Susanllewellyn's Blog

February 24, 2010

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

Now we’ve perused Shu’s biography and CV, let’s take a closer look at his name and title.  Here he is in close-up, with his nameplate in front of him:

The hieroglyphs are quite cursive or simplified, but they are still (mostly)recognisable.  This group spells the god’s name:

 

We haven’t had Shu’s tall, curling ostrich feather hieroglyph before.  Here’s a real one:

The feather hieroglyph is a biliteral, and was pronounced shu.  Old Office Hieroglyphs hands will spot that the quail chick hieroglyph, which we have seen before, is only reinforcing the -w sound.

I must confess that I am not entirely certain what the round sign between the feather and the chick on the papyrus may be.  Some of the ink has been lost at this spot, as you can see from the fading of the baseline on which the chick stands, compared with other chicks in the same papyrus.  There’s no real need for a hieroglyph here at all.  It may be that the scribe was attracted by Shu’s association with sunlight to put in this determinative of the rays of the sun:

  It does look as though there’s the beginning of some kind of addition to the circle (if it is a circle) on the right hand side. 

If it is just a circle, then the scribe may have put it in because he was thinking of a similar word, seshu,  meaning ring, and put the ring hieroglyph in as well. 

Or then again, maybe not.  If anyone has any suggestions – or knows what it is – please let me know.

We’ll look at his title next time.

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February 23, 2010

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

Moving along the portrait gallery in the boardroom corridor of the gods, we come next to a family group.  Here they are:

Atum, the creator of the world, founder of the family firm known as the Nine Gods or Ennead, and his twin offspring, his son Shu and his daughter Tefnut.  That’s Atum at the front, but you know that because you can read his name in hieroglyphs in front of him.  The scribe who wrote this papyrus has stuck an extra hieroglyph in at the end – the quail chick which, as we know from Osiris’ titulary was pronounced w, making him (A)tmu, but that won’t have fooled you.  Nor will the rather stick-figure version of the seated god determinative.  You can still see his beard sticking out and his knees sticking up.  That’s Atum, all right, and in any case he’s wearing the double crown of the Kings of Upper and Lower Egypt.

That’s Shu sitting right behind him.  We’ll take a look at his name later.  Let me tell you a bit about him, first. We already know that he is the motherless product of self-assisted conception.  There is another story about his origins, though.  Some priests and scribes put it about that Atum sneezed him into existence – more of an atchoo! than a Shu.  Indeed, the name Shu is closely related to the Egyptian word for a sneeze.  So, basically, according to some people at the time, Shu grew out of a bit of snot.  But hasn’t he done well?  Some people prefer to translate the name as “he who rises up”.

Shu was both Atum’s heir and his air.  Having made the earth rise up and separate from the water, Atum decided he needed to let some air into the place.  He created Shu to be the god of air.  It’s difficult to draw air, so the ancient Egyptians represented it by drawing a feather, and a glamorous ostrich plume (or two or three or four) was Shu’s favourite headdress.  He’s wearing it in this picture.  Snot with feathers on.  If that reminds you of any of your non-executive directors, who am I to argue?  You be the judge.

You may think that an air god must have been a pretty insubstantial character, but Shu’s very flimsiness was at the same time his greatest asset.  He represented the space between earth and sky (we’ll come back to this later) which let the sun shine in.  One of the reasons that Atum created Shu was so that he could see all the other things he’d created.

Because he had this important role in channeling the sun, Shu was a close associate of the sun god in his various forms.  One of his responsibilities was to bring the sun to life every morning, and, like his Dad Atum, he did his bit to protect the sun from attack by the serpent Apophis. As the air god, it was Shu who enabled the solar barque to rise up and sail across the sky.

Shu was certainly the light of Atum’s life.  Atum was very proud of his son.  To him, Shu was life itself, and it was only after Shu was born that Atum truly found his voice and began to speak and have a dialogue with the universe.  Shu was therefore a very powerful driver of Atum’s creative enterprise, his reason to carry on. 

Atum even took the lad into the firm and, in due course, when the staff complement had grown a bit, sent him on errands, sorting out problems with the other gods.  Shu was an obvious choice for this kind of work; as the air god, he was everywhere at once and knew where everyone else was, so didn’t actually have to go anywhere.  However, some of these tasks were pretty stretching, and Shu did not always manage to carry them out.  His Dad tended to send him to find goddesses who’d run away or got lost, and talk them into coming back.  When it was a particularly aggressive goddess who’d gone on the rampage, got drunk and run away, for example, he wasn’t quite up to the job.

Nevertheless, Shu rose steadily up the ranks of the administration of his father’s new enterprise, and was credited with instituting the capital cities of the administration.  In due course, the old man decided he was going to retire, and handed over his throne to Shu.  Atum did not leave the company; he stayed around and kept an eye on it, but Shu was now running the show. 

Shu’s term in the Managing Director’s chair started in peace, as Atum’s whole term of office had been.  At some point, though – and this episode of company history is pretty obscure – hostile forces from the edge of creation tried to lead a revolution.  Shu’s divine palace on earth was sacked by the enemy, as though a whole lot of enraged graphic designers had trashed the top floor corner office.  Shu had to bring them to heel and kick them out.

This episode shows that Shu was not all sweetness and light.  In fact, there are scenes of the netherworld which show him as the gangmaster of a band of torturers threatening the deceased person in a fiery region of hell from which there is no escape.  But then, if you’re toiling away in the boiler room in the company basement, that may well be how you regard one or more of your board members.

Finally, Shu seems to have had a reputation for being able to relieve himself with ease.  For the Egyptians, being able to defecate like Shu was a highly desirable quality.  Excrement and the air god; the original stuff that hit the fan.

February 15, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Atum (6)

We’re recycling again.  Atum’s next title is one we’ve had earlier, in Office Hieroglyphs, when it was being used by Osiris.  This is what it looked like the first time:

      , netjer aa, the Great God; an economical use of two hieroglyphs to spell two whole words. 

This time around, in Atum’s titulary, the spelling has expanded a bit.  This is what it looks like now:

 

     netjer, god, is written with the flagstaff hieroglyph which you’ll remember from before, plus the seated god determinative we saw earlier in this inscription. 

 aa, great, is difficult to see because it’s partly flaked off, but when you know what’s there, you can pick out the traces.  The wooden column which was written vertically in Osiris’ titulary is horizontal in Atum’s.  You can see the line of the upper edge, but the lower edge has disappeared.  You’ll have to imagine the mirror image of the visible edge reflected in the gap below it. 

The sign underneath is a new one, though; it’s this:

 a sheet of papyrus, rolled into a scroll, tied up and sealed, like this one:

 It’s a determinative often used for abstract words.  It’s easy to draw:  a thin rectangle with a little w on top.  And it’s versatile; like the wooden pillar aa, you can draw it vertically or horizontally, to suit the artistic balance of your own inscription.

It’s up to you whether you think your colleague is a great enough god to warrant the fuller version of the title; or whether you think they’re better represented by something short and flaky.

August 13, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (13)

Number thirteen!  Are you feeling lucky or unlucky?  I’m feeling quite lucky that although this week’s post concerns two words, the words consist of only one hieroglyph each:ntr aa hieroglyphs

ntr aa transliteration

Netjer aa, the great god.  What excellent value per hieroglyph.

As with many languages, the adjective follows the noun in Egyptian, so the first word, netjer, is the word for god.  I bet, after finding out that they spelled the word for king with a stick of salad and a bread roll, you can’t wait to find out what they used to convey the idea of divinity.  I bet if I told you it was one of those little paper labels you stick in cheese, you’d at least half believe me. 

Actually, it’s not a million miles away from that; it is a flag.  Just as fetish symbols were erected at Egyptian shrines from the Predynastic period onwards, so banners with emblems of the gods were set up on flagpoles outside their temples.  The flagpoles are gone now, but you can still  see the sockets that housed them when you visit temples in Egypt today.  This is Luxor temple, where there are four deep sockets in the facade of the first pylon where the massive poles were once lodged.

Luxor temple

And this is what they would once have looked like:

pylon_panahesi

This is probably about as much as the average Egyptian got to see of the local god much of the time.  Most of them would not have been allowed very far beyond the front gate of the temple, except on very special occasions.  Even when the god’s statue was carried in procession, it was hidden from sight in a curtained shrine.  So the flags really came to stand for the gods in people’s minds, to the extent that it was the simplest way of writing the word for god:

painted ntr

And it’s not difficult to draw.  Just draw a flag on a pole.

aa hieroglyph

aa transliteration

Aa, great, is slightly more tricky.  It’s a wooden column, of the sort used in houses or smaller or buildings, where it wouldn’t have had to support a great deal of weight.  I suppose using a pillar to convey greatness kind of figures.  Wooden columns are mainly known from paintings and models, as they’ve mostly perished. One good source for what they looked like, though, is the step pyramid complex of Djoser at Saqqara, as they were only just learning to work in large quantities of stone then, and the buildings imitate wooden originals.  These are stone imitations of wooden columns at Saqqara:

house_north_herald_96-6308-02

You can see from this painted version of the hieroglyph that the column symbol is broader towards the base and more slender towards the top. painted aa

It seems to have a capital shaped like a papyrus umbel, like the Djoser columns, with an abacus – the cover plate that connects the column with the ceiling – on the top, like this one:

Capital

So, when you’re drawing it, you need to convey the intricacies of the capital.  I usually draw two back-to-back little scollops to start with aa scollops then an equal and opposite pair underneath

aa scollops2

 then the slightly pear-shaped body of the column:

aa hieroglyph

But you’ll figure out what works best for you.  Luck has nothing to do with it.  It’s all about practice.

July 30, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (6)

Hang on, you’re probably saying; you mean the ancient Egyptians – the same Egyptians who built pyramids and temples, quarried tombs in the Valley of the Kings and filled them with treasure, organised the massive machine of state and sent armies marching and conquering all over the Near East, those Egyptians – thought the best possible way they could represent in writing the King they believed was a god on earth, was:  a blade of grass and a loaf of bread? Are you sure we’re talking about the same Egyptians? And anyway, the Mesopotamians invented writing first.

 Well, I could conduct a forensic investigation into the etymology of the Egyptian word for King, but I think you’d doze off long before the end.  You’d wake up to a dark office (especially if you’ve got motion sensors on your lights), the baleful glare of the screen saver and the symphony of banging sounds that denotes the arrival of the cleaners.  So I’ll try to make it a bit more interesting by bringing out the narrative.

 Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (unless you’re reading this in Egypt, in which case it’s pretty close), some forty-odd independent tribes occupied the valley and the delta of the river Nile.  We’re talking about a time way before the invention of writing.  For at least one of the valley tribes, the sedge plant assumed great significance.  It’s a useful plant (papyrus is a member of the sedge family, and you can make lots of things with it besides writing materials) and it also has a symbolic significance, as the green shoots sprouting through the mud in the ancient springtime came to represent the rebirth and regeneration part of the cycle of life and death.

 For these and who knows what other reasons, the sedge plant became a heraldic emblem among the tribes in the Nile valley. All the tribal leaders had different emblems, although some of them were out of the same design stable.  Anyway, as tribes will, they went to war.  Over many years, through a process of conquest and assimilation, two leaders managed to unite the Nile Valley and the Nile Delta tribal lands respectively into two kingdoms:  Upper Egypt or the Nile Valley, and Lower Egypt, or the Nile Delta.

 The King who united Upper Egypt used the sedge plant as his emblem and was strongly identified with it; so much so, that he was known as “He of the Sedge”.  The Egyptian word for sedge is swt (pronounced sut to rhyme with loot) and “He of the Sedge” is ny swt. 

 The inevitable battle for supremacy over the whole of Egypt took place somewhere around 3000 BC, and of the rival Kings, He of the Sedge won.  So the title which had once meant only “King of Upper Egypt”, although it continued to be used as such, also came to be used simply as one of the words for King.  Over time, the letter t became silent and the word evolved into nsw / nesu

 Remember when I said a few posts back that the principle of Egyptian writing was to use pictures to represent sounds?  When they wanted to write the sound sw / su, they drew a little picture of the sedge plant, because that was how its name sounded:

 

  They had another symbol they used to write the letter t : the word for bread was t / te, so they used the loaf sign to represent the t which once existed in the word swt but fell out of use:

 Stop there a minute, you’re probably saying; I’m looking at the word for King.:

 nsw

 Nsw, right?  So what happened to the nyNy obviousy means “He of”. Where is it?  We’ve got a sw all present and correct, a t that’s superfluous to requirements and a completely missing ny.  

Well spotted.  This is a very abbreviated spelling of the word nesu, pared down to its basic heraldic element, the sedge sign.  This is the kind of thing that happens with formulae.  You want to write them quickly because you have to write them so frequently, so you strip them down.  You’ll appreciate that when you’re scribbling on that card, especially if your office has clustered birthdays / lots of women of childbearing age / a high turnover of staff / all of the above.

 However, paring it down to one tall, thin letter would leave an unpleasing gap above the short, wide sign which comes next, so they filled it with the superfluous t.  Whatever you may think of their flexible approach to writing, they allowed nothing to compromise their artistic integrity. 

 If you look at the longer spellings of nsw, you’ll see the missing n:  it’s the wiggly line:

 

  We’ll come to the letter n later in the formula.  Don’t worry, it’s there.  In fact, it’s got a whole word to itself.

Oh, and about the Mesopotamians – shh, don’t tell the nsw.  You never know what a powerful sign like that might do.

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