Susanllewellyn's Blog

January 29, 2011

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? The children of Nut

Filed under: Uncategorized,What kind of god do you think you are? — Valerie Billingham @ 8:42 pm
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Now, where were we?  As I recall, we were strolling down the mahogany-lined corridor of the company yacht of the ancient Egyptian gods, admiring the portraits of the founders of the divine dynasty and exploring their place in the company’s history.  We were just about to reach the portraits of the fourth generation, the “children of disorder”:  Osiris, Isis, Seth, Nephthys and their shadowy sibling Horus the Elder.   Here they are:

 

That’s Osiris on his throne with Isis and Nephthys behind him, and that’s Horus the falcon and Seth the we’re-not-sure-what-but-it’s-probably-mythological clapping their godly, supportive hands on either shoulder of the King. 

And what an appropriate time to return to them.  To look at them, as with many children, you’d think butter wouldn’t melt.  However, in the words of the Book of the Dead:

“..what is to be done with the Children of Nut?  They have fomented war, they have stirred up quarrels, they have caused disorder, they have fomented rebellion…”  words which must be echoing around a presidential palace not a million miles from Egypt as I type.

 As far as the senior members of the firm were concerned, the children of Nut had no self discipline and constantly gave in to their worse instincts.    Atum the chairman used to complain about them all the time to Thoth, the company secretary of the gods.  Thoth, who was also the office timekeeper, told him he shouldn’t have to put up with it and he should put a time limit on them:  cut their hours and put them all on fixed-term contracts.

Of course, you can’t curtail junior executives’ terms and conditions without imposing similar or even worse cuts on their subordinates.  Following through the inexorable logic, Atum placed limits on the lifespans of human beings and even on the length of time they could stay dead.  (I’m sure I saw that last bit in the Coalition Plan for Government.)  One day, Atum decreed, you lot, dead or alive, will all go back into the primeval ocean and I can put my feet up and have a snooze.

The older gods blamed the children of Nut for setting a bad example to mankind, leading them eventually to rebel against the rule of the gods themselves.  But that’s another post.

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April 10, 2010

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

Filed under: What kind of god do you think you are? — Valerie Billingham @ 8:38 am
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Have you had a proud mother come back to the office during her maternity leave, to show off the baby and horrify everyone with a blow-by-blow account of her labour?  If so, you may want to choose Nut as the appropriate goddess of the offering formula you write in her congratulations card. 

You’ll recall how Nut the sky and Geb the earth, separated by their father Shu, the air, had to resort to special measures to start a family, namely and to wit:  passing semen mouth to mouth in a kiss.  Well, they didn’t have turkey basters then.  They didn’t even have turkeys. 

It was unconventional, but it worked.  Nut became pregnant.  And it annoyed the hell out of the other gods.  Well, the divine family firm was still a small to medium-sized enterprise then, and the pregnancy of a key worker like the sky can hit an SME hard.  One of the senior directors, the sun god Re, took it badly and declared that Nut might be pregnant, but there was no way she was going to give birth on any day he was in charge of.  (You can understand why:  Nut’s job involved swallowing the sun at night and the stars at daybreak, and giving birth to them again at the appropriate time.  If she had offspring in there as well, he must have been concerned about overcrowding in the workplace.)  As the sun god, Re was basically in charge of days, so this presented a problem for Nut. 

 However, a good legal department can usually come up with a solution (even though the boss may feel they’re in league against him.)  Nut visited the company secretary in the form of the god Thoth, scribe of the gods.  Thoth did a quick stocktake and pointed out that, although Re was head of the day department, his department was not at full strength.  The Egyptian calendar was based on three seasons of four months, with thirty days to a month, making a grand total on 360 days in a year.  This immediately looks like a shortfall to us, but give them a break, they were making the market back then.  Thoth looked in the stores and came up with an extra five days’ worth of light, which he shoehorned in between the end of one year and the beginning of the next.  He told Nut she could have those five days off to give birth.  Talk about coming straight back to work.  (They never did figure out the extra quarter day.  It caused the office party schedule no end of trouble in the long run.)

 You’ll have noticed that the divine board of directors is becoming more complicated and causing more trouble with each generation.  It was all so simple when Atum was a sole trader.  He single-handedly brought up two kids, one of each, who didn’t give him a bit of trouble, probably because they were essentially cloned from himself.  It was only when the second generation became a two-parent family that things started to be less than straightforward, and their kids took up unusual sex and violence.  So what with that and Nut’s problem pregnancy, you can guess that the next generation is going to be even more interesting.

 For a start, there were more of them.  Nut made good use of her five-day maternity leave, and produced four children:  Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys.  There are also rumours of a fifth child, called Horus the Elder, which would make sense given the five days of labour.  The impact of this houseful of kids on the older gods was a bit like the baby boomer generation on the pre-war traditionalists:  there were too many of them, they were selfish, they didn’t know how to behave and they were wrecking the place.  The older gods called Nut’s children the “children of disorder”; little horrors, in other words.

 And they did take over.  As children of Geb and Nut, they laid claim to the earth and the sky, roaming around the land and circling the sky as stars, planets and constellations.  Despite her vast and quarrelsome brood, Nut was back on the day and night shift without missing a beat.  Sky goddess, fine; glass ceiling, no way.

January 29, 2010

What kind of god do you think you are?

Welcome back.  Have you missed me?  I’ve been taking a break to look at other people’s blogs, tweets, websites, Facebook pages – look at and admire.  What a talented, committed, creative lot you are!  You’re absolutely divine – which brings me on to the subject of my next umpteen posts – the creative divinities of ancient Egypt.

If you dig back through the sedimentary layers of the last thirty posts, you’ll find, right at the beginning, that I made you a promise.  I promised that you’d learn how to vary some of the elements of the offering formula, to suit the person for whom you were writing it.  For a start, I promised to give you a selection of gods, so that you could swap one of them for Osiris if you prefer.

After all, Osiris may not be the patron you would select for that particular colleague.  You may feel slightly diffident about invoking the god of the dead for someone on the eve of retirement.  They might even curse you. (Maybe we’ll do curses later.  The Egyptians had some good ones.)  If ideal god or goddess who encapsulates your feelings about your colleague were rattling around the celestial vault unsummoned, and I hadn’t told you about them, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. 

So here I am, back, with a selection for you. We’ll look them over together, and see whether they remind you of anyone in work.  The Egyptians were a very organised people, and they arranged their gods in a hierarchy which often seems eerily familiar when you’re looking at it over an office keyboard. 

It’s a family firm.  At the top of the organisation is the creator god, Atum, the founder of the organisation.  Beneath him are two of his offspring, Shu and Tefnut, and beneath them two of theirs, Geb and Nut (like all family firms, it’s pretty incestuous).   They basically form the chair and non-executive directors of the firm, the solid, conservative old guard.  There are four executive directors – Osiris, whom we know, Isis, Seth and Nephthys; two married couples constantly at each other’s throats (and other body parts).  The Chief Executive is Isis and Osiris’ son, Horus – the young blood brought in in controversial circumstances.  Does any of this sound like anyone you know?

Around the family gathers a wider organisation of illegitimate offspring, distant relatives, hangers-on and their spouses and kids.  The convolutions of their turbulent lives!  The sex!  The fighting! The exotic locations!  The ships!  The festivals!  I can’t wait to go to work, can you?

December 22, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (30)

You’ve heard them singing carols in the office.  You’ve heard them karaoke down the pub. This is the best time of year to decide which of your colleagues merits the last phrase of the offering formula:

maa-kheru; true of voice.

We’ve had kheru, voice, before.  It was in the complex little group of signs which make up the standard phrase for “an invocation offering of bread and beer”:

where “invocation” is literally “that which comes forth by the voice”.  And there’s kheru, right in the middle of the group, like a wooden spoon ready for stirring the pudding (which would make the other signs a chopping board, a bag of flour and a bottle of brandy in seasonal montage straight out of the Lakeland kitchenware catalogue.  Except they’re not.)  But you know it’s an oar, and the other signs are a house, a loaf of bread (naturally) a jug of beer and the invisible owl.

So now we have the oar again, twice in one formula.  They did like sticking their oar in, the ancient Egyptians.  But what’s the first sign,

maa?  A doorstop?  An eraser? Nothing so mundane.  The wedge-shaped sign maa (very easy to draw) represents a platform or pedestal, as here supporting a figure of the god Ptah (from Tutankhamun’s tomb furniture):

(Ok, you could use him as a door wedge, I’ll give you that.  But he would be far from mundane.  There could be a whole interior design industry in this for someone – and that someone will need an office, and that office will need hieroglyphs…. I must stop getting carried away.) 

Back to maa – the pedestal has that distinctive shape because it in turn is a representation of nothing less than the primeval mound; the first bit of land to appear from out of the waters of chaos at the very creation of the world.  The Egyptians were used to seeing mounds of land rise from the water every year, as the floodwaters of the Nile receded after the annual inundation, leaving behind fertile silt which they could cultivate.  (So, we have to assume that Ptah is standing on a little island, with the waters of the primeval ocean lapping almost at his feet, at the bottom of the little slipway on his pedestal.)  The Egyptians assumed that this was how the gods had first created the land on which they lived.  To them, this pristine terra firma meant the world the way the gods had created it, the way the world was meant to be.  Maa meant “true” or “right” or “just” in the sense of  “the proper order of things”.

Here is an example of the maa kheru group in a  carved relief:

 True of voice:  the “of” is unwritten but understood from the construction.  The maa hieroglyph is easy to draw:  a thin rectangle with one slanting short side.

But if our tomb owner Senusret was “true of voice”, what did that mean?  They didn’t have karaoke in the netherworld, did they?  No.  It was much worse than that.  To get into the Egyptian afterlife, you had to win the divine version of the X Factor.

Anyone who thinks the X Factor is hell on earth will get the idea of the Egyptian afterlife.  If life on earth was Round 1, to go forward to the afterlife or Round 2, you had to impress a panel of judges.  Here’s a scene from the show:

On the left,we have the tomb owner being led onstage by his divine sponsor, the god Anubis.  In the middle, the scene shows an early version of the machine used to record the audience’s verdict.  Back then, in the days before electronic voting buttons, they used a weighing scale.  In the right-hand pan of the scale is a feather, representing truth, order, justice and all those primeval virtues.  In the left is the tomb owner’s heart.

On the right of the scene, in their own special booth, sit the judges:  Osiris, the Simon Cowell of the underworld, sits on his throne, backed by two divas of the day, the goddesses Isis and Nephthys then, and fronted by four lesser judges, his own four sons, who stand on a lotus blossom.

The format of the show is this:  to qualify for the next round of existence, the tomb owner has to declare that he has led a good life on earth.  But just saying so is not enough; he has to prove it.  To test whether or not he is speaking the truth, the gods weigh his heart against the feather.  If his heart is not weighed down by sin and falsehood, it will balance the feather and he will be let through to the next round.  If it is heavier than the feather, it will be thrown to the crocodile-headed she-monster waiting by the weighing scale, (her name is Devourer-of-Hearts, but let’s call her Anne) and the tomb owner will be thrown off the programme – you are the weakest link, goodbye.  That won’t happen, though, because in the finest traditions of audience voting reality TV, Anubis is rigging the result by fixing the scale.  The Ibis-headed god Thoth is standing by like the Lottery adjudicator to verify the outcome.  And sure enough, Anubis is conducting the tomb owner, who has been proven to be speaking the truth, to Simon, sorry, Osiris, who declares him fit to go forward to the final. 

And ever after, our tomb owner is known as “true of voice”, as a sign that he has passed the test and successfully entered the next world.

So there we are:  at the end of the offering formula.  You know it all now:

Hetep di nesu Usir neb Djedu, netjer aa, neb Abju, di ef peret-kheru (em) te henqet, kau apedu, shes menkhet, khet nebet nefret ankhet netjer im, en ka en imakhy Senusret, maa-kheru.

“An offering which the King gives (to) Osiris Lord of Busiris, the great god, Lord of Abydos, that he may give invocation-offerings (consisting of) bread, and beer, meat and fowl, alabaster and clothing, and all good and pure things by which a god lives, to the ka of the Revered One, Senusret, True of Voice.”

How’s that for a Christmas list?

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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