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What Is Hieratic?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Hieratic is a written language developed in ancient Egypt alongside the pictographic language known as hieroglyphic; both languages share a number of similarities. These two languages were likely developed together, rather than one evolving from the other, and the hieratic language is fairly cursive in nature, making it fast to use. It was typically written from right to left in horizontal lines of text, though some examples remain in which it was written in vertical columns. Hieratic was largely used by priests and was one of the two written languages in ancient Egypt; the other language, called “demotic,” developed for use by others.

While hieratic is somewhat similar to hieroglyphic writing in that they are both visual languages, it was written using ink on various surfaces and consisted of symbols more closely resembling letters rather than pictographs. Hieroglyphs were created for many different purposes, and utilized pictographs in which the symbol for a particular idea was often represented by an image depicting that idea. In contrast, hieratic was developed as a cursive written language, in which symbols only vaguely resemble that which they are meant to indicate. As a cursive language, the letters were designed to often connect to each other to make each word through few brushstrokes.

Hieratic was typically written using a brush and ink, often on papyrus or cloth, though some stone tablets with ink writing on them have been found. Papyrus was often used for medical and religious texts, written by hand in horizontal rows and read from right to left. Stone tablets were often used by more common people who may not have had access to papyrus; as such, some tablets that remain provide information on daily life for commoners in ancient Egypt. Hieratic written on cloth was often used for wrappings and dressing for mummification, often with blessings or other religious comments written on them.

Though hieratic was once quite popular among many priests, business people, and other leaders in ancient Egypt, it eventually developed into a language used predominantly by priests. The name itself means “priestly language” and was named by Roman observers of Egyptian life. A second cursive language was developed that was similar in some respects, but was more often used by non-priests for written documents and records. This language was called demotic, meaning “people’s language,” and was often used for business records and government documents that were not religious in nature.

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