Susanllewellyn's Blog

March 27, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Geb (2)

Let’s look at the nameplate attached to the portrait of the third MD of the divine family firm.  Here it is:

Reading right to left, from the top of the column to the bottom, it says:

Gb `it ntrw   Geb it netjeru  Geb, Father of the Gods

Let’s look at his name first:

The first hieroglyph is clearly a bird, and although it’s cursively rendered, there’s something familiar about its face.  What do you mean, you don’t see it?  Have a look at this one:

Recognise him now?  I’ll give you a clue:  last time we met him, it was as a disembodied head.  Ah – got it!  Yes, that’s right, his head had made a sola appearance in Office Hieroglyphs as 3pdw, apedu, fowl, in the list of offerings.  Now we have the whole goose – a white-fronted goose in fact, just like this one:

 Beautiful, isn’t he?  He’s tricky to draw, but worth it.  I usually start with a short horizontal line for his beak, curve up and over for his head, come inwards for his neck and then sweep outwards and downwards for his back, down to the tip of his tail.  The you can return to the base of his beak, draw a flattish line for his chin and swoop in and out again for his neck and breast, pulling the line downwards for his belly and joining up the two lines at the tail tip.  Make a deep curve across his body for the wing, and make the wing tip cut the line of his back.  Then you can put in two short lines of his legs and a baseline for his feet.  A final dot for his eye, and he’s done.

The goose hieroglyph is a biliteral, gb.  The foot hieroglyph which represents the letter b is another old Office Hieroglyphs friend, and is only there to reinforce the b sound already contained in the goose symbol.  Finally, the seated god hieroglyph, familiar from many of our divine corporation nameplates, denotes that this is the name of a god.

 The next group looks straightforward, but, like Geb, it’s a treacherous item:

You’ll recognise the top half of Tefnut’s snake sandwich; the loaf of bread and the horned viper.  On the face of things, this group should be pronounced tef, but in fact it’s the word ‘it, it, father.  Other versions of the word have the inital ‘i written out in full, but ‘i is a semi-vowel (a vowel with some of the force of a consonant) and we know the Egyptians placed greater emphasis on writing down the consonants than on writing vowels, so they often left out the ‘i of ‘it.  The viper in this case is not the letter f but a determinative  – a soundless symbol put in to show what kind of word this is – whose significance is obscure.

And so to the final group of hieroglyphs in Geb’s title:

We’ve seen them all before:  the temple flagpole representing the sound ntr, the seated god determinative; the loaf of bread for the letter t and the three short strokes denoting the plural ending w, the whole lot reading ntrw, netjeru, gods.  Strictly speaking, the letter t shouldn’t be there.  As we know, it’s a feminine ending, which might suggest that Geb is claiming only to be the father of the goddesses, which would not do him justice.  We know he was not exactly a champion of female rights, so we can’t take this as evidence of positive discrimination in the workplace.  I think it’s probably crept in there because the similar title God’s Father, found in the titles of certain high-ranking Egyptian nobles and possibly meaning King’s Father-in Law, was often written with the flagpole sign followed by the loaf of bread from ‘it, father, and the scribe just kept on going because he was so used to writing that title, even though he’d already written the word for father.

But enough of these bureaucratic technicalities.  Geb was the third patriarch in the family firm.  Why did he claim to be the father of the gods?  What was so special about his divine kids?  Well, let’s meet the gods’ mother, first, and after that we’ll find out.

February 23, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Shu (1)

Moving along the portrait gallery in the boardroom corridor of the gods, we come next to a family group.  Here they are:

Atum, the creator of the world, founder of the family firm known as the Nine Gods or Ennead, and his twin offspring, his son Shu and his daughter Tefnut.  That’s Atum at the front, but you know that because you can read his name in hieroglyphs in front of him.  The scribe who wrote this papyrus has stuck an extra hieroglyph in at the end – the quail chick which, as we know from Osiris’ titulary was pronounced w, making him (A)tmu, but that won’t have fooled you.  Nor will the rather stick-figure version of the seated god determinative.  You can still see his beard sticking out and his knees sticking up.  That’s Atum, all right, and in any case he’s wearing the double crown of the Kings of Upper and Lower Egypt.

That’s Shu sitting right behind him.  We’ll take a look at his name later.  Let me tell you a bit about him, first. We already know that he is the motherless product of self-assisted conception.  There is another story about his origins, though.  Some priests and scribes put it about that Atum sneezed him into existence – more of an atchoo! than a Shu.  Indeed, the name Shu is closely related to the Egyptian word for a sneeze.  So, basically, according to some people at the time, Shu grew out of a bit of snot.  But hasn’t he done well?  Some people prefer to translate the name as “he who rises up”.

Shu was both Atum’s heir and his air.  Having made the earth rise up and separate from the water, Atum decided he needed to let some air into the place.  He created Shu to be the god of air.  It’s difficult to draw air, so the ancient Egyptians represented it by drawing a feather, and a glamorous ostrich plume (or two or three or four) was Shu’s favourite headdress.  He’s wearing it in this picture.  Snot with feathers on.  If that reminds you of any of your non-executive directors, who am I to argue?  You be the judge.

You may think that an air god must have been a pretty insubstantial character, but Shu’s very flimsiness was at the same time his greatest asset.  He represented the space between earth and sky (we’ll come back to this later) which let the sun shine in.  One of the reasons that Atum created Shu was so that he could see all the other things he’d created.

Because he had this important role in channeling the sun, Shu was a close associate of the sun god in his various forms.  One of his responsibilities was to bring the sun to life every morning, and, like his Dad Atum, he did his bit to protect the sun from attack by the serpent Apophis. As the air god, it was Shu who enabled the solar barque to rise up and sail across the sky.

Shu was certainly the light of Atum’s life.  Atum was very proud of his son.  To him, Shu was life itself, and it was only after Shu was born that Atum truly found his voice and began to speak and have a dialogue with the universe.  Shu was therefore a very powerful driver of Atum’s creative enterprise, his reason to carry on. 

Atum even took the lad into the firm and, in due course, when the staff complement had grown a bit, sent him on errands, sorting out problems with the other gods.  Shu was an obvious choice for this kind of work; as the air god, he was everywhere at once and knew where everyone else was, so didn’t actually have to go anywhere.  However, some of these tasks were pretty stretching, and Shu did not always manage to carry them out.  His Dad tended to send him to find goddesses who’d run away or got lost, and talk them into coming back.  When it was a particularly aggressive goddess who’d gone on the rampage, got drunk and run away, for example, he wasn’t quite up to the job.

Nevertheless, Shu rose steadily up the ranks of the administration of his father’s new enterprise, and was credited with instituting the capital cities of the administration.  In due course, the old man decided he was going to retire, and handed over his throne to Shu.  Atum did not leave the company; he stayed around and kept an eye on it, but Shu was now running the show. 

Shu’s term in the Managing Director’s chair started in peace, as Atum’s whole term of office had been.  At some point, though – and this episode of company history is pretty obscure – hostile forces from the edge of creation tried to lead a revolution.  Shu’s divine palace on earth was sacked by the enemy, as though a whole lot of enraged graphic designers had trashed the top floor corner office.  Shu had to bring them to heel and kick them out.

This episode shows that Shu was not all sweetness and light.  In fact, there are scenes of the netherworld which show him as the gangmaster of a band of torturers threatening the deceased person in a fiery region of hell from which there is no escape.  But then, if you’re toiling away in the boiler room in the company basement, that may well be how you regard one or more of your board members.

Finally, Shu seems to have had a reputation for being able to relieve himself with ease.  For the Egyptians, being able to defecate like Shu was a highly desirable quality.  Excrement and the air god; the original stuff that hit the fan.

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 16, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (29)

In the last post, I mentioned that there are two letters s in ancient Egyptian.  You won’t have been impressed.  Who is going to be impressed by two s-es when they already know about the four h-es (even though they haven’t met them all yet)?

Actually, the s situation is a bit more complicated than I let on.  There are two s-es rendered in transliteration, but one of them has two hieroglyphs to go with it.  We had one in the last post:

That was the vertical one.  Now meet the horizontal one:

Originally, it was pronounced more like a z, but it evolved into an alternative way of writing s, depending on whether or not the scribe had to fill a vertical or horizontal space in a group of signs.  You can see the point immediately in the full version of our tomb owner Senusret’s name:

We’ve already met the goddess Usret, “the powerful (female) one”, whose name appears first in writing, even though it comes second in pronunciation.  Now we’re on the second part of the name in writing, although it was the first part of his name when spoken: 

     se-en; “man of”.  The horizontal s hieroglyph depicts a bolt, of the type you can see on the doors of the golden shrines of Tutankhamun:

 

Here’s the carved relief version from the cartouche of King Sesostris in the last post: 

It’s simple to draw:  a straight line with a couple of short cross-hatches in the middle will do.  And there we have it:  se = man.

The n holds no mystery for you.  We’ve seen it all before.  It’s a ripple of water.  It means “of”.  You know that.  So, on to the final sign in this group:

Isn’t he lovely?  He’s a seated man, and he has no sound – he’s the strong, silent type.  He has no sound because he is a determinative – a hieroglyph stuck on the end of a word to show what kind of word it is.  We’ve had a determinative before, remember?  The town or city determinatives in the first line of the offering formula are the same kind of sign.  I explained then that, because the Egyptians wrote very few vowels, they had to use some device to distinguish between words which sounded different when spoken, but had the same sequence of consonants when written down.  This is what the determinative does – it shows it’s the word for man, as opposed to a similar word meaning something else.  But you remember all that. 

In this case, though, he’s not part of se, man, but of the name as a whole:  he’s the male  determinative for the masculine name, Senusret.

He’s complicated to draw, but he’s worth it for the animation he will add to your enigmatic line of Christmas card hieroglyphs.  Inanimate symbols are attractive enough, but you can’t beat a cute little animal or a tiny little person for instant appeal.  I usually start with a circle for the head, then a triangle, pointed side down, for the torso. A second triangle, pointing left (in this case) forms the lower leg, and a smaller one sticking up behind it forms the raised knee.  You can put in two short strokes for the feet, and two bent lines for his arms, as though he’s doing an impression of Toulouse-Lautrec power walking.  And you’ve created a little man.

Here’s one they made earlier, when they were painting texts on a coffin:

See?  He doesn’t have to be that complicated.  They’re simple creatures, after all.

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:

Ptah071

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:

niwt074

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 9, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (10)

Wsir hieroglyphs         Wsir transliteration

So – Usir, god of the underworld, or Osiris, as the Greeks called him.  In this spelling, his name is pared down to its two basic symbols, standing for its two basic sounds; a throne for the Us and an eye for ir.  You can see slightly more elaborate versions in this inscription:

Wsir inscription067

This version has a third sign, which is called a determinative.  A determinative does not have a sound; it is a sign stuck on the end of a word, to give the reader an extra clue about what kind of word it is they’re reading.  Remember I said that (mostly) the Egyptian script does not include the vowels?  What they wrote down was (mostly) a series of consonants.  Two words with the same pattern of consonants might have completely different vowels.  You would have been able to tell them apart when you were listening to someone speaking, but it would have been more tricky when you were reading what they’d written.  Hence, the detrminative. 

In this case, the determinative is the symbol for a god, so the reader would have known the two preceding hieropglyphs were stood for the name of Osiris.  You can tell he’s a god by his beard.  And he’s sitting on the floor, with his knees sticking up.

And in which direction do you read it?  Yep, right to left, as hieroglyphs face the beginning of the sentence.  Well remembered!

The throne symbol is a very simplified version of the rone on which Osiris is sitting in the picture I posted last time:

osiris 2

The eagle-eyed will spot his name again, written just above his face.  However, you don’t have to go into this much detail when writing your own throne hieroglyph.  Just draw a capital L, then box off the corner.

Is there anyone who can’t draw a basic eye?  Slightly curved line for lower lid, more curvaceous line for upper lid, circle for the eyeball?  I’m assuming anyone who can’t get that far has given up long ago and is no longer reading this blog.  For those still here, here’s a close-up from the same tomb painting:

eye

It doesn’t look all that much different from any of the others in this post?  Why did I bother?  Well, it underlines the point that there’s not much to the drawing of an eye, I suppose.

Before I go, I realise that I left you on a cliffhanger a couple of posts back.  I said we would have more anon about why the King was giving an offering, and how it was just the beginning of a long fast food chain.  We can get a step further down the chain at this point.

The temples of the major state gods of ancient Egypt were major economic centres.  They controlled vast tracts of land, grew crops and managed herds and flocks, had armies of labourers as well as priests, and sometimes had dedicated fleets who traded abroad.  The temple complex itself  had workshops and cattle yards and huge magazines, where all this wealth was amassed, and where taxes, in the form of grain, were collected and stored.  Temples were like incredibly wealthy towns, ruled over by the god, who was woken up in his shrine, washed and dressed, served three meals a day, undressed and put to bed again every day – not counting festival days, when he would come out and parade around the streets and everyone would have a party.

But, technically, all this belonged to the King.  Basically, the King had a deal with the gods.  The deal was this:  the gods would keep the primeval waters from swamping the earth (a constant threat, like a meteorite strike or swine flu today), would make the sun come up and the Nile flood and the crops grow and the King on his throne in a peaceful land, as long as the King kept their cults going and gave them their offerings every day.  And the King could own everything, that was fine by them, as long as he gave the gods fair dues. So, the offerings Osiris received in his temple were offerings given by the King.

The next step in the food chain comes later on.

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