Susanllewellyn's Blog

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 9, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (10)

Wsir hieroglyphs         Wsir transliteration

So – Usir, god of the underworld, or Osiris, as the Greeks called him.  In this spelling, his name is pared down to its two basic symbols, standing for its two basic sounds; a throne for the Us and an eye for ir.  You can see slightly more elaborate versions in this inscription:

Wsir inscription067

This version has a third sign, which is called a determinative.  A determinative does not have a sound; it is a sign stuck on the end of a word, to give the reader an extra clue about what kind of word it is they’re reading.  Remember I said that (mostly) the Egyptian script does not include the vowels?  What they wrote down was (mostly) a series of consonants.  Two words with the same pattern of consonants might have completely different vowels.  You would have been able to tell them apart when you were listening to someone speaking, but it would have been more tricky when you were reading what they’d written.  Hence, the detrminative. 

In this case, the determinative is the symbol for a god, so the reader would have known the two preceding hieropglyphs were stood for the name of Osiris.  You can tell he’s a god by his beard.  And he’s sitting on the floor, with his knees sticking up.

And in which direction do you read it?  Yep, right to left, as hieroglyphs face the beginning of the sentence.  Well remembered!

The throne symbol is a very simplified version of the rone on which Osiris is sitting in the picture I posted last time:

osiris 2

The eagle-eyed will spot his name again, written just above his face.  However, you don’t have to go into this much detail when writing your own throne hieroglyph.  Just draw a capital L, then box off the corner.

Is there anyone who can’t draw a basic eye?  Slightly curved line for lower lid, more curvaceous line for upper lid, circle for the eyeball?  I’m assuming anyone who can’t get that far has given up long ago and is no longer reading this blog.  For those still here, here’s a close-up from the same tomb painting:


It doesn’t look all that much different from any of the others in this post?  Why did I bother?  Well, it underlines the point that there’s not much to the drawing of an eye, I suppose.

Before I go, I realise that I left you on a cliffhanger a couple of posts back.  I said we would have more anon about why the King was giving an offering, and how it was just the beginning of a long fast food chain.  We can get a step further down the chain at this point.

The temples of the major state gods of ancient Egypt were major economic centres.  They controlled vast tracts of land, grew crops and managed herds and flocks, had armies of labourers as well as priests, and sometimes had dedicated fleets who traded abroad.  The temple complex itself  had workshops and cattle yards and huge magazines, where all this wealth was amassed, and where taxes, in the form of grain, were collected and stored.  Temples were like incredibly wealthy towns, ruled over by the god, who was woken up in his shrine, washed and dressed, served three meals a day, undressed and put to bed again every day – not counting festival days, when he would come out and parade around the streets and everyone would have a party.

But, technically, all this belonged to the King.  Basically, the King had a deal with the gods.  The deal was this:  the gods would keep the primeval waters from swamping the earth (a constant threat, like a meteorite strike or swine flu today), would make the sun come up and the Nile flood and the crops grow and the King on his throne in a peaceful land, as long as the King kept their cults going and gave them their offerings every day.  And the King could own everything, that was fine by them, as long as he gave the gods fair dues. So, the offerings Osiris received in his temple were offerings given by the King.

The next step in the food chain comes later on.

August 6, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (8)

htp di nsw


      transliteration htp di nsw


An offering which the King gives; as we’ve already looked at the hieroglyphs for “King” and “offering”, the last symbol in the group, di

must betransliteration di



You’re right, and guess what?  It’s yet another loaf of bread; the third different kind we’ve encountered in the space of four symbols.  The ancient Egyptians may not have had coinage (not until very late, anyway) but they sure had a lot of dough. 

It’s easy enough to draw:  a big triangle with a little triangle inside it, on the baseline. Here’s an example of the hieroglyph from a carved inscription:








Bread has sacred significance in most cultures, and the ancient Egyptians were no exception, as you can tell.  Why was this?  Well, when you think about it, the invention of bread is a major technological advance, of the kind that changes the world.  Before we became farmers, we lived on perishable food.  We had fresh meat and fresh vegetables and, if we were living in Egypt, hot weather and millions of flies.  We had to eat the food quickly, before it decayed, then set about replacing our stocks.  This was pretty restricting.  

However, once we learned to grow cereal crops, process them and bake them into bread and cakes, we had a source of food which lasted longer.  We could store it long term, take it with us on journeys or dole it out to hired labourers or soldiers as their pay for the month.  A whole new way of life opened up, not least the ability to survive famines of meat and vegetables, during which people would otherwise have died.  In this case, bread really would have been the staff of life – hence its sacred significance.

Clay moulds you could stack in the fire for baking bread were the start of a series of culinary innovations which has taken us from the bread oven through the deep freeze and the microwave to the – er – electric bread maker. The Egyptians baked many different kinds of bread and cakes, flavoured with different fruits, spices and herbs. They gave lots of them in exchange for other goods and services, and gave lots more as offerings to the gods and to their ancestors, so much so that the name of one kind of loaf became synonymous with the verb “to give”. In fact, an alternative way of writing the same word was with an outstretched arm holding the loaf, as in this inscription:




NB:  don’t go looking for the words “an”, “which” or “the”.  Just understand that the sense of them is there.  All you want is to be able to write some convincing retirement wishes in colleagues’ memory books.  You don’t want to get any further into Middle Egyptian grammar and syntax than you have to, trust me.

So, what does this mean in practical terms, “an offering which the King gives”?  It stems from the ancient Egyptian principle that the King was owner, ruler, lawgiver and high priest of everything and every cult in the land.  Remember back at the beginning of this blog, when I said that the tomb owner would place a takeaway order with the local temple, as part of his or her insurance against starvation in the next life?  Well, the ancient Egyptian fast food chain was a long and complex one, and it began with the authority of the King.  Of which more anon.

August 5, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (7)

Filed under: Office hieroglyphs — Susan Llewellyn @ 8:31 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Welcome back.  Post 7, and we’ve only just finished with the first word in the formula.  And it isn’t even the first word, it just happens to be written down first.  Time we got on to the second word, which is the first word when spoken out loud. 

When it was spoken out loud, it sounded something like hetep (or hotep, as it’s often rendered in transliterations of ancient Egyptian names – Amenhotep, Mentuhotep, etc).  I bet you’re just gagging to get on to hetep by now, aren’t you? 

Well, here it is:


Htp transliteration

You’ll notice the little dot under the h.  That means you have to give the h sound slightly more emphasis than you would a normal h in English – really huff it and puff it. 

 The Egyptians were very particular about their aitches.  They were connoisseurs of the aspirate.  They built up quite a collection of them, in fact – there are four letters h in the transliterated Egyptian alphabet.  The first one sounded like an ordinary English h.  This is the second one, the emphatic one. They had a third one, which sounded like the ch sound in the Scottish word “loch”, and finally a very hard one which may have sounded something like the ch sound in the German word “ich”.  They knew a thing or two about heavy breathing, I tell you.

Anyway, fascinating though the letter h may be, what you really want to know is, what the heck is the symbol?  The symbol is a combination of two things:  a loaf of bread which has been placed upon a reed mat.

Hang on, you may say, we’ve already had the loaf of bread and it doesn’t look like that.  Well spotted.  But the Egyptians liked variety in a bread loaf just as much as they liked variety in their hes, and this is another kind of loaf, one that was baked in conical bread moulds.  There is a row of them standing on the floor between the two women in this bread-making scene:

bread moulds

The little blip on the top of the hieroglyph is the bread, shown in profile. The reed mat is shown in plan, as though we’re looking down on it from above.  (Wonderful artists though the Egyptians were, they didn’t understand perspective.) Let’s have a picture of a reed mat; well, why not?

reed matting

Ok, so it’s not ancient, it’s modern, but it gives you an idea.  The word for offering is written with the symbol of a loaf of bread placed on top of a reed mat, because the bread is a very basic food offering, and the reed mat a very simple and ancient kind of altar.  Way back before writing was invented, the Egyptians would have been bringing offerings of bread to the tombs of their ancestors, taking them inside the tomb chapels and laying them down on mats like this, so that their ancestors’ souls could feed on the life force within the bread.  When writing was invented, this contemporary image of a loaf on a mat was what the word “offering” conjured up for them, so that was what they used to write the word.

You can see the loaf and mat more clearly in this example, in which the word is spelled out more fully:

htp coloured062

Beneath it, on the right, is our first loaf of bread, representing  ….. ? Yep, well done, the letter t.  The sign on the left is a stool made of reed matting, which stood for the letter p.  But the word is still read hetep, not hetepetep.  The offering hieroglyph contains all three letters; the other two are there simply to reinforce the t and the p, not to repeat them.  Or, to put it another way, the hetep sign alone is a very abbreviated writing of the word – as you would get in a formula.  (As you’ll also have spotted, their positions means that, in this example, the hieroglyphs are read right to left.)

Despite the rustic simplicity of the hieroglyphs used to write the word “offering”, any Egyptian of any status would have been horrified if they thought their tombs would be furnished so cheaply for the afterlife and that they would have to get by for eternity a loaf of bread a day.  They expected a lot more than that from their descendants.  Look at these two:

offering table063

This is what these tomb owners are really expecting from the grieving relatives:  a proper table, not a picnic blanket, thank you.  And the table  has to be crammed with bread rolls – then you can throw the reed mat over them if you want (you can see it in the middle), as long as you pile a load more grub on the top – we’ll have more loaves and some cakes and a few baskets of grapes; and don’t forget some handsome joints of meat and plenty of bundles of vegetables.  Come on, pile ’em all on, don’t be stingy, kids…. 

(Actually, the food on top of the reed mat may be beside of the offering table rather than on top of it – they didn’t understand perspective, as I said.)

WhenI’m writing offering formulae, I usually draw a rectangle for the mat first, and add the little cone on top afterwards. Tell you what, next time someone brings cakes into the office, take one back to your desk, plonk it on the paper napkin start  drawing.  You’ll soon get the hang of it.

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