Susanllewellyn's Blog

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 13, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (13)

Number thirteen!  Are you feeling lucky or unlucky?  I’m feeling quite lucky that although this week’s post concerns two words, the words consist of only one hieroglyph each:ntr aa hieroglyphs

ntr aa transliteration

Netjer aa, the great god.  What excellent value per hieroglyph.

As with many languages, the adjective follows the noun in Egyptian, so the first word, netjer, is the word for god.  I bet, after finding out that they spelled the word for king with a stick of salad and a bread roll, you can’t wait to find out what they used to convey the idea of divinity.  I bet if I told you it was one of those little paper labels you stick in cheese, you’d at least half believe me. 

Actually, it’s not a million miles away from that; it is a flag.  Just as fetish symbols were erected at Egyptian shrines from the Predynastic period onwards, so banners with emblems of the gods were set up on flagpoles outside their temples.  The flagpoles are gone now, but you can still  see the sockets that housed them when you visit temples in Egypt today.  This is Luxor temple, where there are four deep sockets in the facade of the first pylon where the massive poles were once lodged.

Luxor temple

And this is what they would once have looked like:


This is probably about as much as the average Egyptian got to see of the local god much of the time.  Most of them would not have been allowed very far beyond the front gate of the temple, except on very special occasions.  Even when the god’s statue was carried in procession, it was hidden from sight in a curtained shrine.  So the flags really came to stand for the gods in people’s minds, to the extent that it was the simplest way of writing the word for god:

painted ntr

And it’s not difficult to draw.  Just draw a flag on a pole.

aa hieroglyph

aa transliteration

Aa, great, is slightly more tricky.  It’s a wooden column, of the sort used in houses or smaller or buildings, where it wouldn’t have had to support a great deal of weight.  I suppose using a pillar to convey greatness kind of figures.  Wooden columns are mainly known from paintings and models, as they’ve mostly perished. One good source for what they looked like, though, is the step pyramid complex of Djoser at Saqqara, as they were only just learning to work in large quantities of stone then, and the buildings imitate wooden originals.  These are stone imitations of wooden columns at Saqqara:


You can see from this painted version of the hieroglyph that the column symbol is broader towards the base and more slender towards the top. painted aa

It seems to have a capital shaped like a papyrus umbel, like the Djoser columns, with an abacus – the cover plate that connects the column with the ceiling – on the top, like this one:


So, when you’re drawing it, you need to convey the intricacies of the capital.  I usually draw two back-to-back little scollops to start with aa scollops then an equal and opposite pair underneath

aa scollops2

 then the slightly pear-shaped body of the column:

aa hieroglyph

But you’ll figure out what works best for you.  Luck has nothing to do with it.  It’s all about practice.

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