Susanllewellyn's Blog

August 20, 2009

Office Hieroglyphs (17)

Now have a look at this little group of signs:

prt hrw t hnqt hieroglyphs

They look like a row of vases on a windowsill, don’t they, or maybe on a mantelpiece with a mirror behind them? This painted version doesn’t do much to dispel the impression:

prt hrw t hnqt painting076


In fact, they comprise a house, a loaf of bread, an oar, a jug of beer, and an invisible owl. All together, they spell:

prt hrw m t hnqt transliteration 

peret-kheru (em) te henqet , an invocation-offering (consisting of ) bread, beer…

Obviously, there’s a lot of compression going on here.  This group is packing in a lot of words, and the individual signs are packing in a lot of letters.  But that’s what you get with a formula.

Let’s look at the house and the oar first, before not looking at the owl (because it’s invisible).

This is the house:      pr hieroglyph

                          prt transliteration

What do you think?  If you’re saying, hang on, where are the door and windows?  Where’s the chimney with curly smoke coming out of it, and the garden path and the wobbly daisies and the sun shining in the sky? then you’re looking at it from the wrong angle.  This is not the elevation; this is the ground plan of a house, with four walls and a gap for the doorway.  See?

The plan is based on a very early, basic form of house; more of a hut, really.  There’s no better picture I can show you than the hieroglyph itself; the Egyptians tended to build more and more elaborately, and to build the new buildings on top of the old buildings, so they’re kind of hard to photograph, what with being buried and all.  But if you need help to draw this hieroglyph, there is no hope for you.  Give up now.  You do not have what it takes to become an office scribe.

Peret means “a going forth”.  No, I know that’s not what it says in the translation above, but bear with me.  Strictly speaking, the house symbol has the phonetic value per, and there should be a t on the end to make the word peret,but we’re used to abbreviated spellings now, aren’t we?  The Eyptians knocked out this bit of the offering formula so often, they didn’t want to spend any more time over the spelling than they had to, and in any case they liked the pleasing arrangement of the signs in this little group.  They didn’t want to clutter up the mantelpiece with extra ornaments, so they left them in storage.

 The oar makes up the other half of this pair of words:

hrw  hrw transliteration                                  



kheru, beginning with the third of the Egyptian alphabet’s four aitches, the one that may have sounded something like the ch in the Scottish word loch.  It means “voice”. 

Again, the sign is not difficult to draw.  A pointy spoon shape should do the trick. The most magnificent specimens of ancient Egyptian oars are to be found on the funerary barque of King Khufu or Cheops at Giza:

cheops ship

If you’re at Giza and are tempted to look inside the slightly odd-looking modern buidling next to the Great Pyramid – give in to it!  It’s fantastic!

Coming back to the hieroglyphs, peret-kheru means, literally, “a going forth of the voice”:

prt-hrw hieroglyphs  prt hrw transliteration



“A going forth of the voice” means something that is spoken, recited; an utterance; an invocation offering.  It means that the priests of Osiris, even if they did not bring any actual food to the tomb on the god’s delivery round, would recite the offering formula and invoke the whole menu into being in the netherworld for the tomb owner.

Which brings us to the invisible owl.  Fuller versions of the formula show the owl, who stands for the word em, “consisting of”, which is omitted here.  It’s a shame you can’t see him; he’s beautiful.  If you stick around, you’ll see him later.  He’s worth the wait.

We’ll look at the remaining signs in this group next time.  They’re the start of the menu, and we want our dinner served properly in the afterlife.  We get enough bad service in this life; we don’t want it for eternity.

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