Hieratic Writing origins Characteristics and Utilization

Hieratic Writing

hieratic writing _ The term “hieratic” comes from the Greek expression grammata hieratika , “priestly writings”, coined by Saint Clement of Alexandria in the second century AD to describe the cussive script used in ancient Egyptian religious texts of the time. However, the hieratic was not used exclusively in religious compositions during the Greco-Roman period .


The appearance of Egyptian hieroglyphics around 3320 BC is considered the beginning of writing in Ancient Egypt , however hieratic writing is in fact found shortly after the first hieroglyphic inscription. Both systems are among the earliest examples of writing in Egypt during the 0th Dynasty . The appearance of hieratic so early suggests that it was not a late adaptation of hieroglyphics, but developed alongside it. 

These early inscriptions were very brief and can be found on vessels in burials. They usually relate real namesonly and information about the contents of the vessel, often also the place of origin. The first hieratic inscription, dating to c. 3200 BC, is the name of the Scorpion King found at the site of Tarkhan, south of Cairo .

Characteristics of Hieratic Writing 

The cursive nature of hieratic is what makes this form of writing most notable. After dipping the brush in ink, a scribe would have been able to write several symbols before needing more ink again. As a result of this technique, the symbols were frequently intertwined, and at first glance they did not appear to be hieroglyphics . 

Hieratic was always written from right to left, unlike hieroglyphics, which could be written in both directions, and like hieroglyphics it was written in both vertical columns and horizontal lines. This began to change from c. 1800 BC, when the columns were reserved for religious texts and the horizontal lines for the rest of the texts. 

Differences in theHieratic script paleography (how a text was written exemplified by the scribe’s handwriting and the shapes of various symbols) allows Egyptologists to date hieratic documents solely by script form. Scholars are even able to tell what kind of document a text is without reading it, because there are clear differences between the writing of literary and administrative documents.

Although the symbols used in the hieratic script correspond to most of the same forms used in hieroglyphics, their script is neither derived nor a shortened form of hieroglyphics. Despite the similarities, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the symbols and the script of both systems. Even the hieratic has some symbols that are not found in hieroglyphs.

 Egyptian scribes were able to use both systems, and most hieroglyphic inscriptions in formal contexts such as temples or tomb walls were originally rendered in hieratic and later adapted to hieroglyphics. Hieratic texts are frequently transcribed into hieroglyphics for the convenience of modern Egyptologists, however differences in spelling, in the use of symbols, and even in the presence of a type of punctuation (in hieratic) is enough to demonstrate that the Egyptian scribes did not translate between the two systems while writing. Instead, the scribes were able to use both forms independently.

Utilization of Hieratic Writing 

Cursive script was commonly written with a reed brush and ink, both on papyrus and ostraca (pieces of pottery and stone ). Examples of hieratic writing in ink have also been found on cloth , leather , and wood , however few examples of this type have survived. It was even written with a stylus on clay tablets (dated to the Old Kingdom , c. 23rd century BC) and a carved version of the script itself (known as “hieratic lapidary”) is frequently found in sites such as quarries and along trade routes.

Some hieratic texts are among the earliest attested documents in Ancient Egypt (c.3200 BC) and provide some of the most important socioeconomic and cultural data on Egyptian society. Contrary to Saint Clement’s characterization of writing, hieratic documents include not only religious texts, but also literary, medical, mathematical, administrative, and legal texts. Many of the famous literary tales known from Ancient Egypt have been preserved in hieratic papyri.

Examples of hieratic continue to be found from around the Early Dynastic period ( c. 3000-2680 BC), when the first examples of monumental hieroglyphs (inscriptions on large structures and objects, such as tombs, stelae, and statues) appear. The importance of writing, the use of papyrus , and the importance of scribes even from the origins of Egyptian civilization, is illustrated by the inclusion of a blank papyrus scroll among the grave goods in the tomb of the bearer of the Hemaka seal. , from the Early Dynastic Period at Saqqara.


Over the next millennia of Egyptian history, the hieratic underwent a dramatic series of changes; the script of later Pharaonic periods bears little resemblance to early examples of hieratic. Despite these changes, hieratic continued to be an important part of the training of scribes in the Egyptian script. It even seems that hieratic influenced hieroglyphs at different times in Egyptian history; some of the changes in the hieroglyphs are reflections of those in the hieratic script.

The longevity of this writing system demonstrates the important role it played in the Ancient Egyptian written tradition . Hieratic texts are among the earliest examples of Egyptian writing and continued to be used throughout the history of the Nile country . Even after the arrival of demotic in the Late Period (7th century BC), hieratic continued to be used in administrative and religious texts until the 3rd century AD.

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