So you’ve got your textbook and have reached the point where you have to start memorizing signs. In this post we will learn together the monoliterals, and the order of the alphabet used in dictionaries of Ancient Egyptian. To do this we will use two different mnemonic techniques which you can adapt for many different purposes.
So turn to page 14 in your textbook (I have the first edition; it may be a different number in yours) and let’s memorize some hieroglyphs!
The main mnemonic technique we’ll use here is to link the sound of the monoliteral to what its hieroglyph represents. Sometimes we’ll also try to “see” letters in the hieroglyphs. For many signs we can use several different mnemonics to increase the chances of remembering what they represent. This is how I memorized these letters back when I was a boy, and the fact that I remember the method I used as well as the letters shows that it’s pretty straightforward, but effective.
Memorizing the monoliterals
What noise does a vulture make? It’s a harsh “aaa, aaa” sound. That’s how you remember it’s an a. You remember the shape of the transliteration letter because it’s kind of crooked, like a vulture walking about. If you look at the sign, especially handwritten versions of it, you can see a capital A in it—and indeed this is quite possibly where our letter A comes from, via Phoenician.
I is a reed leaf because it looks like a letter I.
Y is a double reed leaf because if you think about it, just as a W is a double U, a Y is a double I.
Second a is an arm because arm begins with A. And you remember the shape of the transliteration sign because it’s nice and round, like giving someone a hug; quite unlike that nasty bent symbol that symbolizes a hungry, crooked vulture.
W is a quail chick because “waah, waah” is the sound babies make, and this is the only baby in the monoliterals; also your mouth makes the shape of a tiny quail chick beak if you scrunch it into a w sound. The coiled rope looks like a W that’s been turned on its side and the first two of its arms joined together in a curve.
B is a leg because it looks like a lower-case b if you turn it backwards (how you will mostly see it in hieroglyphic writing, which is more commonly written right to left). You can also bash things with your foot.
P is a stool because…well, this one I never came up with a good mnemonic for. Try “p is the stool Ptah sat on when he was making the universe.” If you can come up with a better one, you must, must, must tell us all in the comments below!
Edited to add: in the comments below, Mehen offered a much better mnemonic for P:
I’ve been reluctant to post this, as it is a bit crass, but I have zero issues remembering “p” now with this mnemonic: “p” for poop which is a commonly used term for stool or one is poopin’ a stool. A bit of a primary school way of remembrance, but guaranteed to stick in your brain now!
Also see below in the comments for other good alternative mnemonics by Mehen.
F is a horned viper for two reasons: it’s the sound it makes when it spits poison at you, and it looks like a letter F turned ninety degrees to its left—again, quite possibly where we got our letter from. The viper’s horns are the two prongs of the letter F.
M is an owl for two reasons: because it’s a mother owl (don’t ask me why, but this worked for me), and because the letter M is right there on the owl’s face: it’s either the eyebrows and the beak, or the ears and the side of its face. The “unknown object” that also represents M looks like an M that has lost its central prong and is lying down throwing a tantrum because of this fact.
N is water for two reasons: firstly it’s the Nile, and secondly it’s a whole series of Ns joined together to make the water wave the hieroglyph represents. The crown is an N because…this is another one I could never come up with a good explanation for, but if you rotate it left a bit, you can kind of project an N onto it: the back of the crown is the diagonal line joining the two uprights together.
R is a mouth because a mouth is where your tongue lives, and your tongue is what you use to make a “rrrr” sound. It’s rude to stick out your tongue, so you just draw the mouth instead to avoid offending anyone (not true, but makes it easier to remember the letter).
H is an enclosure because it almost looks like an H gone wrong: the bar has ended up joined to the bottom of one of the uprights instead of going across.
Dotted H is a rope because it’s a whole series of Hs stacked on top of each other, and the spaces in the rope look like dots.
“unknown object” is an H with an arc under it because it’s another mutant H: the two uprights have curved and joined together to form a circle, and the bar has been copied many times. This h has an arc under it to remind us of the curve of the circle enclosing all those bars.
Belly and udder is an h with a straight line under it because…again, I never came up with a good mnemonic for this; I just remembered that it had a bar under it because this sign has a long bar going right the way through it, unlike any of the other Hs.
Z is a doorbelt because Z is the last letter, the end, of the (English) alphabet: that’s the end, so lock up.
S is a bolt of cloth because it’s effectively a letter S whose lower curve someone has straightened out. Or, it’s an S that’s missing its lower curve.
Shin is a pool because “sh” is the sound a splash makes.
Q is a hill because you can run down it very quickly. (Again, not great, but I never came up with anything better and strangely enough it seemed to stick pretty easily. Please leave a comment if you can come up with something better.)
K is a basket because the curve of the basket is like the curve of the letter C, which has the same sound. Alternatively: K is a basket because someone has joined the two legs of the K together with a curve to create the basket shape.
G is a jar-stand because you can sort of project the letter G onto it: it’s quite G-shaped already. So is that bag: it’s like the top half of an old copperplate lower-case g.
T is a bread-loaf because you can have Tea and cake.
Second t is a hobble because it’s a T that has tripped up as it was coming out of your mouth: tch!
D is a hand because a capital D, stretched out and reversed (as you usually see it, written right-to-left), looks like the hieroglyph. The fingers follow the D’s curve, and where the hand is chopped off is the upright of the D.
Second d is a cobra because it looks like someone has tried to write the letter J and failed: it’s turned on its side and the cross-bar is misshapen.
Some of those mnemonics are rubbish!
I know, I know…but enough of them stuck for me that I could remember the remaining three or four letters by rote easily enough. But let’s try and improve this system: if you can come up with better mnemonics for these signs, please share them in the comments section below.
Memorizing the order of the alphabet
Knowing the monoliterals very well is important; knowing the order in which they are printed in an Egyptian dictionary is nearly equally important because of how much more quickly you will be able to look up words.
To memorize the order of the Egyptian alphabet we will use a mnemonic technique that is a sort of bare-bones memory palace. I got the idea for this from the memory palace method I use to remember the signs of the zodiac and various other information pertaining to them, which is a rowdy dinner-party with the twelve personified signs of the zodiac sitting at a round table. In keeping with the rather more respectable Egyptian hieroglyphs, though, we’ll imagine the action taking place on a clock face.
There are twenty-four sounds represented in the Egyptian alphabet. That means they will fit neatly onto a clock face, two signs per number. By morphing pairs of signs into the appropriate numbers, you can quickly and easily remember the order of the alphabet. Here we go…
Now, I know what you’re thinking: some of those look awfully clunky. But believe it or not this system actually works.
The shape of the number 1 is given by a vulture perched on a reed-leaf.
Number 2 is a bent arm delicately holding a tiny quail-chick.
3 is a leg resting on a footstool (you have to imagine the 3 as the wooden supports of the footstool: clunky, but it works well enough for our purposes.
4 is the two creatures whose heads look like the number four: the owl and the horned viper.
5 is water and tongue morphed together to make the number.
6, similarly, is the first two aitches morphed together to make the number.
7 is a bit of a kludge, but it works: the “unknown symbol,” which when I was a nipper Egyptologists insisted was a placenta, is stuck on the end of the 7, which is a bent udder.
8 has both its windows filled in by bolts: a doorbolt and a bolt of cloth.
9 is a horrid kludge but again it works: imagine a hill coming out of a pond, and an enormous, Sesame Street-style number nine joining it.
10 is formed of the basket on its side and the jar-stand the right way up.
11 is the hobble with a bread-loaf making the top line of the first 1.
12 is the hand standing on its fingertips and the cobra pretending to be 2.
Now these images won’t stick unless you build them up in your mind and run through them pretty regularly. Which brings us on to…
Actually remembering these mnemonics
These mnemonics won’t stick unless you repeat them for a bit. At some point the knowledge of what the letters represent, and the order in which they come, will be secure in your head, and then you can jettison the mnemonic like the first stage of a rocket. But before you reach those airy heights, you need to fuel the rocket. And you do that with effective repetition.
It’s really important to go over these lists and remember ‘why’ such-and-such is such-and-such; and the more you can use your imagination, really building the images (and sounds) up in your mind, the better.
In the case of the clock-face technique, it’s best to imagine an enormous clock and stop, in your mind, at each number to really examine it. Really build the pictures up in your mind, and revisit them several times a day for the first few days.
Once you get used to doing this, you’ll start to experience a sort of mental ‘click’ when an item you need to remember secures itself properly in your memory; you’ll find exactly the mnemonic that lets you recall the memory.
In the next installment of this series, we will look at how to remember the biliteral and triliteral signs.
The Art of Memory
Congratulations, you have just used some truly ancient techniques to remember the first twenty-four symbols of a truly ancient system of writing. According to Dame Frances Yates, all of whose books are goldmines for magicians, The Art of Memory, as it was called, may have originated in Ancient Egypt.
I would guess that memory techniques must have been discovered and rediscovered many times and in many different places over the course of human history, so that even if the Egyptians did not literally teach the Greeks how to remember things, they probably used rather similar methods.
Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus recounts an Egyptian tale that, depending on whether you sympathize with Thoth or Amun, links hieroglyphs either with the art of memory or the art of forgetfulness:
Soc. At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
—Plato, The Phaedrus
Before the invention of printing, a trained memory was of vital importance. Based on a technique of impressing ‘places’ and ‘images’ on the mind, the ancient Greeks created an elaborate memory system which in turn was inherited by the Romans and passed into the European tradition, to be revived, in occult form, during the Renaissance. This book is not intended as a training guide for your memory, but the techniques discussed in it will give you a great deal to chew on and try out for yourself. For a magician, pretty much any book by Frances Yates is worth its weight in gold, really.
This book contains one of the earliest lessons on the Art of Memory, and it is worth a read. The Rhetorica ad Herrenium was traditionally attributed to Cicero (106 43 BCE), but most recent editors attribute it to an unknown author. The Loeb Classical Library is fantastic because it lets you read ancient Greek and Roman texts in the original language, beside an English translation to refer to when you get stuck. Loebs tend to be rather expensive, so keep the ones you want in your favourites list and pounce at once when a cheap one comes up second-hand.