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Hieroglyphicks of the Egyptians

FOR the satisfaction of some readers, I transcribe the following account of the mysterious Hieroglyphicks (of which specimens are preserved in the British Museum) from the learned Pocock’s Description of the East.

Herodotus says, that the Egyptians used two sorts of letters, or ways of writing; one called sacred, the other vulgar letters. Diodorus makes the same distinction; the vulgar ones were learnt by all the people, and the sacred were only known to the priests, among the Egyptians, who learnt them of their fathers, among those things which were to be kept secret; but the Ethiopians, from whom the Egyptians learnt them, used all these letters or ways of writing indifferently; so that it was rather the unlawfulness than any impossibility of attaining a knowledge of these letters, that kept them from reading their sacred writings, as they could perhaps have learnt them of the Ethiopians, if we suppose they were exactly the same; but it is probable the Egyptians altered them so that they were not intelligible to the Ethiopians.

Diodorus says of the Ethiopian letters, called by the Egyptians Hieroglyphicks, that at first their forms of writing represented all sorts of beasts, the parts of the human body, and instruments, especially those of the handicrafts; for their writings did not consist of syllables put together, but of figures, that related to the things they were to express; for they wrote or drew the figure of a hawk, a crocodile, a serpent, the eye, hand, or face of a man, and the like.

A hawk signified expedition, or all things that were to be done expeditiously; because it was the swiftest of birds. The crocodile signified malice; the eye expressed both an observer of justice, and a keeper of any person; the right hand, with the fingers extended, signified any one’s getting his livelihood; the left hand shut, the preserving and keeping of any thing. Thus every thing was read and understood by figures.

Voltaire gives a curious instance of these emblems, which is taken from Herodotus. That historian informs us, that “when Darius invaded Scythia, the Scythians sent him a bird, a mouse, a frog, and five arrows. By this present they insinuated, that if he did not fly away as swiftly as a bird, or conceal himself like a mouse and a frog, he would perish by their arrows.”

This story may not be true; it is however, observes our philosopher, a testimony of the emblems employed in those distant ages.