Flowering reed or reed leaf? A hieroglyphic puzzle

with 1 Comment

As part of some research I was doing, I needed to find a picture of the plant represented in the j hieroglyph (see below), otherwise known as the ‘yod’ or ‘yode’ (M27 in Gardiner’s sign list).

Shows the yod glyph as well as the transliteration (j) and translation (i)

Unfortunately, I hit a snag. Some of my language books, such as Gardiner himself, describe it as a ‘flowering reed’. Other books, such as Collier and Manley in their How to read Egyptian Hieroglyphs and James P Allen in his Middle Egyptian tome refer to it as a ‘reed leaf’.

So, what was I to look up?

Upon realising that my library is woefully short of anything Egyptological from the botanical point-of-view, I turned to the Internet and, after a bit of digging around, I found a paper on JSTOR from the Kew Bulletin entitled ‘Grasses in Ancient Egypt’. Bingo!

The article lists three main types of reed present in the Egyptian archaeological record:

Phragmites australis

A field of tall grasses
Phragmites australis (Credit: Andreas Tepte via Wikicommons)

 Arundo donax

A field of tall grasses
Arundo donax (Credit: H Zell via Wikicommons)

Saccharum spontaneum

A field of tall grasses
Saccharum spontaneum (Credit: Joydeep via Wikicommons)

On page 509, the article states:

According to Täckholm and Drar (1941), Phragmites is also pictured on old monuments, though misinterpreted by some authors as Arundo. The outer temple wall of Madinet Habu, where the war events of Ramses III are illustrated, a lion is seen fleeing through thickets of Phragmites. They add 'the panicle of Phragmites was used as a common Hieroglyphic sign, easily distinguished from Arundo by its lax, acute, 1-sided (not dense, ovoid, symmetric) panicle'.

A panicle (I have to admit, I had to look it up!), according to the Oxford Dictionaries online, is “A loose branching cluster of flowers, as in oats.” Basically, the top, feathery bit containing the seeds.

Following on through from this reference, I found the scene mentioned in the article in the Oriental Institute’s Medinet Habu – Volume 1: Earlier Historical Records of Ramses III. Plate 35 depicts the lion-hunting scene, and you can clearly see in the image below that it’s the panicle at the top of the reeds being depicted in the j hieroglyph, and not the leaves.

A line drawing of the scene, which has Rameses in a horse-drawn chariot hunting lions using a bow and arrow. A lion is running past a large bunch of flowering reeds. There are hieroglyphic inscriptions above the scene.

So why is it referred to as a ‘reed leaf’ in these books? It seems like a bit of a misleading term to me.

Maybe it’s just a turn of phrase that’s caught on. If you know, please do leave a comment.

For now, however, I think I’ll stick to ‘flowering reed’.


[This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase using this link, it won’t cost you any extra, but I will earn a small commission, which helps me keep this site running.]

Unless otherwise stated, all content and photos on this site are © Julia Thorne. It’s a common misconception that images online are free from copyright. Copyright laws still stand. Please feel free to share online, but only with a link back here or to the relevant social media account. If you’d like to use any of my photos, please email me at julia@tetisheri.co.uk. Thank you.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
30 July 2017 5:41 pm

Excellent investigation , that is very important not only linguistically but also Mythological as well what the sign actually represents in other words there is BIG difference between “A REED LEAF” and ” REED FLOWER” .. Linguistically in reality there is no consensus how SİNGLE REED FLOWER hieroglyphic sign should sounds like – İ or E or A , but everybody seems to agree on 2 Reed Flowers SIDE BY SIDE should sound “Y” .. .

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x