Susanllewellyn's Blog

November 15, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (22)

We’re on a famous syllable now:  nefer, the Egyptian word for beautiful or, as in this case, good.  It has sounded down the ages in the names of some of Egypt’s most famous queens: 

73889001SG007_Egypt_And_Ger

Nefertiti, “the beautiful one is come”;

Nefertari

Nefertari, “the most beautiful of them all”. 

So what symbol did the Egyptians choose to represent the sound of good and beautiful?  Have a look and see if you can tell what it is:

nefret 

Nope?  Give up?  OK, I’ll tell you.  It’s the heart and windpipe, possibly of an ox.  Aaaah, of course!  You’re smacking yourself on the forehead now, aren’t you?  What else would you use to convey the sound for good or beautiful?  Well, I suppose these abstract concepts are hard to draw.  You have to reach for the practical, and the practical can be pretty earthy.  I suppose that, as writing was invented to keep inventories of valuable commodities, the butchered components of an expensive animal like an ox would be something you would want to itemise on a list.  The sound is just a coincidence. When writing is developing beyond the practical to capture abstract qualities, if a symbol already exists for that sound, that’s what you use.  So, they used the heart and windpipe for nefer, meaning good or beautiful.

Or rather, in this case:

nfrt transliteration

 

 

 

The nefer hieroglyph is a triliteral, conveying in one symbol the sound of three consonants:  n, f and r.  The second and third of these letters are written out more fully in other examples: nfr full099

However, in the case of our offering formula, like nebet in the previous post, the adjective is feminine, to agree with khet, “thing”.  You could put a loaf of bread after it, to stand for the “t” if you wanted, but as it’s a formula and things tend ot get compressed in formulae, the scribe hasn’t bothered in this example.    To draw the nefer sign, I usually start with the downward stroke, loop it around to make a squat little jar shape for it to stand on, cross the upright like a Roman t (I usually cross it twice, as the Egyptians often did, too) and then put in the details on the jar shape:  a little crescent above, and a little loop below.

Here are a couple of examples of the real hieroglyph, one a sculpted relief, the other an inlay in semi-precious stone:

nfr relief101

nfr inlay100

You can see the internal markings of the heart carved into the limestone, but not into the tiny bit of gemstone – too fiddly, perhaps, when you have a lot of them to do.

Again, I did consider putting a picture of a real, gory specimen on the blog – but if you really want to see one, you know where to look.  I’m not squeamish, but I don’t want to put people off.

So, if you fancy one of your colleagues but don’t know how to tell them, you can write the hieroglyph for beautiful on their whiteboard, and take it from there.  Or, if you really loathe them but are forced to write the offering formula on their birthday card because you’ve done it for yourself, you can console yourself that what you’re drawing for them is something really gory.  Fill in those details with relish!

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3 Comments »

  1. Oh what a great blog! Found you through twitter (Bennu). Will bookmark this one!

    Leena 🙂

    Comment by Leena Pekkalainen — November 15, 2009 @ 8:11 pm | Reply

    • Welcome! Glad you like it.

      Comment by susanllewellyn — November 17, 2009 @ 8:50 pm | Reply

    • Happy New Year, Leena! Just submitted a link to your blog to Digg.

      Comment by susanllewellyn — January 8, 2010 @ 4:29 pm | Reply


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