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Art. VI. Precis dti Systeme Httroglyphique des ancient
Egyptiens, ou Recherches sur les Ettmens premiers de cette Ecriture Sacrie, &c. Par M. Champollion le jeune: Paris, Treuttel Wurtz, 1824, pp. 410, avec un volume de planches.
We cannot consider as the least important of the discoveries which embellish the present age, that by which the key to the sacred writing of the ancient Egyptians has been furnished. It is in truth a discovery as unexpected as it is singular: that the records and monuments of a people which had reached a high degree of civilization at a period centuries before the date of the earliest profane historian, and which for upwards of fifteen hundred years had remained as a sealed book, should be at once unfolded to our perusal, is an incident that must awaken and excite attention; and while we feel disposed to hail it with joy, as about to open to us information in relation to the history, the sciences and the arts of that mysterious nation, we hesitate in our belief, and are led to inquire, whether it be possible that this long-attempted task has at last been executed, and what second (Edipus has solved the riddle of the primeval Sphynx?
After Judea, the seat of the people that by a constant miracle was made the depository and witness of our revealed religion, and Greece, the cradle of our science and the nursery of our arts, Egypt would naturally next attract the attention of those who take a pleasure in inquiring into the history of the human race. But there is such an air of mystery thrown around that country, by a variety of circumstances, as to render our curiosity far more intense in regard to it than to any other. Every important fact of Jewish history is recorded in a language which, in its rabbinical dialect, has scarcely ceased to be spoken; we are familiar with the characters, the manners, and the customs of its several ages; and the modern traveller, with the book of inspiration in his hand, can trace the wanderings of the Patriarchs, the conquests of its law-givers, and the dominions of its kings: moreover, of all its princely and sacred edifices, not one stone has been left upon another, to tell where they once stood, or to lead the pilgrim to search among their ruins for additional evidence of the truth of those writings, of which, the very obliteration of every monument of art, is perhaps the most solemn and striking confirmation.
The existence of the Greeks, in such a state as to be worthy of the attention of enlightened curiosity, is comparatively modern. We care little for the piracies of the islanders, or the petty wars of the earlier inhabitants of that country; it is only when its arts and its literature had reached such a degree of por these characters, so diversified in their form, often so discordant in their nature, are signs which serve to note a regular concatenation of ideas, express a determinate and connected sense, and are consequently the expressions of a written language, is beyond all question. No one who attentively examines them can for a single moment believe, as was once advanced before they had been attentively studied, that they were merely intended for the ornament of the edifices on which they are engraved.
There are no doubt innumerable sculptures to be found in Egypt, which simply represent scenes, sometimes allegorical, sometimes religious, military and civil; and therefore, the first step in the study of hieroglyphics is to attain the art of discovering those figures which are really such, and of distinguishing them from all the other representations that cover the ancient monuments of Egyptian workmanship. These last, in truth, frequently represent no more than they at once exhibit to the eye, as the portraits of distinguished personages, and their most remarkable actions; but many have insisted upon searching them for occult and profound meanings, and have seen in them, under appearances affectedly allegorical, the most secret speculations of Egyptian philosophy.
A second step, and one not less important, is to acquire an intimate knowledge of the exact form of the hieroglyphic characters themselves. We shall wonder less at the small progress that was made before the time of our author, in the decyphering of hieroglyphics, if we consider how little care has been taken in copying them, and with what negligence the drawings and engravings of them have been usually executed. The only safe way of study, is that of having under the eye a great number of authentic monuments, or of consulting no copies unless made by persons qualified for the task by a long and minute study of the productions of Egyptian art.
Not only are the characters extremely various in their nature and forms, but they may be arranged into several distinct classes, in reference to the degree of precision, elegance, or exactness with which they are themselves executed. Some are engraved upon stone, or designed on other materials, with the greatest care and precision, by which the most minute detail is faithfully represented. In these, animals are drawn and sculptured with a purity of design and a spirit, which at once distinguish their characters, whether generic or specific; the vases, the furniture, the utensils, tools and instruments, are never devoid of a certain degree of elegance; all the symbols, in fine, declare with boldness and fidelity the exact object the artist wishes to exhibit. To enrich the design, and render the imitation still more complete, the aid of colours is called in; on some, applied in exact conformity with that furnished by the natural object itself: on others, according to certain conventional rules. Other hieroglyphics have only a plane surface, the exterior contour or profile of the objects to be represented; and this is sometimes filled up with one uniform colonr. The first of these species is only found upon the greater and more magnificent buildings; the second, upon lesser basso relievos, funeral monuments, small statues, &c.
But the greater part of the manuscripts, and of the legends that decorate the coffins of mummies, are composed of characters in simple outline, the mere sketches of the objects to be represented, but which, although generally composed of the smallest possible number of lines, are usually so spirited, that there is little risk of mistaking the objects intended to be indicated.
These differences are not in the characters themselves, but only in the manner of representing them; they are no more than methods, more or less perfect, and more or less expeditious, of writing, painting, or graving; the elements of one and the same graphic system.
The sacred writing of the Egyptians, sculptured upon stone, or drawn upon wood and papyrus, derived beauty and expression from the art of painting; it also, as we have seen, made use of every species of physical objects, and by the multitude and variety of its forms, the skill of the grouping, and the splendour of its colours, acquired the power of creating pictures of striking interest even to the untutored spectator.
On the first examination, it might appear that the number of symbols is such as to defy research; but by carefully classing them, they become susceptible of enumeration. Bruce, who examined a considerable part of the monuments of Egypt, states, that he was not able to count more than five hundred and fourteen distinct signs: but this conclusion proves but a superficial and inattentive examination; as the study of the obelisks and monuments transferred to Italy by the Romans alone, had previously furnished a list of nine hundred and fifty-eight separate hieroglyphics. Our author is however of opinion, that the last enumeration errs in excess, several having probably been noted as distinct characters, that differed merely in the manner and style of representing the same object by different artists. By a re-examination of the monuments in Italy, and the careful collation of sculptured stones, manuscripts, and the accurate copies recently made of the prominent remains, he has been able to describe eight hundred and sixty-four. It might appear at first that this corresponded with the number of separate sounds or ideas that the method was capable of expressing; but if fot sounds merely, the number is too great, being far beyond the number of diversified syllables that can be modulated by the human voice; and if intended as the expression of ideas, the number is far too small. It might therefore, we conceive, nave becu