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Excavating Egypt review: The gods' speech with Ildiko Kalnoky

by Susan Biddle

Ildiko gave us a superb introduction to hieroglyphs.  She began by explaining that hieroglyphs are a highly formalised form of writing, by the elite and for the elite, and that the Egyptian name for them ("hieroglyph" being the Greek translation) means "sacred writing".


The offering formula shown on a stela from the site of El-Amrah


She explained that most hieroglyphs represent sounds (phonograms) and may represent one, two or three consonants, but others are images (ideograms), determinatives (that is, silent helping tools such as a picture of the word previously shown in phonograms) or phonetic complements (silent tools to help the reader understand the sound shown in the previous phonogram by repeating it).  She also explained how hieroglyphs are usually first transliterated into alphabetic script showing how it was pronounced, and then translated.

Ildiko then brought all this theory to life by taking us through the offering formula.  She first read this to us, and then translated it.  At this point, the formula seemed about as comprehensible to me as a message encoded by an Enigma machine.   However, as Ildiko patiently divided it up into phrases and first transliterated and then translated each phonogram, ideogram, determinative and phonetic complement, all became clear – a change which was as magic as the Egyptians' belief that by reciting this formula the sacred characters became reality.

At the end of the session, we could test ourselves by assembling individual hieroglyphic phrases (such as "an offering which the king gives", "a voice offering of bread and beer" or "the venerable one") into the right order for the offering formula.  Ildiko gave us some useful mnemonics – I will remember that the hieroglyph for "beer" is "hnkt" because of its resemblance to a beer that reaches parts others do not.


Now I can not only read the offering formula, but can also pick out these hieroglyphs in other inscriptions and have a basic understanding of how other hieroglyphs work.  With many thanks to Ildiko, perhaps one day I will join the Egyptian literate elite!

Publication date: 17.07.2015
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