Eco: The Egyptian Alphabet

by Esteban


The Rosetta Stone, inscribed with a decree by Pharaoh Ptolemy V at Memphis, is dated to 196 BCE. Featuring three scripts, ancient Egyptian, Demotic and ancient Greek, the stele was discovered in 1799 by French soldier Pierre-Françoise Bouchard of the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt. Transferred to British control after the Capitulation of Alexandria in 1801, the stele has been on continual exhibition at the British Museum since 1802. The script was finally transliterated by Jean-Françoise Champollion in 1822, decrypting the mysteries of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. This photo © Hans Hillewaert in 2007, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“The hieroglyphic script is undoubtedly composed, in part, of iconic signs: some are easily recognizable–vulture, owl, bull, snake, eye, foot, man seated with a cup in hand; others are stylized–the hoisted sail, the almond-like shape for a mouth, the serrated line for water.

Some other signs, at least to the untrained eye, seem to bear only the remotest resemblance to the things that they are supposed to represent–the little square that stands for a seat, the sign of folded cloth, or the semicircle that represents bread.

All these signs are not icons (representing a thing by direct similarity) but rather ideograms, which work by a sort of rhetorical substitution. Thus an inflated sail serves to represent the wind; a man seated with a cup means to drink; a cow’s ear means to understand; the head of a cynocephalus stands for the god Thoth and for all his various attributes, such as writing and counting.

Not everything, however, can be represented ideographically. One way that the ancient Egyptians had found to circumvent this difficult was to turn their ideograms into simple phonograms.

In order to represent a certain sound they put the image of a thing whose name sounded similar. To take an example from Jean-Françoise Champollion‘s first decipherment (Lettre à Dacier, 17 September 1822, 11-12), the mouth, in Egyptian ro, was chosen to represent the Greek consonant P (rho).

It is ironic to think that while, for Renaissance Hermeticists, sounds had to represent the nature of things, for the Egyptians, things (or their corresponding images) were representing sounds (see, for a similar procedure, my remarks in chapter 6 on Bruno’s mnemonics).

By the time interest in Egyptian hieroglyphics had revived in Europe, however, knowledge of the hieroglyphic alphabet had been lost for over a thousand years. The necessary premise for the decipherment of hieroglyphs was a stroke of pure fortune, like the discovery of a bilingual dictionary.

In  fact, as is well known, decipherment was made possible by the discovery not of a dictionary, but of a trilingual text, the famous Rosetta Stone, named after the city of Rashid where it was found by a French soldier in 1799, and, as a result of Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of Nelson, soon transferred to London.

The stone bore an inscription in hieroglyphic, in demotic (a cursive, administrative script elaborated about 1,000 BCE), and in Greek.

Working from reproductions, Champollion, in his Lettre à Dacier, laid the foundation for the decipherment of hieroglyphs. He compared two cartouches which, from their position in the text, he guessed must refer to the names of Ptolemy (ΠΤΟΛΟΜΑΙΟΣ) and Cleopatra (ΚΛΟΠΑΤΡΑ).

He identified the five letters that both names have in common (Π, Τ, Ο, Λ, Α), and found that the two cartouches had five hieroglyphs in common as well. By supposing that each other instance of the same sign represented the same sound, Champollion could easily infer the phonetic value of the remaining text.

Champollion’s decipherment does not, however, explain a series of phenomena which can justify the interpretation of Horapollo. Greek and Roman colonizers had imposed on Egypt their commerce, their technology and their gods.

By the time of the spread of Christianity, Egypt had already abandoned many of its ancient traditions. Knowledge of sacred writing was still preserved and practiced only by priests living within the sacred enclosures of the ancient temples.

These were a dwindling breed: in those last repositories of a lost knowledge, cut off from the rest of the world, they cultivated the monuments of their ancient culture.

Since the sacred writing no longer served any practical use, but only initiatory purposes, these last priests began to introduce complexities into it, playing with the ambiguities inherent in a form of writing that could be differently read either phonetically or ideographically.

To write the name of the god Ptah, for example, the P was expressed phonetically and placed at the top of the name with the ideogram for sky (p[t]), the H was placed in the middle and represented by the image of the god Heh with his arms raised, and the T was expressed by the ideogram for the earth (ta).

It was an image that not only expressed Ptah phonetically, but also carried the visual suggestion that the god Ptah had originally separated the earth from the sky.

The discovery that, by combining different hieroglyphs, evocative visual emblems might be created inspired these last scribes to experiment with increasingly complicated and abstruse combinations.

In short, these scribes began to formulate a sort of kabbalistic play, based, however, on images rather than on letters.

Around the term represented by a sign (which was given an initial phonetic reading) there formed a halo of visual connotations and secondary senses, a sort of chord of associated meanings which served to amplify the original semantic range of the term.

The more the sacred text was enhanced by its exegetes, the more the conviction grew that they expressed buried truths and lost secrets (Sauneron 1957: 123-7).

Thus, to the last priests of a civilization sinking into oblivion, hieroglyphs appeared as a perfect language. Yet their perfection could only be understood by visually reading them; if by chance still pronounced, they would have lost any magic (Sauneron 1982: 55-6).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 146-9.