Images communicate in primarily visual terms, whatever their relation with any discursive content may be. This visual character makes it difficult to use language to talk about pictures: they operate in another way. Writing conveys discursive, “linear” meaning, whether propositional and semantic (including numbers) or linguistic, through a visual medium. That visual medium may or may not use images. Westerners are used to a general separation of visual and discursive modes, which was also normal in later periods of ancient Egyptian cursive writing. By contrast, Egyptian pictorial forms and hieroglyphs maintained a commonality of forms for more than three millennia. The joint, complementary system of images and writing was culturally central. This paper addresses aspects of how that system hieroglyphs operated (cursive scripts are not a focus in the discussion). The point of departure is that pictorial representation has primacy over writing, both because it is an older means of communication, preceding writing by tens of thousands of years, and because in Egypt images were accorded a higher value than writing.

Pictorial images and hieroglyphs use most of the same representational (or figurative) conventions. The two domains interact, and the majority of pictures include hieroglyphs. One medium can elucidate the other, or they can convey meaning independently and in parallel. They are not often in opposition. From very early, some hieroglyphs were “personified” so that the abstractions they signify could do things in pictorial contexts, a usage which demonstrates deliberate play upon boundaries between the modes. In other cases groups of “signs” of similar appearance to hieroglyphs but without a specific linguistic reading performed similar functions. The pictoriality of hieroglyphs informed attitudes to agency: images, especially hieroglyphs inscribed in contexts that were ritually enlivened, could act and be harmful, and both modes could be subject to restrictions intended to control their agency.

Despite such overlaps in pictorial implications of the two modes, in most compositions it is easy to separate depicted from written (and much scholarship has extracted the written at the expense of the pictorial). Basic features of design and layout, including scale and the mix of vertical and horizontal, contribute to distinguishing between them. Such features can be valuably approached through analysis of limiting cases that will be presented in the paper, but the general clarity of the system should also be emphasized.