Susanllewellyn's Blog

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 14, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Atum (5)

Remember that flaky basket hieroglyph we saw last time?  Well here’s an even flakier one.  Atum’s next title, nb ‘Iwnw, neb Iunu, Lord of Heliopolis, begins at the bottom of one column and continues at the top of the next:

Yes, those random black marks underneath nb t3wy are all that is left of another basket sign.  The three symbols at the top of the left-hand column form the word ‘Iwnw:

Don’t worry about the curly think snapping out like a frog’s tongue i n pursuit of a fly; that’s just the curly bit on the front of the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, which Atum is wearing in the picture.

We’ve had two of the hieroglyphs in this group before (sort of), but the first one is new:

 ‘Iwn, Iun.  It’s a pillar with a tenon, or tongue for inserting into a slot, on the top; part of the mechanism for locking the pillar into the structure of the roof.  This picture of columns at the Ramesseum will give you an idea:

 It’s another easy to draw sign; a tall, thin rectangle with a v neck, and a short stroke (or, sometimes, a cross) inserted into the v, and a line about halfway or two thirds of the way down, marking the border between the different colours with which the pillar is painted. 

We’ve had the second hieroglyph before, but lying on its side and standing on one foot – a real contortionist of a sign.  It’s the little water pot which formed part of the word wcbt, wabet, pure in the offering formula.  Standing up on its own two feet (but without the feet) it reads nw, nu, reinforcing the n in Iunu and adding the sound u.

The final hieroglyph is the place determinative, a circle with an x in it, representing a town wall and a crossroads, which we’ve seen before in Djedu and Abdju, Busiris and Abydos, in Osiris’ titulary.

So the whole group reads ‘Iwnw, Iunu, the ancient Egyptian name for the cult centre which eventually became know throughout the Greek-speaking world as Heliopolis, the City of the Sun. 

Heliopolis was one of the most important cult centres of ancient Egypt, the site of the first known sun temple and sacred to the solar cult.  The position of the sun was far too important a celestial occupation for just one god.  As well as Atum, the elderly god of the setting sun, there was Harakhty or Horus of the Horizon, god of the rising sun; Khepri, the scarab beetle who rolled the sun across the sky at midday, and the generic sun gods Re, (known to the producers of Hollywood epics as Ra) and Aten, credited with being the god of the first monotheistic religion.  Now that’s job sharing.

According to the ancient Greeks, Heliopolis was the destination of the phoenix, the sacred bird which, when old, flew to the temple of the sun god to burn itself upon the solar altar and rise again from the ashes.  Now it’s mostly buried under Cairo airport, and all that flies in there these days are planeloads of tourists. 

One obelisk is the only thing of any size now visible, but there are others closer at hand depending on where you’re reading this); Cleopatra’s Needle on the banks of the Thames in London and the obelisk in New York’s Central Park both came from Heliopolis.

The origin of the legend of the phoenix was probably the bird known to the ancient Egyptians as the benu bird, a sacred heron associated with the sun cult.  The legend lives on @Bennu on Twitter!

August 7, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (9)

Osiris and titles

Osiris titles transliteration


Usir neb Jedu, netjer aa, neb Abju:  (t0) Osiris Lord of Busiris, the great god, Lord of Abydos.

We’ve been working hard on the first bit of the offering formula.  I tell you what; let’s not have a hieroglyphic lesson this time.  Put your feet up, and I’ll tell you a story.

Once upon a time in ancient Egypt, when Egypt was so ancient that the gods lived on earth, there was a god-king called Osiris.  He was married to his sister Isis, which seems odd to us but was fairly normal for Egyptian gods (and their kings, come to that). Osiris was a good king and very useful; he invented farming and taught it to the Egyptians, his subjects.  His rule was peaceful and happy. 

Well, you know gods.  They don’t like that kind of thing.  It doesn’t matter whether they’re Egyptian gods or Greek or Roman or Viking or Mexican; your average god likes nothing more than a humungous family row. They like to get everyone either miserable or furious, running around like headless chickens and finally descending into a brawl.  And there’s always one who starts it. (You’re beginning to see the pagan origins of Christmas now, aren’t you?)

The one who started it in Osiris’ case was his brother Seth.  He wanted to be King.  So, at a family party (when else?) he tricked Osiris into getting into a coffin, sealed it shut and threw it into the Nile.  The coffin with Osiris inside it floated down the Nile, out into the Mediterranean and along the Levant coast to Byblos.  At Byblos, it got tangled up in the roots of a cedar tree, and came to a halt.

Seth had, however, reckoned without their sister Isis.  Isis was a very resourceful goddess-queen, and not only that, a very powerful magician.  She was also devoted to Osiris, and had her sister Nephthys, Seth’s own wife, totally on her side.  Isis  transformed herself and Nephthys into kites (the birds, not the paper flying things) and they scoured Egypt and the East until they found the coffin stuck in the roots of the cedar.

They were too late.  Osiris was no longer of this world.  Isis hid the coffin in the marshes of the Nile Delta, which she organised a decent burial.  While she was up to her neck in the funeral arrangements, Seth discovered the coffin by accident, and was so angry that he tore Osiris’ body limb from limb and scattered the bits the length of Egypt.  Actually, it must have been more than limb from limb, because he broke it into anything up to forty-two pieces, depending on which version of the story you read.

The devoted, put-upon Isis set about clearing up the mess.  Someone always has to.  She found most of her husband’s bits, except – er – her husband’s bits, which had been swallowed by a fish.  Never one to admit defeat, she made him a new one.  One wonders whether it was  a new and improved one … Anyway, by reassembling Osiris. scattered limbs and bandaging them all together, Isis invented mummification.

Isis the magician was able to reanimate Osiris’ corpse, including the aritifically substituted bit, sufficiently to conceive the child Horus, who became the rightful heir to his father’s throne and opponent of his usurping uncle, Seth.

You can imagine how Seth felt about that.  He was about as much in favour of Osiris having an heir as elderly relatives are when they’re watching the news and the kid comes in an switches channels to the cartoons.  Realising the danger to her son, Isis hid him in the marshes until he was old enough to stand up to Seth.  In the meantime, Seth searched for Horus until, eventually, they met. 

The subsequent contendings of Horus and Seth were almost as bad as the battle over the remote control when the Queen’s Speech is up against the Christmas special.  Seth did his darndest to trick, seduce, blind, conquer and kill Horus to secure the throne.  However, much aided by Isis’ magic, and after a great deal of political wrangling among the gods, Horus eventually succeeded in ascending the throne and Seth was banished to the desert.

Osiris was still dead. However, you can’t keep a good god down.  Well, you can, but you can’t keep him inanimate.  Although Osiris could not rule Egypt any more, what with him being dead and a mummy and all, Re, King of the Gods, sent him  down to the Netherworld to be King of the afterlife. (No Egyptologist calls Re Ra any more.)  So Osiris gained a kingdom in the land of the dead.  And every year, when the green shoots of the corn that Osisirs had shown the Egyptians how to cultivate sprouted in the black mud of the Nile, people believed he was born again.  Aaaaaah…

That is why Osiris is usually shown as a mummy, and often with black or green skin, as in this tomb painting:

osiris 2

(And later on Osiris had an affair with Nephthys and a child out of wedlock called Anubis, god of mummification – after all Isis had done for him.  Typical.  Spoils it a bit, doesn’t it?)

Never mind.  We’ll start tearing him apart – or at least his name and titles  -next time.  That’ll teach him.

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