Susanllewellyn's Blog

March 21, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Tefnut (2)

Time to run our fingers down Tefnut’s nameplate now.  Here it is:

Tfnwt nbt pt   Tefnut nebet pet   Tefnut, Lady of Heaven.  Let’s look at her name first:

As you can see, her name – if you forget about the unspoken determinative at the end for a minute – begins and ends with our old favourite the loaf of bread letter t, which I suppose makes it a sandwich.  And what’s the filling?  The horned viper letter f and the water pot nw, both of which we’ve had before.  Not everyone’s choice of a packed lunch, perhaps, although snake is supposed to taste like chicken.

The determinative is new, though, and no, it’s not the discarded sandwich wrapper.  It’s a cursive writing of another serpent hieroglyph:

This one is a (non-horned) cobra, and was often used as a determinative for the name of a goddess, especially if the goddess in question were a snake goddess like Wadjet, the cobra goddess who adorned the King’s forehead.  But other goddesses could use it as well.  Tefnut was a lioness rather than a cobra, but her Dad Atum was the original giant serpent, so I suppose she felt entitled.  And she ate those little horned vipers for lunch.

The cobra determinative is tricky to draw, but it can be done.  You may want to start with a little flat head, like a sock puppet looking straight ahead.  Then you can make the wide sweep of the hood, tapering down to the narrow body; turn and continue horizontally, then make a downturn for the tail.  The you can add a loop in each “elbow” to suggest the coils.

Here’s one doing some textbook rearing:

You’d need a whole row of baguettes to make a sandwich out of that.

Tefnut’s title, nbt pt, starts with a familiar object: 

the basket hieroglyph nb, neb , Lord, which should really be followed by a t in Tefnut’s case, to make it the feminine nbt, nebet, Lady, but the scribe hasn’t put it in. Well, you can see he was in a hurry from his cobra.  The group of three signs underneath the basket is this one: 

pt, pet, the sky or heaven.  The first two symbols are familiar; you’ll remember from Office Hieroglyphs the stool made of reed matting which represents the letter p.  The scribe in Tefnut’s case has abbreviated it to three short strokes, which was quite common in cursive hieroglyphs, but I recommend you draw it as a square.  And there’s yet another loaf of bread t.  The rectangle with two downward-pointing corners is the sky symbol.  You can see it painted blue on the top of this stela, although the artist has had to bend it around to fit the curved top:

Bendy or not, it gives the sun disk somewhere to hang.

The sky had a particular significance for Tefnut, as we’ll find out when we meet her and Shu’s children.  In the meantime, just remember:  however heavenly the chairman’s daughter, if she invites you to lunch, take your own sandwiches.


February 26, 2010

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

So, we’re running our fingers across Shu’s office nameplate:


Our tongues protruding slightly, our breath misting up the polished brass,   we’ve traced the contours of his name, and are now sliding our fingers down the two stacked hieroglyphs of his title:

  sa Ra son of Re.

What?  Son of whom?  You just told us Shu was the son of Atum, and now you’re telling us he’s the son of Re?

Well, yes.  The thing about ancient Egyptian gods was that many of them had their own cult centres in provincial cities the length and – at least in the Delta – the breadth of Egypt.  In their own temples in their own cities, as far as they and their priests and citizens were concerned, they were the most important god around.  Several of them, not just Atum, claimed to be the creator god, and got put at the top of the family tree.  Whoever painted and captioned this particular family portrait obviously had it in his head that Re was the creator god and father of Shu, even though he’d drawn Atum sitting in front of him.  

More than one creator god – OK, we can understand that.  Every company chairman is the supreme god in his own universe.  As far as the bosses of Pepsi and Coke are concerned, there’s only one cola in the world.  So who is this Re, then?  I’m sure we’ve met him before; he’s the sun god known to the Victorians and thence to Hollywood producers as Ra, but to most Egyptologists as Re.  We’ll come back to him some other time.

Let’s look at the hieroglyphs.  The first one looks like an egg, you draw it like an egg and by golly it is an egg – a goose egg, in fact.  Here’s a picture of one, in case you don’t know what an egg looks like:

The egg  symbol in this case writes the word s3, sa, son.  Just draw it at an angle, pointing the sharp end towards the beginning of the sentence.  The second hieroglyph, a circle with a dot in it, is the standard hieroglyph for the sun and encapsulates the name of the god Rc, Ra, Re.  (It’s also possible that the mysterious and superfluous circle in the name of the god which we saw in the last post is an abortive attempt at a sun disk, as there was a word shu meaning sun.)  If you don’t know what the sun looks like, here it is:

There’s no dot in the middle that I can see, and I’m not sure what that was about.  But if the chairman’s son says the sun has a dot in the middle, it’s probably not a good idea to disagree.

February 5, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Atum (1)

Imagine we’re in the gods’ boardroom.  It’s a typical boardroom in an old established family firm, with cedar panelling and portraits of the founders hanging on the wall.  We’d better imagine it’s on a yacht, as the Egyptian gods did not have an office but a boat, on which they sailed through the heavens.  The yacht does make the family sound more like a lot of Russian oligarchs, but you can’t have everything.

Anyway, we’re strolling down the gallery of portraits and we stop at the portrait of the founder of the dynasty and chairman of the board:  the god Atum.  And here he is.

A fine figure of a god. I’m sure you’ll agree:  a king among gods, in fact, and dressed as an Egyptian king to make his status clear.  You might be prepared for the revelation that the portrait is a little flattering; Atum was a very old god, associated with the setting sun, and the Egyptians sometimes depicted him as a stooped old man.  You wouldn’t think, though, would you, that underneath that kingly exterior, he was a real snake? 

Atum was so old he existed before the world began.  Back in the primeval ocean, Atum floated as a gigantic snake, his tail in his mouth, with no beginning, no ending, eternal.  But he knew he had it in him to be so much more than that.  So he emerged from the primeval ocean (which was called Nun), standing on the very first mound of dry land – the original self-made man. 

Atum separated land from water and basically had to organise everything himself from then on.  For a long time, he was the organisation.  And he laid good foundations.  During his tenure, he cooled down the air and dried out the land, and those who came after can thank him for that. 

In those days, Atum was king of all he surveyed.  But it’s lonely at the top.  Atum had no goddess to share his exclusive waterfront development.  What is a bachelor god to do?  Atum did the only thing he could, and took himself in hand.  His act of procreation produced twins, a boy and a girl, called Shu and Tefnut.  We’ll meet them later.  So in the early years, Atum was a single Dad, bringing up a family on his own as well as founding a planet.  You’ve got to admire him. 

And no, he was not the least bit ashamed of the hand thing.  Atum scorned cover-ups.  In fact, he was proud of his hand, and so were the Egyptians.  They put together a whole PR strategy for Atum and his hand.  They painted it on coffins, and some priestesses at Thebes took the title “God’s Hand” to show how indispensible they were to the god.  So much better when you don’t have to deny anything because everyone knows anyway and thinks it’s great.  He was a smart god, Atum.

As you would expect of a founder, Atum was very protective of his dynasty.  Eventually, it would extend through several generations of gods to the Egyptian King, whom he regarded as his particular protegé.  (Kingship was all about organisation to the Egyptians.) He even had him dress the same.  When Isis was looking for somewhere safe to give birth to Horus, Atum found her just the spot and made it inaccessible to their arch enemy Seth.  When the King died, Atum would lift him up out of the pyramid and transform him into a star god. 

Every night, Atum would sail through the Underworld, executing the King’s enemies and fighting another gigantic serpent called Apophis.  Apophis was a rival concern, hell bent on swallowing up the whole ship of the gods in the world’s most hostile takeover bid.  We’ll come back to him another time.  It takes a snake to know a snake, and Atum knew what it took to kill one; a mongoose.  So Atum would transform himself into a mongoose to defeat Apophis.  You see- he was adaptable.  He refused to be limited by his origins. 

Lizards, bulls and lions were also sacred to Atum.  He was associated with the scarab, because the scarab beetle emerging from its ball of dung reminded the Egyptians of Atum emerging on the primeval mound.  (Atum was obviously good at digging himself out of the brown stuff. ) But everyone expects that, when the crash comes and the whole world falls back into the primeval ocean, Nun, Atum will revert to being the snake he originally was.

I don’t know whether you can see it in this portrait, but there was one characteristic that always betrayed Atum’s serpentine origins; his green eyes.  He had quite a party trick he could do with one of his eyes; he could make it cry worms. 

Now we’ve admired Atum’s portrait, we’ll take a closer look at his name and titles.  If you think you recognise any of your colleagues from this account of Atum, you’ll want to be able to invoke him for their personalised offering formula.  But that’s for another post.

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?

July 24, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (3)

Let’s take a look at the first group of signs in the offering formula I showed you in the first post: 

An offering which the King gives

Once you recognise these, you’ll be able to find the beginning of the offering formula on Egyptian inscriptions.  (Try not to get too excited the first few times you spot them.  If you hurl yourself towards an offering formula across a crowded Egyptian Sculpture Gallery as Heathcliff to his Cathy, you will have your feet knocked from under you by a visiting schoolchild, plunge into the raging cataract of converging educational outings and disappear forever beneath its pounding plimsolls – you will in the British Museum, anyway.) 

So, let us prepare for that scenario in the safety of a virtual environment.  Have a look at this. There are seven offering formulae in this inscription.  Can you spot where they begin?

Funerary inscription on false door

Ok, can you spot them now?

Inscription with beginnings of offering formulae marked

 It’s easy when you know how (and when someone’s drawn big red outlines around them).  Of course, I didn’t tell you everything about the mission before you chose to accept it – come on, not even James Bond gets told everything in that initial meeting with M.  They’d be much shorter films if he did.  Things about the mission you had to find out the hard way: 

  • the Egyptians didn’t necessarily write from left to right.  In fact, they usually wrote from right to left;
  • they didn’t always write in horizontal lines; sometimes they wrote vertically, from top to bottom;
  • when they wrote top to bottom, they could write left to right or right to left within the column;
  • (a good tip on how to figure out which direction they’re writing in:  hieroglyphs face the beginning of the sentence.  Find a hieroglyph which has a face you can recognise – a person, bird or animal, something you can look in the eye.  Look it in the eye.  Read your way right out through the back of its head and away down the rest of the sentence);
  • there are more symbols in some of the groups of signs in the inscription than there are in the group of signs at the beginning of the formula in my first post.  That is because the words are sometimes spelled out more fully in the inscription.  This is an age waaaaaay before the printing press.  It’s printing that standardises spelling.  On the one hand, that’s a tricky one for us office scribes, at least when we’re trying to read.  On the other, no-one can say for definite that we’re wrong when we’re trying to write, even if they can read what we’ve written in Eric in Accounts’ leaving card (at least, they can’t say it about the spelling.  They may say it about what you’ve wished for him.  Be careful what you wish for Eric if you think the Finance Director may be reading this blog too);
  • the signs don’t necessarily occur in the same order within the group.  The Egyptians liked to keep balance and proportion.  They were quite happy to abbreviate words and swap around the letters for the sake of symmetry.  (They loved palindromes.  They would have loved those moments when you can read the date and time in both directions, too  – you know, Madam, I’m Adam, 20.02, 20.02 2002, etc).

This may sound complicated, but you will appreciate the advantages of the artistic licence the Egyptians brought to their scripts when you’re the last person to sign the birthday card and you’re trying to fit your hand crafted hieroglyphs into the last remaining millimetres along the centre crease.

 I think that’s enough to be going on with, isn’t it?  We’ll go back to that first group of hieroglyphs and take a closer look at them next time.  In the meantime, let lesson three sink in to your subconscious.  Even James Bond needs his down time.

July 23, 2009

Office Hieroglyphs (2)

Filed under: Office hieroglyphs — Valerie Billingham @ 8:47 pm
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The offering formula.  Who, what, where, when, why?

 Well.  On the one hand, the ancient Egyptians are famous for thinking you can take it with you.  They made sure (if they were rich enough) that their tombs came with an entire wardrobe, a complete set of furniture, his and hers chariots and the Egyptian equivalent of the food hall at Harrods.  They also made it quite clear that the grieving relatives were supposed to bring top-ups of food and drink to their tomb chapels, just in case they were running short in the world below, and to make double certain, placed a regular takeaway order with the local temple so that the priests would bring them a share of the gods’ dinner. 

 But they weren’t stupid.  They knew that, eventually, the family would decide they’d had enough of grandma’s eternal front room and decide to picnic elsewhere.  They’d lose their place in the temple fast-food queue.  And one day, they’d be bound to have the burglars in while they were asleep.

 Hence the offering formula.  Like most Egyptian funerary texts, it’s a spell, and it was meant to be recited by the empty-handed tourist who stumbles upon your tomb when they’re poking around the necropolis looking at the gravestones.  By reciting the spell, they would magically conjure up for you anything you might need in the afterlife – food, drink, clothing, equipment, the lot.  And they’d get divine brownie points for doing it.

 The offering formula is a useful thing to know if you want to impress colleagues with the fluency of your hieroglyphic hand.  It’s authentic ancient Egyptian.  It’s a blessing, so you can use it to wish good things for someone.  It’s a formula, so it can be learned, understood and reproduced.  It is made up of elements which are logical and which can be varied and customised to suit the person you’re writing it for, the occasion and the things you’re wishing them.

 You can vary:  the name and titles of the god or goddess you’re invoking and the places they rule over; the gifts you want them to give your colleague; the name and titles of your colleague. 

 It will take a little effort to master, but hey, they had eternity – we’ve got the whole of this blog!  I’ll break it down into simple steps.  I promise.

July 22, 2009

Office hieroglyphs

I began to realise there was a real demand for hieroglyphs in the office when a colleague of mine asked me to write some on his whiteboard.  I’d been writing them on birthday cards and leaving cards in the office for years.  I thought people were intrigued for a few seconds then forgot all about them.  But this colleague wouldn’t let anyone erase my hieroglyphs from his whiteboard.  Work was write-on wipe off, but not these.  They stayed there for a couple of years.  The office moved from London to Leeds, and I had to go round to his new whiteboard and write him some more.

Inspired by this, I have expanded Egyptology in the office to include lectures, Egypt-themed walks and museum visits.  Egyptology is now part of my workplace identity. Who else would have given another colleague the hieroglyphic version of Peter Rabbit as a maternity leave present?  (I did give her the English version as well.)

I have a lot of fun with my office hieroglyphs, and my colleagues seem to enjoy it too.  This stuff is too good not to share.  I am going to use this blog to teach you how to write hieroglyphs for the office, and we are going to start with this:

The offering formula

The offering formula

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