Susanllewellyn's Blog

February 9, 2011

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Horus the Elder (3)

Filed under: Uncategorized,What kind of god do you think you are? — Valerie Billingham @ 8:21 pm
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Did you put the pen down after the last post? And how is the cramp now – better?  Good, because we’re going to press on with Horus the Elder.

This time, we’re going to make a start on his title, Foremost of Letopolis. And here is Horus the Elder’s title spelled out quite fully in hieroglyphs:

  , khenty Khem, Foremost (of) Letopolis.

First and foremost, the word khenty comprises the three signs stacked one on top of the other on the left:    The middle and lowest of them will be familiar to old Office Hieroglyphs hands, but the top one is new to this blog:  , a row of water jars on a stand making the triliteral sound khent.  (Ignore the diagonal line cutting across the top left hand corner of the sign in this example, it shouldn’t be there.)  The wavy ripple of water beneath reinforces the n sound, and that perennial favourite, the loaf of bread, reinforces the t.  The y sound is not spelled out here; it’s just understood.  Khent = before or in front of, khenty = the on who is in front or foremost.  It was obvious to the Egyptians from the context that khenty was what was meant here, and adding in the y would have spoiled the arrangement of the signs, so they left it out.

But back to the hieroglyph, and the water jars on a stand.  An individual jar on a stand looked like this: 

The jar has to be on a stand because it has a pointed bottom and would fall over if it wasn’t.  See how the base of the stand adds that triangular shape you can see in the hieroglyph?  Here’s a more elaborate pained version of three jars in a row:

The artist has carried that shape over into the bottom of the jars as if they were shaped like that.  And that’s the easiest way to draw them.  I start by drawing each jar like a figure eight, with an elongated oval upper loop and a short, flattened triangle for the bottom one.  The you just add a little T on the top of each jar for the stopper and a bent line each side from the shoulder of the jar to ground level to suggest the framework of the stand.  I like drawing khent.  It looks complicated but it’s easy once you know how.

I think your hand deserves another rest now.  We’ll get on to Letopolis next time round.

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January 30, 2011

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Horus the Elder

OK.  So far so good.  This is where it gets confusing.  There are umpteen gods called Horus in the ancient Egyptian pantheon.  The most famous one is the son of Isis and Osiris, but that’s not who we’re talking about here.  Horus the Elder is his uncle, the fifth, anomalous offspring of Nut, although under the influence of other Horuses he has been known to be considered the son of Isis.  Well, you know what it’s like when two close family members have the same name.  They answer each other’s calls, open each other’s mail, get arrested for each other’s offences…  To make things worse, both the elder and younger Horuses married a goddess called Hathor.  Imagine what it must have been like in the company mailroom. 

Horus the Elder’s main cult centre was at Letopolis, modern Ausim, a dozen kilometres or so north-west of Cairo. There’s not much left of his temple there now, but there is rather more left of the temple of Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt, where Horus shared his accommodation with a flatmate, the crocodile god Sobek.  Here’s a portrait of Horus from his Nile Valley residence:

Regular readers of this blog will know that the divine company history had always been a turbulent one, even before the arrival of the Children of Nut.  You’ll also remember how ruthlessly the real stories of many attempted – and successful – boardroom coups by each succeeding generation were suppressed by the company founders.  But legends will persist, even in open plan offices. 

 The legend about Horus the Elder is that he owed his seniority to one such attempted coup.  Atum got wind that a faction in the family firm – the names of the guilty have been successfully withheld from the public – was plotting against him.  Atum was getting on in years by now and didn’t feel able to confront them directly, especially as they were his own family and would presumably get to choose his retirement home.  He needed to get a handle on the size of the forces ranged against him, so he sent out a company spy to hang around the water cooler, listen in to the gossip and report back.  We’ve all met them. 

 The spy discovered that eight senior executives and two hundred and fifty-seven of the workforce, backed up by a huge army, were doing nothing but slandering Atum at every water cooler, tea point, restroom and smoking break in the company.  Just as he uncovered this information, the conspirators realised he was a spy and took immediate action:  they stuck out their tongues at him.  This was apparently much more frightening then than it is now – maybe because it was a reminder that the Egyptians used to cut out the tongues of the slain on the battlefield.  Anyway, the spy acted in the time-honoured tradition of snitches everywhere and ran straight back to Atum.

Atum immediately called in company secretary Thoth for high-level counter-coup discussions.  Thoth advised him to choose a high-profile individual to champion Atum’s policies in the workplace.  Atum chose Horus the Elder, put him in uniform, armed him to the hilt and let him rip. The result was a massacre and a flight of the vanquished, some of whom turned into fish and birds to effect their getaway.  Well, even if they’d had company cars then, they’d have had to give them back.  But it was no use:  whatever they turned into, Horus copied, hunting them down and exterminating them wherever they were hidden.  It was worse than a government leak inquiry.  Eventually, though, company order was restored and Horus found himself promoted above his peers for services rendered, becoming “leader of the troops”.  Here he is, not in a portrait this time but in a rather fine bronze, as a Roman soldier:

 

You have to admire Horus the Elder all the more once you know t hat the company champion had battled disability to achieve his excellent performance rating and an enviable promotion. Horus the Elder’s two eyes represented the sun and the moon.  On pitch dark nights when these two heavenly bodies were invisible, the god used to go blind.   On these occasions he was known in the company as Mekhenty-en-irty, “he who has no eyes”.  In his blind form, he swapped his falcon’s head for the head of a shrew, an animal thought to fear broad daylight.  When he recovered his eyesight, he was known as Khenty-en-irty, “he who has eyes”.  At one of Horus’ cult centres, Kom Ombo, the priests commissioned a carving of surgical and medical instruments for the temple wall, in which the eye doctor’s equipment has a prominent place.

Well, it never ends there, does it?  If you promote one of five siblings, the others are bound to feel a certain grievance.  And you have to remember, company grievance procedures were much less sophisticated then.  At any rate, these events were soon followed by a rebellion of the Children of Nut against Chairman Atum.  Horus the Elder had to take up his sword again. 

The rebellion came to a head on board the solar bark.  It was a pitch dark night, Horus the Elder couldn’t see a thing, he was on a mission and he was armed with a sword.  You can imagine what was about to happen.  Horus didn’t let the mere fact of his blindness hold him back; he set about himself with a vengeance, lopping off heads left right and centre.  When the sun came up in the morning, he found that he had decapitated not only half the workforce but a lot of the gods as well.  Talk about swingeing cuts – Horus the Elder was the George Osborne of his day.  The company ship came to a halt – as the crew had been beheaded, that was probably inevitable – one of the four pillars holding up the sky fell into the primeval ocean and the universe stood tottering on the brink of collapse.  (That’s what happens when you implement radical retrenchments too quickly, George – let that be a warning to you.)  Fortunately, the Chairman was able to restore the gods’ heads to their shoulders and, after a kindly but firm word with the junior executives about their future career prospects, Atum was able to effect repairs and the company ship sailed on.

So, if you’re poised pen in hand over yet another leaving card, about to write your offering formula and wondering which god to select for yet another colleague whose job has been axed, Horus the Elder might be the one.  He’d also be good for one of those slash-and-burn types, or salami-slicers of services.  We’ll have a look at exactly how you write him in there next time.

March 25, 2010

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

The first generation in a successful family firm has made its way from the bottom to the top.  The old man’s had it tough, and tough is character forming.  The second generation may have been born into affluence, but they’ve been brought up by a Dad who knows how lucky they are and never lets them forget it.  So the kids feel all the responsibility of getting the fruits of Dad’s labour on a plate.  The trouble always starts with the third generation.  The grandkids are spoiled rotten.  They’re ungrateful, arrogant brats – or worse.

Look at this family portrait:

You’ll recognise the fine, upstanding figure in the middle immediately; that’s Shu.  Ignore the ram-headed characters; on either side of Shu; they don’t concern us in this dynastic history.  The other two figures are Shu’s children, Geb and Nut and, like many a Dad then and now, he’s having to keep them apart.

That’s Shu and Tefnut’s boy, Geb, on the bottom, lying at Shu’s feet.  Geb was the god of the earth, so that’s a very good place for him to lie.  The Nile rippled the length of his naked torso, which is often coloured green to represent the fertile vegetation of the Nile Valley.  In fact, Geb was so fertile that barley sprouted from his ribcage.  He sounds quite attractive, doesn’t he?

However, beneath many a lush exterior lurks a far less enticing interior, and it was certainly better to stop at the surface of Geb than to gain a more intimate acquaintance with what went on underneath.  For the deceased Egyptian, buried in the soil of Geb, he was a malevolent imprisoner.  Sound like any of your board?  Read on…

You’ll notice that Geb’s mother Tefnut is not in the family portrait, even though Shu had left her behind as regent when he retired to the heavens following the rebellion in the company ranks.  The ugly truth is that, when Shu retired, Geb sexually abused his own mother Tefnut, and tried to seize his father’s crown.  You can’t blame her for not turning up for the photoshoot. 

The incestuous rape of Tefnut was probably just another way of Geb usurping his father’s position.  Geb’s real design was on the crown.

When Geb tried to steal Shu’s crown, he came with a crowd of supporters and yes-men to take it from the casket in which it lay.  As soon as he lifted the lid, the sacred cobra which sat on the King’s brow shot out spitting fire, killed his whole entourage and injured Geb himself.  Well, you know what vicious threshold guardians these bosses’ secretaries can be.

The immediate result of Geb’s attempt to steal Shu’s crown was a badly burned hand which needed specialist treatment from the sun god, Re.  However, there was a nine-day stormy period when the company was in crisis and no-one seems to have been in charge.  When, finally, order was restored, guess what?  The thieving, incestuous rapist Geb was crowned King in Shu’s place.  We’ve all seen the crown go to the undeserving.  And it makes you suspect that Geb may have had something to do with the original rebellion.

Deserving or not, the ancient Egyptian throne came to be knows as the throne of Geb, and the Egyptian King himself was known as the heir of Geb, so Geb was pretty good at rebranding.  The floor of a temple, or of the embalming house, was regarded as Geb.  The bedrock of the company – or maybe just a pile of dirt.

March 20, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You are? Tefnut (1)

If twins are born around midnight, the delivery room staff will do everything they can to ensure that they have the same birthday.  I’d obviously never make it as a midwife, as it’s almost a month since my last post, and Shu’s twin sister Tefnut is only now putting in an appearance.  Sorry, kids.

Never mind, I’ve whipped her out, slapped her bottom, and here she is:

What can I tell you about Atum’s bouncing baby girl?  Well, even though she had the head of a lioness, she’s the spitting image of her Dad:  whereas Atum sneezed Shu into existence, he spat out the goddess Tefnut; the word tef in ancient Egyptian meant to spit. 

As you can tell, Shu and Tefnut were not identical twins.  As the god of air, Shu was a pretty dry character.  Tefnut, on the other hand, was a bit wet.  She personified moisture, particularly the morning dew.

Opposites attract and, let’s face it, there wasn’t much competition.  Atum had had no mate, but Shu and Tefnut paired off immediately in a brother-sister marriage.  At least that way, Atum was able to keep the business in the family. In due course, they had children of their own; we’ll come on to them later. 

As with many a good Mum, it was not only Tefnut’s own children who benefited from her mothering; other kids on the block came in for some tlc, too.  One of her jobs, for example, was occasionally to cleanse the King of his impurities.  She could be strict, though, and always sided with Shu when it came to discipline, even joining him in his fiery torture activities in the netherworld. 

Shu clearly trusted Tefnut absolutely.  After the rebellion which led to Shu and Tefnut’s palace being sacked, Shu and his entourage retired to the penthouse office in the sky after defeating the invaders and left Tefnut on earth in the ground-floor boardroom as regent.  If only the kids had turned out ok, everything might have been different, but you know how even well brought up offspring from stable, loving families can sometimes turn out to be problem children…  But that’s another story.

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.

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 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.

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?

February 5, 2010

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

Imagine we’re in the gods’ boardroom.  It’s a typical boardroom in an old established family firm, with cedar panelling and portraits of the founders hanging on the wall.  We’d better imagine it’s on a yacht, as the Egyptian gods did not have an office but a boat, on which they sailed through the heavens.  The yacht does make the family sound more like a lot of Russian oligarchs, but you can’t have everything.

Anyway, we’re strolling down the gallery of portraits and we stop at the portrait of the founder of the dynasty and chairman of the board:  the god Atum.  And here he is.

A fine figure of a god. I’m sure you’ll agree:  a king among gods, in fact, and dressed as an Egyptian king to make his status clear.  You might be prepared for the revelation that the portrait is a little flattering; Atum was a very old god, associated with the setting sun, and the Egyptians sometimes depicted him as a stooped old man.  You wouldn’t think, though, would you, that underneath that kingly exterior, he was a real snake? 

Atum was so old he existed before the world began.  Back in the primeval ocean, Atum floated as a gigantic snake, his tail in his mouth, with no beginning, no ending, eternal.  But he knew he had it in him to be so much more than that.  So he emerged from the primeval ocean (which was called Nun), standing on the very first mound of dry land – the original self-made man. 

Atum separated land from water and basically had to organise everything himself from then on.  For a long time, he was the organisation.  And he laid good foundations.  During his tenure, he cooled down the air and dried out the land, and those who came after can thank him for that. 

In those days, Atum was king of all he surveyed.  But it’s lonely at the top.  Atum had no goddess to share his exclusive waterfront development.  What is a bachelor god to do?  Atum did the only thing he could, and took himself in hand.  His act of procreation produced twins, a boy and a girl, called Shu and Tefnut.  We’ll meet them later.  So in the early years, Atum was a single Dad, bringing up a family on his own as well as founding a planet.  You’ve got to admire him. 

And no, he was not the least bit ashamed of the hand thing.  Atum scorned cover-ups.  In fact, he was proud of his hand, and so were the Egyptians.  They put together a whole PR strategy for Atum and his hand.  They painted it on coffins, and some priestesses at Thebes took the title “God’s Hand” to show how indispensible they were to the god.  So much better when you don’t have to deny anything because everyone knows anyway and thinks it’s great.  He was a smart god, Atum.

As you would expect of a founder, Atum was very protective of his dynasty.  Eventually, it would extend through several generations of gods to the Egyptian King, whom he regarded as his particular protegé.  (Kingship was all about organisation to the Egyptians.) He even had him dress the same.  When Isis was looking for somewhere safe to give birth to Horus, Atum found her just the spot and made it inaccessible to their arch enemy Seth.  When the King died, Atum would lift him up out of the pyramid and transform him into a star god. 

Every night, Atum would sail through the Underworld, executing the King’s enemies and fighting another gigantic serpent called Apophis.  Apophis was a rival concern, hell bent on swallowing up the whole ship of the gods in the world’s most hostile takeover bid.  We’ll come back to him another time.  It takes a snake to know a snake, and Atum knew what it took to kill one; a mongoose.  So Atum would transform himself into a mongoose to defeat Apophis.  You see- he was adaptable.  He refused to be limited by his origins. 

Lizards, bulls and lions were also sacred to Atum.  He was associated with the scarab, because the scarab beetle emerging from its ball of dung reminded the Egyptians of Atum emerging on the primeval mound.  (Atum was obviously good at digging himself out of the brown stuff. ) But everyone expects that, when the crash comes and the whole world falls back into the primeval ocean, Nun, Atum will revert to being the snake he originally was.

I don’t know whether you can see it in this portrait, but there was one characteristic that always betrayed Atum’s serpentine origins; his green eyes.  He had quite a party trick he could do with one of his eyes; he could make it cry worms. 

Now we’ve admired Atum’s portrait, we’ll take a closer look at his name and titles.  If you think you recognise any of your colleagues from this account of Atum, you’ll want to be able to invoke him for their personalised offering formula.  But that’s for another post.

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?

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