Let’s Learn Hieroglyphs 1: Textbooks.

If you’re interested in Egyptian magic, at some point you’re going to have to start learning hieroglyphs.  This series of blog posts will help you on your way.

Why should I learn hieroglyphs?

As a magician interested in the magic and mysticism of Ancient Egypt, you want as little distance as possible between you and the primary sources.  In many ways Egyptian is rather a gnomic language; being able to engage with the original documents themselves removes a pretty large layer of interpretation that is otherwise often quite hard to penetrate, especially in older translations.

Speaking magically, learning hieroglyphs will help you engage with the Mysteries as they flowed out of Egypt—engagement that sometimes happens in the darnedest of ways.  Those little squiggles have power,  and playing with them will do things to you. Learning hieroglyphs will open a different octave of communication between you and the texts you’re studying, just through the act of drawing and reading the individual signs.

What textbook should I get?

At the moment there is really only one textbook for English-speakers that can be recommended for serious students who want to learn hieroglyphs, and it’s James P. Allen’s Middle Egyptian: An Introduction To The Language And Culture Of Hieroglyphs. This is the most up-to-date course on the language available at the moment, and it is written by a man whose translations I have found to be more immediately accessible from a mystical and magical perspective than any other Egyptologist’s. So get it: second-hand copies are available on Amazon for about a tenner.  It has probably never been cheaper, or easier, to learn hieroglyphs.

Later you will need to buy a dictionary: I’ve suggested a couple at the end of this post.

This series will not focus directly on teaching you the Egyptian language; you’ve got James P. Allen for that.  Rather I will be sharing with you some memory techniques that should help speed you up a bit, as well as various other observations which should hopefully make your studies easier. In the next post we’ll learn the hieroglyphic monoliteral signs together, using a mnemonic technique that you can then apply for yourself when you come to learn the biliteral and triliteral signs.

How to read expensive books on the cheap

I’m rather aware that many of my posts so far have ended with links to buy rather expensive books on Amazon.  Here are a few hacks to save you some money, in case you’re not aware of them.

Firstly, only buy new if you can’t get second-hand for less, and secondly, do your own searches: the book I link to will be the cheapest edition I could find, but things change all the time.  Copy the title, put it in Amazon’s search bar, and see what you get back.

Alternatively, see whether you can persuade your local library to buy the book or get it in stock, then just borrow it.  Most of the books I suggest you read will not be in high demand, so you’ve a good chance of being able to keep renewing them fairly indefinitely.

Also, I tend to keep a list of the books I’m after, then waft it under the noses of my beloved family members near Christmas and my birthday—and I beg them to buy only a really cheap second-hand copy of whatever book they want to get me.  Generally a really cheap copy will be available of at least one of the books you’ve been jonesing for, which makes for a gift far more valuable to you than it is expensive for them.

Suggested textbooks and reference books

Middle Egyptian: An Introduction To The Language And Culture Of Hieroglyphs

This is easily the textbook of choice for an English-speaker who wants to learn Middle Egyptian, the most useful phase of the Egyptian language to know well.  I imagine that a bright thirteen-year-old would be able to work their way through it.

Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (Egyptology: Griffith Institute)

Faulkner’s dictionary is the one you want.  Nothing else comes close in English.  Unfortunately—and incredibly—it appears to have just gone out of print.  Either snap up a copy before it’s too late, or hope it comes back in print soon.

Hieroglyphic Dictionary: A Vocabulary of the Middle Egyptian Language

Bill Petty’s dictionary is more modern and much more affordable than Faulkner’s—it’s about ten quid—but it is quite a bit smaller.  That is not necessarily a bad thing: you can keep it in your handbag/manbag for reference when you go round museums.  Get this if you’re not sure your New Year’s resolution to learn Egyptian is going to stick!

Egyptian Grammar (Egyptology: Griffith Institute)

You buy Gardiner’s book once you’ve worked your way through Allen’s because it explains a few things in greater detail than any other source, and you get a fantastic sign list…which becomes increasingly useful.

Author: Michael Sheppard

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

2 thoughts on “Let’s Learn Hieroglyphs 1: Textbooks.”

  1. Hi Michael,

    I just put in an Interlibrary Loan request for Middle Egyptian. (So other readers, if your library doesn’t have the book they might be able to get it from another agency for you. ) Hopefully this book will help me understand the hieroglyphs I found on a modern papyrus painting of an Egyptian boat brought back from the middle-east that I bought at a yard sale.

    Also, thank you for your efforts and labors at editing the Quareia course. As one of the students of that course I am much obliged.

    1. Hi Justin,
      That’s the way to do it! With a bit of luck you’ll be able to continually renew. Take good notes and develop a good simplified hieroglyphic hand that is quick to write: Faulkner’s handwriting is the one to emulate.
      If your inscription is one of the many standard formula ones then you should fairly quickly be able to translate it. If it’s unusual then you’ll have to wait until you’ve got through the delight that is the Egyptian verb… 😉

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