Category Archives: Egyptian Language

Book Review: How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Have you ever wanted to learn how to read Egyptian hieroglyphs?

There are lots of places online where you can look up the phonetic equivalents to hieroglyphic symbols–by memorizing them, you can learn to read some of the names of famous pharaohs, or try your hand at writing sentences in English, but “spelled out” in hieroglyphs.

But if you’d like to be able to understand Egyptian inscriptions and how sentences were actually formed in Ancient Egyptian, you need more than that. For that, you need a book like this.

How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself. By Mark Collier and Bill Manley. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. 179.

The purpose of this book, as described in its introduction, is to help the reader learn to “read and enjoy the hieroglyphs and the language of ancient Egypt” (vii) and learn to read hieroglyphic inscriptions on museum objects.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each of which covers a few key grammatical concepts; practice exercises in transliteration and translation are found at the end of each chapter. Many of the chapters also include a short excurses on an aspect of Egyptian culture or history that is related to the Egyptian artifacts shown in the practice exercises.

This book is a good choice for those who do not have the opportunity to take courses to learn Egyptian. It is affordable (list price of U.S $26) and is relative thin (psychologically and physically manageable). It is user-friendly, with simple explanations of grammatical concepts, relatively little use of grammatical jargon, easy to reference chapters and section numbers, and a concept organization appropriate to teaching the grammar and vocabulary necessary for reading hieroglyphic inscriptions on museum objects.

The greatest strength of the book is the exercises in transliteration and translation found at the end of each chapter. The student can test his or her understanding of the material by checking answers against the key. Furthermore, many of the study exercises have line drawings or photographs of actual objects. This provides the context that isolated sentences may not have, and allows the student to see scribal variation in writing as well as view how aesthetic considerations are dealt with in inscriptions. Each of the exercises also has accompanying object-appropriate grammatical notes and a vocabulary list, which allows the reader to translate the passage easily, building confidence in their ability to read hieroglyphs.

Because the book has the specific purpose of being a concise and simplified reader, it has limitations to its usefulness. There is no description of the Egyptian language or its history, so the reader does not have appropriate context for Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Also, in an attempt to simplify transliteration, the authors state that the dots and dashes they use in transliteration are important, but do not explain why. Furthermore, because complex concepts are glossed over quickly, those who continue their study of Egyptian after reading this book may be astonished to learn how complex the Egyptian language truly is, and will not be prepared for the barrage of grammatical jargon associated with the Egyptian language. Lastly, those who use this book to learn hieroglyphs and expect to then read written documents will be disappointed—the vocabulary list provided with each exercise limits the reader’s experience with other hieroglyphic dictionaries, and the book’s focus on stele inscriptions and coffins does not prepare the reader for longer treatises and bibliographies.

Because of its relative simplicity, How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs cannot act as a stand in for more detailed grammar books (such as those by James Allen, Alan Gardiner, and James Hoch) for serious students of Middle Egyptian. However, the book does an excellent job of fulfilling its stated goal of helping a beginner student teach herself how to read basic hieroglyphic inscriptions.

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Egyptian Word of the Week

One of my favorite Egyptian words is the word for a housecat. Known modernly as the Egyptian mau, the Ancient Egyptian word for cat, miw, may very well be related to the “meow” the cat makes.

My own cat, Max.

The popularity and importance of both wild and domesticated felines in Ancient Egypt is notorious, especially among modern cat-lovers. Egypt was one of the first places to domesticate the cat; pet cats were sometimes mummified for burial and cats were also mummified to be presented as offerings to feline deities. There were dozens of feline deities worshiped in Ancient Egypt, although the two most famous modernly are Bastet and Sekhmet.

Statuette of the goddess Bastet (Gayer Anderson cat. Currently in the British Museum).

For your amusement, here is an abbreviated version of my favorite myth about the goddess Sekhmet, often referred to as the “Destruction of Mankind.”

Sekhmet--Don't mess with her.

When the goddess Hathor, the “Eye of Re,” was sent forth by the god Re to destroy the wicked members of mankind, she became enraptured of her role. Rejoicing in slaughter, she became Sekhmet, the destroyer. As she killed the inhabitants of Egypt, the blood covered her paws and flowed throughout the land; she desired to annihilate mankind.

Re, taking pity on mankind, resolved to stop the carnage he had initiated. He sent envoys to collect red hematite and caused 7000 jars of beer to be brewed. When the two were mixed, they were as red as blood.

When day dawned, the beer flooded the fields and ran like blood. When the goddess arose to finish her slaughter, she rejoiced in the sight of the mixture and drank with delight. And when she had drunk her fill, she forgot her mission of bloodshed and returned to Re, peacefully.

Thus the destroyer was appeased and mankind was saved.

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