Eco: The Egyptian Alphabet, 2

by Esteban

Stephan Michelspacher, Cabala, Spiegel der Kunst und Natur in Alchymia, (Cabala, the Mirror of Art and Nature in Alchemy), Augsburg, 1615. Also hosted courtesy of the Bayerische Staats Bibliothek. 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. 

“Now we can understand what Horapollo sought to reveal. He wished to preserve and transmit a semiotic tradition whose key was, by now, entirely lost. He still managed to grasp certain features at either the phonetic or the ideographic level, yet much of his information was confused or scrambled in the course of transmission.

Often he gives, as the canonical solution, a reading elaborated only by a certain group of scribes during a certain, limited period.

Yoyotte (1955: 87) shows that when Horapollo asserts that Egyptians depicted the father with the ideogram for the scarab beetle, he almost certainly had in mind that, in the Late Period, certain scribes had begun to substitute the scarab for the usual sign for t to represent the sound it (“father”), since, according to a private cryptography developed during the eighteenth dynasty, a scarab stood for t in the name Atum.

Horapollo opened his text by saying that the Egyptians represented eternity with the images of the sun and the moon. Contemporary Egyptologists debate whether, in this explanation, he was thinking of two ideograms used in the Late Period which could be read phonetically as, respectively, r’nb (“all the days”) and r tr.wì (“night and day” that is, “always”); or whether Horapollo was thinking instead of Alexandrine bas reliefs where the two ideograms, appearing together, already signify “eternity” (in which case they would not be an Egyptian symbol, but one derived from Asian, even Hebraic sources).

In other places, Horapollo seems to have misunderstood the voices of tradition. He says, for instance, that the sign to indicate a word is depicted by a tongue and a blood shot eye. There exists a verbal root mdw (“to speak”) in whose ideogram there appears a club, as well as the word dd (“to say”) in whose ideogram appears a snake.

It is possible that either Horapollo or his source has erroneously taken either the club or the snake or both as representing a tongue. He then says that the course of the sun during the winter solstice is represented by two feet stopped together.

In fact, Egyptologists only know a sign representing two legs in motion, which supports the sense “movement” when accompanying signs meaning “to stop,” “to cease activity” or “to interrupt a voyage.” The idea that two stopped feet stand for the course of the sun seems merely to be a whim of Horapollo.

Horapollo says that Egypt is denoted by a burning thurible with a heart over it. Egyptologists have discovered in a royal epithet two signs that indicate a burning heart, but these two signs seem never to have been used to denote Egypt.

It does emerge, however, that (for a Father of the church such as Cyril of Alexandria) a brazier surmounted by a heart expressed anger (cf. Van der Walle and Vergot 1943).

This last detail may be an important clue. The second part of Hieroglyphica is probably the work of the Greek translator, Philippos. It is in this part that a number of clear references appear to the late Hellenistic tradition of the Phisiologus and other bestiaries, herbariums and lapidaries that derive from it.

This is a tradition whose roots lie not only in ancient Egypt, but in the ancient traditions throughout Asia, as well as in the Greek and Latin world.

We can look for this in the case of the stork. When the Hieroglyphica reaches the stork, it recites:

“How [do you represent] he who loves the father.

If they wish to denote he who loves the father, they depict a stork. In fact, this beast, nourished by its parents, never separates itself from them, but remains with them until their old age, repaying them with piety and deference.”

In fact, in the Egyptian alphabet, there is an animal like a stork which, for phonetic reasons, stands for “son.” Yet in I, 85, Horapollo gives this same gloss for the hoopoe. This is, at least, an indication that the text has been assembled syncretistically from a variety of sources.

The hoopoe is also mentioned in the Phisiologus, as well as in a number of classical authors, such as Aristophanes and Aristotle, and patristic authors such as St. Basil. But let us concentrate for a moment on the stork.

The Hieroglyphica was certainly one of the sources for the Emblemata of Andrea Alciati in 1531. Thus, it is not surprising to find here a reference to the stork, who, as the text explains, nourishes its offspring by bringing them pleasing gifts, while bearing on its shoulders the worn-out bodies of its parents, offering them food from its own mouth.

The image that accompanies this description in the 1531 edition is of a bird which flies bearing another on its back. In subsequent editions, such as the one from 1621, for this is substituted the image of a bird that flies with a worm in its beak for its offspring, waiting open-mouthed in the nest.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 149-51.