beginning to end and from top to bottom. There are three basic shapes of sign – tall, flat and small. Generally tall signs stood alone and the other two types were stacked into groups, but if a tall sign needed to be written within a block its size would be reduced to fit it above or below a flat sign. Flat and small signs on their own would be centred on the line.

The hieroglyphic script and its direct derivatives fall into the category of scripts that Andrew Robinson calls “logoconsonantal” – there are three broad categories of signs: phonograms (representing a sound, always a consonant), logograms or ideograms (representing a word or concept, and often followed by a single stroke to indicate they’re an ideogram) and determinatives. These last are like tags on a the end of a word that give you context for the word itself – is it a name? a place? a material? etc. They are not pronounced, and are part of the script not part of the language. They also clue you in that the signs in the word itself are to be read as phonograms not logograms (and indicate the end of a word). The phonograms come in a variety of sorts – they might be a single consonant like w, or a pair of consonants like pr or a triplet like nfr. Altogether there are about 6000 known signs, but a lot of these were introduced during the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. Earlier, in the Pharaonic Period, there are fewer than 1000 signs known and only a core group of these were in routine use. In theory all signs could be used as any of the three types, but in practice most were not. One example of a sign that was used in all three ways is the sign for house, 𓉐, which could be the ideogram/logogram for “house”, the phonogram for pr or the determinative for words to do with buildings.

As well as the aesthetic considerations there were other quirks to spelling in hieroglyphs that need to be borne in mind if you’re trying to read this script. One of these quirks is the idea of honorific transposition – if the name (or sometimes phrase) you’re writing contains the name of a god or a king then you need to write that first regardless of where it’s pronounced. For instance Tutankhamun is generally written imn-twt-ʾnḫ (amun-tut-ankh). Another quirk is the use of phonetic complements – if the spelling of a word uses a sign for a pair or a triplet of consonants as described above, then this sign is often followed by a single consonant sign repeating the last one or two of the consonants. These phonetic complements are optional and they shouldn’t be pronounced. Like determinatives they provide a useful gloss for how you’re supposed to read the signs.

The individual signs of the hieroglyphic script are essentially pictures that follow Egyptian artistic conventions. In the case of logograms and determinatives the picture may illustrate the meaning of the sign. For phonograms there is often some link, but it’s not as direct – generally they employ the rebus principle. This is where you use a picture of a concrete object to represent the sound of the word for that object – an English example is to use a drawing of a bee 🐝 to represent the syllable “be”. Because the signs are pictorial they can be used in art, and as art. This means that you can often read Egyptian art as well as aesthetically appreciate it. And as I discussed above, the reverse is also true: a hieroglyphic text will be laid out in a way that is aesthetically pleasing as well as conveys the right meaning.

Cursive hieroglyphs are a style of handwritten hieroglyphs, and shouldn’t be confused with the hieratic script. They are hieroglyphs pared down to the essentials but still recognisably hieroglyphs and were used to write religious texts such as the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead. As a result they are sometimes referred to as “Book of the Dead hieroglyphs”. As they’re really just a sort of hieroglyphic script the orientation of the text varies just like that of the monumental hieroglyphs, but they are mostly likely to be written in columns facing to the right.

Hieratic was developed from the hieroglyphic script in the Early Dynastic Period, and was written in ink and primarily on papyri and ostraca (fragments of pottery or stone). The relationship between hieratic and hieroglyphs is thus the same as the relationship between our own printed texts and handwritten texts. Each hieratic sign has a hieroglyphic equivalent, even if that’s not always entirely obvious when you look at the texts. It wasn’t for monumental inscriptions, instead it was used for other more everyday texts – business documents and literary texts. There were different styles to the script when used in different contexts. As with hieroglyphs it was still in use into the Roman period, and it had a slightly larger scope when it came to writing the different forms of the language. As well as Old and Middle Egyptian it was also used to write Late Egyptian, and is pretty much the only script that was used to write that phase of the language.

The preferred orientation of hieratic texts changed over time. Until the 11th Dynasty they were usually written in columns read from top to bottom and right to left. After that hieratic was written horizontally (except for some religious documents). Unlike hieroglyphs hieratic is always written right to left – aesthetics is less of a concern here, this is a practical script. Having said that the amount of weight given to aesthetics did vary – one style of hieratic is referred to as a “literary” hand and it was quite carefully written with an intent to look good. But at the other end of the spectrum was a rapidly written “business” hand.

Hieratic also had a variant script – which we call abnormal hieratic, which seems an overly judgemental name to me! It was even more cursive than hieratic and was used to write business texts in the Third Intermediate Period, mostly in Upper Egypt as it was the direct descendent of the script used at Deir el Medina. In a sense abnormal hieratic was a competitor for another script that developed during the Third Intermediate Period: demotic. The lack of unity in the country during this period let these two scripts both develop from hieratic and diverge, along with the legal systems they were being used to write – and then when the 26th Dynasty properly re-unified the country from their base in the northern Delta region it was the demotic script that the bureaucracy standardised. This is probably why we’ve given abnormal hieratic such a dismissive name, it wasn’t the script that “won” and survived to get a proper name of its own.

Even though the ultimate ancestor of demotic script is the hieroglyphic script the signs are so far from their original forms that it’s not generally possible to recognise them. The underlying language had also developed into a new phase during this period which we also called demotic, and so demotic the script is the only script used to write demotic the language phase.

As I said demotic was used to write business documents initially. Over time its scope expanded and it came to be used for religious, scientific and literary texts as well – and even monumental inscriptions like the one on the Rosetta Stone. Even though hieratic was still used for some documents, it became less common and was gradually replaced by demotic. During the Ptolemaic Period the bureaucracy of the country was bilingual and demotic was the script used for official documents alongside the Greek alphabet for the Greek language texts. After the Romans took over and integrated Egypt into their empire this bilingual bureaucracy began to vanish and over time demotic stopped being used in the administration of the country. It did still survive longer than the other Pharaonic Egyptian scripts as it was being used into the 5th Century CE.

The last of the main scripts developed in the 3rd Century CE from the Greek alphabet, with 6 added demotic signs for sounds the Greek alphabet couldn’t represent. This is the Coptic script, and it’s still used by the Coptic Church today (to write the Coptic language, which is the descendent of Egyptian albeit a dead language these days). Its adoption wasn’t an organic & natural one – in fact it’s not even that good a way to write Egyptian (or Coptic). Instead it was driven by religious feeling – the older scripts were inextricably linked to the older religion and the older customs, so the newly Christian Egypt wanted to dissociate itself from those ideas. The first known texts date to the 3rd Century CE, and by the 5th Century CE it was the only way to write Egyptian.

So that’s how the Egyptians wrote. Even though the hieroglyphs get almost all the attention now – being big, bold, and beautiful – the more practical scripts were used much more often. And they bring us much closer to the reality of Egyptians, as they were used to write the language they actually spoke, and did business in.


1It’s more complicated than that, of course, isn’t it always? Technically the scripts used to write English, French and German aren’t entirely identical albeit all being variants of the Latin script. And it’s also possible to read the Chinese characters in the different Chinese languages in which case the vocalisation of the characters changes (and no longer matches the romanisation). So scripts are not entirely divorced from the language that they are used to write, however that doesn’t mean you get to use the terms interchangeably!!↩︎

2Even the name we use for the Christian era Egyptians (and their church and language) “Coptic” is also derived from the Greek Αίγυπτος (Aigyptos), via the Arabic قبطيّ (qubti). Which means that if you say “Coptic Egyptians” you’re actually saying “Egyptian Egyptians”.↩︎


Resources Used:

Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. 3rd ed. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Ardagh, Philip. 1999. The Hieroglyphs Handbook: Teach Yourself Ancient Egyptian. Faber and Faber.
Collier, Mark, and Bill Manley. 1998. How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself. British Museum Press.
Donker van Heel, Koen. 2019. “Papyrus BM EA 87512: Always Look on the Bright Side of Wife?” presented at the Glanville Lecture 2019, Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, February 8.
Robinson, Andrew. 2009. Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts. Thames & Hudson.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum.
Spencer, Neal. 2003. Book of Egyptian Hieroglphs. British Museum Press.
Strudwick, Helen. 2020. “The Book of the Dead of Ramose: A Hidden Gem in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.” presented at the EES Virtual Study Day “Collections from Home: Museum Favourites”, June 13.
Strudwick, Nigel. 2010. The Hieroglyph Detective: Adventures in Decrypting the Sacred Language of the Ancient Egyptians. Duncan Baird.

Pyramid Texts

Ancient Egypt is a place of firsts or near firsts – the first monumental stone building, one of the first civilisations to develop writing, one of the first places people lived in cities – but one that I haven’t often seen mentioned is that it has the first significant corpus of written religious texts in the world. This is another of these things that we take for granted today, most of the extant religions of the modern world have a canonical body of written literature that underpins what people believe and how they practice their religion. It’s also an illustration of how comparisons to the modern world can be misleading – these Egyptian texts weren’t an ancient Bible or Book of Common Prayer. For starters the population was almost entirely illiterate and so these texts would’ve been no more than pictures & squiggles carved in stone to them (as, to be fair, they are to most of us who can’t read hieroglyphs). And secondly the copies we’ve found were carved on the inner chambers of pyramids – hence the modern name of Pyramid Texts – and so were inaccessible to everybody once the king had been buried.

Pyramid Texts

The Pyramid Texts were first discovered in the 1880s, much to the surprise of archaeologists in general. Most Old Kingdom pyramids, like the ones at Giza which we’ve all heard of, have nothing on the walls of their burial chambers. But something changes in the late 5th Dynasty and from then until the end of the Old Kingdom the walls of the internal chambers are covered in texts. There are (so far) 10 pyramids known to have these texts, all of them at Saqqara. The first is that of Unas, the last king of the 5th Dynasty (reigning some 200 years after the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza). The kings of the 6th Dynasty follow suit (Teti, Pepi I, Merenre, Pepi II), and some of their wives also have texts in their pyramid chambers: Ankhesenpepi II (wife of Pepi I) and three wives of Pepi II (Neith, Iput II, Wedjebetni). The last known king to have these texts was an obscure 8th Dynasty king called Ibi – in fact he’s so obscure that the only evidence for his existence is his pyramid texts! This isn’t the end of the line for the texts – they in some sense develop into or merge with the Coffin Texts (so called because they’re found written on Middle Kingdom coffins). The books I read are divided in how much they think this was an evolution of one turning into the other and how much the Coffin Texts were a parallel development that borrowed from the Pyramid Texts. Some aspects of the texts definitely survive through into the New Kingdom and beyond (like the Opening of the Mouth ritual), whereas others aren’t even found in all the pyramids that have Pyramid Texts. There’s also a bit of a renaissance for the texts in the Late Period (around 2,000 years after Unas) as part of a general culture of harking back to the “old ways”.

The texts are written in columns and were divided up by the ancient writers into sections – generally each starts with a word meaning “Recitation” and ends with “chapter” or “section”. We call these sections spells or utterances – I think I prefer utterances because spells has all sorts of connotations which don’t always seem appropriate, whereas if they themselves wrote “Recitation” at the beginning then they were all intended to be uttered. Modern scholars give them numbers to make it easier to discuss them, but these numbers have no ancient relevance. The original numbering was done by the German Egyptologist Kurt Sethe who numbered them according to where they were found in the pyramid, going from the inside out. Then as more examples were found with extra utterances these were added onto the end of the list (not always consistently). There are around 800 utterances found in total (so far!) but not all of them are found in every pyramid, for instance Pepi II had over 600 but Unas had only a couple of hundred.

There are indications that the texts that end up on the pyramid walls were copied off a papyrus master copy written in a cursive script (rather than the monumental form carved in the stone). James Allen describes how you can use mistakes in the copying to detect this, and to detect how the spells were edited for their new location. For instance, some texts began life in 1st person but were edited into 3rd person to be carved on the walls with some 1st person pronouns replaced with the deceased’s name and some with the appropriate 3rd person one – and there are occasional places where the original pronoun is left intact, or a verb form hasn’t been changed to match the new grammatical structure. So this is very clearly not a new set of rituals or theology that spring up from out of nowhere in the 5th Dynasty. Instead it looks like an already existent tradition is expanding into a new context, that adds a level of permanence to the rituals and utterances.

The overall purpose of the texts is to ensure a successful afterlife for the king (or queen) for whom they were inscribed. They can be divided up into a few broad genres of texts, although almost every author seems to divide them up a bit differently. In essence there are texts that have to do with rituals, there are texts that have to do with protection from problems (which are the ones for which “spells” seems most appropriate) and there are descriptions of the journey the deceased must take into the afterlife and what he or she will do once there. The ritual ones often look like instructions for the priests conducting these rituals – words to be said and stage directions for the required actions. Some scholars (in particular Siegfried Schott) have used these to argue that the whole corpus should be interpreted as the funeral ritual written out on the walls in the order the priests should read it as they bring the body into the chamber. I think this specific idea is almost entirely discredited now, although the general concept that the ordering reflects order of “use” is still influential. James Allen’s recent translation of the texts sees them as being ordered for the convenience of the resurrecting king – in the burial chamber are texts to protect him and to help him resurrect and start his journey. Then in the antechamber and corridors there are spells that the king must read on his journey to the afterlife (via the exit from the pyramid).

Taken as a whole the texts do not form a coherent or consistent body of literature. They don’t even seem to’ve all been written at the same time – some have language & imagery that implies they are contemporary with the pyramids that they’re written in, some seem much older. And they appear to be deliberately obscure. To write things down was in some sense to make them magically present for eternity so that affected what & how the Egyptians were willing to write in their texts. Hieroglyphic signs that had the shape of dangerous animals were damaged to make sure they couldn’t cause harm to the king in his tomb. And myths tended to be talked round and referred to rather than spelt out – Mark Lehner suggests they might’ve been regarded as too potent to commit to writing. Altogether this makes it rather difficult to reverse engineer a sense of “the Ancient Egyptian Religion” from these texts, and I don’t think there’s even general agreement as to whether these texts represent a single tradition or a selection from co-existing and/or competing concepts for the gods & the afterlife.

In some parts of the texts the king is to rise from his tomb and make his way to the “imperishable stars” (the ones near the northern pole star that never set) there to join with the court of the gods. In some parts of the texts the king rises up to the sky (assisted by wind, by flying, by jumping like a grasshopper) and travels with Re in his solar boat across the day sky. And in yet other parts of the texts the king travels through the Duat (the underworld) to merge with Osiris and become reborn. But there is an underlying consistency – the king will rise from his tomb and go to join with the gods in some capacity. Contemporary non-royals expected an afterlife in the vicinity of their tombs – the idea that everyone might partake in the Osirian afterlife doesn’t develop until the Middle Kingdom after the political upheavals of the First Intermediate Period.

And finally I should mention the Cannibal Hymn, the most notorious utterances of the Pyramid Texts. This part of the texts describes quite graphically how the king will eat the gods and absorb their powers to become more mighty than them, and pretty much always gets brought up in any discussion of the texts. As is so often the case how the Cannibal Hymn is interpreted shines more light on the person doing the interpreting than the text itself. Some scholars jump in both feet first and use some indications of retainer sacrifice in Early Dynastic Egypt to back up a bloodthirsty story of ancient ritual cannibalism now only referenced in this one hymn. Other scholars clearly take a step back, reflect on the fact that we don’t think early Christians ever actually ate Jesus or anyone else during the Eucharist, and interpret the whole thing as entirely symbolic and magical. And yet others take a path that’s a mixture of the two – hinging round the fact that some Egyptian gods had bulls as avatars. The most well known one is the Apis Bull (an avatar of Ptah) and I’ve mentioned the Buchis Bull (avatar of Montu) in a previous article. In later periods of Egyptian history these bulls were mummified and buried in catacombs, but there’s some evidence that in earlier periods they were cooked and eaten – a presumably ritual & symbolic meal where the king consumed the powers of the god via this avatar. I’m most inclined to this mix of practical & symbolic, which presumably tells you all something about me!


Resources used:

“The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts” James P. Allen
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The Serapeum at Saqqara” Aidan Dodson; talk given at Sussex Egyptology Society 28 September 2019
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt” Wolfram Grajetzki
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper & Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner
“Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol I: The Old and Middle Kingdom” Miriam Lichtheim
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“A History of Ancient Egypt Vol 2: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom” John Romer
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“Pyramids” Miroslav Verner
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby A. H. Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

Hundreds of Thousands

I remember one year when I was in primary school we collected frog spawn from some local pond and put it in a fish tank in the classroom so we could watch the tadpoles hatch. And I remember being a bit in awe of just how much there was – all that frog spawn and we’d only taken a little bit of it, and there were so many tadpoles in our fish tank! There were going to be so many frogs! Of course some years later I realised that most tadpoles would get eaten by fish long before they got to be adult frogs, but the point still stands. So it should be no surprise that the ancient Egyptians, who were a lot closer to nature than a city girl in the early 1980s, should have a similar association between frogs and fertility & rebirth. It’s even embedded in their writing system – there is a frog shaped hieroglyph (used as an ideograph for the phrase wekhem ankh “repeating life”) and a tadpole shaped hieroglyph which is used to write the number 100,000.

Frogs appear in Egyptian art & artifacts from Prehistoric Egypt right through into Christian times. In Predynastic times the most common frog shaped object is small stone jars – a suitable size and material to hold small amounts of a precious or volatile liquid. Some of these have been found in non-funerary contexts and have features (like handles suitable for hanging them up) that suggest they were used in life. Sadly none of the jars that have been discovered contained any residue that could be analysed. One always needs to be cautious about making assumptions about prehistoric Egypt based on known Pharaonic beliefs but even with such caveats Diana Craig Patch speculates (in “Dawn of Egyptian Art”) that these may’ve contained substances used during childbirth.

Early Dynastic Frogs

As I alluded to in the last paragraph in Pharaonic Egypt there’s an association of frogs with childbirth. The deity most associated with the frog is a goddess called Heket. She is venerated as the female counterpart of Khnum, and is sometimes shown as a frog-headed woman assisting him at his potters wheel while he forms the person & their ka. Heket first shows up in the Pyramid Texts, helping the deceased king on his way to the sky and his afterlife. By the Middle Kingdom she is associated with childbirth and in particular the final stages of labour – she features in the Middle Kingdom story about the founding of the 5th Dynasty assisting with the birth of the three kings that inaugurated the dynasty. Also in the Middle Kingdom midwives might’ve been referred to as “servants of Heket”. She’s shown on ivory wands from the Middle Kingdom as a frog, and frog shaped amulets are fairly common from the New Kingdom onward. They’re never as common as Bes or Taweret amulets, but even during the Amarna period they are still found in reasonable numbers.

Heket had some of her own temples and her main cult centre was at a place called Herwer (but it’s not known where that actually was). She also appears depicted in temples dedicated to other deities, for instance she shows up in Seti I’s temple at Abydos receiving an offering from the king himself. Due to her association with birth and fertility she becomes associated with the Osiris mythology, for instance there’s a relief in the Late Period temple at Hibis where she’s depicted as a frog overseeing the conception of Horus. Her cult survives through until at least the end of the Late Period, as she’s mentioned in the reliefs of the tomb of Petosiris at Tuna el-Gebel which dates to around 300 BCE.

Heket was not the only deity to be associated with the frog. There are also the four male deities of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad. The Ogdoad are the eight primordial gods that existed before the world was created in the Hermopolitan mythology. They were Huh and his consort Hauhet, Nun and his consort Naunet, Kuk and his consort Kauket and Amun and his consort Amaunet. At first they are depicted as human deities, but later in Egyptian history they are shown as pairs of frog (male) and snake (female) headed deities. As well as this the frog is sometimes depicted with the god Hapi as part of a symbol of fecundity – for instance at the temple at Philae. Frogs as a symbol of rebirth don’t even die out when Pharaonic Egyptian culture fades away – they make it into Coptic Christian iconography as a sign of the resurrection!

And the last bit of frog-related iconography to look out for is tadpoles sitting on shen rings, or associated with notched palm leaves or staves. The tadpole is here as the hieroglyph for 100,000 and the two or three symbols taken together express a wish for the king to reign or live for hundreds of thousands of eternities. I didn’t know about this till I was reading up on frogs for this article, and I wish I had – so many missed opportunities to look out for tadpoles in reliefs!


Resources used:

“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper & Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” Diana Craig Patch
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art” Richard H. Wilkinson

The Four Legged Bird

Many years ago I went to a talk about the birds of Ancient Egypt and about identifying their species from hieroglyphs & art. Sadly I can’t remember the name of the speaker for sure but I think it must’ve been John Wyatt. What I do remember is that he showed us a picture of a Predynastic object decorated with rows of animals, each row a different type of animal. And he pointed out the row with the long-legged long-necked birds, and told us that in every example of this motif the second from the front is the “four legged bird”! So now when I see a comb or knife handle with rows of animals I make a point of looking for the four legged bird – and I’ve always found one.

The four legged bird is, of course, a giraffe. Which doesn’t, at first blush, make it seem less of an oddity to find in Predynastic Egyptian art. Giraffes in the modern era are found in sub-Saharan Africa, not in the Nile Valley. But the Sahara has not always been so arid, and once supported vegetation and animals that we now associate with more southerly regions of Africa including giraffes. As the climate changed and the desert became inhospitable both animals & people were pushed towards the south and towards the Nile Valley. It’s this concentration of people in the valley and the shift from nomadic pastoral life to settled agriculture that kickstarted Egyptian civilisation. During the period from c. 5000 BCE through to c. 3250 BCE the Prehistoric Egyptians would still have had giraffes living alongside them, perhaps even large herds of them. But the giraffes disappeared during the Early Dynastic Period and were gone from Egypt by the early Old Kingdom at the latest. Partly this is down to the continuing aridification of the climate pushing the giraffes’ range south. And partly because of increasing competition with domestic animals as the Egyptian civilisation flourished. Interestingly their disappearance doesn’t seem to’ve involved over-hunting, which is my normal assumption when mega-fauna vanishes from a region in correlation with increased human presence! Giraffe bones are not often found in the Nile Valley, and certainly not in the sort of quantity that would imply hunting them was a significant part of the economy.

So perhaps not surprising after all that giraffes feature in Prehistoric and Predynastic Egyptian art. Giraffes are seen in lot of rock art throughout the period but in terms of more portable objects there seem to be two phases. During the Naqada I period (c. 3900-3650 BCE) giraffes are seen incised on pots and cosmetic palettes. There are also finds of long-toothed combs with the handles sculpted into giraffes. Then during the Naqada II period (c.3650-3300 BCE) depictions of giraffes become less common – a find at Hierakonpolis in 1998 of a pot with a giraffe incised on it is a rare example. And then there is a resurgence in giraffe imagery during the Naqada III period (3300-3150 BCE), including in the motif of rows of animals that I opened this article with. The rows of sorted animals might represent an imposition of order onto chaos, a frequent Egyptian theme, and an assertion of control over these animals by grouping them into types (with the mix of giraffes and birds being “things with long necks and long legs”). Giraffes are also depicted facing palm trees, often a pair of giraffes flanking a palm tree. There’s an example of this on the back of the Battlefield Palette (now in the British Museum) and one on the back of the Four Dog Palette (now in the Louvre). The meaning of this motif is unclear.

A Predynastic ornamental comb carved with rows of animals, including a row of long legged birds which includes a giraffe.
Ornamental Comb Carved with Rows of Animals, the Four Legged Bird is on Row 2, 2nd from the Right

Art representing giraffes does not really outlive the presence of giraffes in the Nile Valley – they are rare in Pharaonic art, mostly showing up on seals. They don’t become associated with any of the mythological underpinnings of Egyptian culture – no god is personified as a giraffe. During the New Kingdom there are more representations, but most of these (like the rather fine example in TT100, the tomb of Rekhmire) are in contexts where they are exotic animals brought as tribute to Pharaoh by African vassals.

But giraffes do live on in Egyptian writing – there is a giraffe hieroglyph (sign E27 in Gardiner’s Sign List). This can be used for the word for giraffe (as a single sign or ideogram for the word) and is otherwise used in only two words. In both of those cases it is used as a determinative (which is a symbol that doesn’t represent a sound but instead indicates what sort of word is being spelt out). These two words are sr (which means “foretell”) and mmj (which means “giraffe”). Neither book I looked at had any speculation on why a giraffe might be used in the word “foretell”, but I like the idea that it’s because the long necked giraffe can see further ahead.

There seems to be tantalisingly little known about giraffes in early Egyptian culture, looking through my book collection I found very few that even mention giraffes. As they show up in well defined motifs on elite objects like large ceremonial palettes it’s definitely tempting to assume that they meant something to the people of the time, rather than just being decorative. But what that is is unknown and I suspect is always going to be an unanswered question – except for the intriguing hint of an association with foretelling the future.


Resources used:

“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs” Alan Gardiner
“Giraffes in Ancient Egypt” Dirk Huyge (In Nekhen News Vol. 10 1998)
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” Diana Craig Patch