Meroitic Writing


Clyde Winters

In this paper we review the methods used by C.A. Winters to decipher the Meroitic writing.


Maurice Pope in THE STORY OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL DECIPHERMENT (New York: Charles Scribner"s Sons,1975), has made it clear that before an unknown language can be deciphered you must have the right theoretical structure to base your inquiry upon (p.191) Pope found that in the historical decipherments of ancient languages three preliminary conditions must be met:

1) confidence that a script can be deciphered;

2) location of proper names must be determined;

3) the grammatical rules of the target language/

script must be found (pp.186-187).

We were able to read Meroitic because these preliminary conditions were met, and we were able to develop new hypothesis based on historical evidence to determine the cognate language of Meroitic. Conditions number one and two were met by Griffith when he deciphered the Meroitic script in 1910, and his discovery of the proper names of the Meroitic gods and individuals in Meroitic text. Griffith also discovered the direction the Meroitic writing was written.

This recognition by Griffith of the solubility of the Meroitic text was reinforced in 1978, with publication of UNESCO's The Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Decipherment of the Meroitic Script. This was an important publication because it provided researchers with up-to-date information on the status of Meroitic.

Condition number three for the decipherment of Meroitic was met in 1979 when Fritz Hintze published his Beitrage zur meroitischen Grammatik . The research of F. Hintze (1979) and I. Hoffmann (1981) have made it possible for us to find the cognate language of Meroitic: Tokharian (Winters 1984 ,1989). The work of Griffith and Hintze fulfilled all the requirements for the decipherment of the Meroitic writing.

The comparative method was used to find the cognate language of Meroitic. Using this method Meroitic scholars have compared the "known" Meroitic terms to vernacular African languages to establish morphological cognition between Meroitic and an African language. Up to now these linguistic comparisons failed to reveal the cognate language of Meroitic.

Researchers working on the Meroitic language do not believe that it was a member of the Afro-Asian group. Griffith and Haycock tried to read Meroitic using Nubian. K.H. Priese, tried to read the Meroitic text using Eastern Sudani; and F. Hintze, attempted to compare Meroitic with the Ural-Altaic group. Recently Siegbert Hummel, compared the "known" Meroitic words to words in the Altaic family which he believed was a substrate language of Meroitic.

These scholars failed to find a match between Meroitic and the vernacular languages of Nubia and the Sudan. This made it necessary to turn to the historical literature concerning the Kushites to form a new hypothesis related to possible sources of the Meroitic language. The historical literature of the Kushites comes from Egyptian and classical sources.



Werner Vycihle , in "Le pays de Kousch dans une inscription Ethiopienne", Annales d'Ethiopie ,2, (1957) pp.177-179, has provided us with many lexical items relating to the Sudanese. The people of Upper Nubia and the Sudan were known in Egyptian as k-'-s and k-'-s-i . The Hebrew people called the Kushites kus. In the cuneiform inscriptions the Sudanese were called Kusiya. In the Ethiopic inscriptions Ezana the Kushites were called Kashi or Kasu. In Sumerian the Kushites were called Melukha = Kasi and Kasi = Kush.

The best evidence for Meroitic civilization and history comes from the classical literature. This hypothesis was supported by the fact that Lepsius used the classical literature to find old Meroe.

Following the Egyptian and other ancient peoples the classical scholars also called the Sudanese: Ethiopians or Kushites. The classical scholars made it clear that the Kushites lived not only in Africa but also Asia. Hommer alluded to the two Kushite empires when he wrote "A race divided, whom the sloping rays; the rising and the setting sun surveys". Herodotus (L.xii;C.lxx.) said that there two Ethiopias. The Roman Strabo also claimed that there were two Ethiopias.

The countries of Bactria, Afghanistan, Georgia, ancient Elam and Beluchistan were called Kush . The Armenian historians always named the eastern Parthians Kushan. The people living there called themselves Kushana , Kuisa or Kusa . Moses Chorene (/Xorenac'i) in Patmut'iwn Hayoc' (Venice,1881) claimed that the four divisions of Persia: Media, Elymais, Aria, and etc. as Kush. C. B. Rawlinson in "Notes on the Early History of Babylonia", Journal Royal Asiatic Society, 15, pp. 221-222 discussed the unity of Ethiopians in Asia and Africa.

This would explain the statement by Philostratus in Life of Appollonius and Jerom, that the Gymnosophists of Kush, who settled near the source of the Nile, descended from the Brahmins of India, having been forced to migrate after the murder of their king. Eustathius, also said that the Kushites (Meroites) came from India. We can also be sure that the Kushan were known in northeast Africa because a horde of Kushan coins were found in the floor of a cave at the present monastery-shrine at Debra Demo in modern Ethiopia in 1940.

The historical evidence supported the view that the Kushites of Meroe, may be related to the Kushites of Asia. This was a fine hypothesis but it had to be tested.

To test this hypothesis and find more information on how the Kushites in Africa may have got Asia forced us to return to the classical literature. In the classical literature Herodotus and Strabo claimed that the Egyptians had settled Ethiopians in Asia.

The Roman Strabo, in his Geography , said that "Egyptians settled in Ethiopia and in Colchoi". Ammianus Marcellinus, who lived in the first century AD, wrote that "Beyond these lands are the heartland's of the Camaritae and the Phasis with its swifter streams borders the country of the Colchoi, an ancient race of Egyptian origin".

Martin Bernal, in Black Athena (volume 2, Rutgers University Press,1991) made it clear that the Colchis were blacks (pp.251-255). He makes it clear that the name Colchis < Kolchis may have come from the Egyptian name for Upper Nubia during the Middle Kingdom.(p.253)

If the Colchis came from Kush, we would then be able to explain why the ancient scholars called much of Asia Kush, and

the people living there called themselves Kushites . This also gave us the proper theoretical structure to decipher/translate Meroitic,i.e., the Kushana language was possibly related to Meroitic.


The classical literature supported the view that we might be able to find the Meroitic cognate language through a comparison of the Meroitic terms and Kushan lexical items. To test the Kushana hypothesis we had to then:

1) find agreement between Kushana and Meroitic terms;

2) compare Central Asian and Egypto-Sudanese toponomies;

3) compare Kushana and Meroitic grammatical forms.

Hintze's (1979) grammar of Meroitic provided the necessary material to compare Meroitic with other languages to find its cognate language. Hintze (1979) recognized three approaches to the study of Meroitic: 1) philological, 2) comparative, and 3) structural (i.e., the morphological-syntactical). The philological methods of Hintze (1979) were informed guesses based upon context.

In the comparative method the structures of two or more languages are compared to determine the relationship between languages. Hintze's (1979) discussion of the Meroitic affixes provided us with the linguistic material to compare Meroitic successfully with Tocharian. Linguist to determine the relatedness of languages, and to reconstruct earlier language states uses the comparative method.

The comparative linguist looks for patterns of correspondence, i.e., the isolation of words with common or similar meanings that have systematic consonantal agreement with little regard for location and/or type of vowel. Consonantal agreement is the regular appearance of consonants at certain locations in words having analogous meanings.

Using the comparative methods proposed by Hintze we have found that the Meroitic inscriptions are written in Tocharian, a language used as a lingua franca in Central Asia by the Kushana or Kush people. The Kushana people ruled Central Asia and India. Linguist prefer to call the Kushana language Tocharian, after the Sanskrit term for Kushana: Tu-kara.(Winters 1984,1989)

There is structural, morphological and toponymic evidence which support the view that Tokharian is cognate to Meroitic

(Winters 1984,1989).

There are many Central Asian place names that agree with toponomies in Nubia/ Sudan. Below we list a few of these common toponomies:

Central Asia Sudan

Pap Pap

Karnak Karnak

Kukushka Kurush

Shaur Sarur

Kandi Kandi

Urban Borgan

Khara Kara-

Kupuri Gabur, Capur

These placenames cam be compared with the maps of Central Asia and the Sudan supplied me by Dr. Vamos-Toth and attached hereto.





Some of the alleged Meroitic terms, but not all have being verified by my decipherment. What you must remember though, is that most of the alleged Meroitic lexical items were simply guesses by the researchers themselves. These Meroitic terms could only become valid when they can be read in all the Meroitic text and have consistent meaning. I found that some of these terms are homonyms, while other terms "discovered " by Griffith and others were good guesses that do not prove valid given our discovery of the cognate language of Meroitic.

There are several recognized Meroitic words they are not of Egyptian origin (Hintze 1979). The following words correspond to Tokharian words:

Meroitic Tokharian

0 kadke / ktke # queen 0 katak # master of the house

0 ato # water 0 ap #

0 s # 'race' 0 sah # 'man'

0 wide # youth 0 wir #

0 qor # monarch 0 oroce # 'the grand king'

0 parite # agent 0 parwe # 'first'

0 apote # 'envoy' 0 ap # 'father'

Around 57% of these terms show agreement. This made it highly probable that Meroitic and Tokharian were cognate languages.

The grammar of Meroitic determined by Hintze (1979) also allowed us to make comparisons with Tocharian to test the Kushana hypothesis for reading Meroitic. This comparison of grammatical structures showed cognition between this language and Meroitic. Hintze was sure that there were number of Meroitic affixes including:






B.G. Trigger in his "Commentary" (Hintze 1979) mentioned several other possible Meroitic affixes including:




In addition , A. M. Abdalla in his "Commentary" (Hintze 1979) mentioned three possible verbal suffixes , including:




The Kushana language includes all of these affixes.

Recognition of analogous structural elements in relation to Kushana and Meroitic allowed us to divide the Meroitic phonemes into words.

Griffith provided us with evidence for selected Meroitic nouns. Abdalla (Hintze 1979, 149) was sure that he detected several common verbs in Meroitic including: hr, the, tk, we, pl, do, mde and yi mde.

Following this lead we searched the Kushan language to determine if it possessed any verbs that might match the proposed hypothetical verbs of Abdalla. A comparison of Kushan and Meroitic proved to be successful. We now know that he was absolutely right about his interpretation of possible Meroitic verbs. Below is the interpretation of these Meroitic verbs:

hr to have dignity

the to move

tk to set in motion, to investigate

w-e to give escort

pl to boast, to praise

m-de measure the offering

y i m-de go make (full) measure of the offering

Recognition of these Meroitic terms as verbs gave us any more confirmation that Kushana was probably the Meroitic cognate language. This discovery of Meroitic verbs and nouns, and cognate toponomies in Central Asia and Upper-Nubia-Sudan proved that Meroitic could be read using Kushana lexical items.


The discovery that Tocharian is cognate to Meroitic has led to the full decipherment of the Meroitic script. We can now translate Meroitic using Tokharian. This allows us to obtain new information about the Meroitic civilization.

My research into Kushan or Tokharian has led me to recognize that this language was probably used as a lingua franca or trade language in Central Asia by the diverse peoples living there in an intense bilingual environment. C. A. Winters (1991) has illustrated how the Greek and Slavic terms in Tokharian were loanwords, absorbed by Tokharian after the Greek conquest of Bactria. This borrowing pattern was consistent with the spread of the Greek language into Bactria by a small elite group of warriors.

To test this hypothesis at attepted to decipher an inscription from Mussawarat es-Sufra. The inscription included several Meroitic signs.


The picture associated with this inscription is a graphic depiction of a sexual experience.

Reading for right to left we have the following Meroitic words

Nem pkh ote

In Kushana these words had the following meaning in Kushana

Nam = tendency

Pak = to aim

Ote = Wonderment

This allows us to read the Musawwarat es-Sufra inscription as follows: "The tendency (is) to aim for the Wonderment of (sex)!

Once I had made this breakthrough in the decipherment of Meroitic I began to decipher other Meroitic inscriptions and learn more about the Meroitic language.

Meroitic Language

The classical and Egyptian sources make it clear that Upper Nubia and numerous tribes inhabited the Sudan. The possible early use of Kushan\Tokharian as a trade language made it an ideal candidate for use by the Meroitic elites who ruled an empire that was made up of many diverse ethnic groups as the language for literate Meroites.

Meroitic is basically a suffixing language. The funerary tablets are written in the third person.

I have deciphered many Meroitic artifacts. As a result I have made a word list of Meroitic that you can use to read the Meroitic inscriptions. This file can be found at the following site

  • Short Meroitic List of Words; in Meroitic and English

    We have already deciphered many funerary tablets (Winters 1984b,1989b). The Meroitic inscriptions have the following order:

    1) Invocation to Isis (Wosi) and Osiris (Sere) the gods

    of the dead;

    2) Name of the deceased person; and

    3) the obituary.

    In the early Meroitic script the deceased requested passage to a revitalized Napata. In the later inscriptions the deceased asked to be sent to Khenel, Khenepi and or Bane, the place(s) where the spirits dwell.

    It appears that Woshi, was responsible for giving the dead person's Kha , the right to leave for paradise. Sere , was the god who guides the deceased person's Kha , to the afterworld(s).

    There is also mention of Amon. Amon was recognized as the Supreme god of many people of the Meroitic Sudan (Winters 1995a, 1995b, n.d.). In figure 7, we see a stelae from Karanog (Winters ,n.d.).

    The funerary stelae from Karanog (fig.7) published by MacIver

    and Wooley , provides us with a good picture of the Meroitic religion and style of writing. On the front of the funerary stelae of Karanog we find the depiction of a woman with her hair

    tied in a top-knot, necklace around her neck and bangles on her arms. Above the head of this female figure we find wings. This stelae has fourteen (14) lines. The stelae is dedicated to a

    woman named Tqewine/ Tqowine.

    Below we will first give the transliteration of the Karanog stelae and then a translation of Meroitic into English. At the end of the translation we will provide a vocabulary of the text.

    Line 1. Woshi ne Shore yi-ne t-po m-i d.

    Line 2. Tqowine s li-ne t si d e-ne te o d he.

    Line 3. Lo wi-ne sl h m-ne...s-ne qo. Qo li-ne

    Line 4. Terike lo wi-ne...i l pe rine si b lo.

    Line 5. Tel-o wi-ne pq r ne ye mtetl...e ne ye.

    Line 6. Lq-ne lo win-ne yet sn net e i ol ye e-ne.

    Line 7. M ne lo wi-ne... ot p kr-ne yet ne-ne e-o wi-ne.

    Line 8. Pe sto lt-ne yet m n e e-o wi-ne qo re.

    Line 9. St s t lete-ne s-ne tq lo wi-ne hle mr.

    Line 10. S-ne q lo-t to lo wi-ne mte h ne s-n pe.

    Line 11. Sto li h wi-ne t e lo lo-a en-ne ye.

    Line 12. Tb h re lo wi-ne ato mh enep si se-a.

    Line 13. Te-ne ato mh enep wi h r ke te-ne h ml-o l-ne.

    Line 14. P-Sin ote m-i ke te-ne Wosi ne. Shore o-i ine.


    "l. Isis the Good, and Osiris the Eternal (are) commanding the

    measure (of) the bequeathal. (2) Tqowine, the patron to transmit

    her satisfying bequeathal. She commands the beginning of the

    bequeathal of the He. (3) The solitary honorable patron (is) to

    behold the He-ne's (the abstract personality of man) prop up

    the renewal. Act to (make) the conveyance. (4) (Its) the Fashion

    to dispatch Awe...[h]i to remain to reproduce within satisfaction

    from a distance. (5) The solitary object of respect to make

    indeed a good voyage to Mtetl...[here] to be give(n) a good

    existence.(6) She is to witness solitary reverence capable of

    cleverly bowing in reverence (to the gods)--give leave to the /a

    grand journey (Oh) Commander. (7) Measure the good (of the )

    lonely object of Honor [lying in the grave]...esteem and dignity.

    Adorn (her with) goodness, give opening to honor.(8) Your

    nonexistent patron goes to measure goodness. Give (its) beginning

    Now! The Object of Respect (Tqowine, to be) renewed indeed. (9)

    Endorse the embarkation of the (good) Supporter. Set in Motion

    the dispatch of this object of respect (Tqowine) to reverberate

    luck. (10) The patron, she is present (in) the grave. Send the

    Object of Respect to unlock H-ne [the place where the H, is kept]

    --the Patron begs you. (11) Protect her conveyance of the H. This

    honorable woman give (her) isolated departure. The Teacher (to

    take) a journey. (12) Announce in a lofty voice indeed, the

    dispatch of this Object of Respect (on the) path (of) the grand

    bestowal (of) atonement (and ) favor. (13) Rebirth is the path to

    grand bestowal of honor to the H , indeed give permission for the

    rebirth of the H, and the soul to exit. (14) Much satisfaction

    (and) wonder (to come) measure it. The permission (for its

    bestowal ) is arranged by Isis,( and) Osiris (is) the Opener of

    the Way."


    In conclusion the multiethnic populations that lived in the Meroitic empire used the Meroitic language as a lingua franca. This would explain the inability of earlier researchers to find the cognate language of Meroitic in the Sudan, even though they might find some analogous lexical items.

    As a result of the above, I believe that our decipherment of the Meroitic script is correct. You will find that these lexical items allow us to gain insight into the Meroitic religious and funerary world. I look forward to finding some historical Meroitic text, but up to now I have just found materials relating to funerary customs and the Meroitic religion. The Meroitic chamber inscription is interesting , but it also deals mainly with things funerary.








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