Hieratic (//; Ancient Greek: ἱερατικά, romanized: hieratiká, lit. 'priestly') is a cursive writing system used for Ancient Egyptian, and the principal script used to write that language from its development in the 33rd century BCE until the rise of Demotic in the mid 1st millennium BCE. It was primarily written in ink with a reed pen on papyrus.
In the second century, the term hieratic was first used by Clement of Alexandria. It derives from the Greek for "priestly writing" (Koinē Greek: γράμματα ἱερατικά), as at that time, hieratic was used only for religious texts and literature, as had been the case for the previous eight and a half centuries.
Hieratic developed as a cursive form of hieroglyphic script in the Naqada III period, roughly 3200–3000 BCE. Although handwritten printed hieroglyphs continued to be used in some formal situations, such as manuscripts of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, noncursive hieroglyphic script became largely restricted to monumental inscriptions.
Hieratic was used into the Hellenistic period. Around 660 BCE, the even more-cursive Demotic script arose in northern Egypt and replaced hieratic and the southern shorthand known as abnormal hieratic for most mundane writing, such as personal letters and mercantile documents. Hieratic continued to be used by the priestly class for religious texts and literature into the third century BCE.
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 Græco-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, stone or 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 was discovered 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 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.
Hieratic is often present in any given period in two forms, a highly ligatured, cursive script 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.
The Unicode standard considers hieratic characters to be font variants of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the two scripts have been unified. Hieroglyphs themselves were added to the Unicode Standard in October 2009 with the release of version 5.2. To date, there is no known Unicode font with hieratic.
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