Sunday, December 14, 2014

Against Hieroglyph Tattoos

Are you thinking of getting a hieroglyph tattoo? Maybe an eye of Horus, or an ankh, or your name in a cartouche? Don't. It's disrespectful towards a great culture and all that, but also, because Egyptian scribes were jerks, your name in a cartouche may end up saying “the wearer frequently performs unnatural acts with ducks”.


1. The ancient Egyptians actually had an alphabet. Did you know that? I had no idea. Some of the hieroglyphs stand for a single consonant, resulting in a very usable and friendly alphabet. Which the scribes did not use – or rather, did not always use.
And I have a theory why, a very scientific and well-researched theory, not at all made up while writing this: the scribes had a good life, not plowing, not going to war, not washing their own dirty clothes, just writing, so they tried to keep it for themselves, and made writing as complicated as possible. Don't take my word for it, go read the Miscellanea, the texts used for training new scribes. They say “we have a good life, we do not plow, we do not go to war, we do not do our own laundry, so let's keep it a secret by making writing as confusing as possible” (more or less).

... and remember, children, you can always spell Son of Horus backwards as Son of the mailman. Just keep a straight face while pretending to write from dictation.

2. You know what's the hieroglyph for road? Why, this:

Seriously, does that look like a road to you? No wonder they weren't very keen on using wheeled vehicles. And what are those, speed bumps? (Upon further research, they're shrub/papyrus flowers. Still doesn't make sense.)

3. At least the hieroglyphs for man and woman are fairly intuitive.

Men had arms, women did not. But, don't worry, women gained arms while giving birth:

Gardiner's classification lists 56 hieroglyphs under “Man and his occupations” and only 7 under “Woman and her occupations”, including this little “queen holding a flower”, which has got to be the saddest thing I've seen all week:

I was about to add misogyny on the list of why scribes were jerks, but, in all due honesty, the hieroglyphs about men and their occupations can be broadly divided into man sitting down and man running around like an idiot waving a stick. Oh, and man holding two giraffes – undoubtedly, a very popular occupation in ancient Egypt.

4. Gardiner has cataloged no less than 54 hieroglyphs depicting birds. 54 birds. Before you can even think about spelling your own name, you need to identify 54 birds, including a lapwing and a hoopoe (and none of them stands for performing unnatural acts with a duck – or at least I haven't found that one yet).

- OMG, look at that handwriting!
- No way, you can't even tell a black ibis from a crested ibis.
- How did he even pass first grade? 

5. Hieroglyphs were written right to left. Or left to write. Or upwards, or downwards. Sometimes in the same text. They used a mixture of alphabetic signs, logographs (representing morphemes), and ideographs (pretty pictures of the object depicted). Sometimes in the same word. Because, hey, let's twist Monsieur Champollion's head around and see how fast it spins.

6. And speaking of Monsieur Champollion, don't assume your tattoo is safe because hieroglyphs have been fully deciphered. One Ptolemaic jerk's idea of a pun was a text written almost entirely with crocodiles. That is just one of the many not deciphered yet. I've decided it refers to some very brave unnatural acts with crocodiles, but I may be wrong.

7. A papyrus from a collection called the Theban Magical Library (which may or may not come from Thebes, may or may not be related to magic, and may or may not have come from a library) is written in a mixture of no less than seven (yes, seven) writing systems (Hieratic, Demotic, alphabetic Demotic, Greek, Cipher, old Coptic, and Charakteres – just in case you don't trust me, count them, seven). There, that's proof for you, right there – they were trying to make things complicated at all costs, for the sole reason of being jerks.

So go get a tattoo of a cat, like everybody else. Not an Egyptian cat, just a regular cat. Oh, and here are the hieroglyphs for urination and defecation. You're welcome.