Hieratic is a cursive writing system, used in the provenance of the pharaohs in Egypt and Nubia, 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.
In the 2nd century AD, the term hieratic was first used by Saint Clement of Alexandria. It derives from the Greek phrase γράμματα ἱερατικά (grammata hieratika; literally "priestly writing"), as at that time hieratic was used only for religious texts, as had been the case for the previous thousand years.
Hieratic can also be an adjective meaning "of or associated with sacred persons or offices; sacerdotal."
In the Proto-Dynastic Period of Egypt, hieratic first appeared and developed alongside the more formal hieroglyphic script. It is an error to view hieratic as a derivative of hieroglyphic writing. Indeed, 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. Around 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 3rd century AD.
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 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 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.
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.