Let’s Learn Hieroglyphs 3: Bag your Biliterals

So you’ve got your textbook and have memorized your monoliterals and the order in which they appear in the Egyptian alphabet.  Now it’s time to tackle the steepest part of the first mountain to climb when learning Egyptian: memorizing those tricky biliterals.

This is the mountain faced with which many give up.  It took me several attempts to climb it successfully, each time returning to the cliff-face more and more sheepishly. Again, it was a technique from the ancient Art of Memory that finally let me scale it.

You need to have your monoliterals down before you attempt this part of the memorization, as we will be using memory images featuring them as characters.  Unless you know the sounds they represent, you will have no way of translating the memory images into the right biliterals.

Each of our memory images will consist of three parts: the first sound, the biliteral, and the second sound.  The first sound will clearly come ‘first’ in the image, and the second sound will clearly come ‘last.’  In this way we will be in no danger of mistakenly reading, for example, a spinal cord as wA instead of Aw.  All images will be memorized as though the hieroglyph was to be read from left to right.

Ultimately you want to be able to jettison these memory images so that you can engage more directly with the symbols; however in order to really grok what the symbols mean you first have to learn Egyptian, which you can’t do until you know the sounds they represent.

I’ll use the computer transliteration scheme to describe the biliterals: Allen provides a reference chart in the monoliterals chapter.

I’ll give you all my mnemonics for this, but you should be aware that the Greek and Roman teachers of memory were of the opinion that it was better to teach the fundamental techniques to the student, then let him or her figure out their own mnemonics.  If you take the time to find your own mnemonics for the biliterals and only use mine when you get stuck then you will find that they stick more easily…and you will be practising all the elements of this extremely valuable technique.

When you have made all your memory images, you may find that some of them naturally fit together into scenes.  If you then draw these memory images into scenes, you can then walk through them in your imagination, pausing at each image; and by walking through the scenes the same way each time, you can be sure that you are keeping fresh every memory image.

However, it’s probably easier just to use flashcards.

Some of these images are quite disturbing: purposefully so.  The more outrageous the image, the easier it sticks in memory.  So there’s blood, drownings, and all sorts of weirdness to help things stick.

Vicious Vultures

A vulture and a quail chick are fighting over a particularly juicy leftover from some unfortunate dead animal: the spinal cord with some marrow seeping out of either side.  The vulture has hold of one end of the spinal cord in its cruel beak, and the plucky little quail chick has the other, and it is angrily squawking, flapping, and pulling at the spine, trying to tear it from the vulture’s grip.  spinal cord: Aw

A sneaky vulture and a wise owl are working together to sculpt an enormous wooden statue, and they each have a chisel gripped tightly in their beak.  The vulture is carving out the gaps of the toes between the statue’s foot, eyeing them up as they look quite tasty, and the wise owl is hollowing out the mouth.  chisel: Ab, mr

A hungry-looking vulture is trying to attack a crested ibis, which is standing on a placenta (one of the “unknown objects” that used to be called a placenta: it’s good to imagine a placenta, at least, because placentas are pretty memorable).  The vulture wants to steal the placenta to eat, but the ibis has already found it.  crested ibis: Ax

Later that day, the vulture comes across a placenta which, miraculously, papyrus reeds are budding and growing out of, and his hunger is sated.  budding papyrus clump: Ax

Rotten Reeds

A sharp reed is poking the feet of a quail chick.  The strange thing about this quail chick is that its feet are on human legs: they’re man-sized legs with a tiny little quail chick body at the top, and the quail chick is crying because this nasty little sharp reed is poking its left foot. marching legs: jw

A newborn buffalo is sitting in a thicket of reeds, with a quail chick perched on its back.  sitting newborn buffalo: jw

Behind the lamb, still in the reed thicket, is a giant beating heart, which hops excitedly about on two hairy hobbit feet. heart: jb

Behind the heart, still in the reed thicket, is a baby goat standing up, with four human legs instead of its own.  standing baby goat: jb

An enclosure made of reeds, like a little fort but open on the right, with an angry little owl hopping up and down inside it, holding a pair of crossed planks as a shield.  open enclosure/crossed planks: jm

Opposite the owl is a second enclosure, just like the first, but this one’s wall is made of jar stands with no jars.  Inside it is a bolt of cloth.  Next to this enclosure is a third one half the size, made of tiny jar stands and with a diddy little bolt of cloth. open enclosure, large or small, can also be: gs

A very strange reed raft is floating on water. Two pots are sitting on it, chilling out.  One of them has the gorgeous long legs of a lingerie model, the other is like a baby pot that hasn’t grown any legs yet, but it’s full of water and a tiny quail chick is down at the bottom in scuba gear.  The one with legs is fishing, and has snagged a fish with a gorgeous crest.  The raft is powered by a man jogging inside a hamster wheel, which turns its paddles. pot, pot with legs, fish with crest, jogging man: jn … pot can also be nw.

Another nasty sharp little reed is engaged in torturing the poor, innocent, wide-open eye of a cute little girl.  Instead of eyelashes the eye has the teeth of a mouth all around it, and a tongue lolls under the eyeball.  Every time the reed jabs it, it shrieks. eye: jr

Having enough of this sort of malarkey, the strange eye hires a tiny little gnome to fend off the reed.  He sits on the teeth on top of the eye, brandishing a knife.  Now, every time the reed tries to jab the eye, the little gnome lashes out with his knife, parrying the thrust. seated man with knife: jr

In a clearing in the reeds, a large number of ropes have been laid out in the hieroglyph letter H pattern.  A group of old women—fishwives, probably—are hard at work weaving the ropes into fishing nets.  As a warning not to disturb them, the severed muscular arms of men are stuck on sticks in a circle around them. fishing net: jH, aH.

A bundle of reeds, like part of a fasces, have been tied together and hung on a locked door over its large doorbolt like a sort of fascist Christmas wreath. bundle of reeds: jz

A piece of meat has been skewered by a reed, like a kebab, and a length of cloth has been wrapped round the bottom of the reed to make it easier to hold. piece of meat: js

An old man, bent over with age, has an enormous reed, like a bullrush, instead of a walking stick, and stands in an enormous basket, like a coracle.  old man with staff: jk

Next to that quail chick (jw, remember?) who’s grown human legs is a hobble with human legs.  A nasty little reed is having at the hobble’s feet, too. hobble with legs: jT

Amiable Arms

A wooden arm grasps a wooden column and uses it to poke a vulture. wooden column: aA

An arm is trying to rip a very long, horn-like toenail from a foot. horn: ab

An arm is grasping to reach a cormorant.  Every time it nearly catches it, the cormorant shifts up the hill it is standing on a little, out of arm’s reach. cormorant: aq

Two arms, both with a great deal of thread wrapped round them like spools.  A hand is pulling the thread off one arm; a cobra enthusiastically copies the hand on the other arm.  spool with or without thread: ad, aD

An arm feeds a mullet (type of fish) to an eager, hungry cobra. mullet: aD

Querulous Quail Chicks

A plucky little quail chick has got the upper hand over a big, nasty vulture by lassoing it right round its middle. lasso: wA

A second plucky little quail chick is stopping a long arm from grabbing it by poking it with a harpoon every time it comes within reach. harpoon: wa

A very regal-looking quail chick, with enormous horns, is sitting on a stool also made of horns.  horns: wp

A happy-looking quail chick is being given a lift from one side of a river to the other on the back of a frantically-swimming hare.  hare: wn

Pinned to the breast of the aforementioned quail chick is a lovely red rosette. rosette: wn

An aggressive quail chick is staring furiously at a fork-tailed swallow who lives in an enormous mouth.  Every time the mouth swallows, the fork-tailed swallow screeches at the quail chick, who screeches back. fork-tailed swallow: wr

A relaxed-looking quail chick sits on a seat which is piled high with cloths of all kinds.  Four more quail chicks stop by and pick up the arms of the seat and carry it about.  seat/portable seat: ws

Next to that seat is a second, non-portable seat, with a single bolt of cloth resting on many loaves of bread.  non-portable seat can also be: st

Next to the long arms being deprived of their thread two quail chicks clutch sticks in their mouths, which similarly have thread wound about them.  A hand and a cobra are also engaged in unravelling the thread from the sticks, just like they are from the arms.  thread on stick: wd, wD

Fabulous Feet

A jabiru bird (ba bird) has got itself long stilts ending in human feet in order to walk much higher than the many vultures surrounding it.  jabiru bird: bA

A leg is kicking a pot held by a nervous-looking vulture.  Every time it kicks the pot, a flame shoots out of it. pot with/without flame: bA

An enormous foot has tusklike toenails, at the ends of which are long pieces of lint from the socks it has been wearing.  The lengths of lint have assumed the shape of the H rope.  Tugging on the pieces of lint are tiny flapping, hovering quail chicks. tusk: bH, Hw

Sightly Stools

A pintail duck comes in to land on a stool.  As it touches down, a vulture, who had been dozing under the stool, squawks loudly in protest at the disturbance. pintail duck flying/coming in to land: pA

A conveyer belt of stools disappears into a house, whose door is a giant mouth that is munching happily on the poor wooden stools. house: pr

A sitting cat, whose head is a stool and whose whiskers are threads in the shape of the H rope. hindquarters of feline: pH

A bent leg is standing on a bow which rests on a stool. The stool’s legs are very curious: they are hands.  In this way it can scuttle from place to place without the leg having to move. bent leg/bow: pd

A second stool is next to the first, but this one has only a bow on it, no leg, and all three of its feet are the tails of cobras. bow can also be: pD

Outrageous Owls

An owl is attacking a vulture.  The owl has sickles for wings, and it is trying to slice the vulture up with them. sickle: mA

An owl is pouring milk from a milk jug into a cup made of a thick reed with the top sliced off. milk jug with handle: mj

An owl with long human arms is holding a loaf of bread out at a thicket of reeds, trying to entice whatever is in there to come out. arm holding bread: mj

Two owls are lying on two rafts in a canal.  One’s raft is made of reeds; the other raft is a comfortable-looking mouth, like a ring floatation device. canal: mj, mr

An owl and a quail chick are angrily shouting at each other, but cannot reach each other because there are three ditches full of water between them. three water signs: mw

Two owls are bravely dragging ship wreckage out of the water: one grabs a game board, the other a mace with a very flat head. game board, flat-headed mace: mn

An owl is hoeing a vegetable garden.  The plants are all like Audrey II, with mouths instead of flowers. hoe: mr

An owl is walking between two winding walls, like the great wall of china.  Beyond the left wall is sea; beyond the right wall are large Audrey II, with huge mouths. winding wall: nm, mr

An owl is cracking a whip, the tail of which is the shape of a H rope. whip: mH

An owl is tying the skins of three foxes together on a large cloth to catch the blood. three fox-skins: ms

An owl is enthusiastically eating the bleeding glans of a huge penis which is sandwiched between two equally enormous slices of bread. penis: mt

A vulture with a crooked neck (not the Egyptian vulture which is A) and big wings is sitting on top of the penis sandwich. Mut vulture: mt

An owl is trying to snatch a magic staff out of a hand whose fingers are covered in magical rings. staff: md

Wild Water

Two reeds (bullrushes) are getting very wet in the rain.  They are not in a river (i.e. water is above/before them, not after).  They each have human arms.  One of them is doing a gallic shrug and saying “pfft! c’est la vie,” the other is giving the thumbs-down sign with one arm and waggling his downturned, outstretched hand with the other and saying in a Cockney accent “it’s absolutely sickening.” arm with downturned hand, gallic shrug arms: nj

A quail chick is underwater, chipping away at a sculpture with an adze. adze: nw

A basket with no handles is swimming in a river with two lovely legs. basket with no handle: nb

An owl is underwater next to the quail chick, sharpening a butcher’s knife.  The knives he has finished sharpening he puts in a pot. butcher’s knife, butcher’s knife in pot: nm

Two rushes growing out of two different pools of water. two rushes: nn

A guinea fowl is suspended in a river, its legs tied with two H ropes to the riverbed, gasping for air. guinea fowl: nH

A huge tongue is producing so much spit it’s raining down like rainwater.  A cloth is positioned under the tongue to catch the sticky rain. tongue: ns

An upright spindle is stuck in the earth in the rain, round which is twined a cobra. upright spindle: nD

Mega Mouths

A lion is giving himself a big, toothy smile in a mirror as a load of quail chicks, unseen, slip away behind him. lion: rw

A hunter with a camouflage-painted face and a big, dangerous-looking mouth has some pieces of wood tied together with cloth gripped firmly between his teeth. pieces of wood tied together: rs

One H

A plough is sitting in its armchair in its house, smoking after a hard day’s work out in the fields, with its muddy shoes by the door. plough: hb

Rotten Ropes

An H rope disappears off into a clump of papyrus on the right.  Peering inside the clump, we discover a vulture with his foot caught in the twisted rope. clump of papyrus: HA

A load of twisted ropes dangle off a stool.  On top of them is a mason’s square. mason’s square (probably part of a ship, but easier to remember the sign this way): Hp

A twisted rope leads down a well.  At the bottom of the well is an owl, with the rope wrapped round his neck, beating some wet t-shirts with a club. well, launderer’s club: Hm

A very strange plant is floating in a cloth tube in the water: its flowers look like little twisted ropes. A peasant on the bank is trying to haul it in with a simple hoe, little more than a bent-back stick, to get a better look at it. generic plant, cloth tubes, simple hoe: Hn

Perfect Placentas

A lotus grows out of a placenta.  Its leaves are shells.  A vulture pecks one off and tries to eat it, crunching the shell. lotus, shell: xA

A placenta rises, like the sun, above a hill.  Its rays are arms. suns rays above hill: xa

A smug-looking placenta with arms and two pharaonic flails rides a quail-chick, which is struggling under the weight. arm with flail: xw

A placenta with a Min-emblem for a moustache is taking a tiny pet owl, on a cute little lead, out for a walk. min emblem: xm

A placenta with a chef’s hat is baking cup-cakes with sticks stuck in them. stick: xt

Unbelievable Udders

An oxyrhynchus fish is suckling on udders drooping off a papyrus scroll (to remind us of the species of fish, as the oxyrhynchus papyri are a famous series of  manuscripts), while its bloody tail is gnawed by a vulture. oxyrhynchus fish: XA

The headless corpse of a goat is floating in stagnant water, kept buoyant by its huge udders, which protrude up out of the water.  A disembodied pair of arms passes next to it in an invisible boat, which are moving by rowing with an oar. headless goat, arms with oar: Xn

A strip of udders lies on a bloody butcher’s block, with a huge smiling mouth licking its lips to the right, waiting to devour it. butcher’s block: Xr

Dastardly Doorbolts

A pintail duck has a key in his beak and is using it to unlock his door before a nasty vulture catches him.  The door, however, is to a rolled-up tent, so the duck couldn’t get in even if he unlocked it.  However, luckily the vulture has stepped in a hobble for cattle, and can’t move. pintail duck/rolled-up tent/cattle hobble: zA

A doorbolt is sitting on a stool in the middle of a threshing-floor filled with grain. threshing floor: zp

A severed head is lying on a path with low shrubs either side of it.  The head has twisted ropes for a moustache, which frames an enormous red Rocky Horror Show mouth. head front on, path with shrubs: Hr

Two water jars are tied together with a twisted rope.  A rusty door-bolt dangles from one jar; a brightly-coloured strip of cloth from the other. water jar: Hz, Hs

Next to these water jars are two upright maces with round heads, similarly tied together by twisted rope.  Two cobras are coiled round them.  One of the maces is more decorated than the other.  round-headed mace, both types: hD

Crazy Cloths

A lid with several strips of brightly-coloured cloth tied to it is removed from a box containing tiny little vultures. lid: sA

A fake sedge plant made of yellow dusters is pecked at by a confused little quail chick, who cannot understand why it doesn’t taste of sedge plant. sedge plant: sw

An arrowhead, with a cloth banner behind it saying “ARROWHEAD,” is freeze-framed at the moment at which it plunges into still, cool water.

A swab with a load of earwax on the tip is rested on a muslin cloth covering a basket. swab: sk

A surprised-looking cow with an arrow going in one ear and out the other wearing a tie, with a loaf of bread dangling from the bottom of it.  cowskin with arrow: st

A magician wears a shoulder-knot instead of a cape, with many strips of brightly-coloured cloth attached to it.  Someone has put him in leg irons (hobble).  shoulder-knot: sT

A pair of crossed sticks with brightly-coloured cloths dangling from them have been stuck in the ground.  A cobra gazes at them, hypnotized by the colours. crossed sticks: sD

Limpid Lakes

A vulture is having a bath at the right end of a lake of lilies. pool of lilies: SA

In the lake next to the previous one, a quail chick is sunning itself at the far end of the lake.  Two slave quail chicks stand over it with feathers for shade and breeze. feather: Sw

A third lake has grown legs and is trampling an owl. lake on legs: Sm

A lake is pouring its water onto two ribbons, one like a lapel ribbon, the other like a ribbon that has been curled up and is uncurling slightly. coil of rope (2 types): Sn

A lake has a long strip of cloth at the right end.  The two ends of the cloth are on the bank, the loop in the middle is in the water, lower than the bank. coil with loop downwards: Ss

To the left, a lake.  To the right, a hand with magical rings filling a water skin from the lake’s water. water skin: Sd

Happy Hills

Irrigation channels are running down a hill into the Nile. irrigation channel: qn

A hill on the left, with a bone harpoon sticking out of it with a long, brightly-coloured streamer of cloth attached going off to the right. bone harpoon: qs

A hill on the left, again.  This time a hand with brightly-coloured rings is holding a builder’s level to the hill.  Nope, it’s not level! builder’s level: qd

Bewildering Baskets

A vulture with two human arms is holding a wickerwork basket over its head. two arms: kA

A censer (thurible) is swinging from a chain dangling from a basket nailed to the ceiling, hanging over a stool which is getting covered with clouds of frankincense. censer: kp

An owl is balancing a basket on its head, into which a malting crocodile is depositing its scales. crocodile scales: km

Jumping Jar-Stands

A goose, its back opened up like a jar, is perched on a jar-stand which has human feet. goose: gb

A black ibis with a jar on its head is perched on a jar-stand, looking down smugly at an owl because it’s so much taller than it. black ibis: gm

Beserk Bread

A kiln is sitting in the middle of a plain of sand mixed with rich, black earth.  The kiln is being used to bake pizzas by a vulture who stands to the right of frame with a big pizza ladle. kiln, land with sand: tA

A pestle with a leather strap is used to crush bread through a grid of reeds. pestle: tj

A decapitated head, in profile facing left, with a dagger stuck in the top whose hilt is a loaf of bread.  Blood drips down from the dagger wound and out of its neck.  It is sitting on a stool. dagger, head in profile: tp

A loaf of bread has grown arms and is pulling an owl sitting on a sled, right of frame. sled: tm

A horrendous hobble

A baby duckling, left of frame, has been shackled by one foot to a vulture, right. duckling: TA

Hot Hands

An arm, right of frame, holds a little pyramid, centre frame (really a bread mould, but easier to remember by imagining it’s a little pyramid).  A much-bejewelled hand grasps a reed that is growing out of the top of the pyramid.  arm with bread mould/bread mould: dj

A hoopoe (look up the bird if you don’t have a clear image) is sitting on a big human foot.  The human’s bejewelled hand reaches down from above to tickle its feather afro.  The hand has a cobra curling round it. hoopoe: db, Db

Cool Cobras

A cobra is using its coils to turn a fire drill round and round, trying to start a fire.  A worried-looking vulture clutches the fire drill. fire drill: DA

A huge mountain with a giant cobra coiled round it, its face at the top.  It is looking down, like a dragon guarding a pile of treasure, at a brave little quail chick that is wearing a knight’s armour. mountain: Dw

A cobra is coiled round a bundle of flax that is sticking out of a mouth, bottom of frame. bundle of flax: Dr

A cobra is coiled round a djed column, which is held by a jewel-encrusted hand. djed column: Dd

Author: Michael Sheppard

Michael Sheppard edits the Quareia course. He is also writing a book on Ancient Egyptian magic.

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