Susanllewellyn's Blog

April 10, 2010

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

Filed under: What kind of god do you think you are? — Valerie Billingham @ 8:38 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Have you had a proud mother come back to the office during her maternity leave, to show off the baby and horrify everyone with a blow-by-blow account of her labour?  If so, you may want to choose Nut as the appropriate goddess of the offering formula you write in her congratulations card. 

You’ll recall how Nut the sky and Geb the earth, separated by their father Shu, the air, had to resort to special measures to start a family, namely and to wit:  passing semen mouth to mouth in a kiss.  Well, they didn’t have turkey basters then.  They didn’t even have turkeys. 

It was unconventional, but it worked.  Nut became pregnant.  And it annoyed the hell out of the other gods.  Well, the divine family firm was still a small to medium-sized enterprise then, and the pregnancy of a key worker like the sky can hit an SME hard.  One of the senior directors, the sun god Re, took it badly and declared that Nut might be pregnant, but there was no way she was going to give birth on any day he was in charge of.  (You can understand why:  Nut’s job involved swallowing the sun at night and the stars at daybreak, and giving birth to them again at the appropriate time.  If she had offspring in there as well, he must have been concerned about overcrowding in the workplace.)  As the sun god, Re was basically in charge of days, so this presented a problem for Nut. 

 However, a good legal department can usually come up with a solution (even though the boss may feel they’re in league against him.)  Nut visited the company secretary in the form of the god Thoth, scribe of the gods.  Thoth did a quick stocktake and pointed out that, although Re was head of the day department, his department was not at full strength.  The Egyptian calendar was based on three seasons of four months, with thirty days to a month, making a grand total on 360 days in a year.  This immediately looks like a shortfall to us, but give them a break, they were making the market back then.  Thoth looked in the stores and came up with an extra five days’ worth of light, which he shoehorned in between the end of one year and the beginning of the next.  He told Nut she could have those five days off to give birth.  Talk about coming straight back to work.  (They never did figure out the extra quarter day.  It caused the office party schedule no end of trouble in the long run.)

 You’ll have noticed that the divine board of directors is becoming more complicated and causing more trouble with each generation.  It was all so simple when Atum was a sole trader.  He single-handedly brought up two kids, one of each, who didn’t give him a bit of trouble, probably because they were essentially cloned from himself.  It was only when the second generation became a two-parent family that things started to be less than straightforward, and their kids took up unusual sex and violence.  So what with that and Nut’s problem pregnancy, you can guess that the next generation is going to be even more interesting.

 For a start, there were more of them.  Nut made good use of her five-day maternity leave, and produced four children:  Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys.  There are also rumours of a fifth child, called Horus the Elder, which would make sense given the five days of labour.  The impact of this houseful of kids on the older gods was a bit like the baby boomer generation on the pre-war traditionalists:  there were too many of them, they were selfish, they didn’t know how to behave and they were wrecking the place.  The older gods called Nut’s children the “children of disorder”; little horrors, in other words.

 And they did take over.  As children of Geb and Nut, they laid claim to the earth and the sky, roaming around the land and circling the sky as stars, planets and constellations.  Despite her vast and quarrelsome brood, Nut was back on the day and night shift without missing a beat.  Sky goddess, fine; glass ceiling, no way.

April 8, 2010

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

Filed under: Uncategorized,What kind of god do you think you are? — Valerie Billingham @ 10:44 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

It’s been a while since we left the terrible twins Geb and Nut, fighting and fornicating like an episode of Skins.  That’s almost poetry.  Well, maybe not.  Time to have a look at Nut’s name and titles.

We have two examples of her name from the pictures in the previous post.  In the family portrait on papyrus, Nut’s label is fixed, not tastefully in the bottom centre of the mahogany frame, as one would expect in a boardroom, but is slapped, rather tastelessly to modern eyes, right in front of her pubic area:

This is the kind of thing which starts rumours in the office:  I leave you to contemplate the appropriateness of the position as it may or may not apply to any members of yours.  The arm pointing to Nut’s genitals belongs to her father, Shu.  You can’t blame him:  he’s just trying his best to prop her up and keep her away from Geb, and she is a big girl.

Shu is not the only one being familiar; zooming in on the hieroglyphs which make up Nut’s name, we find most of them looking familiar too:

There’s a rather apathetic version of the zigzag line of the letter n, reinforcing the n in our old friend the water pot nw, the loaf of bread for the letter t, all spelling Nwt, Nut and rounded off with two determinatives:  the sky symbol for obvious reasons, and a seated goddess holding a slightly smudged lotus blossom drooping on a stem.

The second version of Nut’s name appears, rather more respectably, above her head on the inside of the coffin lid:

You can just make out the nw-pot, letter t and the sky hieroglyph.  There’s no room there for the embellishments of the first version.  However, the coffin lid also depicts Nut’s favourite title:  ms(t) ntrw, mes(et) netjeru, mother of the gods.  This may be the reason why the scribe of the papyrus thought writing Nut’s name as close as possible to her birth canal was just as appropriate as writing it next to her head.  The ancient Egyptians were a practical people.  They weren’t prudish as we are.

This is the first word, ms, written in front of Nut’s face:

Reading from the right, the first symbol is a new one:  the biliteral ms, mes. It’s easy to draw in its simple form:  one straight vertical line and two curved ones overlapping the top coming in from  different directions.  However, the simplicity is deceptive; the original object from which the hieroglyph derives is an apron made of fox skins tied together.  More elaborate versions can be found, such as this one, where you do get more of a sense of fox pelts tied together, with their brushes hanging down and the limbs dangling:

We’ve had the second symbol before; the strip of folded cloth reinforcing the letter s in  ms.  There should be a letter t for the feminine ending of mother, but, well, there isn’t in this example.  Perhaps Nut is trying to cut down on the bread – she is on the large side.

The second half of the title, ntrw, netjeru, gods, is written behind Nut’s head, so the whole thing reads top down and right to left:  Nwt ms ntrw, Nut mes netjeru, Nut Mother of the Gods.  We’ve seen the flagpole hieroglyph for god before.  This time, instead of three short strokes to convey the plural, the artist has painted three flagpoles out in full.  It means the same thing.

We all know colleagues who talk and act as though they invented a product or a practice when it’s been around in the company for a generation.  Nut was not the first goddess, nor the first goddess to give birth.  Her mother Tefnut had done it all before her, but you didn’t hear her bragging about it the way her daughter did.  What was so special about Nut’s experience of motherhood?  What was so fantastic about her kids?  We’ll find out next time.

March 28, 2010

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

If Geb was the earthy type, his twin sister Nut was the original heavenly body.  While Geb the earth lay under the feet of their father Shu, Nut arched herself over his head as the sky, her hands and feet standing at the four cardinal points:

 Nut formed a vault over the world, stopping malevolent forces from the cosmos from invading Egypt.   The stars travelled over the vault of Nut, and like many other heavenly bodies with star quality, pictures of Nut appeared everywhere, especially on royal tomb ceilings, like this one:

You can see a line of stars painted in blue, running over her shoulder and down her back like a tattoo.  Nut had a tremendous appetite; every dawn, she ate all the stars for breakfast.  Every evening for supper, she swallowed the barque of the sun god when it reached the western horizon.  Every morning, presumably while stuffing her face with the stars, she gave birth to the ship, the god and his retinue, and the whole cycle began again.   The red disks painted along Nut’s body represent the passage of the sun through her inner workings.  The different parts of her body represented hours of the night.  Her lips corresponded to the second hour of night, her teeth to the third, her throat the fourth, her chest the fifth and so on.  Remember, if you’re tempted to snack as much as Nut was:  a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips…  But then, everything she ate seems to have passed straight through her.  She doesn’t seem to have digested anything, just like all the other supermodels.

Nut was also a favourite pin-up on coffin lids, where she arched protectively over the deceased, offering the promise of rebirth and eternal life among the stars:

In the underworld, Nut was present as a sycamore fig tree, and provided air, water and nourishment to the departed.

Like certain supermodels, too, Nut wasn’t all celestial sweetness and light.  Occasionally, she could appear as a cow or a pig.  She was known to fight with her brother Geb; in one quarrel, he split her head right open.  No wonder their Dad Shu is holding them apart.  The quarrel was hushed up, though, and no-one was allowed to talk about it, for fear of spreading disorder in the company ranks.

Geb and Nut’s parents, Shu and Tefnut, were the first gods to produce children through sex and, like many parents, decided that the kids at better not know anything about it.  This is another reason Shu is holding them apart.  However, the more you deny them something the more they want it.  You could say that Geb and Nut had a love-hate relationship.  Geb’s passion for Nut did not only manifest itself in violence.  Unable to consummate his lust, he became so frustrated that he resorted to blowing his own trumpet, so to speak.  But Nut’s head did touch the ground at the western horizon.  Geb was able to pass his semen to her secretly through a kiss, and in this way Nut became pregnant.

But that’s another story.  We’ll have a closer look at her name first.

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.

January 29, 2010

What kind of god do you think you are?

Welcome back.  Have you missed me?  I’ve been taking a break to look at other people’s blogs, tweets, websites, Facebook pages – look at and admire.  What a talented, committed, creative lot you are!  You’re absolutely divine – which brings me on to the subject of my next umpteen posts – the creative divinities of ancient Egypt.

If you dig back through the sedimentary layers of the last thirty posts, you’ll find, right at the beginning, that I made you a promise.  I promised that you’d learn how to vary some of the elements of the offering formula, to suit the person for whom you were writing it.  For a start, I promised to give you a selection of gods, so that you could swap one of them for Osiris if you prefer.

After all, Osiris may not be the patron you would select for that particular colleague.  You may feel slightly diffident about invoking the god of the dead for someone on the eve of retirement.  They might even curse you. (Maybe we’ll do curses later.  The Egyptians had some good ones.)  If ideal god or goddess who encapsulates your feelings about your colleague were rattling around the celestial vault unsummoned, and I hadn’t told you about them, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. 

So here I am, back, with a selection for you. We’ll look them over together, and see whether they remind you of anyone in work.  The Egyptians were a very organised people, and they arranged their gods in a hierarchy which often seems eerily familiar when you’re looking at it over an office keyboard. 

It’s a family firm.  At the top of the organisation is the creator god, Atum, the founder of the organisation.  Beneath him are two of his offspring, Shu and Tefnut, and beneath them two of theirs, Geb and Nut (like all family firms, it’s pretty incestuous).   They basically form the chair and non-executive directors of the firm, the solid, conservative old guard.  There are four executive directors – Osiris, whom we know, Isis, Seth and Nephthys; two married couples constantly at each other’s throats (and other body parts).  The Chief Executive is Isis and Osiris’ son, Horus – the young blood brought in in controversial circumstances.  Does any of this sound like anyone you know?

Around the family gathers a wider organisation of illegitimate offspring, distant relatives, hangers-on and their spouses and kids.  The convolutions of their turbulent lives!  The sex!  The fighting! The exotic locations!  The ships!  The festivals!  I can’t wait to go to work, can you?

Blog at WordPress.com.