Susanllewellyn's Blog

February 14, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Atum (5)

Remember that flaky basket hieroglyph we saw last time?  Well here’s an even flakier one.  Atum’s next title, nb ‘Iwnw, neb Iunu, Lord of Heliopolis, begins at the bottom of one column and continues at the top of the next:

Yes, those random black marks underneath nb t3wy are all that is left of another basket sign.  The three symbols at the top of the left-hand column form the word ‘Iwnw:

Don’t worry about the curly think snapping out like a frog’s tongue i n pursuit of a fly; that’s just the curly bit on the front of the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, which Atum is wearing in the picture.

We’ve had two of the hieroglyphs in this group before (sort of), but the first one is new:

 ‘Iwn, Iun.  It’s a pillar with a tenon, or tongue for inserting into a slot, on the top; part of the mechanism for locking the pillar into the structure of the roof.  This picture of columns at the Ramesseum will give you an idea:

 It’s another easy to draw sign; a tall, thin rectangle with a v neck, and a short stroke (or, sometimes, a cross) inserted into the v, and a line about halfway or two thirds of the way down, marking the border between the different colours with which the pillar is painted. 

We’ve had the second hieroglyph before, but lying on its side and standing on one foot – a real contortionist of a sign.  It’s the little water pot which formed part of the word wcbt, wabet, pure in the offering formula.  Standing up on its own two feet (but without the feet) it reads nw, nu, reinforcing the n in Iunu and adding the sound u.

The final hieroglyph is the place determinative, a circle with an x in it, representing a town wall and a crossroads, which we’ve seen before in Djedu and Abdju, Busiris and Abydos, in Osiris’ titulary.

So the whole group reads ‘Iwnw, Iunu, the ancient Egyptian name for the cult centre which eventually became know throughout the Greek-speaking world as Heliopolis, the City of the Sun. 

Heliopolis was one of the most important cult centres of ancient Egypt, the site of the first known sun temple and sacred to the solar cult.  The position of the sun was far too important a celestial occupation for just one god.  As well as Atum, the elderly god of the setting sun, there was Harakhty or Horus of the Horizon, god of the rising sun; Khepri, the scarab beetle who rolled the sun across the sky at midday, and the generic sun gods Re, (known to the producers of Hollywood epics as Ra) and Aten, credited with being the god of the first monotheistic religion.  Now that’s job sharing.

According to the ancient Greeks, Heliopolis was the destination of the phoenix, the sacred bird which, when old, flew to the temple of the sun god to burn itself upon the solar altar and rise again from the ashes.  Now it’s mostly buried under Cairo airport, and all that flies in there these days are planeloads of tourists. 

One obelisk is the only thing of any size now visible, but there are others closer at hand depending on where you’re reading this); Cleopatra’s Needle on the banks of the Thames in London and the obelisk in New York’s Central Park both came from Heliopolis.

The origin of the legend of the phoenix was probably the bird known to the ancient Egyptians as the benu bird, a sacred heron associated with the sun cult.  The legend lives on @Bennu on Twitter!

February 9, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Atum (3)

Ok, let’s roll up our sleeves and get back down there with those hieroglyphs.  We’re working on Atum’s name in this post.  Here it is:

  (‘I)tm Atum

The ‘I or A at the beginning is in brackets because in this spelling it’s not actually written in the ancient Egyptian, although it did sometimes appear.  (In some versions, he has an -w sound at the end of his name:  ‘Itmw.)  That won’t surprise you old Office Hieroglyphs hands, because you know the Egyptians hardly ever write the vowels; what we mostly have are the consonants.  But the name derives from the word tm which meant “complete” or “whole”; as the creator god, Atum contained within himself everything out of which he created the world.

The first hieroglyph in Atum’s name needs no introduction; it’s our old Office Hieroglyphs favourite, the loaf of bread standing for the letter t.  Here, as we’ve found elsewhere, it is only reinforcing the t sound contained in the biliteral sign which follows:

 tm tem

Now this is a new one.  It’s easy to draw:  two parallel lines curving up at the ends, a pair of cross-hatchings at each end, and finally a little loop just below the upward curve.  It’s not quite so easy to tell what it is.  See if you can spot it in this tomb painting:

Well done.  Got it in one, didn’t you?  It’s a sledge.  Right.  Just what you need in the frozen wastelands of the Nile Valley.  And why not?  As I write this, Cool Runnings is on BBC Three, and Ghana is sending a skier to the winter Olympics.  I bet if they’d had sledging in the ancient Greek Olympics, the Egyptians would have swept the medals table clean.

The Egyptians used sledges a lot.  They didn’t have snow (although some of them did encounter it on their travels in the Asiatic lands) but they had lots of wheel-clogging sand, heavy loads to transport, and wooden axles which couldn’t take the strain of chunky basalt statues or massive blocks of limestone, let alone the odd granite obelisk.  Sledges were ideal for transporting heavy weights across the sand, including statues of gods.   This picture shows a gang of hauliers dragging along a the seated statue of a tomb owner lashed to a sledge.  (The statue, not the tomb owner, that is.  The statute is shown at a much larger scale than the men hauling it, because it’s much more important than they are – it’s a representation of the tomb owner, very expensive and very difficult to replace, unlike the workers….)  That explains the cross-lines and the loop at the front of the hieroglyph; indications of the ropes which were used to haul the sledge.

And so on to the next sign: 

What is it?  Nobody knows for sure, but it’s easy to draw; start with the top line, do a blunt, rounded downturn at one end and leave the other end open.  It was pronounced ‘im and it’s reinforcing the m in the biliteral sign tm.  There, that didn’t take long, did it?  Ignorance is much easier than knowledge.

We do know what the final hieroglyph is, though:

It’s a seated god.  We know he’s a god because he’s got long hair and a beard, and he’s modestly swathed in an all-enveloping robe, unlike the short-kilted, bare-armed seated man we met at the end of Office Hieroglyphs.  The way I draw him is to start at the top of his head and make a long stroke halfway down his back, then do a little dog leg inwards to indicate the end of his hair.  Then bring the line down his back and bottom, continue with a straight line across the base, a sharp turn and little slope up for his feet, then a swoop out, up and over for his knees, straight up for his chest, a little wiggle to indicate his face and stick the beard on last.

I don’t need to tell you, because you know from Office Hieroglyphs, that determinatives were not pronounced; they’re only there because the Egyptians didn’t write the vowels, and they needed extra visual clues to tell them which kind of word the consonants were meant to convey.  then they knew which vowels to supply themselves when they read it.

So now you can adapt the offering formula so that your colleague’s gifts come from the god Atum instead of Osiris.  Wow – you’ve doubled your god quota almost overnight!  But Atum without his titles is not much of a substitute for the Lord of Busiris, the Great God, Lord of Abydos.  If you’re going to slot Atum into the offering formula instead of Osiris, you need to slot in his full complement, Lord of the Two Lands, Lord of Heliopolis, the Great God, Lord of the Sacred Land, behind him.  Otherwise he just looks naked.  And you can tell from the all-encompassing robe that he wouldn’t have liked that.  Well, would your chairman?  And, be honest, who really wants to see the chairman naked?

December 22, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (30)

You’ve heard them singing carols in the office.  You’ve heard them karaoke down the pub. This is the best time of year to decide which of your colleagues merits the last phrase of the offering formula:

maa-kheru; true of voice.

We’ve had kheru, voice, before.  It was in the complex little group of signs which make up the standard phrase for “an invocation offering of bread and beer”:

where “invocation” is literally “that which comes forth by the voice”.  And there’s kheru, right in the middle of the group, like a wooden spoon ready for stirring the pudding (which would make the other signs a chopping board, a bag of flour and a bottle of brandy in seasonal montage straight out of the Lakeland kitchenware catalogue.  Except they’re not.)  But you know it’s an oar, and the other signs are a house, a loaf of bread (naturally) a jug of beer and the invisible owl.

So now we have the oar again, twice in one formula.  They did like sticking their oar in, the ancient Egyptians.  But what’s the first sign,

maa?  A doorstop?  An eraser? Nothing so mundane.  The wedge-shaped sign maa (very easy to draw) represents a platform or pedestal, as here supporting a figure of the god Ptah (from Tutankhamun’s tomb furniture):

(Ok, you could use him as a door wedge, I’ll give you that.  But he would be far from mundane.  There could be a whole interior design industry in this for someone – and that someone will need an office, and that office will need hieroglyphs…. I must stop getting carried away.) 

Back to maa – the pedestal has that distinctive shape because it in turn is a representation of nothing less than the primeval mound; the first bit of land to appear from out of the waters of chaos at the very creation of the world.  The Egyptians were used to seeing mounds of land rise from the water every year, as the floodwaters of the Nile receded after the annual inundation, leaving behind fertile silt which they could cultivate.  (So, we have to assume that Ptah is standing on a little island, with the waters of the primeval ocean lapping almost at his feet, at the bottom of the little slipway on his pedestal.)  The Egyptians assumed that this was how the gods had first created the land on which they lived.  To them, this pristine terra firma meant the world the way the gods had created it, the way the world was meant to be.  Maa meant “true” or “right” or “just” in the sense of  “the proper order of things”.

Here is an example of the maa kheru group in a  carved relief:

 True of voice:  the “of” is unwritten but understood from the construction.  The maa hieroglyph is easy to draw:  a thin rectangle with one slanting short side.

But if our tomb owner Senusret was “true of voice”, what did that mean?  They didn’t have karaoke in the netherworld, did they?  No.  It was much worse than that.  To get into the Egyptian afterlife, you had to win the divine version of the X Factor.

Anyone who thinks the X Factor is hell on earth will get the idea of the Egyptian afterlife.  If life on earth was Round 1, to go forward to the afterlife or Round 2, you had to impress a panel of judges.  Here’s a scene from the show:

On the left,we have the tomb owner being led onstage by his divine sponsor, the god Anubis.  In the middle, the scene shows an early version of the machine used to record the audience’s verdict.  Back then, in the days before electronic voting buttons, they used a weighing scale.  In the right-hand pan of the scale is a feather, representing truth, order, justice and all those primeval virtues.  In the left is the tomb owner’s heart.

On the right of the scene, in their own special booth, sit the judges:  Osiris, the Simon Cowell of the underworld, sits on his throne, backed by two divas of the day, the goddesses Isis and Nephthys then, and fronted by four lesser judges, his own four sons, who stand on a lotus blossom.

The format of the show is this:  to qualify for the next round of existence, the tomb owner has to declare that he has led a good life on earth.  But just saying so is not enough; he has to prove it.  To test whether or not he is speaking the truth, the gods weigh his heart against the feather.  If his heart is not weighed down by sin and falsehood, it will balance the feather and he will be let through to the next round.  If it is heavier than the feather, it will be thrown to the crocodile-headed she-monster waiting by the weighing scale, (her name is Devourer-of-Hearts, but let’s call her Anne) and the tomb owner will be thrown off the programme – you are the weakest link, goodbye.  That won’t happen, though, because in the finest traditions of audience voting reality TV, Anubis is rigging the result by fixing the scale.  The Ibis-headed god Thoth is standing by like the Lottery adjudicator to verify the outcome.  And sure enough, Anubis is conducting the tomb owner, who has been proven to be speaking the truth, to Simon, sorry, Osiris, who declares him fit to go forward to the final. 

And ever after, our tomb owner is known as “true of voice”, as a sign that he has passed the test and successfully entered the next world.

So there we are:  at the end of the offering formula.  You know it all now:

Hetep di nesu Usir neb Djedu, netjer aa, neb Abju, di ef peret-kheru (em) te henqet, kau apedu, shes menkhet, khet nebet nefret ankhet netjer im, en ka en imakhy Senusret, maa-kheru.

“An offering which the King gives (to) Osiris Lord of Busiris, the great god, Lord of Abydos, that he may give invocation-offerings (consisting of) bread, and beer, meat and fowl, alabaster and clothing, and all good and pure things by which a god lives, to the ka of the Revered One, Senusret, True of Voice.”

How’s that for a Christmas list?

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.

August 14, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (14)

It’s the fourteenth post, and time to visit my favourite temple, Abydos, via the third of Osiris’ titles in this formula:

neb abdju hieroglyphs   nb abdju transliteration

neb Abdju, Lord of Abydos.

We’ve done neb, haven’t we?  We can get straight on to Abdju:

abju hieroglyphs   Abdju075

Just for a change, I thought we’d compare handwritten hieroglyphs and the more detailed painted hieroglyphs for the whole word side by side.  They’re facing in opposite directions, but that’s not going to bother experienced office scribes, is it?  And I know you’re going to take the spelling variation in your stride.  As for the slightly different arrangement of hieroglyphs for the sake of artistic balance – pah!  We laugh in its face.

OK, let’s do a bit of dissection. 

ab hieroglyph    ab transliteration

The first sign is – well, no-one’s quite sure, but it could be a chisel. In which case, the blade is probably the wide, flat bit that looks like the handle.  It’s painted green in the inscription on the right, which would figure if it were copper or bronze .  (Almost the whole of the Pharaonic Period, took place in the Bronze Age in Egypt – something to contemplate while you’re waiting for that response from the IT helpdesk.)  The horizontal lines in the painted version may be cords lashing the blade to the handle.

So, when you’re drawing it, you need to draw a shape something like a short, wide vase or jar, then add a long thin shaft to the bottom.

The second sign (or the third sign in the painted version)

b hieroglyph

b transliteration

is a reinforcement of the b already present in Ab.  It’s a human foot, and in the second version painted the normal colour used for male skin in ancient Egypt – a dark, suntanned he-man red.  Ladies (and, in later periods, privileged men like scribes who worked indoors), were painted a pale yellow.

When you’re drawing your foot, give him a straight shin, an indication of the toes and heel and maybe a bit of instep – unlike the painted one, which seems to be flat-footed.  I know what that’s like and it’s cruel, so be kind to your hieroglyphs and don’t deform them (unless you’re writing them for someone ina  traditionally flat-footed profession, like the police).

Which brings us to the third sign (or second in the alternative version)

dju hieroglyphdju transliteration

dju.  See how the artist in the painted inscription has given it a reddish, speckled, grainy appearance above a thick, dark baseline?  That is because the  dju hieroglyph is a depiction of the desert hills rising above the fertile plain of the Nile.  And the gap between the hills is where the sun would rise above or set below the horizon.  (The two pylons of a temple and the gap of the gateway also represent this idea.)

Finally, some familiar signs to complete the word;  the cute little quail chick reinforcing the u sound of dju in the painting; the city or village determinative, and the single stroke, as much to fill an otherwise empty space as for any other reason.

Abdju, or Abydos, was the major cult centre of Osiris in Upper Egypt, or the Nile Valley. 

It’s not as easy to get there as it used to be, for security reasons, and there are restrictions on how long you can stay (nowhere near long enough) but it’s the most wonderful place. 

For one thing, it’s very ancient.  There are royal tombs out in the desert which date back to around the time of the unification of Egypt – the tombs of several “he of the sedges”.  In later times, the Egyptians believed that one of them was the tomb of Osiris himself, and it became a place of pilgrimage for people from all over the country.  There was a huge festival there every year, where mystery plays re-enacting the death and resurrection of Osiris and the battles of Horus and Seth were performed.  People came from far and wide to be part of them.

Kings built magnificent temples to Osiris there: the temple of Seti I is just about the only Pharaonic temple of any size with it roof intact.  This plus the fact that the Christians whitewashed over the walls  meant sthat the colours of  the reliefs are the best preserved of any Egyptian temple – and Seti I went for quality; just compare them with his son Ramesses II’s temple next door – even allowing for the fat that the roof is gone, there’s no comparison really.  Behind the Seti I temple is a highly intrguing underground temple called the Osireion, with an island in an underground lake, and…

Oh, I can’t wait to go back!. Go, go, go!

August 12, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (12)

Ddw hieroglyphs

Ddw transliteration

Djedu:  Busiris, the Lower Egyptian cult centre of Osiris, in the middle of the Nile Delta. 

There’s not much to see there now.  But the hieroglyphs in its name bear some investigation.

The first symbol is an ancient and powerful Egyptian fetish:  the djed pillar,djed pillar hieroglyphDd transliteration

pronounced – wait for it – djed

Waaaay back in the mists of the Predynastic period, the djed pillar was a sizeable cult object, something like a totem pole.  It appears to have been a tree trunk with sheaves of grain bound to it to give it its distinctive shape.  If you think it has a certain vertebrate quality, you’re right.  When Seth chopped up Osiris’ body and scattered his forty-two limbs the length and breadth (such as it is) of Egypt, Busiris got his backbone.  Osiris, as you’ll remember, was an agricultural god, who taught farming while he was alive and was resurrected in the growing corn after he was slain and had fallen.  So his Lower Egyptian symbol, the djed pillar, is a kind of gigantic backbone made of corn.  Whether that was how the Egyptians understood it in the early days, who knows – but that was what it came to symbolise as the milennia rolled on.

The djed pillar or backbone of Osiris was a powerful magical symbol and represented stability, endurance, everlastingness.  In the form of an amulet, it conveyed everlastingness on the owner, alive or dead.  Djed pillars are very common in Egyptian art, from tiny beads to unwieldy cult objects. 

Here are a couple of carved and painted djed hieroglyphs:

2 djeds070

Here is the djed symbol incorporated into the top of the sceptre of the god Ptah:


And here is the King grappling with the erection of the djed pillar (surmounted by double plumes and a sun disk and probably much smaller than life size) at the festival of Osiris at Abydos (of which more anon, in a post coming to a blog near you soon):

big djed072

Now I’ve shown you a few different versions, you’ll be seeing it everywhere.  It’s not difficult to draw; a central column, rounded at the top and flaring out into a base at the bottom, and then just draw four straight horizontal lines across the top.  Whether the ultimate symbol of stability is appropriate for a redundancy leaving card, I leave to your own judgement.

Now for the w.  The w is one of those signs that make it easy to tell which way the hieroglyphs run, because it has a recognisable face to turn to the beginning of the sentence:

w hieroglyph

  And the face is the face of a little fluffy quail chick.  Aaaaaaahh.  Or, rather, oooohh.  Here’s a painted version:

quail chick073

See his downy body and his little wing?  A pity the artist/scribe hasn’t given him an eye, but there may be a (magical) reason for that, as this one comes from a tomb.  When you draw yours, start with his beak and rounded head, go down his back and turn the corner of his tail, come up under his belly and around to his beak again.  Or something like that, but draw the outline, anyway, Then add on his two little stick-like legs and make sure you put in a baseline for him  to stand on.  The Egyptians liked to have their animals and people standing on the ground.  They didn’t like them hovering in mid-air.  In any case, he can’t fly yet, he’s only a chick.  Then you can dot his eye and give him a little curved, featherless wing.  Ah bless!

Hang on, you’re saying, we’re only two hieroglyphs into the word and we’ve already got the sound Djedu.  We seem to have a lot of signs left over.

Er – kind of.  The third sign, niwt hieroglyphis a determinative – which, you’ll remember, is a soundless sign put at the end of a word to show what kind of word it is, and to prevent confusion with other words of the same consonantal pattern.  It may look like a button or a hot cross bun, but it is actually a town or village.  You wouldn’t think it, would you – a whole town, or even a village, encompassed in that one little sign?  However, the essentials are there:  two intersecting streets surrounded by an enclosure wall.  Here’s a relief version:


Now, the scribe could have stopped there.  He’d finished the place name Djedu; all sounds faithfully rendered and a town determinative on the end.  But he must have got carried away.  The Egyptian word for town was niwet, and it was written niwet word

In this word, the city sign is not just a determinative; it has a phonetic value, niwe.  You can see our old friend the loaf of bread t completing the word. The final stroke is a kind of determinative that conveys the idea “one of these” as opposed to two or three strokes, which mean the dual or plural form of the noun.  Or sometimes it’s just a filler.

So it looks as though, when the scribe or artist got to the determinative of Djedu, he followed straight through into the word for town or village: Djeduniwet; Busiriston, maybe.  Thank god he didn’t have to spell banana.

August 7, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (9)

Osiris and titles

Osiris titles transliteration


Usir neb Jedu, netjer aa, neb Abju:  (t0) Osiris Lord of Busiris, the great god, Lord of Abydos.

We’ve been working hard on the first bit of the offering formula.  I tell you what; let’s not have a hieroglyphic lesson this time.  Put your feet up, and I’ll tell you a story.

Once upon a time in ancient Egypt, when Egypt was so ancient that the gods lived on earth, there was a god-king called Osiris.  He was married to his sister Isis, which seems odd to us but was fairly normal for Egyptian gods (and their kings, come to that). Osiris was a good king and very useful; he invented farming and taught it to the Egyptians, his subjects.  His rule was peaceful and happy. 

Well, you know gods.  They don’t like that kind of thing.  It doesn’t matter whether they’re Egyptian gods or Greek or Roman or Viking or Mexican; your average god likes nothing more than a humungous family row. They like to get everyone either miserable or furious, running around like headless chickens and finally descending into a brawl.  And there’s always one who starts it. (You’re beginning to see the pagan origins of Christmas now, aren’t you?)

The one who started it in Osiris’ case was his brother Seth.  He wanted to be King.  So, at a family party (when else?) he tricked Osiris into getting into a coffin, sealed it shut and threw it into the Nile.  The coffin with Osiris inside it floated down the Nile, out into the Mediterranean and along the Levant coast to Byblos.  At Byblos, it got tangled up in the roots of a cedar tree, and came to a halt.

Seth had, however, reckoned without their sister Isis.  Isis was a very resourceful goddess-queen, and not only that, a very powerful magician.  She was also devoted to Osiris, and had her sister Nephthys, Seth’s own wife, totally on her side.  Isis  transformed herself and Nephthys into kites (the birds, not the paper flying things) and they scoured Egypt and the East until they found the coffin stuck in the roots of the cedar.

They were too late.  Osiris was no longer of this world.  Isis hid the coffin in the marshes of the Nile Delta, which she organised a decent burial.  While she was up to her neck in the funeral arrangements, Seth discovered the coffin by accident, and was so angry that he tore Osiris’ body limb from limb and scattered the bits the length of Egypt.  Actually, it must have been more than limb from limb, because he broke it into anything up to forty-two pieces, depending on which version of the story you read.

The devoted, put-upon Isis set about clearing up the mess.  Someone always has to.  She found most of her husband’s bits, except – er – her husband’s bits, which had been swallowed by a fish.  Never one to admit defeat, she made him a new one.  One wonders whether it was  a new and improved one … Anyway, by reassembling Osiris. scattered limbs and bandaging them all together, Isis invented mummification.

Isis the magician was able to reanimate Osiris’ corpse, including the aritifically substituted bit, sufficiently to conceive the child Horus, who became the rightful heir to his father’s throne and opponent of his usurping uncle, Seth.

You can imagine how Seth felt about that.  He was about as much in favour of Osiris having an heir as elderly relatives are when they’re watching the news and the kid comes in an switches channels to the cartoons.  Realising the danger to her son, Isis hid him in the marshes until he was old enough to stand up to Seth.  In the meantime, Seth searched for Horus until, eventually, they met. 

The subsequent contendings of Horus and Seth were almost as bad as the battle over the remote control when the Queen’s Speech is up against the Christmas special.  Seth did his darndest to trick, seduce, blind, conquer and kill Horus to secure the throne.  However, much aided by Isis’ magic, and after a great deal of political wrangling among the gods, Horus eventually succeeded in ascending the throne and Seth was banished to the desert.

Osiris was still dead. However, you can’t keep a good god down.  Well, you can, but you can’t keep him inanimate.  Although Osiris could not rule Egypt any more, what with him being dead and a mummy and all, Re, King of the Gods, sent him  down to the Netherworld to be King of the afterlife. (No Egyptologist calls Re Ra any more.)  So Osiris gained a kingdom in the land of the dead.  And every year, when the green shoots of the corn that Osisirs had shown the Egyptians how to cultivate sprouted in the black mud of the Nile, people believed he was born again.  Aaaaaah…

That is why Osiris is usually shown as a mummy, and often with black or green skin, as in this tomb painting:

osiris 2

(And later on Osiris had an affair with Nephthys and a child out of wedlock called Anubis, god of mummification – after all Isis had done for him.  Typical.  Spoils it a bit, doesn’t it?)

Never mind.  We’ll start tearing him apart – or at least his name and titles  -next time.  That’ll teach him.

July 27, 2009

Office hierogplyphs (4)

Yes but, yes but, yes but – what does the blooming thing say?  How do you expect us to concentrate on the first group of signs when we’re three lessons in and we still don’t know what the sentence means? 

Ok, sorry, I quite take your point.  I shall do better than that.  I shall both translate and transliterate it for you.  How about that?

Transliteration first.  Hieroglyphs are an alphabet which can be read and pronounced.  So, when the fascinated recipient of your birthday offerings gasps, “Wow!  May a gigantic owl eat the snake that’s about to crawl under your upside-down teacup, and may the little man with the squiggle er – erdo something with all the other squiggles..  Great!  How original.  Just what I always wanted,” you can say, “No, no, it doesn’t work like that.  It’s not a cartoon strip.  It’s more like those children’s puzzles, where the words are replaced by pictures which sound similar – an eye for “I”, a deer for “Dear”, etc.  It says: transliteration


Then you can pause while they blink at you, impressed but totally unenlightened. 

 Transliteration means turning the hieroglyphic alphabet into the Roman alphabet, so that we have at least a vague idea of what it might sound like.  A very good point, you may say.  How the heck do I read that out? 

Ancient Egyptian is a semitic language, like Hebrew, Arabic and others in that linguistic family.  In semitic languages, writers tend to set down the consonants, but make only very limited attempts, if any, to write down the vowels.  So, with hierogplyphs, we (mainly) have a string of consonants and have to guess the vowel sounds in between.  We don’t really know exactly how ancient Egyptian was pronounced, but the convention is to supply an “e” between consonants.  The transliteration above would sound something like:

Hetep di nesu Usir neb Djedu, netjer aa, neb Abdju,

di-ef peret-kheru (em) te, henket, kau apedu, shes menkhet,

khet nebt nefret wabet ankhet netjer im,

en ka en imakhy Senwosret, maa-kheru.


The beauty of the two-pronged transliteration and translation approach is that it gives you a double whammy – reading it aloud first, then nonchalantly explaining:

 “It means An offering which the king gives (to) Osiris, Lord of Busiris, the great god, Lord of Abydos, so that he may give an invocation offering (of) bread, beer, meat and fowl, alabaster, clothing and every good and pure thing on which a god lives, to the spirit of the revered one Senwosret, true of voice.”

Of course, that’s only if you haven’t customised it, and if your colleague happens to be a Revered One called Senwosret.  (If you’re reading this in California, that’s perfectly possible.) We’ll get on to customisation soon, after we’ve broken down the offering formula into its working parts.  You have to take the engine apart before you can rebuild it, after all.

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