Susanllewellyn's Blog

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?

August 28, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (19)

I bet you’re starting to get annoyed now, aren’t you?  You’ve been sitting there at the offering table for days.  The waiter brought your bread and beer and then cleared off.  That was days ago.  Not a sniff of dinner since.  There aren’t even any crumbs left – and that’s saying something for an ancient Egyptian funerary feast.  You know how much they loved their bread.  You’re must be almost on the point of walking out.

If you think you’ve got it bad, imagine what it must have been like for the ancient Egyptian (deceased); (what it may still be like, for all we know, if you’ve read Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids).  Eternity could go by, and still no main course – to prevent which is the point of the offering formula, of course.

I am terribly sorry.  You must be starving.  Let’s bring on the meat.

kau apedu shes menkhet hieroglyphs  kau apedu, shes menkhet transliteration



Kau apedu, shes menkhet:  meat and fowl, alabaster and clothing.  Not just the main course, but the fingerbowl and napkin afterwards.  How’s that for service?

Let’s take the first pair of dishes:  kau apedu, meat (and) fowl.  (You’ll have noticed by now that the ancient Egyptians didn’t bother much with the word “and”.  In that respect, they were five millennia ahead of Google.) 

Ka is the word for ox or beef, and is written with the head of an ox.  Aped is the word for bird, and is written here with the head of a pintail duck.  In the compressed rendition of the offering formula, they stand for any kind of meat or fowl; a limited menu is no good when you have the whole of your afterlife to fill.  The –w suffix, conventionally pronounced –u, is the plural, and is normally rendered by three short strokes, which are absent in this handwritten version but present in the painted version, below:

kau apedu shes menkhet painting077

The ox head is a tricky sign to draw, but satisfying when you master it.  You can start with a roughly trapezoid outline for the shape of the head, rounding the corners and going in a bit for the bridge of the nose.  Then add a u-shape on top for the horns, a little ear and a dot for the eye. 

For the duck’s head, I usually start with the beak, widen out the head and give it a graceful curved neck.  It may not be a swan, but it’s not an ugly duckling, either.  And don’t forget to dot its eye as well.

Meat especially was a high status food, usually served only to the gods and their servants, and to the wealthy.  The well endowed tomb owner expected nothing less, and expected it served on the best dinner service, too, hence the stipulation of alabaster. 

The loopy-looking sign pronounced shes  is indeed a loop: a loop of cord or rope, pronounced in a similar way to the word for alabaster and so used to express it in writing.  But they didn’t want any ropey old dishes.  They were expecting something more like this:

alabaster dish alabaster jug





I don’t need to describe how to draw the loop of cord, do I?  Let’s move on to the final sign, menkhet:  clothing.

We’ve all seen some outlandish catwalk creations, some of them being worn in restaurants, but even so I doubt that many people would identify the menkhet sign as an item of clothing.  It looks more like a child’s swing.  But, you know how things look completely different when you see them through a microscope?  Well, the menkhet sign is an extreme close-up of the edge of a piece of cloth.  It’s the edge of a piece of cloth with a fringe, in which the individual threads are twisted together to make thicker dangly bits.  The symbol shows two sets of two threads twisted together.  You’d think they’d be hanging down, wouldn’t you, but they’re sticking up.  They went in for subverting expectations in ancient Egyptian couture. 

You can see an example of fringing in this tunic:

fringed tunic

At least the hieroglyph is easy to draw:  a straight line with two upside-down y shapes on top. 

And this completes the second line of the offering formula.  (Not so fast, you’re saying, what’s that extra sign under the three short strokes in the painted version?  It’s a rolled-up garment of some sort, reinforcing the clothing idea of  menkhet, but stuck under the food signs for the usual reason of pleasing arrangement of the signs.)

As I was saying, this completes the first two lines of the offering formula.  To recap:

first two lines

Well done!  That was worth waiting for, wasn’t it?  But I won’t blame you if you don’t leave a tip.

August 18, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (15)

line 2

 line 2 transliteration

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

so that he may give an invocation-offering (consisting of) bread, beer, meat, fowl, alabaster, clothing

The second chunk of the offering formula.   For new readers, or for old readers who have lost the (pretty rambling) track:  in previous weeks’ exciting episodes, we’ve heard  in ancient Egypt the King owns everything and is high priest of all the temples, and how the temple storerooms gather in all the trade and taxes on behalf of the King – in kind, as there is no coinage for most of the pharaonic period.  The King has given an offering to Osiris –

Now read on.

so that he may give…  In other words, so that when Osiris has finished with his offerings, he will send some of the leftovers round to the tomb for the tomb owner. 

In an ancient Egyptian temple, the priests and temple servants cooked and served three square meals a day to the cult statue of the god – real food, only the best, and lots of it.  They would place the food in front of the god’s statue, and in front of the statues of members of his family and divine visitors from other temple cults in Egypt who hung around in his temple.  Then they would wait for a decent interval, during which they believed the ka or life force of the gods took the nourishment they needed from the food, without actually clearing even a tiny bit of their plates.  (Do not let your kids read this bit; it will give them too easy an excuse not to finish their broccoli.)

When the gods had eaten what they wanted in spirit (they should in theory have been able to have their cake and eat it), the priests got to eat in the flesh.  What was left, they took around to the tomb chapels of the people who had arranged for the afterlife delivery service.  They placed the food in front of the statue of the tomb owner, and the ka of the tomb owner came up the tomb shaft, inhabited his statue and had a good nosh.  If there were not enough leftovers to go round, reciting the spell would make them appear magically in the afterlife.

So, the King gives a lot of offerings to Osiris, and Osiris, once he and his retinue have finished with them, passes some of them along the food chain to the tomb owner.

We’ll have a look at the takeaway menu in the next few posts.

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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