Susanllewellyn's Blog

February 26, 2010

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

So, we’re running our fingers across Shu’s office nameplate:

 

Our tongues protruding slightly, our breath misting up the polished brass,   we’ve traced the contours of his name, and are now sliding our fingers down the two stacked hieroglyphs of his title:

  sa Ra son of Re.

What?  Son of whom?  You just told us Shu was the son of Atum, and now you’re telling us he’s the son of Re?

Well, yes.  The thing about ancient Egyptian gods was that many of them had their own cult centres in provincial cities the length and – at least in the Delta – the breadth of Egypt.  In their own temples in their own cities, as far as they and their priests and citizens were concerned, they were the most important god around.  Several of them, not just Atum, claimed to be the creator god, and got put at the top of the family tree.  Whoever painted and captioned this particular family portrait obviously had it in his head that Re was the creator god and father of Shu, even though he’d drawn Atum sitting in front of him.  

More than one creator god – OK, we can understand that.  Every company chairman is the supreme god in his own universe.  As far as the bosses of Pepsi and Coke are concerned, there’s only one cola in the world.  So who is this Re, then?  I’m sure we’ve met him before; he’s the sun god known to the Victorians and thence to Hollywood producers as Ra, but to most Egyptologists as Re.  We’ll come back to him some other time.

Let’s look at the hieroglyphs.  The first one looks like an egg, you draw it like an egg and by golly it is an egg – a goose egg, in fact.  Here’s a picture of one, in case you don’t know what an egg looks like:

The egg  symbol in this case writes the word s3, sa, son.  Just draw it at an angle, pointing the sharp end towards the beginning of the sentence.  The second hieroglyph, a circle with a dot in it, is the standard hieroglyph for the sun and encapsulates the name of the god Rc, Ra, Re.  (It’s also possible that the mysterious and superfluous circle in the name of the god which we saw in the last post is an abortive attempt at a sun disk, as there was a word shu meaning sun.)  If you don’t know what the sun looks like, here it is:

There’s no dot in the middle that I can see, and I’m not sure what that was about.  But if the chairman’s son says the sun has a dot in the middle, it’s probably not a good idea to disagree.

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February 10, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Atum (4)

Running our inky fingers further along the polished brass of Atum’s nameplate, we come to the title:

 nb t3wy  neb tawy, Lord of the Two Lands.  We’ve had nb, Lord, before.  Some of the paint has flaked off, but it’s still quite recognisable as the basket hieroglyph from Osiris’ titulary.  Each of the thick black lines underneath it reads t3, ta, meaning land.  Taken together, they read t3wy, tawy, the two lands, as ancient Egyptian had a dual as well as a singular and plural. Sticking a -wy is the way they expressed a pair of somethings.  Sometimes the -wy ending would be written out in full, but the two lands, or I should say, the Two Lands, was such a common phrase that there was no need. Everyone knew how to say it.

Each of the two hieroglyphs represents a stretch of  the flat, black, fertile  silt brought down by the Nile, the river that made civilisation possible in what would otherwise have been desert:

  When you draw them, rather than making each one a thick line, it’s more usual to draw two cigar-shaped loops, and put three little dots representing grains of sand close together in the middle underneath each one:

The Lord of the Two Lands usually meant the King in ancient Egypt.  Atum has the title because he was the first divine King, and the not-quite-so-divine dynasties who followed the reign of the gods on earth inherited the title from him and his descendants. 

The Two Lands in question were Upper and Lower Egypt.  Way back in the mists of time, right at the beginning of Office Hieroglyphs, in fact, we heard how the tribes along the Nile in Predynastic times gradually became two kingdoms, one based in the Nile Valley and one in the Delta, until, eventually the two became united under one King.  After unification, Kings were careful to proclaim themselves the rulers of both kingdoms. 

Here are the Two Lands, in all their splendour:

You can see how dependent the whole of Egypt was (and still is) on that flat black soil with the sandy borders, and how the Delta and Nile Valley kingdoms would have kept their distinct characters even after unification. Right from the beginning, when he made the first mound of earth rise from the water, you could say that Atum was in two minds about his new venture.

August 11, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (11)

nb ddw hieroglyphsnb ddw transliteration

Neb Djedu, the first of Osiris’ titles.  It makes him sound like a character from Star Wars, doesn’t it?  (Not that I’ve seen any of the later ones – I gave up in disgust after JarJar Binks.  We won’t let him into the netherworld.  Whether you let him  into your office inscriptions is up to you.  By the time this blog is over (waaaay in the future), you’ll have the hieroglyphs to make up a credible hieroglyphic cast list for Neville in IT if the fancy takes you.)

But I digress.  Where were we?  Oh yes, neb Djedu, Lord of Busiris, a cult centre in the Nile Delta, where Osiris was worshipped.  Busiris may not sound much like Djedu, and there’s a reason for that.  Again, it was what our old friends and fellow Mediterranean tourists the ancient Greeks called the town.  However, it is based on an alternative ancient Egyptian name for the place, meaning “Place of Osiris”.  So we’ll let them off.

This is the sign for nb or lord:nbIt doesn’t look like much, does it?  And it’s dead easy to draw; a semi-circle with a straight line across the top.  And, indeed, it represents a humble object; a simple woven basket.  Just what we need after all that bread in the earlier posts.  But the Egyptians, superb artists that they were, were capable of elevating any everyday object into a thing of great beauty.  Have a look at this:

basket2069

 

This is just one letter from an inscription covering a whole building.  Look at the craftsmanship that’s gone into it.  Isn’t it wonderful? 

And what about this one?

basket1068

This is a nb sign taken from a longer inscription which has been inlaid in semi-precious stones into a panel of ebony in a piece of  furniture.  It is literally a tiny jewel of the stone-cutter’s art.

The Egyptians didn’t always put that much work into their nb signs, and you don’t have to draw your office hieroglyphs in that much detail either – although, if you want to call someone a  basket without their ever knowing, you may relish the opportunity of lavishing some attention on this sign. Just try not to stick out your tongue while you’re concentrating.  You may look as if you’re enjoying it a little bit too much.

We’ll tackle Busiris next time, because it’s longer and more complicated.  For now, we’ll contemplate the both the intricacy and the simplicity of the nb sign.  Which now makes it sound Japanese.

July 30, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (6)

Hang on, you’re probably saying; you mean the ancient Egyptians – the same Egyptians who built pyramids and temples, quarried tombs in the Valley of the Kings and filled them with treasure, organised the massive machine of state and sent armies marching and conquering all over the Near East, those Egyptians – thought the best possible way they could represent in writing the King they believed was a god on earth, was:  a blade of grass and a loaf of bread? Are you sure we’re talking about the same Egyptians? And anyway, the Mesopotamians invented writing first.

 Well, I could conduct a forensic investigation into the etymology of the Egyptian word for King, but I think you’d doze off long before the end.  You’d wake up to a dark office (especially if you’ve got motion sensors on your lights), the baleful glare of the screen saver and the symphony of banging sounds that denotes the arrival of the cleaners.  So I’ll try to make it a bit more interesting by bringing out the narrative.

 Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (unless you’re reading this in Egypt, in which case it’s pretty close), some forty-odd independent tribes occupied the valley and the delta of the river Nile.  We’re talking about a time way before the invention of writing.  For at least one of the valley tribes, the sedge plant assumed great significance.  It’s a useful plant (papyrus is a member of the sedge family, and you can make lots of things with it besides writing materials) and it also has a symbolic significance, as the green shoots sprouting through the mud in the ancient springtime came to represent the rebirth and regeneration part of the cycle of life and death.

 For these and who knows what other reasons, the sedge plant became a heraldic emblem among the tribes in the Nile valley. All the tribal leaders had different emblems, although some of them were out of the same design stable.  Anyway, as tribes will, they went to war.  Over many years, through a process of conquest and assimilation, two leaders managed to unite the Nile Valley and the Nile Delta tribal lands respectively into two kingdoms:  Upper Egypt or the Nile Valley, and Lower Egypt, or the Nile Delta.

 The King who united Upper Egypt used the sedge plant as his emblem and was strongly identified with it; so much so, that he was known as “He of the Sedge”.  The Egyptian word for sedge is swt (pronounced sut to rhyme with loot) and “He of the Sedge” is ny swt. 

 The inevitable battle for supremacy over the whole of Egypt took place somewhere around 3000 BC, and of the rival Kings, He of the Sedge won.  So the title which had once meant only “King of Upper Egypt”, although it continued to be used as such, also came to be used simply as one of the words for King.  Over time, the letter t became silent and the word evolved into nsw / nesu

 Remember when I said a few posts back that the principle of Egyptian writing was to use pictures to represent sounds?  When they wanted to write the sound sw / su, they drew a little picture of the sedge plant, because that was how its name sounded:

 

  They had another symbol they used to write the letter t : the word for bread was t / te, so they used the loaf sign to represent the t which once existed in the word swt but fell out of use:

 Stop there a minute, you’re probably saying; I’m looking at the word for King.:

 nsw

 Nsw, right?  So what happened to the nyNy obviousy means “He of”. Where is it?  We’ve got a sw all present and correct, a t that’s superfluous to requirements and a completely missing ny.  

Well spotted.  This is a very abbreviated spelling of the word nesu, pared down to its basic heraldic element, the sedge sign.  This is the kind of thing that happens with formulae.  You want to write them quickly because you have to write them so frequently, so you strip them down.  You’ll appreciate that when you’re scribbling on that card, especially if your office has clustered birthdays / lots of women of childbearing age / a high turnover of staff / all of the above.

 However, paring it down to one tall, thin letter would leave an unpleasing gap above the short, wide sign which comes next, so they filled it with the superfluous t.  Whatever you may think of their flexible approach to writing, they allowed nothing to compromise their artistic integrity. 

 If you look at the longer spellings of nsw, you’ll see the missing n:  it’s the wiggly line:

 

  We’ll come to the letter n later in the formula.  Don’t worry, it’s there.  In fact, it’s got a whole word to itself.

Oh, and about the Mesopotamians – shh, don’t tell the nsw.  You never know what a powerful sign like that might do.

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