Egyptian Culture, Science, and Religion
Writing evolved in Egypt and in Mesopotamia at about the same time, but the two systems were different. Egyptian writing is known as hieroglyphics and in its earliest form consisted of lifelike pictures representing specific objects or actions. By a process similar to word association certain hieroglyphs acquired additional meanings, and by about 2700 B.C., seventy-eight of them were being used phonetically to represent consonants or groups of consonants. As in the Semitic languages, Egyptian writing had no vowels. Symbols representing both the object or idea and its pronunciation were often used simultaneously to avoid confusion, and spelling was not standardized. Though Egyptian can be read vertically or horizontally in any direction, the hieroglyphic figures always face the beginning of the line.
Hieroglyphics were used primarily for inscriptions and were typically inscribed on stone. Correspondence, contracts, and other everyday documents were produced by professional scribes writing with reed pens on a paper made from papyrus fiber. The written script, known as hieratic, was based on hieroglyphics but became more cursive over time. Most of Egyptian literature, including poems and popular romances as well as learned treatises, was circulated in this form.
Egyptian mathematics were in general less sophisticated than those of Mesopotamia. The need for land surveys after each annual flood forced the Egyptians to become skilled measurers and the construction of the pyramids reveals an impressive grasp of geometry. The Egyptians never developed a place-value system of notation, so a bewildering combination of symbols was needed to express numbers that were not multiples of ten. Ancient Egyptians could multiply and divide only by doubling, but this appears to have been sufficient for their needs. They understood squares and square roots, and they knew, at an early date, the approximate value of .. The Greeks adopted, and passed on to other European peoples, the Egyptians’ use of ten as the numerical base.
Though few cultures have devoted more attention to religion and philosophy or produced a larger body of speculative literature, the ancient Egyptians maintained ideas that are difficult to describe. This is in part because they saw no need to demonstrate the logical connection between different statements. Asserting principles or retelling illustrative myths was enough; analysis was left to the wit or imagination of the reader. If an oral tradition supplemented these utterances or provided a methodological guide to their interpretation, it has been lost. The surviving literature is therefore rich, complex, and allusive, but to literal-minded moderns, full of contradictions.
The earliest Egyptian gods and goddesses were nature spirits peculiar to a village or region. They were usually portrayed as animals, such as the vulture goddess Nekhbet who became the patroness of Upper Egypt and her Lower Egyptian counterpart, the cobra goddess Buto. The effigies of both adorned the pharaoh’s crown as a symbol of imperial unity. This animal imagery may reflect totemic beliefs of great antiquity, but in time the deities acquired human bodies while retaining their animal heads.
Eventually, new deities emerged who personified abstract qualities. Ma’at, the principle of justice and equilibrium, became the goddess of good order; Sia was the god of intelligence. None of this involved the displacement of other gods; the Egyptians, like other societies with polytheistic religions, sought to include and revere every conceivable aspect of the divine.