AskDefine | Define hieratic

Dictionary Definition

hieratic adj
1 associated with the priesthood or priests; "priestly (or sacerdotal) vestments"; "hieratic gestures" [syn: priestly, hieratical, sacerdotal]
2 written or belonging to a cursive form of ancient Egyptian writing; "hieratic Egyptian script"
3 adhering to fixed types or methods; highly restrained and formal; "the more hieratic sculptures leave the viewer curiously unmoved" n : a cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphics; used especially by the priests [syn: hieratic script]

User Contributed Dictionary



hieraticus; from hieratikos, from hierateia (priesthood), from hierasthai (be a priest), from hiereus (priest), from hieros (sacred).
  • Use pertaining to the Egyptian writing system originates with the Greek phrase γράμματα ἱερατικά (grammata hieratika; literally "priestly writing"), which was first used by Saint Clement of Alexandria in the 2nd century AD, as at that time hieratic was used only for religious texts, as had been the case for the previous thousand years.


  1. of or pertaining to priests, especially pharaonic priests of ancient Egypt; sacerdotal.
  2. of or pertaining to the cursive writing system developed by ancient Egyptian priests alongside the hieroglyphic system.
  3. (said of a work of art, literature, etc.) extremely stylized, restrained or formal; adhering to fixed types or methods; severe in emotional import.
    Some of the more hieratic sculptures leave the viewer curiously unmoved.


  1. a writing system used in pharaonic Egypt that was developed alongside the hieroglyphic system, primarily written in ink with a reed brush on papyrus, allowing scribes to write quickly without resorting to the time consuming hieroglyphs.

Extensive Definition

Hieratic is a cursive writing system used in pharaonic Egypt that developed alongside the hieroglyphic system, to which it is intimately related. It was primarily written in ink with a reed brush on papyrus, allowing scribes to write quickly without resorting to the time consuming hieroglyphs. The word hieratic derives from the Greek phrase (grammata hieratika; literally "priestly writing"), which was first used by Saint Clement of Alexandria in the second century AD, as at that time hieratic was used only for religious texts, as had been the case for the previous thousand years.


Hieratic was first used during the Protodynastic Period, developing alongside the more formal hieroglyphic script. It is an error to view hieratic as a derivative of hieroglyphic writing. The earliest texts from Egypt are produced with ink and brush, with no indication their signs are descendants of hieroglyphs. True monumental hieroglyphs carved in stone did not appear until the 1st Dynasty, well after hieratic had been established as a scribal practice. The two writing systems, therefore, are related, parallel developments, rather than a single linear one.
Hieratic was used throughout the pharaonic period and into the Graeco-Roman period. However, after about 660 BC, the Demotic script (and later Greek) replaced hieratic in most secular writing, but hieratic continued to be used by the priestly class for several more centuries, at least into the third century AD.

Oldest remaining surgical document

The Edwin Smith papyrus is the world's oldest surviving surgical document. Written in hieratic script in ancient Egypt approximately 1600 BC, the text describes anatomical observations and the examination, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of forty-eight types of medical problems in exquisite detail.
Among the treatments described are closing wounds with sutures, preventing and curing infection with honey and moldy bread, stopping bleeding with raw meat, and immobilization of head and spinal cord injuries. Translated in 1930, the document reveals the sophistication and practicality of ancient Egyptian medicine. Plate 6 and 7 of the papyrus, pictured here, discuss facial trauma.

Uses and materials

Through most of its long history, hieratic was used for writing administrative documents, accounts, legal texts, and letters, as well as mathematical, medical, literary, and religious texts. During the Graeco-Roman period, when Demotic (and later Greek) had become the chief administrative script, hieratic was limited primarily to religious texts. In general, hieratic was much more important than hieroglyphs throughout Egypt's history, being the script used in daily life. It was also the writing system first taught to students, knowledge of hieroglyphs being limited to a small minority who were given additional training. In fact, it is often possible to detect errors in hieroglyphic texts that came about due to a misunderstanding of an original hieratic text.
Most often, hieratic script was written in ink with a reed brush on papyrus, wood, or stone and pottery ostraca. Thousands of limestone ostraca have been found at the site of Deir al-Madinah, revealing an intimate picture of the lives of common Egyptian workmen. Besides papyrus, stone, ceramic shards, and wood, there are hieratic texts on leather rolls, though few have survived. There are also hieratic texts written on cloth, especially on linen used in mummification. There are some hieratic texts inscribed on stone, a variety known as lapidary hieratic; these are particularly common on stelae from the 22nd Dynasty.
During the late 6th Dynasty, hieratic was sometimes incised into mud tablets with a stylus, similar to cuneiform. About five hundred of these tablets have been discovered in the governor's palace at Ayn Asil (Balat), and a single example from the site of Ayn al-Gazzarin, both in the Dakhla Oasis. At the time the tablets were made, Dakhla was located far from centers of papyrus production. These tablets record inventories, name-lists, accounts, and approximately fifty letters. Of the letters, many are internal letters that were circulated within the palace and the local settlement, but others were sent from other villages in the oasis to the governor.


Hieratic script (unlike cursive hieroglyphs) always reads from right to left. Initially hieratic could be written in either columns or horizontal lines, but after the 12th Dynasty (specifically during the reign of Amenemhat III), horizontal writing became the standard. This may have been to prevent the scribe's hand from smudging his work, but it also may have been to facilitate easier consultation of a rolled document, as well as increasing writing speed.
Hieratic is noted for its cursive nature and use of ligatures for a number of characters. Hieratic script also uses a much more standardized orthography than hieroglyphs; texts written in the latter often had to take into account extra-textual concerns, such as decorative uses and religious concerns that were not present in, say, a tax receipt. There are also some signs that are unique to hieratic, though Egyptologists have invented equivalent hieroglyphic forms for hieroglyphic transcriptions and typesetting. Several hieratic characters have diacritical additions so that similar signs could easily be distinguished. Particularly complicated signs could be written with a single stroke.
Hieratic is often present in any given period in two forms, a highly ligatured, cursive businesshand used for administrative documents, and a broad uncial bookhand used for literary, scientific, and religious texts. These two forms can often be significantly different from one another. Letters, in particular, used very cursive forms for quick writing, often with large numbers of abbreviations for formulaic phrases, similar to shorthand.
A highly cursive form of hieratic known as "Abnormal Hieratic" was used in the Theban area from the second half of the 20th dynasty until the beginning of the 26th Dynasty. It derives from the script of Upper Egyptian administrative documents and was used primarily for legal texts, land leases, letters, and other texts. This type of writing was superseded by Demotic—a Lower Egyptian scribal tradition—during the 26th Dynasty when Demotic was established as a standard administrative script throughout a re-unified Egypt.


Hieratic has had influence on a number of other writing systems. The most obvious is that on Demotic, its direct descendant. Related to this are the Demotic signs of the Meroitic script and the borrowed Demotic characters used in the Coptic alphabet and Old Nubian.
Outside of the Nile Valley, many of the signs used in the Byblos syllabary were apparently borrowed from Old Kingdom hieratic signs. It is also known that early Hebrew used hieratic numerals.



  • Old Hieratic Paleography
  • Textes et langages de l’Égypte pharaonique: Cent cinquante années de recherches 1822–1972; Hommage à Jean-François Champollion Vol. 1.
  • Hieratische Paläographie: Die aegyptische Buchschrift in ihrer Entwicklung von der Fünften Dynastie bis zur römischen Kaiserzeit 4 vols.
  • Hieratische Lesestücke für den akademischen Gebrauch. 3 vols.
  • Papyrus
  • Les Tablettes à écrire de l'Antiquité à l'époque moderne
  • Le palais des gouverneurs de l’époque de Pépy II: Les sanctuaires de ka et leurs dépendances
  • Untersuchungen zur späthieratischen Buchschrift
  • The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt Vol. 3.
  • Hieratische Paläographie der nicht-literarischen Ostraka der 19. und 20. Dynastie
hieratic in Bulgarian: Йератическа писменост
hieratic in Czech: Hieratické písmo
hieratic in German: Hieratische Schrift
hieratic in Estonian: Hieraatiline kiri
hieratic in Spanish: Hierático
hieratic in French: Écriture hiératique
hieratic in Galician: Hierático
hieratic in Korean: 이집트 신관문자
hieratic in Italian: Scrittura ieratica
hieratic in Hebrew: כתב היראטי
hieratic in Georgian: იერატიკული დამწერლობა
hieratic in Dutch: Hiëratisch schrift
hieratic in Japanese: ヒエラティック
hieratic in Norwegian Nynorsk: Hieratisk skrift
hieratic in Polish: Hieratyka
hieratic in Portuguese: Hierático
hieratic in Russian: Иератическое письмо
hieratic in Slovak: Hieratické písmo
hieratic in Serbo-Croatian: Hijeratsko pismo
hieratic in Finnish: Hieraattinen kirjoitus
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