Egyptian Writing

In ancient Egypt, writing was considered to have magical properties, where written words breathed life into reality. And there was no more important job than that of the scribe.

To form the sacred symbols known as hieroglyphs, ancient Egyptians took their inspiration from the world around them: animals, plants, natural elements, household objects, and buildings. By 2000 B.C., 700 hieroglyphs had been recorded into 25 categories and a group of unidentified signs. The most complex section is the one devoted to people and the parts of the human body. Egyptians combined front, profile, and three-quarter views of the model to show all the characteristics of the figure depicted with remarkable accuracy. And these figures were thought to alive. To prevent the divine symbols from causing harm or getting away, Egyptians would even depict dangerous animals (such as the viper) with their head separated from their body or removed a bird’s legs to prevent it from walking away.

Though hieroglyphs were used throughout Egyptian history for religious and royal or monumental purposes, they had another method of writing for more day-to-day literary documentations. This is known as hieratic, a method that used cursive or simplified hieroglyphs. Instead of representing a word or idea, each sign represented a sound. The symbols’ shapes are less precise and complex that that of hieroglyphs and can be joined together in different forms. During the Middle Kingdom, the signs were further rounded and simplified until the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, when demotic (sekh shat), an even more cursive script, came about. This replaced hieratic script, except in sacred and funerary texts.

The patron deities of writing were Thoth, god of wisdom, and Seshat, goddess of writing. Most scribes (sesh) were well educated in the temple complexes. Their work involved the composition and copying of literary texts and record-keeping within the temples. They also played an important role in daily life. They recorded harvests, taxes, and salaries and found employment nearly every sector of the economy, including agriculture, crafts, trade, mining, building, and quarrying.

Scribes were often depicted sitting crossed legged on the ground. The images hold papyrus in their left hand, which stretches out across their lap and writing with their right. Scribes carried the tools of their trade everywhere they went. Their materials were stored in a box of wicker or wood or in a leather container for easy transport. The scribes palette was a rectangle piece of wood about 12 x 2 ½ inches with central groves to hold their reed brushes or pens and a couple of circular wells for ink. A scribe would have two cakes of ink on his person. The first being made of red ochre to write text headings and highlighting important words. The second being of black carbon for the main text. Painters would have additional colors for decorated papyri such as blue, yellow, white, and green pigments. These cakes would be broken apart bit by bit and reduced into a powder using a stone and mortar. Then the pigment would be mixed with a solution of gum and were applied to the papyrus with water and a fine brush.


  • Oakes, L., and Gahlin, L. (2003). Ancient Egypt: An illustrated reference to the myths, religions, pyramids and temples of the land of the pharaohs. New York, New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
  • Roeder, G. (1920) Egyptian Hieroglyphic Grammar. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
  • Strudwick, H. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. New York, New York: Metro Books.

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