The Egyptian Pictorial Metaphysical Images/Script
The Ancient Egyptians’ pictorial system is commonly called ‘hieroglyphs’, which comprises a large number of pictorial symbols. The word hieroglyph means ‘holy script’ (hieros = holy, glyphein = impress). Hieroglyphic writing was in use in Egyptian temples until about 400 CE.
Each pictorial image is worth a thousand words and represents that function or principle on all levels simultaneously, from the simplest, most obvious physical manifestation of that function to the most abstract and metaphysical. This symbolic language represents a wealth of physical, physiological, psychological and spiritual ideas in the presented symbols.
The metaphorical and symbolic concept of the Egyptian hieroglyphs was unanimously acknowledged by all early writers on the subject, such as Plutarch, Diodorus, Clement, etc.
- In his treatise on Isis and Osiris,which is one of the most instructive sources for our understanding of Egyptian religious ideas, Plutarch mentions the hieroglyphs and their metaphorical and allegorical significance, in several places. In his Moralia, Vol. V, Plutarch states:
“The babe is the symbol of coming into the world and the aged man the symbol of departing from it, and by a hawk they indicate God, by the fish hatred, and by the hippopotamus shamelessness.”
Plutarch, like ALL classical writers of his era, emphasized metaphysical intent as the sole principle of hieroglyphic writing, which is a pictorial expression of divine ideas and sacred knowledge.
Plutarch listed an extensive number of distinguished Greeks who visited Egypt at different times. Among them, he mentioned Pythagoras, whose admiration and dependence on ‘the symbolic and occult teachings of the Egyptians’ is emphasized and illustrated by a comparison of the allegorical method used in the so-called Pythagorean precepts and ‘the writings that are called hieroglyphs’.
- Chairemon lived in Alexandria before he went to Rome, where he was the tutor of Nero from 49 CE onward. Chairemon described 19 hieroglyphic signs in his books, followed by an explanation of the allegorical significance of each.
- Diodorus of Sicily, in his Book I, stated:
“Their—the Egyptians’—writing does not express the intended concept by means of syllables joined one to another, but by means of the significance of the objects that have been copied, and by its figurative meaning that has been impressed upon the memory by practice. For instance they draw the picture of a hawk, a crocodile … and the like. Now the hawk signifies to them everything which happens swiftly, since this animal is practically the swiftest of winged creatures. And the concept portrayed is then transferred, by the appropriate metaphorical transfer, to all swift things and to everything to which swiftness is appropriate, very much as if they had been named. And the crocodile is a symbol of all that is evil.”
- Clement of Alexandria,in about 200 CE, gave an account of the hieroglyphs. The metaphorical and allegorical qualities of the hieroglyphs are at the same time explicitly mentioned, and his examples are expounded in the same symbolic way as those of earlier writers.
- The best description came from Plotinus, who wrote in The Enneads [Vol. V-VI]:
“The wise men of Egypt, either by scientific or innate knowledge, and when they wished to signify something wisely, did not use the forms of letters which follow the order of words and propositions and imitate sounds and the enunciations of philosophical statements, but by drawing images and inscribing in their temples one particular image of each particular thing, they manifested the non-discursiveness of the intelligible world, that is, that every image is a kind of knowledge and wisdom and is a subject of statements, all together in one, and not discourse or deliberation. But [only] afterwards [others] discovered, starting from it in its concentrated unity, a representation in something else, already unfolded and speaking it discursively and giving the reasons why things are like this, so that, because what has come into existence is so beautifully disposed, if anyone knows how to admire it he expresses his admiration of how this wisdom, which does not itself possess the reasons why substance is as it is, gives them to the things which are made according to it.”
Egyptian hieroglyphics may appear to be an unnecessary burden that the Egyptian priests have “invented” to maintain secrets away from other people. The fact of the matter is that such perceptions are far from the truth, on all accounts. Explanations will unfold to show that the concept of pictorial images in the Egyptian Hieroglyphics is the common denominator between all human beings everywhere and the divine forces of the universe.
[An excerpt from The Egyptian Hieroglyph: Metaphysical Language by Moustafa Gadalla]