Susanllewellyn's Blog

February 9, 2010

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

Ok, let’s roll up our sleeves and get back down there with those hieroglyphs.  We’re working on Atum’s name in this post.  Here it is:

  (‘I)tm Atum

The ‘I or A at the beginning is in brackets because in this spelling it’s not actually written in the ancient Egyptian, although it did sometimes appear.  (In some versions, he has an -w sound at the end of his name:  ‘Itmw.)  That won’t surprise you old Office Hieroglyphs hands, because you know the Egyptians hardly ever write the vowels; what we mostly have are the consonants.  But the name derives from the word tm which meant “complete” or “whole”; as the creator god, Atum contained within himself everything out of which he created the world.

The first hieroglyph in Atum’s name needs no introduction; it’s our old Office Hieroglyphs favourite, the loaf of bread standing for the letter t.  Here, as we’ve found elsewhere, it is only reinforcing the t sound contained in the biliteral sign which follows:

 tm tem

Now this is a new one.  It’s easy to draw:  two parallel lines curving up at the ends, a pair of cross-hatchings at each end, and finally a little loop just below the upward curve.  It’s not quite so easy to tell what it is.  See if you can spot it in this tomb painting:

Well done.  Got it in one, didn’t you?  It’s a sledge.  Right.  Just what you need in the frozen wastelands of the Nile Valley.  And why not?  As I write this, Cool Runnings is on BBC Three, and Ghana is sending a skier to the winter Olympics.  I bet if they’d had sledging in the ancient Greek Olympics, the Egyptians would have swept the medals table clean.

The Egyptians used sledges a lot.  They didn’t have snow (although some of them did encounter it on their travels in the Asiatic lands) but they had lots of wheel-clogging sand, heavy loads to transport, and wooden axles which couldn’t take the strain of chunky basalt statues or massive blocks of limestone, let alone the odd granite obelisk.  Sledges were ideal for transporting heavy weights across the sand, including statues of gods.   This picture shows a gang of hauliers dragging along a the seated statue of a tomb owner lashed to a sledge.  (The statue, not the tomb owner, that is.  The statute is shown at a much larger scale than the men hauling it, because it’s much more important than they are – it’s a representation of the tomb owner, very expensive and very difficult to replace, unlike the workers….)  That explains the cross-lines and the loop at the front of the hieroglyph; indications of the ropes which were used to haul the sledge.

And so on to the next sign: 

What is it?  Nobody knows for sure, but it’s easy to draw; start with the top line, do a blunt, rounded downturn at one end and leave the other end open.  It was pronounced ‘im and it’s reinforcing the m in the biliteral sign tm.  There, that didn’t take long, did it?  Ignorance is much easier than knowledge.

We do know what the final hieroglyph is, though:

It’s a seated god.  We know he’s a god because he’s got long hair and a beard, and he’s modestly swathed in an all-enveloping robe, unlike the short-kilted, bare-armed seated man we met at the end of Office Hieroglyphs.  The way I draw him is to start at the top of his head and make a long stroke halfway down his back, then do a little dog leg inwards to indicate the end of his hair.  Then bring the line down his back and bottom, continue with a straight line across the base, a sharp turn and little slope up for his feet, then a swoop out, up and over for his knees, straight up for his chest, a little wiggle to indicate his face and stick the beard on last.

I don’t need to tell you, because you know from Office Hieroglyphs, that determinatives were not pronounced; they’re only there because the Egyptians didn’t write the vowels, and they needed extra visual clues to tell them which kind of word the consonants were meant to convey.  then they knew which vowels to supply themselves when they read it.

So now you can adapt the offering formula so that your colleague’s gifts come from the god Atum instead of Osiris.  Wow – you’ve doubled your god quota almost overnight!  But Atum without his titles is not much of a substitute for the Lord of Busiris, the Great God, Lord of Abydos.  If you’re going to slot Atum into the offering formula instead of Osiris, you need to slot in his full complement, Lord of the Two Lands, Lord of Heliopolis, the Great God, Lord of the Sacred Land, behind him.  Otherwise he just looks naked.  And you can tell from the all-encompassing robe that he wouldn’t have liked that.  Well, would your chairman?  And, be honest, who really wants to see the chairman naked?

December 15, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (28)

You know how you sometimes get a Christmas card, but can’t for the life of you make out the signature, and spend the whole New Year wrestling with the guilty suspicion that you’ve missed someone off your list, while they kept you on theirs?  Well, this is not going to happen this time; not on Office Hieroglyphs, it isn’t.  We are about to decipher the cryptic symbols by means of which our revered tomb owner conveyed his name – or at least had someone else to convey it for him.

And here it is:

Senusret, sometimes transcribed as Senwosret or, in its later, Greek form, Sesostris; a name of commoners, nobles and of course a number of famous Twelfth Dynasty Kings.

If you cast your mind back to the very beginning of this blog, you may remember that we encountered the device known as honorific transposition, which is a pretty rotten trick to pull on the eager beginner.  However, we’ve seen it before and we’re not intimidated.  We know it just means that the Egyptians believed that some words were more important and magical than others, especially when they were written down, and that they had better write down the most powerful symbols in a word or phrase first, even if they were not actually spoken first, or the magic letters might get annoyed and start acting up. 

Well, Senusret is one of those cases.  It is a theophorous name, which means it contains the name of a god or, in this case, goddess:  the goddess Usret or Wosret.  Senusret means “Man of (the goddess) Usret”.  And you’ve guessed it; even though the tomb owner’s name was Senusret, the diva gets her name at the top of the bill.  This is why, in very old textbooks written before they’d figured it out, early Egyptologists sometimes wrote the name as Usertsen.

So, we’ll spend this post giving all our attention to the goddess:

Usret:  literally, “the powerful one”, perhaps an early version of “She-Who-must-be-obeyed”.  She was a relatively obscure goddess who is rarely depicted, probably because her cult flourished (at Thebes, modern Luxor) during the Middle Kingdom in Egypt (roughly 2000-1700 BC), and very little remains of the temples of that period – they’ve mostly been broken up, re-used and covered over by later monuments.  Similarly, later, even more powerful goddesses supplanted her as objects of worship.  However, the Kings of the time, who came from her home town, saw her as their patron goddess, which was why several of them were named after her.

We’ve got some new symbols here, too, which makes a change from the recycling we’ve seen lately.  Have a look at the first one:

It looks like a head on a stick.  In fact, it’s the head of some dog-like animal on a greatly elongated neck.  They did like their animal body parts, didn’t they?  When you draw it, you can just draw a head on a stick:  two pointy ears and a protruding snout, then a vertical line for the neck. The symbol is a triliteral – it conveys the sound wsr or user.  The next two letters are simply the s and the r written out in full for emphasis:


 is the letter s, one of two in the transliteration of ancient Egyptian.  A droopy looking sign, isn’t it.  After all the butchery we’ve had in this blog lately, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s a length of trailing intestine, but in fact it’s a folded cloth, something like the throw hanging over the back of the throne in our picture of Osiris from ages ago:

Maybe they need something to mop up the blood at this point in the formula.

is the letter r.  We’re back to good old body parts with this one; the r represents the human mouth. Here’s a slightly wonky inlaid technicolour version:


 Two curves touching at the tips will describe it nicely.

Finally, dedicated scribes will have spotted our old friend the loaf of bread

 representing the letter t, and forming the feminine ending, so we know Usret is a goddess, not a god:  “the powerful (female) one”.

Here they all are in the name of one of the Kings called Sesostris, enclosed by a rope border known as a cartouche:

Look at them all, like presents in Santa’s sack.  We’ll pull out the last couple next time.

August 7, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (9)

Osiris and titles

Osiris titles transliteration


Usir neb Jedu, netjer aa, neb Abju:  (t0) Osiris Lord of Busiris, the great god, Lord of Abydos.

We’ve been working hard on the first bit of the offering formula.  I tell you what; let’s not have a hieroglyphic lesson this time.  Put your feet up, and I’ll tell you a story.

Once upon a time in ancient Egypt, when Egypt was so ancient that the gods lived on earth, there was a god-king called Osiris.  He was married to his sister Isis, which seems odd to us but was fairly normal for Egyptian gods (and their kings, come to that). Osiris was a good king and very useful; he invented farming and taught it to the Egyptians, his subjects.  His rule was peaceful and happy. 

Well, you know gods.  They don’t like that kind of thing.  It doesn’t matter whether they’re Egyptian gods or Greek or Roman or Viking or Mexican; your average god likes nothing more than a humungous family row. They like to get everyone either miserable or furious, running around like headless chickens and finally descending into a brawl.  And there’s always one who starts it. (You’re beginning to see the pagan origins of Christmas now, aren’t you?)

The one who started it in Osiris’ case was his brother Seth.  He wanted to be King.  So, at a family party (when else?) he tricked Osiris into getting into a coffin, sealed it shut and threw it into the Nile.  The coffin with Osiris inside it floated down the Nile, out into the Mediterranean and along the Levant coast to Byblos.  At Byblos, it got tangled up in the roots of a cedar tree, and came to a halt.

Seth had, however, reckoned without their sister Isis.  Isis was a very resourceful goddess-queen, and not only that, a very powerful magician.  She was also devoted to Osiris, and had her sister Nephthys, Seth’s own wife, totally on her side.  Isis  transformed herself and Nephthys into kites (the birds, not the paper flying things) and they scoured Egypt and the East until they found the coffin stuck in the roots of the cedar.

They were too late.  Osiris was no longer of this world.  Isis hid the coffin in the marshes of the Nile Delta, which she organised a decent burial.  While she was up to her neck in the funeral arrangements, Seth discovered the coffin by accident, and was so angry that he tore Osiris’ body limb from limb and scattered the bits the length of Egypt.  Actually, it must have been more than limb from limb, because he broke it into anything up to forty-two pieces, depending on which version of the story you read.

The devoted, put-upon Isis set about clearing up the mess.  Someone always has to.  She found most of her husband’s bits, except – er – her husband’s bits, which had been swallowed by a fish.  Never one to admit defeat, she made him a new one.  One wonders whether it was  a new and improved one … Anyway, by reassembling Osiris. scattered limbs and bandaging them all together, Isis invented mummification.

Isis the magician was able to reanimate Osiris’ corpse, including the aritifically substituted bit, sufficiently to conceive the child Horus, who became the rightful heir to his father’s throne and opponent of his usurping uncle, Seth.

You can imagine how Seth felt about that.  He was about as much in favour of Osiris having an heir as elderly relatives are when they’re watching the news and the kid comes in an switches channels to the cartoons.  Realising the danger to her son, Isis hid him in the marshes until he was old enough to stand up to Seth.  In the meantime, Seth searched for Horus until, eventually, they met. 

The subsequent contendings of Horus and Seth were almost as bad as the battle over the remote control when the Queen’s Speech is up against the Christmas special.  Seth did his darndest to trick, seduce, blind, conquer and kill Horus to secure the throne.  However, much aided by Isis’ magic, and after a great deal of political wrangling among the gods, Horus eventually succeeded in ascending the throne and Seth was banished to the desert.

Osiris was still dead. However, you can’t keep a good god down.  Well, you can, but you can’t keep him inanimate.  Although Osiris could not rule Egypt any more, what with him being dead and a mummy and all, Re, King of the Gods, sent him  down to the Netherworld to be King of the afterlife. (No Egyptologist calls Re Ra any more.)  So Osiris gained a kingdom in the land of the dead.  And every year, when the green shoots of the corn that Osisirs had shown the Egyptians how to cultivate sprouted in the black mud of the Nile, people believed he was born again.  Aaaaaah…

That is why Osiris is usually shown as a mummy, and often with black or green skin, as in this tomb painting:

osiris 2

(And later on Osiris had an affair with Nephthys and a child out of wedlock called Anubis, god of mummification – after all Isis had done for him.  Typical.  Spoils it a bit, doesn’t it?)

Never mind.  We’ll start tearing him apart – or at least his name and titles  -next time.  That’ll teach him.

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