Chap. XX.

Of the Hieroglyphical pictures of the Egyptians.

CERTAINLY of all men that suffered from the confusion of Babel, the Ægyptians found the best evasion; for, though words were confounded, they invented a language of things,[1] and spake unto each other by common notions in Nature. Whereby they discoursed in silence, and were intuitively understood from the theory of their Expresses. For, they assumed the shapes of animals common unto all eyes; and by their conjunctions and compositions were able to communicate their conceptions, unto any that coapprehended the Syntaxis of their Natures. This many conceive to have been the primitive way of writing, and of greater antiquity than letters; and this indeed might Adam well have spoken, who understanding the nature of things, had the advantage of natural expressions. Which the Egyptians but taking upon trust, upon their own or common opinion; from conceded mistakes they authentically promoted errors; describing in their Hieroglyphicks creatures of their own invention; or from known and conceded animals, erecting significations not inferrible from their natures.[2]

And first, Although there were more things in Nature than words which did express them; yet even in these mute and silent discourses, to expresss complexed significations, they took a liberty to compound and piece together creatures of allowable forms into mixtures inexistent. Thus began the descriptions of Griphins, Basilisks, Phœnix, and many more; which Emblematists and Heralds have entertained with significations answering their institutions; Hieroglyphically adding Martegres, Wivernes, Lion fishes,[3] with divers others. Pieces of good and allowable invention unto the prudent Spectator, but are lookt on by vulgar eyes as literal truths, or absurd impossibilities; whereas indeed, they are commendable inventions, and of laudable significations.

Again, Beside these pieces fictitiously set down, and having no Copy in Nature; they had many unquestionably drawn, of inconsequent signification, nor naturally verifying their intention. We shall instance but in few, as they stand recorded by Orus:[4] The male sex they expressed by a Vulture, because of Vultures all are females, and impregnated by the wind: which authentically transmitted hath passed many pens, and became the assertion of Ælian, Ambrose, Basil, Isidore, Tzetzes, Philes, and others. Wherein notwithstanding what injury is offered unto the Creation in this confinement of sex, and what disturbance unto Philosophy in the concession of windy conceptions, we shall not here declare. By two dragms they thought it sufficient to signifie an heart,[5] because the heart at one year weigheth two dragms, that is, a quarter of an ounce, and unto fifty years annually encreaseth the weight of one dragm, after which in the same proportion it yearly decreaseth; so that the life of a man doth not naturally extend above an hundred. And this was not only a popular conceit, but consentaneous unto their Physical principles, as Heurnius hath accounted it.[6]

A Woman that hath but one Child, they express by a Lioness; for that conceiveth but once. Fecundity they set forth by a Goat, because but seven daies old, it beginneth to use coition. The abortion of a Woman they describe by an Horse kicking a Wolf; because a Mare will cast her foal if she tread in the track of that animal.[7] Deformity they signifie by a Bear; and an unstable Man by an Hyæna, because that animal yearly exchangeth its sex. A Woman delivered of a female Child, they imply by a Bull looking over his left shoulder; because if in coition a Bull part from a Cow on that side, the Calf will prove a female.

All which, with many more, how far they consent with the truth, we shall not disparage our Reader to dispute; and though some way allowable unto wiser conceits, who could distinctly receive their significations: yet carrying the majesty of Hieroglyphicks, and so transmitted by Authors: they crept into a belief with many, and favourable doubt with most. And thus, I fear, it hath fared with the Hieroglyphical Symboles of Scripture: which excellently intended in the species of things sacrificed, in the prohibited meats, in the dreams of Pharaoh, Joseph, and many other passages: are oft-times wrackt beyond their symbolizations, and inlarg'd into constructions disparaging their true intentions.


My notes (and other people's) are in square brackets [ ]; addenda from manuscripts are in curly braces { }; Browne's own marginalia are unmarked.

1 [Wren: A common language might possibly bee framed which all should understand under one character, in their own tongue, as well as all understand in astronomy the 12 signes, the 7 planets, and the several aspects; or in Geometry, a triangle, a rhombe, a square, a parallelogram, a helix, a decussation, a cross, a circle, a sector, and such like very many: or the Saracenical and algebraick characters in arithmetick, or the notes of weight among physitians and apothecaryes: or lastly, those marks of punctuation and qualityes among grammarians in Hebrew under, in Arabick above, the words. To let pass Paracelsus his particular marks, and the common practice of all trades. {In addition, we might add Chinese, whose written form is understood nearly universally among speakers who do not necessarily understand each other's spoken dialects; and the conventions of modern mathematics, where, in addition to the Saracenical ciphers, the other symbols of 2+5=7 are universally understood, although each symbol of course bears a different name in different languages.}]

2 [It should be remembered that hieroglyphics were not readable in Browne's day, and had not been for nearly two millennia. Wilkin writes this long cautionary (and very oddly pointed, even after the removal of about a thousand commas):

How little, alas, do we know of the picture-writing of the Egyptians, even after all the profound researches of Young, Champollion, Klaproth, Akerblad, De Sacy, and others: and how little (we may perhaps add) can we hope ever to see effected. We are told by Clemens Alexandrinus (and subsequent researchers have done little more than enable us to comprehend his meaning) that the Egyptians used three modes of writing; — the epistolographic (called demotic by Herodotus and Diodorus, and enchorial in the Rosetta inscription), the hieratic (employed by the sacred scribes), and the hieroglyphick, — consisting of the kuriologic (subsequently termed phonetic) and the symbolic, of which there are several kinds; — one representing objects properly, another metaphorically, a third enigmatically. The great discovery made by Dr. T. Young, from the Rosetta inscription, was that some of the hieroglyphs were the signs of sounds, each hieroglyph signifying the first letter of the Egyptian name of the object represented. Supposing all their picture-writing to be symbolical, then it would be manifestly impossible to hope to read it. For example, we are told that the figure of a bee expressed the idea of royalty; but who could have guessed this? Supposing on the other hand that the hieroglyphs were entirely phonetic (which was not the case, nor can we possibly ascertain in what proportion they were so), supposing them also to be certain and determinate signs of sounds, one and the same sign always employed to represent one and the same sound; — supposing in short that "we could spell syllables and distinguish words with as much certainty and precision as if they had been written in any of the improved alphabets of the west, — there would yet always remain one difficulty over which genius itself could not triumph; namely, to discover the signification of the words, when it is not known by tradition or otherwise:" — when the original language has long since utterly vanished; — and when the only instrument left wherewith we can labour (the Coptic) is but the mutilated and imperfect fragment of an extinct language, itself when living the remnant only of that elder form of speech which we are seeking to decypher; but of which, alas! through so imperfect a medium, but slight traces and lineaments can be here and there fairly reflected. The article, EGYPT, in the Sup. to Ency. Brit. and HIEROGLYPHICKS, in Ency. Metrop. together with articles in the 45th and 57th vols. of the Edinburgh Review, will give those disposed to go further into the subject a full and interesting view of all that has hitherto been effected in this most difficult, if not hopeless, field of labour.

But our author's special object in this chapter is to bring against the Egyptians the twofold charge; first, of "describing in their hieroglyphicks creatures of their own inventions;" and secondly, of "erecting, from known and conceded animals, significations not inferible from their natures." No charge, however, can fairly be entertained till it has been proved; — and it would be no easy matter to shew that many of the monsters enumerated, were really Egyptian:

"Considering how absurdly and monstrously complicated the Egyptian superstitions really were, it becomes absolutely essential to separate that which is most fully established, or most generally admitted, from the accidental or local varieties, which may have been exaggerated by different authors into established usages of the whole nation, and still more from those which have been the fanciful productions of their own inventive faculties." — Dr. Young, EGYPT, Sup. Ency. Brit. iv, 43.

The authors on whom Browne relies, especially Pierius, are by no means to be received without the caution expressed in the foregoing quotation.]

3 [Martegre, or manticore, is (heraldically) a monster having the head of a man with curved or spiral horns (like a goat), the body of a beast of prey, and the feet of a dragon or gryphon; the wyvern is a winged dragon with the feet of an eagle and a barbed tail in the shape of a serpent; the lion-fish, or sea-lion, has the upper part of a lion, and the lower part like the tail of a fish. For the Basilisk, see Book III, Chapter vii; for the Phoenix, see Book III, Chapter xii.]

4 [Orus Apollo, or Horapollo, whose entertaining work is essentially nonsense.]

5 [Pierius says that the Egyptians used the vulture to symbolize two drachms, or a heart. Horapollo says that they used the vulture to represent two drachms, because unity was expressed by two lines; and unity being the beginning of numbers, most fitly doth its sign express a vulture, because, like unity, it is singly the author of its own increase.]

6 In his Philosophia Barbarica.

7 [Wren: Whether the track of the wolfe will cause abortion in a mare is hard to be knowne; but the mare doth soe little feare the wolfe, that (as I have heard itt from the mouth of a gentleman, an eyewitnesse of what he related) as soone as shee perceaves the wolfe to lye in watch for her young foale, she will never cease hunting with open mouth till shee drive him quite away: the wolfe avoyding the gripe of her teeth, as much as the stroke of her heeles: and to make up the probability hereof, itt is certaine that a generous horse will fasten on a dog with his teeth, as fell out anno 1653, in October, at Bletchinden (Oxon) a colt being bated by a mastive (that was set on by his master to drive him out of a pasture) tooke up the dog in his teeth by the back, and rann away with him, and at last flinging him over his head lefte the dog soe bruised with the gripe and the fall, that hee lay half dead; but the generous colte leapt over the next hedge, and ran home to his own pasture unhurt.]

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