Susanllewellyn's Blog

November 15, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (23)

And after goodness, purity:


wabet transliteration

Wabet,  “pure” or “clean” – in the feminine form when spoken, but without the loaf of bread representing the t , because it’s so obvious to those in the know that the scribe, dashing off yet another offering formula, hasn’t bothered to write it down.  But we know it’s there, don’t we?

Advanced office scribes like us will also have deduced that the masculine form is wab, and that the rather curious sumbol above is a triliteral sign conveying the sound of three letters, w a and b. 

We’ve had b before, haven’t we?  If you cast your mind back to the first line of the offering formula, when we were looking at Abydos or Abdju, one of the major cult centres of Osiris, you’ll recall that the letter b in ancient Egyptian is represented by the human foot.  And what do we have as the bottom half of this symbol?  A human foot!  That’ll be the b, then.

But what’s that spout on top, and what’s it spouting?  No, it’s not what you’re thinking.  They could draw what you’re thinking much better than that.  The upper part of the symbol is a little water pot, and it’s pouring forth a libation of purifying water.

You can see the kind of pot in full pouring action in this scene from the sarcophagus of a royal lady:

lady pouring102

In this scene, one of the lady’s servants is pouring her a drink.  In temples and in funeral rites, water was used for ritual purification, as in this scene where a priest is pouring water over the coffin of the deceased:

priest pouring103

It’s a shame the painting has flaked away just where I want to show you the water spouting out of the pots, but never mind.  And the blue wiggly lines for the water have come out nicely.  So, the symbol for “pure” was the standard ritual purification device of ancient Egyptian religion, the pot pouring out clean water, rendering the person or object it was poured over cleansed and pure.  Wab was also the word for “priest” in ancient Egyptian; literally, “the pure one”.

Here’s an example from a temple relief:

wab seti relief104

We already know how to draw the foot.  Then just draw a little oval on top for the pot, like an egg lying on its side, but square off the pointy end a bit for the rim.  Then draw a zigzag line for the water, arcing out of the pot in a graceful curve.

Finally -please remember all this when the office plant contractors come round and water the aspidistras.  And stop stubbing out illicit cigarettes in the rubber plants, and using the weeping fig as a receptacle for your coffee dregs, or the office party plonk.  They’ve been ritually purified.  Have some respect.


  1. In the purification scene(water being poured on woman’s head?)what is the bouquet made of (the floral “structure” between the woman and the mummy)? I have seen this on many reliefs and paintings. Is it simply a stack of several flower holders? In most paintings it is topped off with several stalks of papyrus, I wonder if the stem of the papyrus passes down through all of them?

    Comment by John Gaudet — January 12, 2010 @ 9:34 pm | Reply

    • Hi John. I’ve had a look at this and several other examples, and I don’t think it’s a stack of flower holders. I think you’re right, and it’s tiers of flowers bound around a central papyrus core.

      In the banqueting scene in the tomb of Userhat at Thebes, there is one which is clearly a single unit, as opposed to the “heap” of individual offerings in vessels on the offering table, where the vases and baskets would really have been one beside the other rather than piled up in this way.

      On the papyrus of Ani in the British Museum, you can see some of these bouquets attached to the uprights of the sledge transporting the body in its coffin, and also members of the funerary procession carrying simpler versions. There are some very pillar-like examples on the ivory chest of Tutankhamun in Cairo Museum. Finally, the scene of Seti I offering floral bouquets to Amun in the northern section of the hypostyle hall at Karnak shows him grasping one bundles in each had – although this relief does make them look like teetering stacks of those pointy paper cups you get in the gym!

      Have you looked at “Pharaoh’s Flowers” by F. Nigel Hepper? I don’t have a copy here, but next time I’m in the Egypt Exploration Society library, I’ll check that, too. Hope this helps, as far as it goes.

      Comment by susanllewellyn — January 13, 2010 @ 9:21 pm | Reply

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