Susanllewellyn's Blog

August 11, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (11)

nb ddw hieroglyphsnb ddw transliteration

Neb Djedu, the first of Osiris’ titles.  It makes him sound like a character from Star Wars, doesn’t it?  (Not that I’ve seen any of the later ones – I gave up in disgust after JarJar Binks.  We won’t let him into the netherworld.  Whether you let him  into your office inscriptions is up to you.  By the time this blog is over (waaaay in the future), you’ll have the hieroglyphs to make up a credible hieroglyphic cast list for Neville in IT if the fancy takes you.)

But I digress.  Where were we?  Oh yes, neb Djedu, Lord of Busiris, a cult centre in the Nile Delta, where Osiris was worshipped.  Busiris may not sound much like Djedu, and there’s a reason for that.  Again, it was what our old friends and fellow Mediterranean tourists the ancient Greeks called the town.  However, it is based on an alternative ancient Egyptian name for the place, meaning “Place of Osiris”.  So we’ll let them off.

This is the sign for nb or lord:nbIt doesn’t look like much, does it?  And it’s dead easy to draw; a semi-circle with a straight line across the top.  And, indeed, it represents a humble object; a simple woven basket.  Just what we need after all that bread in the earlier posts.  But the Egyptians, superb artists that they were, were capable of elevating any everyday object into a thing of great beauty.  Have a look at this:



This is just one letter from an inscription covering a whole building.  Look at the craftsmanship that’s gone into it.  Isn’t it wonderful? 

And what about this one?


This is a nb sign taken from a longer inscription which has been inlaid in semi-precious stones into a panel of ebony in a piece of  furniture.  It is literally a tiny jewel of the stone-cutter’s art.

The Egyptians didn’t always put that much work into their nb signs, and you don’t have to draw your office hieroglyphs in that much detail either – although, if you want to call someone a  basket without their ever knowing, you may relish the opportunity of lavishing some attention on this sign. Just try not to stick out your tongue while you’re concentrating.  You may look as if you’re enjoying it a little bit too much.

We’ll tackle Busiris next time, because it’s longer and more complicated.  For now, we’ll contemplate the both the intricacy and the simplicity of the nb sign.  Which now makes it sound Japanese.

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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