Infobox Writing system
typedesc=with logographic elements
time=Protodynastic Period–3rd century AD
languages=Egyptian language
fam1=Egyptian hieroglyphs
spaces|4Old Nubian
Byblos syllabary
sisters=Cursive hieroglyphs
sample=Prisse papyrus.jpg

Hieratic is a cursive writing system used in pharaonic Egypt that developed alongside the hieroglyphic system, [Goedicke 1988:vii–viii.] to which it is intimately related. It was primarily written in ink with a reed brush on papyrus, allowing scribes to write quickly without resorting to the time consuming hieroglyphs. The word "hieratic" derives from the Greek phrase Polytonic|γράμματα ἱερατικά ("grammata hieratika"; literally "priestly writing"), which was first used by Saint Clement of Alexandria in the second century AD, [Goedicke 1988:vii; Wente 2001:2006. The reference is made in Clement's " [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/clement-stromata-book5.html Stromata] " 5:4.] as at that time hieratic was used only for religious texts, as had been the case for the previous thousand years.


Hieratic was first used during the Protodynastic Period, developing alongside the more formal hieroglyphic script. It is an error to view hieratic as a "derivative" of hieroglyphic writing. The earliest texts from Egypt are produced with ink and brush, with no indication their signs are descendants of hieroglyphs. True monumental hieroglyphs carved in stone did not appear until the 1st Dynasty, well after hieratic had been established as a scribal practice. The two writing systems, therefore, are related, parallel developments, rather than a single linear one. [Goedicke 1988:vii–viii.]

Hieratic was used throughout the pharaonic period and into the Graeco-Roman period. However, after about 660 BC, the Demotic script (and later Greek) replaced hieratic in most secular writing, but hieratic continued to be used by the priestly class for several more centuries, at least into the third century AD.

Oldest remaining surgical document

The Edwin Smith papyrus is the world's oldest surviving surgical document. Written in hieratic script in ancient Egypt approximately 1600 BC, the text describes anatomical observations and the examination, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of forty-eight types of medical problems in exquisite detail.

Among the treatments described are closing wounds with sutures, preventing and curing infection with honey and moldy bread, stopping bleeding with raw meat, and immobilization of head and spinal cord injuries. Translated in 1930, the document reveals the sophistication and practicality of ancient Egyptian medicine. Plate 6 and 7 of the papyrus, pictured here, discuss facial trauma.

Uses and materials

Through most of its long history, hieratic was used for writing administrative documents, accounts, legal texts, and letters, as well as mathematical, medical, literary, and religious texts. During the Graeco-Roman period, when Demotic (and later Greek) had become the chief administrative script, hieratic was limited primarily to religious texts. In general, hieratic was much more important than hieroglyphs throughout Egypt's history, being the script used in daily life. It was also the writing system first taught to students, knowledge of hieroglyphs being limited to a small minority who were given additional training. [Baines 1983:583.] In fact, it is often possible to detect errors in hieroglyphic texts that came about due to a misunderstanding of an original hieratic text.

Most often, hieratic script was written in ink with a reed brush [During the Roman period reed pens ("calami") were also used.] on papyrus, wood, or stone and pottery ostraca. Thousands of limestone ostraca have been found at the site of Deir al-Madinah, revealing an intimate picture of the lives of common Egyptian workmen. Besides papyrus, stone, ceramic shards, and wood, there are hieratic texts on leather rolls, though few have survived. There are also hieratic texts written on cloth, especially on linen used in mummification. There are some hieratic texts inscribed on stone, a variety known as "lapidary hieratic"; these are particularly common on stelae from the 22nd Dynasty.

During the late 6th Dynasty, hieratic was sometimes incised into mud tablets with a stylus, similar to cuneiform. About five hundred of these tablets have been discovered in the governor's palace at Ayn Asil (Balat), [Soukiassian, Wuttman, Pantalacci 2002.] and a single example from the site of Ayn al-Gazzarin, both in the Dakhla Oasis. [Posener-Kriéger 1992; Pantalacci 1998.] At the time the tablets were made, Dakhla was located far from centers of papyrus production. [Parkinson and Quirke 1995:20.] These tablets record inventories, name-lists, accounts, and approximately fifty letters. Of the letters, many are internal letters that were circulated within the palace and the local settlement, but others were sent from other villages in the oasis to the governor.


Hieratic script (unlike cursive hieroglyphs) "always" reads from right to left. Initially hieratic could be written in either columns or horizontal lines, but after the 12th Dynasty (specifically during the reign of Amenemhat III), horizontal writing became the standard. This may have been to prevent the scribe's hand from smudging his work, but it also may have been to facilitate easier consultation of a rolled document, as well as increasing writing speed.

Hieratic is noted for its cursive nature and use of ligatures for a number of characters. Hieratic script also uses a much more standardized orthography than hieroglyphs; texts written in the latter often had to take into account extra-textual concerns, such as decorative uses and religious concerns that were not present in, say, a tax receipt. There are also some signs that are unique to hieratic, though Egyptologists have invented equivalent hieroglyphic forms for hieroglyphic transcriptions and typesetting. [Gardiner 1929.] Several hieratic characters have diacritical additions so that similar signs could easily be distinguished. Particularly complicated signs could be written with a single stroke.

Hieratic is often present in any given period in two forms, a highly ligatured, cursive businesshand used for administrative documents, and a broad uncial bookhand used for literary, scientific, and religious texts. These two forms can often be significantly different from one another. Letters, in particular, used very cursive forms for quick writing, often with large numbers of abbreviations for formulaic phrases, similar to shorthand.

A highly cursive form of hieratic known as "Abnormal Hieratic" was used in the Theban area from the second half of the 20th dynasty until the beginning of the 26th Dynasty. [Wente 2001:210. See also Malinine [1974] .] It derives from the script of Upper Egyptian administrative documents and was used primarily for legal texts, land leases, letters, and other texts. This type of writing was superseded by Demotic—a Lower Egyptian scribal tradition—during the 26th Dynasty when Demotic was established as a standard administrative script throughout a re-unified Egypt.


Hieratic has had influence on a number of other writing systems. The most obvious is that on Demotic, its direct descendant. Related to this are the Demotic signs of the Meroitic script and the borrowed Demotic characters used in the Coptic alphabet and Old Nubian.

Outside of the Nile Valley, many of the signs used in the Byblos syllabary were apparently borrowed from Old Kingdom hieratic signs. [Hoch 1990.] It is also known that early Hebrew used hieratic numerals. [Aharoni 1966; Goldwasser 1991.]



*cite journal |author=Aharoni, Yohanan |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=1966 |title=The Use of Hieratic Numerals in Hebrew Ostraca and the Shekel Weights |journal=Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research |volume=184|pages=13–19 |doi=10.2307/1356200
*cite journal |author=Baines, John R. |authorlink=John Baines |coauthors= |year=1983 |title=Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society |journal=Man: A Monthly Record of Anthropological Science |volume=18 (new series) |pages=572–599 |url=http://eprints.ouls.ox.ac.uk/archive/00001055/
*cite journal |author=Gardiner, Alan H. |authorlink=Alan Gardiner |coauthors= |year=1929 |title=The Transcription of New Kingdom Hieratic |journal=Journal of Egyptian Archæology |volume=15|pages=48–55 |doi=10.2307/3854012
*cite book |author=Goedicke, Hans |year=1988 |title=Old Hieratic Paleography |publisher=Halgo, Inc. |location=Baltimore |pages=
*cite journal |author=Goldwasser, Orly |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=1991 |title=An Egyptian Scribe from Lachish and the Hieratic Tradition of the Hebrew Kingdoms |journal=Tel Aviv: Journal of the Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology |volume=18|pages=248–253
*cite journal |author=Janssen, Jacobus Johannes |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=2000 |title=Idiosyncrasies in Late Ramesside Hieratic Writing |journal=Journal of Egyptian Archæology |volume=86|pages=51–56 |doi=10.2307/3822306
*cite book |author=Malinine, Michel |year=1974 |title=Textes et langages de l’Égypte pharaonique: Cent cinquante années de recherches 1822–1972; Hommage à Jean-François Champollion |publisher=Imprimerie de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire |location=Cairo |pages=31–35 |chapter=Choix de textes juridiques en hiératique ‘anormal’ et en démotique Vol. 1.
*cite journal |author=Hoch, James E. |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=1990 |title=The Byblos Syllabary: Bridging the Gap Between Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Semitic Alphabets |journal=Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities |volume=20|pages=115–124
*cite book |author=Möller, Georg Christian Julius |year=1927–1936 |title=Hieratische Paläographie: Die aegyptische Buchschrift in ihrer Entwicklung von der Fünften Dynastie bis zur römischen Kaiserzeit | edition=2nd edition |publisher=J. C. Hinrichs’schen Buchhandlungen |location=Leipzig |url=http://www.egyptology.ru/lang.htm#Moeller 4 vols.
*cite book |author=Möller, Georg Christian Julius (ed.) |year=1927–1935 |title=Hieratische Lesestücke für den akademischen Gebrauch. | edition=2nd edition |publisher=J. C. Hinrichs’schen Buchhandlungen |location=Leipzig |pages= 3 vols.
*cite journal |author=Pantalacci, Laure |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=1998 |title=La documentation épistolaire du palais des gouverneurs à Balat–ArabDIN|ˁAyn Asīl |journal=Bulletin de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale |volume=98|pages=303–315
*cite book |author=Parkinson, Richard B. |coauthors=Stephen G. J. Quirke |year=1995 |title=Papyrus |publisher=British Museum Press |location=London |pages=
*cite book |author=Posener-Kriéger, Paule |editor=Élisabeth Lalou (ed.) |year=1992 |title=Les Tablettes à écrire de l'Antiquité à l'époque moderne |publisher=Brepols |location=Turnhout |pages=41–49 |chapter=Les tablettes en terre crue de Balat
*cite book |author=Soukiassian, Georges |coauthors=Michel Wuttmann, Laure Pantalacci |year=2002 |title=Le palais des gouverneurs de l’époque de Pépy II: Les sanctuaires de ka et leurs dépendances |publisher=Imprimerie de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire |location=Cairo |id=ISBN 2-7247-0313-8 |pages=
*cite book |author=Verhoeven, Ursula |year=2001 |title=Untersuchungen zur späthieratischen Buchschrift |publisher=Uitgeverij Peeters and Departement Oriëntalistiek |location=Leuven |pages=
*cite book |author=Wente, Edward Frank |editor=Donald Redford (ed.) |year=2001 |title=The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt |publisher=Oxford University Press and The American University in Cairo Press |location=Oxford, New York, and Cairo |pages=206–210 |chapter=Scripts: Hieratic Vol. 3.
*cite book |author=Wimmer, Stefan Jakob |year=1989 |title=Hieratische Paläographie der nicht-literarischen Ostraka der 19. und 20. Dynastie |publisher=Harrassowitz Verlag |location=Wiesbaden |pages=

See also

*Coptic alphabet
*Cursive hieroglyphs
*Egyptian hieroglyphs
*Egyptian languages
*Egyptian numerals
*Reformed Egyptian

External links

* [http://www.omniglot.com/writing/egyptian_hieratic.htm Ancient Egyptian scripts - Hieratic]
* [http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/writing/hieratic.html The Hieratic Script]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • hieratic — HIERÁTIC, Ă, hieratici, ce, adj. 1. Care ţine de lucruri sfinte. 2. (În sintagma) Scriere hieratică = scriere cursivă şi simplificată a hieroglifelor. 3. (În artă; despre concepţii, orientări, realizări etc.) Care reprezintă sau susţine… …   Dicționar Român

  • Hieratic — Hi er*at ic, a. [L. hieraticus, Gr. ieratiko s; akin to iero s sacred: cf. F. hi[ e]ratique.] Consecrated to sacred uses; sacerdotal; pertaining to priests. [1913 Webster] {Hieratic character}, a mode of ancient Egyptian writing; a modified form… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • hieratic — pertaining to sacred things, 1650s (implied in hieratical), from L. hieraticus, from Gk. hieratikos pertaining to a priest or his office, priestly, from hierateia priesthood, from hiereus priest, from hieros sacred, holy, hallowed; superhuman,… …   Etymology dictionary

  • hieratic — [hī΄ər at′ik] adj. [L hieraticus < Gr hieratikos, of a priest s office, sacerdotal < hieros, sacred: see HIERO ] 1. of or used by priests; priestly; sacerdotal 2. designating or of the abridged form of cursive hieroglyphic writing once used …   English World dictionary

  • hieratic — hieratically, adv. /huy euh rat ik, huy rat /, adj. 1. Also, hieratical. of or pertaining to priests or the priesthood; sacerdotal; priestly. 2. noting or pertaining to a form of ancient Egyptian writing consisting of abridged forms of… …   Universalium

  • hieratic — adjective Etymology: Latin hieraticus sacerdotal, from Greek hieratikos, from hierasthai to perform priestly functions, from hieros sacred; probably akin to Sanskrit iṣara vigorous Date: 1669 1. constituting or belonging to a cursive form of… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • hieratic — 1. adjective a) of or pertaining to priests, especially pharaonic priests of ancient Egypt; sacerdotal. Some of the more hieratic sculptures leave the viewer curiously unmoved. b) of or pertaining to the cursive writing system developed by… …   Wiktionary

  • Hieratic —     A cursive script developed from hieroglyphs and regularly used for business and everyday matters, from the earliest dynasties until the New Kingdom (about two thousand years). Hieratic was particularly employed for writing on papyrus:… …   Ancient Egypt

  • hieratic —    Representing the sizes of things according to their importance, rather than how they would objectively appear in space. Hieratic compositions are often seen in the art of various ancient civilizations and primitive peoples, as well as during… …   Glossary of Art Terms

  • hieratic — hi•er•at•ic [[t]ˌhaɪ əˈræt ɪk, haɪˈræt [/t]] adj. 1) rel Also, hi er•at′i•cal. of or pertaining to priests or a priesthood; sacerdotal; priestly 2) anq ling. of or designating a form of ancient Egyptian writing consisting of abridged forms of… …   From formal English to slang

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