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?

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November 22, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (25)

Thereby.  And thereby hangs a tale… or, in this case, tail.  We can see it this time.  Last time it turned up, it was invisible.

 Im; thereby, by it.  Let’s have a closer look at the individual signs.  First, i:

 A simple sound, and a simple sign to draw.  I usually start at the top, making a little curve which turns into the downstroke, a bit like a walking stick.  Then I start at the walking stick handle and draw a slightly outward-sloping line which curves back in again to meet the bottom of the first downstroke, and closes off the bottom of the stalk.  And a stalk is what it is, as this symbol represents the flowering head of a reed, like these ethereal beauties:

It’s difficult to capture such fragile beauty in stone or ink, but the originals do retain their purity of line:

 

Now, we’ve had m before, but it was in brackets because the scribe hadn’t actually put it in to the inscription, as often happens with common symbols in formulae, when you’ve got umpteen to bang out in the workshop and most people can’t read anyway.  M was the invisible owl.  We can see him now:

 There, I told you he was gorgeous.  He’s tricky to draw, but he has four basic characteristics; if you emphasise them in your hieroglyphic hand, he will be recognisable.  They are:  a flat head; a front-facing face (unusual for the Egyptians, who were always presenting their best profile to the observer); a wing that folds right across his breast, as though he’s glaring at you over the top of his arm in his cape, like Zorro, and a square bottom to his tail.  Put them all together, and you’ve got yourself an ancient Egyptian owl.

Back to the drawing board.  I usually start left to right with the flat line of the head, then a sharp turn downwards and a little curve in for the side of the head and neck, and a long curve at about 45 degrees for his back.  Then I come back up to his shoulder and make the deep right to left curve of his wing, swoop it round and just make his wing tip meet the line of his back.  The I go back to my starting-point at the top left of his head and come straight down the side of his head and neck, slope down and in for his body (doing it this way means you get the line the right side of his wing.  If you do the outline first and the wing second, you sometimes don’t leave enough room.)  Do a sharp dogleg in under his belly and a couple of little vees for his feathery legs, then down again for his tail, squaring it off at the bottom.  Then you can draw him a couple of little stick feet emerging from his feathers, and a nice deep v with curly ends for his eyes and beak.  He’s a complicated sign to draw, but he’s worth it.  And look what they could do with him when they had time:

I am so glad we can see him this time.  He’s beautiful!

So there we are, Line 3 of the offering formula well and truly dissected:

khet nebet nefret wabet ankhet netjer im:  “every good and pure thing by which a god lives”.

July 27, 2009

Office hierogplyphs (4)

Yes but, yes but, yes but – what does the blooming thing say?  How do you expect us to concentrate on the first group of signs when we’re three lessons in and we still don’t know what the sentence means? 

Ok, sorry, I quite take your point.  I shall do better than that.  I shall both translate and transliterate it for you.  How about that?

Transliteration first.  Hieroglyphs are an alphabet which can be read and pronounced.  So, when the fascinated recipient of your birthday offerings gasps, “Wow!  May a gigantic owl eat the snake that’s about to crawl under your upside-down teacup, and may the little man with the squiggle er – erdo something with all the other squiggles..  Great!  How original.  Just what I always wanted,” you can say, “No, no, it doesn’t work like that.  It’s not a cartoon strip.  It’s more like those children’s puzzles, where the words are replaced by pictures which sound similar – an eye for “I”, a deer for “Dear”, etc.  It says: transliteration

 

Then you can pause while they blink at you, impressed but totally unenlightened. 

 Transliteration means turning the hieroglyphic alphabet into the Roman alphabet, so that we have at least a vague idea of what it might sound like.  A very good point, you may say.  How the heck do I read that out? 

Ancient Egyptian is a semitic language, like Hebrew, Arabic and others in that linguistic family.  In semitic languages, writers tend to set down the consonants, but make only very limited attempts, if any, to write down the vowels.  So, with hierogplyphs, we (mainly) have a string of consonants and have to guess the vowel sounds in between.  We don’t really know exactly how ancient Egyptian was pronounced, but the convention is to supply an “e” between consonants.  The transliteration above would sound something like:

Hetep di nesu Usir neb Djedu, netjer aa, neb Abdju,

di-ef peret-kheru (em) te, henket, kau apedu, shes menkhet,

khet nebt nefret wabet ankhet netjer im,

en ka en imakhy Senwosret, maa-kheru.

 

The beauty of the two-pronged transliteration and translation approach is that it gives you a double whammy – reading it aloud first, then nonchalantly explaining:

 “It means An offering which the king gives (to) Osiris, Lord of Busiris, the great god, Lord of Abydos, so that he may give an invocation offering (of) bread, beer, meat and fowl, alabaster, clothing and every good and pure thing on which a god lives, to the spirit of the revered one Senwosret, true of voice.”

Of course, that’s only if you haven’t customised it, and if your colleague happens to be a Revered One called Senwosret.  (If you’re reading this in California, that’s perfectly possible.) We’ll get on to customisation soon, after we’ve broken down the offering formula into its working parts.  You have to take the engine apart before you can rebuild it, after all.

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