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 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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