Susanllewellyn's Blog

August 5, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (7)

Filed under: Office hieroglyphs — Valerie Billingham @ 8:31 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Welcome back.  Post 7, and we’ve only just finished with the first word in the formula.  And it isn’t even the first word, it just happens to be written down first.  Time we got on to the second word, which is the first word when spoken out loud. 

When it was spoken out loud, it sounded something like hetep (or hotep, as it’s often rendered in transliterations of ancient Egyptian names – Amenhotep, Mentuhotep, etc).  I bet you’re just gagging to get on to hetep by now, aren’t you? 

Well, here it is:


Htp transliteration

You’ll notice the little dot under the h.  That means you have to give the h sound slightly more emphasis than you would a normal h in English – really huff it and puff it. 

 The Egyptians were very particular about their aitches.  They were connoisseurs of the aspirate.  They built up quite a collection of them, in fact – there are four letters h in the transliterated Egyptian alphabet.  The first one sounded like an ordinary English h.  This is the second one, the emphatic one. They had a third one, which sounded like the ch sound in the Scottish word “loch”, and finally a very hard one which may have sounded something like the ch sound in the German word “ich”.  They knew a thing or two about heavy breathing, I tell you.

Anyway, fascinating though the letter h may be, what you really want to know is, what the heck is the symbol?  The symbol is a combination of two things:  a loaf of bread which has been placed upon a reed mat.

Hang on, you may say, we’ve already had the loaf of bread and it doesn’t look like that.  Well spotted.  But the Egyptians liked variety in a bread loaf just as much as they liked variety in their hes, and this is another kind of loaf, one that was baked in conical bread moulds.  There is a row of them standing on the floor between the two women in this bread-making scene:

bread moulds

The little blip on the top of the hieroglyph is the bread, shown in profile. The reed mat is shown in plan, as though we’re looking down on it from above.  (Wonderful artists though the Egyptians were, they didn’t understand perspective.) Let’s have a picture of a reed mat; well, why not?

reed matting

Ok, so it’s not ancient, it’s modern, but it gives you an idea.  The word for offering is written with the symbol of a loaf of bread placed on top of a reed mat, because the bread is a very basic food offering, and the reed mat a very simple and ancient kind of altar.  Way back before writing was invented, the Egyptians would have been bringing offerings of bread to the tombs of their ancestors, taking them inside the tomb chapels and laying them down on mats like this, so that their ancestors’ souls could feed on the life force within the bread.  When writing was invented, this contemporary image of a loaf on a mat was what the word “offering” conjured up for them, so that was what they used to write the word.

You can see the loaf and mat more clearly in this example, in which the word is spelled out more fully:

htp coloured062

Beneath it, on the right, is our first loaf of bread, representing  ….. ? Yep, well done, the letter t.  The sign on the left is a stool made of reed matting, which stood for the letter p.  But the word is still read hetep, not hetepetep.  The offering hieroglyph contains all three letters; the other two are there simply to reinforce the t and the p, not to repeat them.  Or, to put it another way, the hetep sign alone is a very abbreviated writing of the word – as you would get in a formula.  (As you’ll also have spotted, their positions means that, in this example, the hieroglyphs are read right to left.)

Despite the rustic simplicity of the hieroglyphs used to write the word “offering”, any Egyptian of any status would have been horrified if they thought their tombs would be furnished so cheaply for the afterlife and that they would have to get by for eternity a loaf of bread a day.  They expected a lot more than that from their descendants.  Look at these two:

offering table063

This is what these tomb owners are really expecting from the grieving relatives:  a proper table, not a picnic blanket, thank you.  And the table  has to be crammed with bread rolls – then you can throw the reed mat over them if you want (you can see it in the middle), as long as you pile a load more grub on the top – we’ll have more loaves and some cakes and a few baskets of grapes; and don’t forget some handsome joints of meat and plenty of bundles of vegetables.  Come on, pile ’em all on, don’t be stingy, kids…. 

(Actually, the food on top of the reed mat may be beside of the offering table rather than on top of it – they didn’t understand perspective, as I said.)

WhenI’m writing offering formulae, I usually draw a rectangle for the mat first, and add the little cone on top afterwards. Tell you what, next time someone brings cakes into the office, take one back to your desk, plonk it on the paper napkin start  drawing.  You’ll soon get the hang of it.


  1. Having been pointed in your direction by Blain, I’ve just got round to actually looking. First I’m totally impressed, over- extra- whelmed by the content and extent of the Blog, first one I’ve ever looked at, are they all like this? I find it totally fascinating, it’s renewed my interest in Egypt and I will study in depth later. At present it’s Friday morning, I have to go to the bank, get shopping, see John at the Royal Marsden, show notes re Chelsea Green to the fishmonger, copy my collage to a person from… etc. I was talking to a friend of our choir last Sat (we sang a terrific Mass) and discovered that Patrick was also blown away by his visit to Egypt,like me. So you’ll have another Blog reader when I can get his E- mail address. Great stuff. Good luck with whatever you are doing. Love Vickie

    Comment by Vickie Reilly — August 21, 2009 @ 9:38 am | Reply

    • Glad you like it, Vickie. Lovely to hear from you and hear all your news. All new recruits welcome! XXX

      Comment by susanllewellyn — August 21, 2009 @ 7:24 pm | Reply

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