Susanllewellyn's Blog

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.

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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
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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 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.

March 21, 2010

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

Time to run our fingers down Tefnut’s nameplate now.  Here it is:

Tfnwt nbt pt   Tefnut nebet pet   Tefnut, Lady of Heaven.  Let’s look at her name first:

As you can see, her name – if you forget about the unspoken determinative at the end for a minute – begins and ends with our old favourite the loaf of bread letter t, which I suppose makes it a sandwich.  And what’s the filling?  The horned viper letter f and the water pot nw, both of which we’ve had before.  Not everyone’s choice of a packed lunch, perhaps, although snake is supposed to taste like chicken.

The determinative is new, though, and no, it’s not the discarded sandwich wrapper.  It’s a cursive writing of another serpent hieroglyph:

This one is a (non-horned) cobra, and was often used as a determinative for the name of a goddess, especially if the goddess in question were a snake goddess like Wadjet, the cobra goddess who adorned the King’s forehead.  But other goddesses could use it as well.  Tefnut was a lioness rather than a cobra, but her Dad Atum was the original giant serpent, so I suppose she felt entitled.  And she ate those little horned vipers for lunch.

The cobra determinative is tricky to draw, but it can be done.  You may want to start with a little flat head, like a sock puppet looking straight ahead.  Then you can make the wide sweep of the hood, tapering down to the narrow body; turn and continue horizontally, then make a downturn for the tail.  The you can add a loop in each “elbow” to suggest the coils.

Here’s one doing some textbook rearing:

You’d need a whole row of baguettes to make a sandwich out of that.

Tefnut’s title, nbt pt, starts with a familiar object: 

the basket hieroglyph nb, neb , Lord, which should really be followed by a t in Tefnut’s case, to make it the feminine nbt, nebet, Lady, but the scribe hasn’t put it in. Well, you can see he was in a hurry from his cobra.  The group of three signs underneath the basket is this one: 

pt, pet, the sky or heaven.  The first two symbols are familiar; you’ll remember from Office Hieroglyphs the stool made of reed matting which represents the letter p.  The scribe in Tefnut’s case has abbreviated it to three short strokes, which was quite common in cursive hieroglyphs, but I recommend you draw it as a square.  And there’s yet another loaf of bread t.  The rectangle with two downward-pointing corners is the sky symbol.  You can see it painted blue on the top of this stela, although the artist has had to bend it around to fit the curved top:

Bendy or not, it gives the sun disk somewhere to hang.

The sky had a particular significance for Tefnut, as we’ll find out when we meet her and Shu’s children.  In the meantime, just remember:  however heavenly the chairman’s daughter, if she invites you to lunch, take your own sandwiches.

 

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 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 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.

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?

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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