By Rev. William Houghton, M.A., F.L.S.

Read 4th June, 1878.

[Extracted from TSBA, vol. 6 (1878), p. 454-83.]

[See Plate]

There is strong evidence to believe that all written language—"the art of recording events and sending messages," thus well expressed by Tylor—originated in pictures representing objects or ideas. The hypothesis is rendered probable by a priori reasons, by the well-known fact that among savage or semi-barbarous people in many parts of the world picture-writing is still found, and by the connection which exists—as in Egyptian, for instance—between the more modern writing and the ancient hieroglyphic system. On a priori grounds, it is natural to believe that in the infancy of mankind men would represent objects or ideas by rude and simple figures of the objects themselves, or of certain combinations of objects expressing ideas. Indeed, analogous in this respect is the method employed by children and persons who are unable to read or write. A child will draw a rude image of a man if he wishes to express the idea of a man by writing: a picture of a house stands for a house, that of a dog for a dog, and so on. An adult, whether educated or not, if unable to converse with people of whose language he is ignorant, will at once endeavour to express himself by pictures and gestures. "Picture-writing," as Tylor tells us, "is found among savage races in all quarters of the globe, and, so far as we can judge, its principle is the same everywhere. The pictures on the Lapland magic drums, of which we have interpretations, serve much the same purpose as the American writing. Savage paintings [p.455] or scratchings, or carvings on rocks, have a family likeness, whether we find them in North or South America, in Siberia or Australia." ("Early History of Mankind," p. 88.) It is necessary to bear this fact in mind, because, as we shall presently see, we are often considerably helped to an interpretation of some unknown Accadian or Assyrian ideograph by comparing it with some known symbol of another nation or language, be it Egyptian or Chinese for instance. The interpretation of picture-writing, where ideas more or less complex are attempted to be delineated, is often a difficult task in the absence of any key to explain them; but simple figures of animals or other objects—"mere pictorial utterances without any historical sense," to use again Dr. Tylor's happy expression—are often able to explain themselves. The ancient Mexicans appear to have attained to the highest development of picture-writing, but even here very little progress in deciphering them would have been made, "were it not that there are a number of interpretations made in writing from the explanations given by Indians, so that the traditions of the art have never been wholly lost." In the earliest ages of the world, therefore, it seems highly probable that the mere delineation of objects, rude drawings of their form, stood for things or ideas, and were understood more or less by the barbarous races who used picture-writing; but they must often, one would imagine, have had great difficulty in expressing or interpreting such writing wherever they desired to give anything like a full and correct idea of some complex story which the mind wished to express. Hence, in process of time, "necessity being the mother of invention," there grew up a phonetic system of writing, which did not at first supersede the old picture form, but which supplemented and served to explain it. By hieroglyphic or picture-writing, properly so called—pure and simple—we understand any representations or symbols denoting objects or ideas, but not sounds: the phonetic system arose out of the hieroglyphics, which came to be used as letters of an alphabet, or as syllables, whether open or closed. The syllables in Egyptian, for instance, were sounded according to the initial sound of the hieroglyph, or the primitive pronunciation of the symbol; [p.455] thus, [symbol], ru. a mouth. stood for the letter [symbol]; an owl (mouladj) for [symbol], its initial letter, and so on. M. Aubin, of Paris, discovered the interesting fact that phonetic hieroglyphs were in use amongst the Aztecs, an early Mexican race.

Fig 1.  Fig. 2.

Fig. 1 is a picture of a snake with stone knives on its back. It represents ideographically, but not phonetically, the name of a certain king called Itzcoatl, i.e., "knife-snake." Fig. 2 is the name of the same king phonetically spelt. The arrow armed with blades of obsidian has the sound of it (tli); but the second part of the word coatl, "a snake," is not represented as a snake, but by an earthern pot co (mitl) and the sign of water, a (tl), above. Ideographically, we should interpret the symbol "knife-kettle-water," but it is to be read phonetically according to the sound of the Aztec words, Itz-co-atl. (Tylor, "Researches," &c., p. 94.)

In process of time the hiero-phonetic system (of Egyptian, for instance) showed symptoms of decay, for it was followed by the cursive hieratic, which had fewer symbols than the hieroglyphic, and the hieratic was followed by the demotic or enchorial, which at length lost all resemblance to the older forms.

The symbols employed by the Chinese in their written language are degenerated hieroglyphics. Their 214 radicals represent lines, names of animals, plants, implements, clothing, inanimate objects of nature, names of measures, colours, &c., &c.,1 but they very rarely bear the slightest resemblance to their original pictures. How then do we know that they have descended from such originals? In Egyptian there is a gradual process of decay from the early [p.457] picture-writing through the hieratic to the demotic, the transitional hieratic bridging the chasm which seems to separate the other two extremes. Occasionally the ancient forms of the Chinese characters do bear a certain resemblance to their original pictorial types; moreover, ancient Chinese authorities inform us that such and such characters do stand for certain objects, so that we may take it for a fact that Chinese writing in the long course of time has developed from an ancient hieroglyphic or pictorial type, although the resemblance has almost ceased to exist between the two. Let me give two or three instances. The character [symbol] (tu) means "a hare"; a more ancient form is the following [symbol]; and one more ancient still, [symbol], may, with a little play for the imagination, be taken to be a picture of a "hare sitting upright." The forms [symbol], [symbol] are supposed to represent "a rhinoceros." The information rests on reliable Chinese authority, and we are told that the ancient Chinese used the rhinoceros horn as a drinking cup, and that they knew the animal well. The next three characters, [symbols], of which the last form is the most ancient, represent a pig, which has literally "gone the whole hog," the bristles of the animal being all that is left, whilst [symbol], "a horse," has the more ancient form of [symbol], in which the head, hair, legs, and tail of the noble quadruped are represented. With this may be compared a figure of a "horse" from a Babylonian cylinder, which, though exceedingly bad, is better than the Chinese character.

Amongst the Chinese the native tradition traces the art of the invention of writing to B.C. 2700, a date which, if it refer to the origin of picture-writing amongst them, must be far too recent. The small resemblance that the ancient Chinese forms bear to the objects themselves, would lead us to infer that a long course of time must have elapsed between the primitive picture-writing and the forms which sometimes, though even in a very trifling respect, represent them. The [p.458] most barbarous modern savage, I suspect, if he had ever seen either a horse, a pig, or a rhinoceros, would be able to depict any of those animals more like life than the old Chinese characters show them. A little child in a country-village school gives a better picture of a man when he draws a grotesque figure of his master on his slate than that which the Chinese character [symbol] (Rad. [symbol]) gives as "picture of a man." But if we could get far enough back and see the earliest picture writing of the Chinese, we should doubtless find much greater resemblance between the object and its picture. In the character above, for instance, we have only the man's legs represented; the body and head have vanished altogether.

As in spoken language, whether inflectional or agglutinative, we meet with what philologists aptly term phonetic decay, so in written language, whether pictorially or phonetically expressed, we meet with great alterations and modifications of form from the original type—pictorial evanescence, if I may be allowed the expression; and doubtless this pictorial evanescence manifests itself in all written language. The time required for the change in form of written symbols or characters will probably be found to vary amongst different nations according as influences of one kind or another have been brought to bear upon the people themselves. The Egyptian hieroglyphics are not mere pictures, pure and simple, without any mixture of phonetics. The hieroglyphic system of this ancient and remarkable people would seem to point to a long antecedent period, in the earlier portion of which they were in a rude and semi-barbarous state—if, that is to say, they had developed within themselves the sources of intellectual culture and progress, not greatly influenced by extraneous agencies from some more enlightened nation. The degree of perfection to which, as the Egyptian monuments show, glyptic art had arrived, and which it long-maintained, presupposes a high degree of civilization. The forms of the objects represented are well designed, and executed with marvellous skill and truthfulness to nature. But, as with other nations, so with the Egyptians probably; their [p.459] primitive state, we may suppose, was rude and barbarous, and their earliest endeavours to express objects or ideas by writing were more or less clumsy and untrained.

Let me now proceed directly to consider what is the subject of the present paper. Have the characters of the Assyrian syllabary a pictorial origin? If you will examine all the 522 ordinary Assyrian characters in Professor Sayce's Grammar, you will find a very few indeed that, may be seen to exhibit their primitive form at the first glance: from the preliminary remarks I have already made we should anticipate such a result. I am now speaking solely of the simple characters: the composite forms may often distinctly reveal themselves and their meanings by giving the elements which compose them;—thus [symbol] (ca) means "a mouth," and [symbol] (gar) amongst several other significations, denotes "food"; therefore in [symbol] (ca) we have the symbol for "food" placed within the symbol for "mouth"—the whole signifying "food" or "eating." But though we are certain of the meaning of this and many other compound ideographs, it by no means follows that we know the original signification and form of the simple elements which compose them. Again, we may be sure of the meaning of the simple elements, but may be quite in the dark as to their original picture-form: we may know the fact, but not the reason of it. I say, then, that with regard to these simple characters, there is scarcely one m the whole of the ordinary syllabary—with the exceptions of such as denote numbers, such as [symbol] for "one," [symbol] for "two," [symbol] for "three," [symbol] for "six," and so on—that clearly reveals its original form. But when we go back to the older forms of the characters, light soon begins to dawn upon us, and we are able to trace out in many instances their primitive form and meaning. If, therefore, we can thus trace back certain simplified forms of the ordinary Assyrian characters to their archaic and more elaborate type, and are able in these ancient forms to detect an unmistakeable likeness to the objects which the characters are known to denote—if we discover that the archaic signs are evident pictures of the objects—then we are justified in con- [p.460] cluding that all the characters of the syllabary have primitively a picture origin, though in many cases we may be unable to discover what that picture was.

I will now give a few instances of characters which will at once satisfy you of their hieroglyphic or picture origin. No. 4422 [symbol] (kha), we know, signifies "a fish"; but in this form it no more resembles a fish than it resembles Polonius' "camel," or "weazel,'' or "whale." Let us look at the hieratic Assyrian, which has [symbol]; no one would suggest herein a picture of a fish. Let us try the Babylonian [symbol]; there is nothing piscine here. Will the hieratic Babylonian help us? Here there are several variants; I will select this [symbol]; now we see distinctly shadowed forth a fish-like form in the body, fins, and tail, which is double, as if to make up for the want of a head! Another form [symbol] gets rid of one of these tails. We will next take a still older form, the archaic Babylonian [symbol]; and here is a rude but unmistakeable picture of a fish, which we also find in the oldest form of all, the linear Babylonian, which presents us with this [symbol] picture.

Our next example shall be No. 110, [symbol] which means "a month," though no one would see how. The Babylonian has [symbol]; archaic Babylonian, [symbol]; the linear Babylonian, [symbol], which we may represent in a circular form—thus [symbol] the compound ideograph being [symbol], "ten" x 3 = 30 (days) "within the circle of the sun," or "a month." No. 109, [symbol] (lit, Accadian), ardu, Assyrian, "man," "servant," has nothing human about it in this form. More ancient characters are [symbol] stand up and speak for themselves like "men." Here we have a rude figure of a man, just such a figure as a modern school child would draw on his slate. But the above forms can explain, I think, their especial [p.461] occupation and position in life. Fig. 1 has two bars across his thorax, which may represent folded arms, just as figures of men occur in early cylinders; see, for instance, Smith's "Chaldean Genesis," pp. 159, 283; so here probably we have an official, or overseer, head of the works, standing with folded arms, superintending the builders, himself under authority, but having also servants under him. Fig. 2 works in a meaner capacity, as is signified by the ordinary ideograph for a "captive" ([symbol]) placed within his breast; he has been taken a prisoner of war, and made to serve as a slave perhaps. The way of representing men by giving the head, breast, and legs, as shown above, may be seen in Indian picture-writing, as in Fig. 3, which contains a letter written on the bark of a tree.3 I wish to draw particular attention to the small groups in the accompanying figure marked 13, 14, and 15, all of which denote "encampments," as indicated by the picture of fire mi ("flames"), and

Fig. 3.

[p.462] with what I take to be pieces of wood placed crosswise, as shown l\y the cross lines under the fire [symbol] I shall allude to this again when I come to consider the oldest Babylonian ideograph which represents "fire."

No. 169, [symbol], is more fully expressed in the archaic forms thus, [symbol] i.e., three stars, and denotes "brilliancy," or "a bright [symbol] star." The modern form of [symbol], denoting "a star," or [symbol] "a deity," shows pictorial evanescence, thus [symbol]. The Egyptian (ak) determinative has a like signification of "a star," or "a deity."

No. 193, [symbol], or shorter form [symbol] the Assyrian ideograph for "king" (kirru), is read phonetically in Accadian as un-gal = "man" + "great"; also lugal for (mu) lugal or "great lord" (mulu). In the oldest or linear Babylonian, No. 193 shows itself thus [symbol]: the first part [symbol] is the Assyrian [symbol] (rabu) "great," but what object it represents pictorially I do not know.4 The second part of the character is the equivalent of the Assyrian [symbol], nisu, "man," and is an exceedingly rough and rude picture of a man, thus [symbol], which I will place [p.463] upright. Now where lines meet as at a, they may be supposed to cross, as variant forms of other characters show, so that we may, by continuing the lines which meet forming the angle a, complete the figure, thus and now we have a figure of a man with head and eye, body and legs. Here again we may compare [symbol] with this legless man a North American Indian, whose form is very similar.5

No. 232, [symbol] "an ox," represents the horned head of that animal; in hieratic Assyrian the character shows itself thus [symbol]; if we set it upright, we may see a faint resemblance to an animal's head with two horns, thus [symbol]; the linear Babylonian has—[symbol], i.e. [symbol], where an ox's head is clearly intended; the part being put for the whole; the ideograph denoting an "ox," "cattle," "bull," as we say so many head of cattle, head of game, &c.

No. 242, [symbol], a wild-bull, is merely another form of the preceding, as the archaic forms show; there is however this difference, that whereas No. 232 denotes the domestic animal, this one stands for the wild one, as is shown by the form of this character in the archaic Babylonian [symbol] which has upon the head the D.P. of "country," [symbol]; so that this ideograph would designate "the long-horned bull of the country," i.e., "the wild bull," which I have elsewhere endeavoured to show is the Bos primigenius of palaeontologists.

No. 509, [symbol] (sm), a "foot," as Sayce has shown, was originally the picture of a "leg," and this is partly indicated by the older forms as [symbol] where we have a rude I think, we have been able to trace back the characters their undoubted original form and meaning, and they are sufficient to show that the various signs of the Assyrian [p.464] syllabary, or to speak more correctly the signs of the Accadian inventors of that syllabary, were originally pictures representing objects and ideas. We cannot, however, in all cases be certain that we are correct in our explanations of the signs; some will commend themselves as very probable, others may appear doubtful, whilst some—which come to us in "such questionable shapes" that we cannot but speak to them over and over again—persistently refuse to give any account of themselves whatever, keeping most obstinate silence, like Horace Smith's "incommunicative" mummy. I will now take a few more characters, the interpretation of which is not so obvious, though I think probable. No. 73, [symbol] (khu), is a very interesting character; it must be considered in company with No. 77 [symbol] (jiam, tsim), which besides denoting "destiny" also means "a bird," especially a "swallow." The archaic forms of No. 73 are almost identical with the ordinary Assyrian, and give no clue as to original form. In No. 77, however, we have a great many variants in the archaic forms, and from some of them I shall be able to give a probable explanation of both these characters. The sign [symbol], which has the phonetic values of Um, pak, was known to the Accadians under the technical name of museu, as being composed of the two characters, nm "to give," and [symbol] or [symbol], "seed." Now this sign shows no trace of such a composition in any of its forms, so far that is as I am aware, but No. 77, [symbol], is clearly an ideographic compound of No. 73 [symbol] and No. 320 [symbol] which equals "bird" + "seed" or "eggs." The archaic forms of this character (No. 77) are numerous; in the hieratic Assyrian we have [symbol] in hieratic Babylonian [symbol] with [symbol] variants; in archaic Babylonian [symbol] with variants; the linear Babylonian has the form [symbol]. Both Nos. 73 and 77 are. I think, mere variants of the same character, and go back to the same original picture. Perhaps the first part 77 of No. 77 was [p.465] the figure of a "bird" with expanded wings dropping seed or eggs; thus [symbol]. The archaic form [symbol]—is very similar to [symbol]—I, one of the variants of [symbol] mu "to give"; hence perhaps the name of this character, musen, i.e.., "giver of eggs,"—in allusion to the prolific nature of many birds, as, by the way, is implied in our English word "bird," the Anglo-Saxon "brid," the young of birds; hence the words "brood," "breed," &c. But we have yet to seek an explanation of the latter part of the ideograph in No. 77, thus represented.

Now the middle form is identical with No. 199, cas, ras, and denotes "two roads crossing one another"; or simply "the number two"; the first and third characters have a similar picture of roads crossing, contained within two or more lines forming part of a square. Let us take the older linear Babylonian sign, which I interpret to mean "roads crossing within the canopy of heaven" [symbol], with which latter form we may compare the Egyptian [symbol], determinative for "heaven"; the whole compound ideograph therefore, [symbol] I suggest, may mean "bird + roads + vault of heaven," i.e., bird leaving the country in its aerial flight and returning, implied by the sign [symbol]. Here I think we have a rude picture or hieroglyph of some migratory bird, such as a swallow or a swift. In the Deluge Tablet the Babylonian Noah is represented sending out from his ship a dove, a swallow, and a raven. Now the Accadian character for "swallow" is sign No. 77—the one we are considering—with the addition of the usual determinative affix [symbol] for a "bird." Its Assyrian equivalent is phonetically spelt thus [symbol] which in Aramaic, [symbol] Senunitha. means a "swallow" or "swift." This bird it would appear the Accadians called the nam-hhu, or "destiny bird," "the foretelling bird," probably because by its visiting and leaving the country at special seasons of the year, it "proclaimed" (nabu) or foretold the approach or the [p.466] departure of heat and cold. I may mention that the common swift (Cypselus apus) has been frequently observed in great numbers at Erzerum from May to September.

In No. 74, [symbol], a phonetic compound of No. 73 and No. 138, resolvable into "bird + making," but which has the meaning of "left hand" or "middle," there may be some allusion to a swallow in augury.

No. 78, [symbol], is compounded of Nos. 77 and 403, and signifies "bird + soldier," and I think specially refers to the bird which feeds on the slain in battle, birds of prey, as eagles or vultures, which are frequently depicted on the monuments accompanying armies; when the same character signifies "insects," we may interpret it as meaning "winged creatures" + "hosts" or "multitudes," in reference more particularly perhaps to the numberless swarms of locusts, with which. the people would be familiar.

Any ancient hieroglyphic representing "fire" is of great ethnological interest. Fire-worship, so universal amongst savage and primitive races, arose partly from the beneficial perception of the heat of the sun, an appreciation of the universal value of fire, from the difficulty in obtaining a light when the fire was allowed to go out, and from a belief in its divine origin.

No. 244, [symbol], is the usual Assyrian character for "fire," and I think I am able to give a satisfactory solution of this sign, and to deduce an interesting historical fact therefrom. The Assyrian word for "fire" is isatu; Heb. (t'.s7t); the Accadian is gi-bil. Many different forms of this character occur in nearly all the older inscriptions, but none of them are able to kindle any thought which will throw light upon the meaning of the ideograph, till we come to the most ancient form of all, the linear Babylonian, where it is thus represented—[symbol]. The centre figure [symbol] I take to be the picture of a circular bit of wood with a hole in the middle, [symbol]; the sign [symbol] is the character (>=T), which signifies "wood"; the cross-lines denote two bits of stick placed crossways; the [p.467] horizontal lines facing the perforated wooden disc signify lines or sparks of fire issuing from the disc, and caused by the rapid rotation of the piece of dry wood [symbol] within the hole of the disc. The cross sticks are dried pieces to serve to keep the fire in when once kindled, precisely similar in this respect to what every modern housemaid in the land is in the habit of doing. When she "lays the fire" she places the bits of wood crossways; we have already seen in the Indian picture-letter above that fire is represented by "flames" and "cross-sticks." If this in the main point be the true interpretation of the picture, we have an interesting illustration of the use of the "fire-drill" amongst the early Accadians.6 It will be appropriate here to quote a few remarks from a most excellent and trustworthy authority on such subjects, the justly esteemed author of "Primitive Culture," &c., and "Researches into the Early History of Mankind," Edward Burnet Tylor:—"The geographical range of the simple fire-drill is immense. Its use among the Australians forms one of the characters which distinguish their culture from that of the Polynesians, while it appears again among the Malays in Sumatra and the Carolines. It was found by Cook in Unalashka, and by the Russians in Kamschatka, where for many years flint and steel could not drive it out of use among the natives, who went on carrying every man his fire-sticks. There is reason to suppose that it prevailed in India before the Aryans invaded the country, bringing with them an improved apparatus, for at this day it is used by the wild Veddahs of Ceylon, a race so capable of resisting foreign innovation that they have not learnt to smoke tobacco. It prevails, or has done so within modern times, through great parts of South Africa, and it was in use among the Guanches, inhabitants of the Canary Islands [p.468] in the seventeenth century. In North America it is described among Esquimaux and Indian tribes. It was in use in Mexico, Central America, in the West Indies, and in South America, down as far as the Straits of Magellan " ("Researches," &c., pp. 238-239).

No. 367, [symbol] appears to be an ideographic compound of Nos. 232 and 329, [symbol] and [symbol]; this we shall find to be the case when we compare with this character its equivalent archaic forms. But in all attempts to interpret the characters of the syllabary, it is absolutely necessary to trace back the more modern to the more ancient forms of representation: we must move very cautiously in drawing conclusions from similarity of form between two modern characters, because we find that two or more similar modern characters have sometimes grown out of a very different original hieroglyphic. Let me here give one illustration only; it would be easy to adduce others. No. 287, [symbol], "man," looks as if it must be connected with No. 266, [symbol], "a brother," "to help," "flight". The family likeness is most stinking; the kindred ideas of "man" and "brother" would seem to point the way to a community of thought represented by the same original picture. But let us see. It has already been shown that the oldest form of No. 287 is [symbol] a rude figure of "the body and head of a man"; but No. 288 has its most archaic form thus [symbol]. What it means I know not; but it cannot be related to the other form, nor be intended for "a man." Now the similarity of form between the ordinary and more modern Assyrian characters points to a time when the difference exhibited by the archaic types became less marked, and a certain approximation to similarity of form arose; and this we find is an existing fact. One of the variants of the hieratic Babylonian for No. 288 is [symbol] whilst the hieratic Babylonian for No. 287 is [symbol]. To revert to No. 367, [symbol] the idea suggested above as to its being composed of Nos, 232 and 320, is borne out by archaic forms [symbol] we have [symbol], "bull's head with two horns," and the sign [symbol] which [p.469] pictorially may represent "the vault of heaven above," thus [symbol]; the primary meaning of this character is "a star," "brilliancy." The compound ideograph, I think, has reference to the constellation Taurus, "bull in the heavens." Taurus, besides the stars whose triangular arrangement [symbol] has given its name to the constellation, includes Aldebaran and the Pleiades in modern astronomy; but I suspect that the constellation Taurus, as known to the early star-gazers of Babylonia, was only that portion of it which is bovine, and has the aspect of a bull's head. In modern almanacs the astronomical symbol for Taurus (y) and the Accadian sign [symbol] for "bull" are identical in form. Taurus is a very bright and striking constellation, and I suspect that the star (eacahn) which the character specially refers to, is in Taurus, which forms one of the angles of the bull's head, and is remarkably brilliant. The signification of "wooden ship" which this sign also has, is most likely a subsequent idea; it may have reference to some vessel having the figure-head of the constellation Taurus; but this is mere guess-work. I believe the original picture form of [symbol] is, as I have said, that part of the constellation which has the aspect of a bull's head [symbol], with [symbol], "the canopy of heaven overhead."7

Nos. 402, [symbol], and 403, [symbol], are identical both in form and meaning, and have descended from the same original picture of the "sun," archaically represented thus [symbol] each character is a good instance of pictorial evanescence or decadence from the primitive type, as well as of differentiation of one original form. No. 301, [symbol] (id), though apparently connected with [symbol] no real relationship with it. In its most ancient form it appears to be the picture of a double-toothed comb [symbol], as is shown by [symbol] on [p.470] a tablet in the British Museum.8 The alterations in form which this character [symbol] has undergone are great, as may be seen from the following selected signs. The hieratic Assyrian has [symbol], Babylonian [symbol] hieratic Babylonian [symbol], [symbol] the archaic Babylonian [symbol]; there are other variants. In the British Museum tablet this curious figure [symbol] is given as an equivalent of the same character id; on another part of the tablet a similar figure, minus the knobs, [symbol], is explained by the sign [symbol] the archaic form of [symbol] ner, "a foot." The character [symbol] has the meanings of "hand," "power," "throne," and "one." Now, was the original picture that of a "hand" or a "comb"? The ideas of "power" and "throne" which the character denotes are probably offshoots from the idea of "hand" implying "force," "capability"—thus we have in Accadian [symbol] "general," literally "hand" + "high," "ruling with a high hand." But was the character primarily a pectinated hand or a digitated comb? On the principle of "fingers before forks," I think the out-stretched hand is the original idea embodied in the character, and that as the hand would be the first instrument for combing savage locks, the idea of a comb was suggested thereby. The idea of "unity" implied in the character, probably originated, as Mr. Sayce suggests to me, in the primitive man holding up his hand to denote "one."9 But what the knobbed figure can mean, or what the other figure, in what way "a comb," in what way "a foot," is to me at present a puzzle.

Let us next take the character No. 353, [symbol] (ner), the usual meanings of which are "a foot" and "a yoke." Here, again we have very decided pictorial evanescence; for with the exception of one of the forms of the hieratic Assyrian, [symbol] (dual number), none of the rest, so far as I am aware, [p.471] bear much resemblance to the ordinary Assyrian. The archaic Babylonian has [symbol]; the linear Babylonian while the British Museum tablet has the curious signs and, as we have seen above, of [symbol]. I think we are pretty safe in taking the linear Babylonian forms to be rude pictures of the human foot with sandals round the insteps—thus, [symbol] showing the ankle, instep, and great toe, with a strip of leather as part of the sandal, while the horn-like figure [symbol] turned the other way, may represent the great toe alone, the part being put for the whole. But the character [symbol] denotes not only a "foot," but a "yoke," and here I suggest that we have not a figure of any actual object as such—like the yoke of a chariot, or the ox-yoke for ploughing—but the idea of subjugation or servitude implied in the foot of a victorious monarch, and which conquered kings of other nations were made to kiss in token of submission, so that the frequent expressions in the Assyrian historical records, such as "to my presence they came and kissed my feet," "to my presence they came and took my yoke," are synonymous. This explanation seems to be supported by the fact that wherever the expression "they took my yoke," occurs, the dual number [symbol] sepi-ya, "my two feet," is used. But there is still another equivalent of [symbol] to be accounted for in the curious spectacle-shaped figure [symbol] of the British Museum Tablet. May we not have here the same idea of subjugation depicted in the actual representation of fetters or manacles for the feet with which prisoners of war were frequently bound? May we not see in the rude form of [symbol] ("a yoke") a portion of the fetters so well drawn on the Assyrian monuments? [p.472] The other figure [symbol] evidently merely an abbreviated form of the linear Babylonian [symbol] just mentioned.

Another character, No. 51 [symbol] of frequent occurrence in the historical inscriptions, [symbol] (sutul, sudun, Accadian) niru, Assyrian, is an ideographic expression for some form of "fetter" different from the one figured above. It was made of wood, as the D.P. [symbol] in the inscriptions shows, and not of iron like the other, I have not met with any archaic forms of this character, which in its ordinary form appears to resolve itself into [symbol] "foot" [symbol] "girdle" + "two," and to imply some wooden manacle encircling the two feet—some ancient form of "stocks," for instance. In the Book of Job, xiii, 27, we read, "Thou puttest my feet also in the stocks". See also xxxiii, 11. The LXX (Vat.) renders this passage. [Greek], "And thou hast placed my foot in an impediment"; the Alex, has [Greek], where the idea of "encircling" is shown. Aquila explains [Greek]. Sch. interprets [Greek], lit. "foot-plague"—some kind of "stocks." There is little doubt that some wooden fetter is here denoted by the Hebrew word "ID, which encircled the foot, and it is probable that the Assyrian character [symbol] denoted originally such a fetter, though it may have also been used figuratively to imply "subjugation." The sign [symbol] which in the British Museum tablet stands for [symbol] "foot," "yoke," is, in the linear Babylonian, given as the picture-form of [symbol] (No. 352) cis, "a multitude." Perhaps the idea implied in this case is that of a "bond of union," "the uniting of bodies," hence "multitudes," "collections of people." No. 351, [symbol], may, I think, explain itself. It occurs in a bilingual tablet which gives the names of various animals (W.A.I. II, 6, 7,) and is there phonetically expressed [symbol]. Here is an archaic form of this character [symbol] as we have seen, [p.473] "a foot," with [symbol] a-si subscript, the compound ideograph apparently reading "foot" + "water" + '"eye," or "tear." We are certain that some animal is intended, and I think we may approximately tell what it is. The subscript character [symbol] a-si, "tear," is expressive of what exists in certain deer (cervida), and antelopes (antilopes), I allude to the lachrymal or sub-orbital sinus or "tear-pit," characteristic of many deer and some antelopes. This sinus is a fold of the skin near the animal's eye, containing at the bottom a gland which secretes a sebaceous or fatty wax, capable of being shut or opened at the will of the animal. Its function, I believe, is not known; but so manifest an organ could not have escaped the observation of the Accadians, who thus as it seems ideographically represented such deer or antelopes as possessed these sub-orbital tear-pits by a sign denoting "swiftness," as implied in the character for "foot," and "tears" or "weeping" as denoted in the subscript sign.10

The old forms of [symbol] (gi, sa), No. 81, I think clearly tell the story of its original meaning and picture, which, however, could not be seen from the ordinary Assyrian. The Babylonian form is identical with the Assyrian; the hieratic Assyrian has [symbol] the hieratic Babylonian [symbol], the archaic Babylonian [symbol] linear Babylonian [symbol] which we will place upright (a), where we have a rude representation of one of those gigantic reeds (b)11 so common in the marshes of Mesopotamia, frequently depicted on the monuments.


The composite character meaning "mother," [symbol], No. 146, is another interesting form, and helps perhaps to explain the high position a woman occupied, and the honour in which she was held by the Accadian inventors of the syllabary. Here the ordinary Assyrian is able to explain itself, and the meaning is fully established by the archaic equivalents. The ideograph is a compound of No. 142, [symbol] "a ca-s-ity," "house," "receptacle," and No. 4, [symbol], "deity" (Divine germ). Archaic forms are [symbol] No. 147, [symbol] merely a fuller form of the same character, whose archaic sign is [symbol] the whole being interpreted as "Divine germ,"' or "Divine germ of heaven implanted within the womb."12 The Assyrian monarchs as well as the Accadians regarded themselves as indirectly the offspring of the gods. Thus Nebuchadnezzar (W.A.I. I, 59, 24; says of himself, "at the time Merodach, the Lord, the God my creator made me, he placed a germ (nabniti) in the mother." So too Assurbanipal says of himself, "I whom Assur and Sin .... in the body of the mother had made to govern Assyria" (Smith's "Assurbanipal," 4). Nos. 148, 151, 152 readily explain themselves, thus, [symbol] = "house + tears," "lamentation," though no such actual signification is known to occur; [symbol] = "house" + "propitious eye," i.e., "mercy," "favour." [symbol] (remu) = "house + woman," i.e., "grace" or "favour," again implying the idea of dignity and grace, "which among the Accadians always attached itself to the woman." No. 155, [symbol], "a locust," may be a compound of No. 154, [symbol], "to cover," hence a "swarm"; while the contained signs [symbol] refer to [p.475] "devouring" and "smiting," aptly expressing that insect scourge, the "locust."13

No. 320, [symbol], "corn," "seed," is represented in the archaic forms as [symbol] which explains its meaning of "com," "seed"; similarly No. 274, [symbol]—in the old form, [symbol]—is a picture of "corn-grains," and shows that the idea of "giving," "weighing," "placing" (which the sign denotes), originally referred to the act of giving or weighing out corn.

The ideograph of the city of Nineveh, [symbol], phonetically expressed—

D.P. Ni - nu - a or Ni - na - a

(Ni-na,) is composed of No. 167, [symbol] = [symbol] and No. 442, [symbol] kha "fish." Its archaic picture is [symbol], so that Nineveh was the "fish-town."

No. 177, [symbol], Assyrian eru, "bronze," of which the older form is [symbol], may be intended for a representation of a bronze dish, which we know, from specimens in the British Museum, the Assyrians used. The form is circular, and it has also a moveable circular handle. (See a figure in Layard's "Nineveh and Babylon," p. 183.)

The archaic form of No. 285, [symbol] ra, "to inundate," "enlarge," "overspread," shows us that the original picture was probably one representing "channels of irrigation," thus [symbol].14 No. 374, [symbol] mi, "darkness," of which an older form is [symbol], gives us a picture of the vault of heaven [symbol] darkly shaded, [symbol]. With this we may compare the Egyptian determinative [symbol], "storm," "clouds," though this character has also the opposite meaning [p.476] of "lightning," "brilliancy'"; the descending lines in this case standing either for rays of light (sunbeams), or lines of obscuring rain and tempest.

As a rule, of course, the oldest forms of the characters are the nearest approximations to the original pictures; occasionally, however, a more recent form will give the clue which we are unable to detect in the archaic. Thus, for instance, No. 342, [symbol] whose primary signification seems to be that of "resting," "ending," "setting" (of the sun), refuses to give any account of itself in all its numerous variants. The linear Babylonian has this form [symbol]; but in the hieratic Babylonian, among other forms, one occasionally meets with this one [symbol]' which appears to be a picture of the sun setting; behind the mountains, [symbol]

No. 408, [symbol], sd, always with the meaning of "that which is interior," as the "heart" of a man or the "middle" of a city, &c., has suffered from pictorial metamorphosis to a great extent; for no one could form any idea of the original hieroglyphic from its original form. It is apparent enough, however, in the hieratic Babylonian [symbol], the archaic Babylonian [symbol], and the linear Babylonian [symbol], "something placed in the middle," corresponding with our [symbol] "centre of a circle."

No. 160, [symbol], Assyrian ahnu, "a stone," is a very puzzling character; I can merely suggest an explanation. None of the ancient forms of this sign, as for [symbol] hieratic Assyrian: [symbol] hieratic Babylonian; [symbol] linear Babylonian, bear a most distant resemblance to "a stone" properly so called—I mean any natural product, such as rock or pebble—whether rounded or angular. In comparing this character (No. 160) with No. 170, [symbol]—which has also, as one of its phonetic values, that of take—I think we may be able to form [p.477] a reasonable conjecture as to the original picture. Now the meaning of this latter sign is rather that of "a brick" than a stone, while its archaic forms show that both it and No. 170 have grown out of the same hieroglyphic. The linear Babylonian has this form [symbol]. The early inhabitants of Chaldea (the inventors of this alphabet) came, it must be remembered, from the high lands of Elam, where wood rather than stone would be their general building material; but when they came down to the alluvial plains of the lower country, they would naturally avail themselves of the excellent clay with which that land abounds. Doubtless the idea of baking clay in a kiln, in order to form bricks, was suggested by what the people saw taking place under their eyes, namely, the hardening process of the clay, and its rapid conversion into brick-material by the influence of a hot sun—just as, to a certain extent, we may see taking place in the "stiff land" of the agriculturist during very hot weather in our own country. Soon the people copied nature in her clay-hardening, and, moreover, improved upon it by adding layers of reed-matting to consolidate and keep together the dried clay. But besides these sun-dried bricks, they used as well kiln-burnt bricks, which contained no reed-matting at all. Perhaps in Nos. 160 and 170 the pictures show bricks of this latter description, namely, kiln-burnt material; whilst Nos. 506, 507, and 508, [symbol] particularly to sun-dried bricks.

The kiln bricks are almost as hard as stone, and very durable, being nearly one foot square, and about two inches thick. I think that the archaic form [symbol]15 represents a brick and half a brick; the square whole brick, and the half triangular one, used for the corners of walls, &c. Or the picture may be meant to represent portion of a brick pavement, which, when viewed diagonally, would give the appearance of the hieroglyph [symbol]. This idea seems to derive support from No. 327, [p.478] [symbol] an old form of which character is [symbol] "floor," "foundation stones," i.e., ''quarries and half quarries of brick or tile," viewed diagonally. [symbol]. Of the characters [symbol] we have no recorded meaning in the first form; perhaps the three figures are all allied, and the known meaning of one may throw light on the unknown meaning of another. No. 507 denotes "brick," or "brickwork," and "the month of Sivan," the brickmaking month of the year, when the sun was hot, and the weather favourable for sun-dried material.

No. 505, [symbol], is thus represented by older forms. In hieratic Assyrian we have [symbol]; in hieratic Babylonian [symbol]; in archaic Babylonian we have [symbol] and m linear Babylonian [symbol] in which last picture there may be intended "bent reed matting," which we know entered largely into the composition of sun-dried bricks. Canon Rawlinson says: "In the first place, at intervals of four or five feet, a thick layer of reed matting was interposed along the whole extent of the building, which appears to have been intended to protect the earthy mass from disintegration by its projection beyond the rest of the external surface." ("Ancient Monarchies," vol. 1, p. 73.) Perhaps therefore [symbol] may represent matted reeds. In No. 507 we appear to have [symbol] with which latter form we know No. 274, [symbol], "to give," "to lay," is connected. Now one of the meanings of the last sign is "a tablet" made of something; but the inscription is here broken, and a character lost. May therefore the compound ideograph [symbol] be read as "reed-matting + layers of clay"? Compare with this character that of [symbol] ak " to build," No. 87; the oldest form of which appears to be a rude picture of brickwork and reed matting, as described by Rawlinson.


No. 508, [symbol], seems to be made up of [symbol] gu, doubled, and may denote "strong land" suitable for a "foundation," which the Assyrian word ussusu signifies.

No. 206, [symbol] rahu, Assyrian, "a prince," is thus shown in one of its archaic forms, [symbol]. Professor Sayce gives me the following very satisfactory explanation of this character. If we turn to the archaic form of [symbol] gusnr (No. 143), "a beam of wood," which is [symbol], it is clear that the ideograph is compounded of [symbol], "a door," and [symbol], which must [symbol] therefore represent "a beam of wood," or "staff." Standing by itself, [symbol] would therefore be the "sceptre" carried by a prince, and hence "the prince" himself. One of the archaic Babylonian forms of [symbol] is [symbol] where [symbol], "the hand," is added to show that in this instance the staff of wood was carried in the hand. But what is the original picture of [symbol] No. 241, [symbol] uku (Accadian), "people," calama, "country," as represented in the archaic Babylonian [symbol] may be resolved into the picture of "house" + "sceptre," or "ruler," and the whole stand for "a people," "a ruled nation," "an inhabited country."

No. 230, [symbol], meaning "hero," "chain," "shaft of a tree," "to measure," may, I think, be fully explained in all its meanings by the archaic form [symbol] of the character, which I take to be the picture of a "back bone," and with which we may compare the Egyptian determinative [symbol], "backbone." A similar ancient form of this sign [symbol] will also stand for the back or loins.16

No. 230, [cuneiform], "a house," seems to point to the time when the Accadians dwelt in the wooded high land of Elam (before they descended into the alluvial plains of Chaldea), where timber rather than brick was the material [p.480] with which they constructed their dwellings, as the linear Babylonian sign [symbol] = "wood + cavity" clearly shows. No. 60, [symbol], ''to descend," was, I think, originally a picture of "grain falling from a vessel," as shown in the linear Babylonian thus [symbol], and then came to have the meaning of "descending" generally; it is used of the sun "setting," and the dove is called tu-khu, "the descending bird"; compare the New Testament expression "descending like a dove."

The meaning of No. 417, [symbol], "a small worm," is not apparent in its ancient forms [symbol] I might perhaps suggest the ideograph may now represent "a star" or "brightness" placed within a circle, and the whole be referred to some species of glow-worm of the family Lampyridae.

No. 418, [symbol], " a worm," which only differs from 417 by the addition of two vertical strokes in the Assyrian, is, in the old Babylonian forms [symbol] suggestive enough of an annelid, both in a lengthened or larval form [symbol] spiral attitude [symbol], the ideograph being "an elongated worm that can roll itself up." No. 190, [symbol] (cip, kip), the meaning of which is unknown, has deteriorated considerably when compared with its archaic forms. The hieratic Assyrian has [symbol], the linear Babylonian [symbol]. The ordinary Assyrian [symbol], is one of the elements in the compound ideograph [symbol], meaning "huntsman," "beater," or some such sportsman. Phonetically spelt it shows itself as dam-gar, which is probably Accadian, as is also ibira, its other name. In the inscription recording a hunting expedition of Tiglath-Pileser I, dam-gar is preceded by the D.P. for " official," as [symbol] compound [symbol], the enclosing part of the character signifies a "mouth," [p.481] "enclosure." Assyrian kings were in the habit of capturing wild animals, as deer and the young of wild cattle, alive; and this must have been effected by nets or pit-falls; may the old forms figured above represent a net, the first square picture being that of a net showing the meshes, while the carved figure may refer to the mode of setting the net, which we know was done in a curved line, closed at one end, and open at the other, for the entrance of the game; or the hollowed out figure may be intended to denote pit-falls, much made use of in olden days.

No. 173,[symbol] (uk), is thus represented [symbol] in archaic Babylonian; the form therefore seems here to be represented by [symbol], "the sun," or "the day"; and that portion of the character still survives in the ordinary Assyrian. Here then perhaps we have the rude picture of a "foot" or "base" with "day" or "sun" subscript; the whole ideograph representing "light" or "day-break," by a picture of the sun emerging from the base of the earth.

I believe that the meaning of the character [symbol] (az, ats, as), which has the Assyrian rendering of atsu, is at present unknown; the ancient forms of this sign, however, clearly point to the fact that the original picture was one representing a yoke for cattle in ploughing, or for horses, mules, or asses in drawing carriages or chariots; the Babylonian [symbol] differs but slightly from the Assyrian; in archaic Babylonian we have [symbol]; in the British Museum tablet we meet with these four forms, [symbol]. Now we have already seen that [symbol] denotes a "yoke" or "fetters"; the first form, [symbol], I believe is a rude picture of a portion of the yoke of a chariot or other vehicle, with the sign of "four," under its curved part; the whole being intended to represent "a yoke for a horse or other [p.482] quadruped"; with this we may compare the figure given by Canon Rawlinson ("Ancient Monarchies," 1., p. 410), or that of a Roman jugum [symbol] (Smith's "Greek and Roman Antiquities," p. 652, 2nd ed.) Similarly the sign [symbol] denotes "some four-footed animal trained to the yoke," though one fails to obtain this idea from the character [symbol]. However, the determination of No. 172, [symbol], helps us to give a probable explanation of another character, viz., No. 220, [symbol], imiru, "beast of burden," which in the Babylonian is thus given, [symbol]; this is clearly compounded of No. 172 and No. 222, [symbol], or perhaps No. 221, [symbol]. If the latter, the whole would signify "a quadruped trained to the wooden yoke"; if the former, perhaps "a strong quadruped trained to the yoke";—"sceptre," denoting "power"—or it might be read, "that which has power over the yoke," i.e., able to draw the vehicle; or better still, as suggested by Mr. Sayce, the ideogram may be that of " a whip or goad + yoke."

The archaic Babylonian [symbol] subscript sign of [symbol]. The character [symbol] when it stands alone denotes the domestic ass, and seems to show that this animal was from very early times trained to serve; but when accompanied by another character it denotes either the horse or the mule or the camel; the former "being the beast of burden from the East," the latter "that from the sea." The character for a mule, [symbol], seems to resolve itself into "beast of burden + foot + brightness," or divinity, as implied by the three stars, [symbol] and I think the idea is that of the unequalled [symbol] sureness of the tread of the mule, which in the mountainous districts of Elam, must have struck the attention of the Accadian inhabitants. The notion of excellence being expressed by a term denoting divinity is probably common to many people of different races. Arrian writes of his [p.483] favourite greyhound "Horme" as being the "swiftest and cleverest animal, and one altogether divine."

Mr. Sayce has kindly added the explanation of two other characters. He writes: "I have lately made out the pictorial origin of two very puzzling characters, [symbol] 'father,' and [symbol], 'food.' The archaic Babylonian form of the first is [symbol], that is, the ideograph of making, [symbol] (ov) inside the ideograph of 'nest,' [symbol]. The father, therefore, was pictorially represented as 'the maker of the nest,' or 'family,' 'the builder of the house,' as the mother was 'the ornament' or 'divinity' of the house. The archaic Babylonian representative of [symbol] is [symbol], in linear Babylonian [symbol] which I take to denote a 'loaf of bread.'" No. 494, [symbol], "dog," "Hon," or other beast, is far from being a striking likeness to any [symbol] animal even in its ancient form, which, however, may be a rough picture of some animal couchant.

Note.—I must again gratefully express my obligation to my friend Mr. Sayce, who has read through my MS. and proof-sheets, and added valuable suggestions. I am also greatly indebted to Mr. Rylands, for having made, at a cost of much care and trouble, many very accurate drawings of characters which serve to illustrate this essay.


1 Edkins' "Introduction to the Study of the Chinese Characters," p. 41.

2 The references are taken from Sayce's "Grammar," 1st edition.

3 The following is the interpretation of this Indian bark letter, which I take from Lubbock's "Origin of Civilization" (pp. 42, 43): "On one occasion a party of explorers, with two Indian guides, saw one morning, just as they were about to start, a pole stuck in the direction they were going, and holding at the top a piece of bark, covered with drawings, which were intended for the information of any other Indians who might pass that way. No. 1 is the subaltern officer in command of the party; he is drawn with a sword to denote his rank. No. 2 denotes the secretary; he is represented as holding a book, the Indians having understood him to be an attorney. No. 3 represents the geologist, appropriately indicated by a hammer. Nos. 4 and 5 are attaches; No. 6 the interpreter. The group of figures marked 9 represent seven infantry soldiers [the woodcut above is taken from Schoolcraft's " Indian Tribes," where eight infantry soldiers are represented], each of whom, as shown in group No. 10, was armed with a musket. No. 15 denotes that they had a separate fire, and constituted a separate mess. Figs. 7 and 8 represent the two Chippewa guides; these are the only human figures drawn without the distinguishing symbol of a hat. This was the characteristic seized on by them, and generally employed by the Indians, to distinguish the red from the white race. Figs. 11 and 12 represent a prairie hen and a green tortoise, which constituted the sum of the preceding day's chase, and were eaten at the encampment. The inclination of the pole was designed to show the course pursued, and there were three hacks in it below the scroll of bark to indicate the estimated length of this part of the journey, computing from water to water."

4 Mr. Rylands suggests that this character may be a rude figure of a crown or umbrella; so that the "king" is the "crowned man." I think this a very probable explanation.

5 The two marks on the abdomen mean "fasting for two clays"; the four on the part representing the legs, "sitting still for four days." (Tylor's "Res.," p. 86.)

6 Since the above was written, I have been pleased to find that my interpretation of this old Accadian hieroglyph receives confirmation from Mr. Boscawen's discovery of the use of the fire-stick in kindling the fires for temple worship among the Accadians (p. 279, present vol.). I am also glad to find that so good, an authority as Mr. Boscawen, who has independently turned his attention to some of these original picture-forms, has in several instances come to the same conclusions as myself. ("Prehistoric Civilisation of Babylonia," of the Anthropological Institute, viii, 21.)

7 The old technical name of this [symbol] is gia-pu-giittu, showing that at the time the name was given, the form of the character resembled a combination of [symbol], and [symbol] also called [symbol]. — A. H. S.

8 Vide plate of Assyrian Tablet, Nimroud.

9 Sir H. Rawlinson, in speaking of the devices on the tombs of the Lurs, mentions the double-toothed comb as the distinctive mark of the female sex.

10 If I am right in this explanation, we must exclude the chamois as the animal denoted by di-ta-nu, because that antelope is destitute of tear-pits.

11 A comparison of the linear Babylonian form of this ideograph with that of the ideograph which denotes "life" ([symbol], or [symbol], linear [symbol] show that the latter originally represented a flower growing up with open leaves, and hence "life" in general.—A. H. S.

12 I think it rather points to the high estimation in which the mother was held in the Accadian family, she was as it were the "deity of the house."—A. H. S. The ideograph has the meaning definitely of "mother" and "large," the latter involving the idea of pregnancy; so perhaps both ideas may be intended.

13 [symbol] is a "blade," "sting," or pointed tail; [symbol] is "food."— A. H. S.

14 Was not this a picture of drawing up the irrigation bucket?— A. H. S.

15 The old name of [symbol] is stirklu.—A. H. S.

16 I would rather explain [symbol] as "a staff of wood," or "a flowering reed."—A. H. S.