sonofthemummy (bubbahotep111) wrote,

A Few Comments on the Decorative and Didactic Contribution of the Ancient Egyptian Scribe

The art of today's cartoonist, who with a few masterful pen strokes succeeds in simultaneously glorifying natural form and emulating its innate humor, began with the scribes of ancient Egypt.  With remarkably keen observation, the people who designed and developed hieroglyphic writing distilled shapes of flora, fauna, geography, architecture, and toolmaking into a mysteriously engaging system of symbols, each presented in a few faithful lines that seem simultaneously reverent and playful.  Neither purely logographic like Chinese nor purely phonetic like Sanskrit, Egyptian script was from the beginning a rich blend of the two approaches.  Of these, there are comparatively few examples, like Japanese or Mayan.  At any rate, I should think that the rarity of said configuration invites us to contemplate the advantages of a fresh or deeper investigation of this topic.  As I have long admired the bilingual Loeb editions by Harvard, please let me explain a few ideas to anyone who might be able to assist in the creation for a new type font more suitable for publishing classics of Egyptian literature. 

It was reported throughout the ancient world that the Egyptians wielded a superior grasp of magic, or the art of causing real change through subtle means.  Perhaps part of their talent in this area arose from the way in which their orthography combined both ideographic and decorative qualities to engage the two cerebral hemispheres, possibly fostering a more dynamic dialog between them than is currently appreciated.  Though this idea has yet to receive wide demonstration, I think it invites some inquiry.   As there has yet to appear a paleography of the Coffin Texts, it seems that the matter of a "typical" hieroglyphic handwriting has yet to receive sufficient examination to support a detailed consideration of the advantages of creating a normalschrift based upon it.  For this reason, I find it desirable to offer a few comments on observations I have been able to make in the past thirty years of looking at this subject for artistic purposes. 

In high school, it seemed natural to me to begin the auto didactic study of Egyptian by copying texts.  Immediately, the flat tipped pen seemed more appropriate than the standard fountain nib which produced results (to my view) rather unsatisfactory.  When I got to college, the library had the "elephant folio" of Budge's plates, which rather clearly illustrated the graphic content of the Papyrus of Ani.  Thus, I had the opportunity to inspect examples of how scribes of Dynasty XIX approached the still-representational but brush-styled form of hieroglyphic that Henry Fischer termed "semi-cursive".  Known to some as "book script" or "non-ligatured hieratic" it should be clearly disambiguated from the non-representational form of hieratic.  As I worked, my hand preferred to write from right to left, and I eventually abandoned attempts to force it write from left to right. 

I think we should consider how we may build upon the work in Fischer's _Ancient Egyptian Calligraphy_.  This unique book explains what we actually are looking at in many of the most commonly used glyphs, and it also furnishes the student with a cogent approach to the central considerations of proportion and stroke order when drawing them.  The author's examples are not true calligraphy, but pencil sketches for monumental glyphs.  Yet, toward an authentic-looking new incarnation of Egyptian manuscript writing useful for students, I believe that a competent Arabic calligraphist (for example) would find Fischer's letters useful as handy skeletons upon which to flesh out authentic quill strokes.  Personally, I believe that a character set should become available that celebrates some of the achievements of the royal scribes with regard to graphic content, if only for the sake of aesthetics. 

Now, one thing that warrants consideration with regard to semi-cursive is the shock a non-specialist sometimes experiences upon the initial encounters.  The Gardiner List does not prepare him for the streamlined forms of a, k, and m, which are closer to what we find in more stylized hieratic.  In a  font with immediate educational value, these would need to be restored to more recognizable forms.  Through practice, I came to conclusion that the ancient scribe would soon tire mentally and physically of forming certain characters in a more elaborate way, largely owing to their frequency of occurrence.  Conversely, the rarer the glyph, the more likely the scribe was to take out his smaller brush and paint it out in clearer detail.  Thus, a new SVG font which could achieve a balance between authentic flavor and usefulness in creating printed works would be occasionally synthetic.  But, with inspired and judicious effort, said selection could easily take form as a reasonably typical yet usefully recognizable emulation of ancient scribal penmanship.  The list owner for the GlyphStudy list on Yahoo has encouraged me to create animations to illustrate the monoliteral hieroglyphs.  I have only created a handful of these, but plan eventually to do a full set of the "alphabetic" ones. 

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