Susanllewellyn's Blog

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.

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.

July 29, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (5)

Ok, back to the first group of signs:

htp di nsw


or hetep di nesu, to make it slighty more pronounceable.

We’re going to dismantle this component even further, into the very first word – written word, that is.  Because, although in spoken Egyptian, the word hetep is the first word of the sentence, when it came to committing speech to writing, they put the nesu first.  

Yes, I know.  You’ve just gasped in disgust, chucked your pen across the desk and hit the whiteboard.  What were they thinking?

 Well, they were thinking, we’ve just invented something called writing, and it’s powerful stuff.  Your words don’t evaporate into thin air any more.  This newfangled writing contraption makes them stick around and come back to haunt you.  It transports your words across space and time.  It makes things happen, even though you’re not there to tell them to.  It must be magic.    

 If even tiny little words are so important once they’re written down, went their logic, think how powerful big, impressive words are.  Think how powerful a word like King must be.  It’s all the power of the King himself, in a word.  We’d better give it precedence and write it down first.  We probably don’t want to annoy it – the gods know what it might do.

 Egyptologists call the principle of putting important words like King, god, etc, first in the written sentence “honorific transposition”.  In the spoken language, they said the words in their natural order.

 You’ve guessed by now that nesu means King.  Technically, it means King of Upper Egypt, but it was also used simply to mean King.

In this version of the offering formula, it is spelled:


but you can also find it written as:


nsw versions 3 and 4nsw versions 1 and 2

nsw version 5In the case of the offering formula, though, both they and you want to keep it short and simple, so let’s stick to the two signs we have.


(The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted that there is one of these just behind my head in my profile picture.)

All hieroglyphs are pictograms – that is, they are all pictures of something, even though they may not be immediately recognisable.  However, I’m sure you recognised instantly that the first symbol is a simplified rendering of a plant, probably some form of sedge.  Here is a picture of a sedge plant: 

a sedge plant

You can see the likeness, can’t you?  On the other hand, you can also see why they didn’t go in for photo realism in the hieroglyphic department. When you draw your first hieroglyph in your first offering formula, it will be this one, and I suggest you start at the top and, in a single, deliberate stroke, draw a walking stick, then add two pairs of little curved leaves onto the bottom of the stem.

Now for the second sign:

It’s a loaf of bread.  Well, obviously.  But if you look closely at this scene of ancient Egyptian bread making, you’ll see they put the dough to rise in pottery bread moulds, and in the bottom left hand corner, there it is, rising above the mould in a similar shape.

bread-making scene

It’s an easy symbol to draw, anyway – a straight line for the bottom and a curved line on top.  A nice, gentle wind-down after the rigours of the lesson.

July 22, 2009

Office hieroglyphs

I began to realise there was a real demand for hieroglyphs in the office when a colleague of mine asked me to write some on his whiteboard.  I’d been writing them on birthday cards and leaving cards in the office for years.  I thought people were intrigued for a few seconds then forgot all about them.  But this colleague wouldn’t let anyone erase my hieroglyphs from his whiteboard.  Work was write-on wipe off, but not these.  They stayed there for a couple of years.  The office moved from London to Leeds, and I had to go round to his new whiteboard and write him some more.

Inspired by this, I have expanded Egyptology in the office to include lectures, Egypt-themed walks and museum visits.  Egyptology is now part of my workplace identity. Who else would have given another colleague the hieroglyphic version of Peter Rabbit as a maternity leave present?  (I did give her the English version as well.)

I have a lot of fun with my office hieroglyphs, and my colleagues seem to enjoy it too.  This stuff is too good not to share.  I am going to use this blog to teach you how to write hieroglyphs for the office, and we are going to start with this:

The offering formula

The offering formula

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