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Lesson 2) Write Like an Egyptian!
Time for another lesson in the Room of Runes. Today we will begin our journey into the written world of ancient Egypt. After a brief overview of the history of the Egyptian culture courtesy of our Ancient Studies professor, Professor Morgan, we will look at the role writing and scribes played in Egyptian society
The Culture of Ancient Egypt
Hello Students! Professor Morgan here, and I’m quite pleased to be speaking about the culture of ancient Egypt. For those of you who have completed Ancient Studies Year Three, much (but not all) of this will be a review. Let’s get to it, shall we?
The reign of the ancient Egyptian civilization was one of the longest lasting in human history. The civilization began in approx. 3000 B.C.E. in what is now termed the Early Dynastic Period, and lasted until 525 B.C.E., termed the Late Period of ancient Egypt. During the roughly 2,500 years between those two dates, there were several other periods, including the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, as well as a few intermediate periods between them. In all, there were 26 distinct dynasties.
Although these periods and the dynasties within them had different characteristics to both the culture and advancement (both magical and non-magical), the inherent beliefs in and use of magic in ancient Egypt remained relatively the same, though it’s important to note that this does not mean that nothing about their magical practices changed. Think of it in comparison to our modern magic here in England. For hundreds of years we have used wands, concentration, and incantations (typically in Latin) to perform our magic. While this has not changed, it would be patently untrue to say that magic in the United Kingdom has stagnated or stayed completely the same. Additionally important to note is the fact that throughout this period, witches and wizards were highly respected, revered, and often elevated to positions of power given their abilities. Their presence was common, accepted, and an integral part of their culture.
So common was magic in ancient Egypt, that it was almost inseparable from different aspects of its culture. A great example of this interconnectedness is in their medical practices. When a healer treated a patient in this civilization, there was no difference between magical treatment and non-magical treatment. The healer, who most likely had some level of magical ability, would simply choose the best manner to diagnose and treat the patient and, most importantly, would not distinguish between the two types of medicine. Magical and non-magical were truly one and the same to the healers.
Ancient Egypt was ruled, as I’m sure you all know, by a pharaoh. The pharaoh had a great amount of power, and much of the magic use in this civilization was reserved exclusively for his benefit and at his direction. In fact, the pharaoh himself was considered a magical being by his people and was very much treated as such. According to ancient Egyptian beliefs, one was either born with the power of magic inside of them, or one acquired it at some point during their lives (e.g. when a mother breastfed her children, that was considered a form of magic that she could perform solely during that period of her life). The pharaoh was one of very few individuals in this society who were considered to be born with magic - that is they were considered to have magic literally living inside them like an extra organ.
Another great and powerful leader who was also considered to have magic living inside of him was the priest, or hery seshta. Known as the chief of mysteries or secrets, many of the major temples throughout ancient Egypt housed a leader with this title. In addition to his magical abilities, the Hery Seshta was also a religious or spiritual leader.
Religion, or the gods and goddesses that made up the ancient Egyptian belief system, were worshipped both in temples and also at the household level. Heka and Weret Hekau were the male and female counterparts, respectively, that most closely represented the concept of magic. Heka was described as the “Lord of Oracles, Lord of Miracles, who predicts what will happen” - an obvious reference to divination. Weret Hekau, on the other hand, was described as “great of magic.” Both of these deities were called upon during various magical and non-magical ceremonies, and Weret Hekau (whose form is that of a cobra) actually rested on the headpiece of the pharaoh, with the intent to protect him or her from any danger that approached.
One last aspect of ancient Egyptian culture that will be rather critical to your studies in the field of ancient runes is the power that the ancient Egyptians gave to words and images. As in many (though not all) ancient cultures, the written word carried with it a large amount of prestige, partially owing to the fact that literacy was not widespread. Written spells were no exception to this rule, and it was often preferred to have some sort of written spell included in magical rites to have something concrete to hold in one’s hands, or to have proof of the magic. Moreover, not only was written magic prestigious, but the knowledge of an object or deity’s true name was absolutely essential for any magic to prove effective. So great was the belief in the power of names and associations that quite often magical spells invoked the name of a god or goddess who had survived a trial similar to the current crisis being addressed, especially in cases where protection from harm was sought.
While that is a very abbreviated introduction to ancient Egyptian culture, I hope it will serve you well as you continue your studies in Ancient Runes. If you ever have any questions about the ancient Egyptians or any other ancient civilization, please stop by my office or send me an owl. I am always happy to help!
Writing in Ancient Egypt
Thank you, Professor Morgan. Now, as was just said, words were considered to have great power in ancient Egypt. One reason for this, as well as a consequence, is that in ancient Egypt, only a small number of people were literate (meaning that they were able to read and write). Education, and that means knowledge, was restricted to the upper levels of society, the elites. As Professor Morgan has already mentioned, wizards belonged to this elite of ancient Egypt, but they weren’t the only ones. Priests and administrators also belonged to this highly educated level of society, and learning to read and write the script of the time was one of the benefits as well as distinguishing features of this group.
Most scribes learned their trade from their parents. However, particularly skilled or talented individuals who showed a strong interest in the art of writing could also become a scribe. Since this was a highly skilled and very respected profession, this allowed for some degree of social mobility.
It is said that bureaucracy was invented by the ancient Egyptians, and certainly they could not have run such a vast empire without the unique properties of written records. Not only did writing allow for communication across the vast distances of the Egyptian kingdom, but it also allowed for trade, planned agriculture, and the recording of the most valuable commodity to any ruler: taxes!
The scribes were the cogs that kept the wheel of the state machinery of ancient Egypt turning, and for this they were regarded with respect and honour. Many of them occupied significant positions in society, and with their skill and personal wealth had the opportunity to create their own tombs and tomb decorations, with records of their lives and exploits. These decorations are the main source of our information about what life was like in ancient Egypt and they are entirely written in the symbols that were the tools of the scribe’s trade: hieroglyphics.
On the topic of tools of the trade, at the front of the class, you can see a carefully preserved example of a scribe’s equipment. From left to right, you can see a tube-like case for holding the reeds with which the scribes wrote, a leather bag which held the various dry ingredients to make their inks, and the palette upon which they inks were mixed. These three items were synonymous with scribes and came to represent all sorts of writing-based concepts including scribes themselves, the written word, books, inks, and more -- something you will study in more depth next year when we get into ideographic meanings of hieroglyphs.
“Sacred Image” - Interpreting Symbols
So what exactly are hieroglyphics? In ancient Greek, hiero means “sacred” and glyphicos means “carvings” or “images.” Thus the term hieroglyphics literally means “sacred carvings” or “sacred images.” The ancient Greeks, whose culture only marginally overlapped with the time of the hieroglyphics, apparently considered these strange symbols as carvings or images that held sacred meaning. This impression is certainly not that strange, given that many of the hieroglyphics we know today can be found on temples, monuments, and on the inside of tombs. These were all spaces considered sacred by most cultures, and so the conclusion that these images carved into stone must have been sacred, too, was not far off.
Originally, the hieroglyphic writing system was a so-called pictographic script. This means that the images or symbols depicted what they meant, or a close approximation of it. Thus the image of an eye meant “eye,” and a painting of an animal would refer to that same animal. Over time, these symbols also began to stand for the name of the concept they depicted. So a pharaoh’s staff would mean the word “rule” or “ruler.” This is called a logographic writing system (from the Greek logos – “word”), where each symbol represents a spoken word. Eventually, as more sophisticated needs of communication developed, a more nuanced writing system began to emerge. The symbols began to stand for the main sounds or syllables of the words they depicted as much as for the words themselves, and thus a syllabic writing system was born.
Over the period the hieroglyphic writing system was in use, several hundred symbols were developed, each with its own meaning and phonetic value. We will study those that most closely correspond with the symbols of our own alphabet this year beginning with some familiar consonants next week. Next year, we will delve deeper into the more complicated sounds and meanings of advanced hieroglyphics, but for now, we shall end our lesson for this week. Your assignment for today consists of a quiz, which will cover both Professor Morgan’s guest lecture and the introduction to the hieroglyphic writing system.
Hery Seshta: a specific kind of priest with magical abilities and high importance. Particularly focused on funerary rites.
Hieroglyphics: a writing system made up of hieroglyphs that used symbols to convey messages and ideas. Used in ancient Egypt roughly between 3300 B.C.E. and 200 C.E.
Hieroglyphs: A pictographic or logographic symbol used in the Egyptian writing system.
Logographic script: A system of characters that represents a word or phrase.
Pictographic script: A system of characters that are pictures. Each character means, more or less, what the picture represents
Syllabic script: A system of characters that stand for certain sounds or syllables found in the word that the symbol depicts.
Original lesson written by Professor Mathilda Stevens
Additional portion written by Professor Venita Wessex
Image credits here, here, and here