- Different Types of Writing -

  The Written Language   ...
  Different types of writing   Triliteral signs
  Where does one start reading?   Phonetic complements
  Disposition of the signs   Combining signs
  Idea-signs or ideograms   Ptolemaic writing
  Uniliteral signs   Magic and writing
  Biliteral signs      

Throughout their more than 3.000 year long history, the Ancient Egyptians used three kinds of writings to write religious and secular texts:  hieroglyphic, hieratic and, from the 25th Dynasty on, demotic.



Hieroglyphic writing is the basis of the two other writings. It owes its name to the fact that when the Greeks arrived in Egypt, this writing was mainly used for ‘sacred (Greek hieros) inscriptions (Greek glypho)’ on temple walls or on public monuments.


Nicely detailed hieroglyphs

Nicely sculpted hieroglyphic signs on a piece of stone at the Louvre Museum.


Hieroglyphic writing uses clearly distinguishable pictures to express both sounds and ideas and was used from the end of the Prehistory until 396 AD, when the last hieroglyphic text was written on the walls of the temple of Isis on the island of  Philae. It was used in monumental inscriptions on walls of temples and tombs, but also on furniture, sarcophagi and coffins, and even on papyrus. It could either be inscribed or drawn and often the signs would be painted in many colours. The quality of the writing would vary from highly detailed signs to mere outlines.

Drawn on papyrus or on linen, the signs would often be simplified but they would still be recognisable as individual signs. A special, cursive form of hieroglyphic writing was used for the Book of the Dead. This style was also used for the texts in the tombs of the 18th Dynasty kings Thutmosis III and Amenhotep II, giving the impression that a large papyrus scroll was unrolled against the walls.


Cursive hieroglyphs on the Book of the Dead  

The Papyrus of Ani uses a special, more cursive form of hieroglyphic writing.


Hieratic writing is as old as hieroglyphic, but it is more cursive and the result of a quick hand drawing signs on a sheet of papyrus with a reed brush. While writing, the scribe would often omit several details that made one sign different from another. The sign  , for instance, representing an arm and a hand holding something, would be written in the same way as the sign  , which simply represents an arm and a hand and normally has an entirely different meaning. Several smaller signs, written in one quick flow, would melt together, but despite this, the hieratic text can still be transcribed into hieroglyphics.

Hieratic was mainly used for religious and secular writings on papyrus or on linen and during the Greek-Roman era occasionally in an inscription of a temple wall.

Hieratic text

The 'Satire of Professions', boasting the profession of scribe, found on a wooden board in Deir el-Medina, written in hieratic.


It was called ‘hieratic’ by the Greeks because when they arrived in Egypt, this writing was almost exclusively used by the Egyptian priests (Greek hieratikos, ‘priestly’). Prior to demotic, it was also used in administrative and private texts and in stories.


Demotic writing started being used during the 25th/26th Dynasty. In part, it is a further evolution from hieratic: like hieratic, demotic was a handwriting, but the strokes of the reed brush or the reed pen are even quicker and more illegible. Hieratic signs representing a group of hieroglyphs could be broken up, not as to represent the individual hieroglyphic signs again, but to facilitate the writing. With these entirely new signs, unknown in hieroglyphic or hieratic were shaped. The link between handwriting and hieroglyphic text slowly faded with demotic. Where hieratic texts often are transcribed into hieroglyphic before translation, demotic texts usually are not.

Demotic text  

26th Dynasty contract, written in demotic.


Demotic was mostly used in administrative and private texts, but also in stories and quite exceptionally in inscriptions. The last demotic inscription was also found in the temple of Isis on the island of Philae.

Its name comes from the Greek word demotikos meaning ‘popular’.

It is important to note that neither writing would entirely replace another, but it would merely restrict the other writings to specific domains and be restricted itself to other domains. Thus demotic would become the writing of the administration from the 26th Dynasty on, but it did not entirely replace hieratic as a handwriting, which was still being used in religious texts.

Hieratic, on its part, did not replace hieroglyphic either. From its beginnings, hieratic was hieroglyphic, but more cursive and written by a speedier hand. As the two writings evolved, practicality caused hieratic to be used when a text need not be written in the slow but detailed hieroglyphic signs and was used in administrative texts, texts that were not to be inscribed on monuments or on funerary objects, texts that mattered for their contents only, ...



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