Susanllewellyn's Blog

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.

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August 12, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (12)

Ddw hieroglyphs

Ddw transliteration

Djedu:  Busiris, the Lower Egyptian cult centre of Osiris, in the middle of the Nile Delta. 

There’s not much to see there now.  But the hieroglyphs in its name bear some investigation.

The first symbol is an ancient and powerful Egyptian fetish:  the djed pillar,djed pillar hieroglyphDd transliteration

pronounced – wait for it – djed

Waaaay back in the mists of the Predynastic period, the djed pillar was a sizeable cult object, something like a totem pole.  It appears to have been a tree trunk with sheaves of grain bound to it to give it its distinctive shape.  If you think it has a certain vertebrate quality, you’re right.  When Seth chopped up Osiris’ body and scattered his forty-two limbs the length and breadth (such as it is) of Egypt, Busiris got his backbone.  Osiris, as you’ll remember, was an agricultural god, who taught farming while he was alive and was resurrected in the growing corn after he was slain and had fallen.  So his Lower Egyptian symbol, the djed pillar, is a kind of gigantic backbone made of corn.  Whether that was how the Egyptians understood it in the early days, who knows – but that was what it came to symbolise as the milennia rolled on.

The djed pillar or backbone of Osiris was a powerful magical symbol and represented stability, endurance, everlastingness.  In the form of an amulet, it conveyed everlastingness on the owner, alive or dead.  Djed pillars are very common in Egyptian art, from tiny beads to unwieldy cult objects. 

Here are a couple of carved and painted djed hieroglyphs:

2 djeds070

Here is the djed symbol incorporated into the top of the sceptre of the god Ptah:

Ptah071

And here is the King grappling with the erection of the djed pillar (surmounted by double plumes and a sun disk and probably much smaller than life size) at the festival of Osiris at Abydos (of which more anon, in a post coming to a blog near you soon):

big djed072

Now I’ve shown you a few different versions, you’ll be seeing it everywhere.  It’s not difficult to draw; a central column, rounded at the top and flaring out into a base at the bottom, and then just draw four straight horizontal lines across the top.  Whether the ultimate symbol of stability is appropriate for a redundancy leaving card, I leave to your own judgement.

Now for the w.  The w is one of those signs that make it easy to tell which way the hieroglyphs run, because it has a recognisable face to turn to the beginning of the sentence:

w hieroglyph

  And the face is the face of a little fluffy quail chick.  Aaaaaaahh.  Or, rather, oooohh.  Here’s a painted version:

quail chick073

See his downy body and his little wing?  A pity the artist/scribe hasn’t given him an eye, but there may be a (magical) reason for that, as this one comes from a tomb.  When you draw yours, start with his beak and rounded head, go down his back and turn the corner of his tail, come up under his belly and around to his beak again.  Or something like that, but draw the outline, anyway, Then add on his two little stick-like legs and make sure you put in a baseline for him  to stand on.  The Egyptians liked to have their animals and people standing on the ground.  They didn’t like them hovering in mid-air.  In any case, he can’t fly yet, he’s only a chick.  Then you can dot his eye and give him a little curved, featherless wing.  Ah bless!

Hang on, you’re saying, we’re only two hieroglyphs into the word and we’ve already got the sound Djedu.  We seem to have a lot of signs left over.

Er – kind of.  The third sign, niwt hieroglyphis a determinative – which, you’ll remember, is a soundless sign put at the end of a word to show what kind of word it is, and to prevent confusion with other words of the same consonantal pattern.  It may look like a button or a hot cross bun, but it is actually a town or village.  You wouldn’t think it, would you – a whole town, or even a village, encompassed in that one little sign?  However, the essentials are there:  two intersecting streets surrounded by an enclosure wall.  Here’s a relief version:

niwt074

Now, the scribe could have stopped there.  He’d finished the place name Djedu; all sounds faithfully rendered and a town determinative on the end.  But he must have got carried away.  The Egyptian word for town was niwet, and it was written niwet word

In this word, the city sign is not just a determinative; it has a phonetic value, niwe.  You can see our old friend the loaf of bread t completing the word. The final stroke is a kind of determinative that conveys the idea “one of these” as opposed to two or three strokes, which mean the dual or plural form of the noun.  Or sometimes it’s just a filler.

So it looks as though, when the scribe or artist got to the determinative of Djedu, he followed straight through into the word for town or village: Djeduniwet; Busiriston, maybe.  Thank god he didn’t have to spell banana.

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