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The Words

He who goes Yonder is a learned man,
Whom no one hinders when he calls Ra.
Egyptian poem

t is not surprising that when we look at hieroglyphs there is a tendency to view each symbol as a letter because our own language is based upon an alphabet. The alphabet, as we know it, took the human race a long time to develop and in the Egyptian language a single hieroglyph could indicate a single letter, a single word or even an idea. The same letter could be indicated by different hieroglyphs (see 'H' in the table below) or the same hieroglyph indicate different words or sounds (the sign for'N' also means 'water'). The Egyptians believed them to be of divine origin, from Thoth, and as such they were described as "the words of God".

Some of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs

The first hieroglyphs we know about appeared as early as 3100 BC and only the Sumerian language is believed to be older. By about 300 AD all knowledge of the meaning of the characters had been lost and they were not to be deciphered until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the work of Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion.

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone had been found in 1799 by Napoleon's invading army and upon it was a text written in Ancient Greek and two Ancient Egyptian scripts, demotic and hieroglyphic. It was a decree by Pharaoh Ptolemy V and by comparing the Greek and Egyptian texts Champollion was able to identify 79 different royal names.

Using these he then began to identify words and after two years he had managed to compile a limited dictionary. Although over time many thousands of hieroglyphs were used about 700 were in use at any one particular time and all of these had to be learnt by those going into the priesthood and by the scribes.

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