Susanllewellyn's Blog

March 27, 2010

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

Let’s look at the nameplate attached to the portrait of the third MD of the divine family firm.  Here it is:

Reading right to left, from the top of the column to the bottom, it says:

Gb `it ntrw   Geb it netjeru  Geb, Father of the Gods

Let’s look at his name first:

The first hieroglyph is clearly a bird, and although it’s cursively rendered, there’s something familiar about its face.  What do you mean, you don’t see it?  Have a look at this one:

Recognise him now?  I’ll give you a clue:  last time we met him, it was as a disembodied head.  Ah – got it!  Yes, that’s right, his head had made a sola appearance in Office Hieroglyphs as 3pdw, apedu, fowl, in the list of offerings.  Now we have the whole goose – a white-fronted goose in fact, just like this one:

 Beautiful, isn’t he?  He’s tricky to draw, but worth it.  I usually start with a short horizontal line for his beak, curve up and over for his head, come inwards for his neck and then sweep outwards and downwards for his back, down to the tip of his tail.  The you can return to the base of his beak, draw a flattish line for his chin and swoop in and out again for his neck and breast, pulling the line downwards for his belly and joining up the two lines at the tail tip.  Make a deep curve across his body for the wing, and make the wing tip cut the line of his back.  Then you can put in two short lines of his legs and a baseline for his feet.  A final dot for his eye, and he’s done.

The goose hieroglyph is a biliteral, gb.  The foot hieroglyph which represents the letter b is another old Office Hieroglyphs friend, and is only there to reinforce the b sound already contained in the goose symbol.  Finally, the seated god hieroglyph, familiar from many of our divine corporation nameplates, denotes that this is the name of a god.

 The next group looks straightforward, but, like Geb, it’s a treacherous item:

You’ll recognise the top half of Tefnut’s snake sandwich; the loaf of bread and the horned viper.  On the face of things, this group should be pronounced tef, but in fact it’s the word ‘it, it, father.  Other versions of the word have the inital ‘i written out in full, but ‘i is a semi-vowel (a vowel with some of the force of a consonant) and we know the Egyptians placed greater emphasis on writing down the consonants than on writing vowels, so they often left out the ‘i of ‘it.  The viper in this case is not the letter f but a determinative  – a soundless symbol put in to show what kind of word this is – whose significance is obscure.

And so to the final group of hieroglyphs in Geb’s title:

We’ve seen them all before:  the temple flagpole representing the sound ntr, the seated god determinative; the loaf of bread for the letter t and the three short strokes denoting the plural ending w, the whole lot reading ntrw, netjeru, gods.  Strictly speaking, the letter t shouldn’t be there.  As we know, it’s a feminine ending, which might suggest that Geb is claiming only to be the father of the goddesses, which would not do him justice.  We know he was not exactly a champion of female rights, so we can’t take this as evidence of positive discrimination in the workplace.  I think it’s probably crept in there because the similar title God’s Father, found in the titles of certain high-ranking Egyptian nobles and possibly meaning King’s Father-in Law, was often written with the flagpole sign followed by the loaf of bread from ‘it, father, and the scribe just kept on going because he was so used to writing that title, even though he’d already written the word for father.

But enough of these bureaucratic technicalities.  Geb was the third patriarch in the family firm.  Why did he claim to be the father of the gods?  What was so special about his divine kids?  Well, let’s meet the gods’ mother, first, and after that we’ll find out.

March 21, 2010

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

Time to run our fingers down Tefnut’s nameplate now.  Here it is:

Tfnwt nbt pt   Tefnut nebet pet   Tefnut, Lady of Heaven.  Let’s look at her name first:

As you can see, her name – if you forget about the unspoken determinative at the end for a minute – begins and ends with our old favourite the loaf of bread letter t, which I suppose makes it a sandwich.  And what’s the filling?  The horned viper letter f and the water pot nw, both of which we’ve had before.  Not everyone’s choice of a packed lunch, perhaps, although snake is supposed to taste like chicken.

The determinative is new, though, and no, it’s not the discarded sandwich wrapper.  It’s a cursive writing of another serpent hieroglyph:

This one is a (non-horned) cobra, and was often used as a determinative for the name of a goddess, especially if the goddess in question were a snake goddess like Wadjet, the cobra goddess who adorned the King’s forehead.  But other goddesses could use it as well.  Tefnut was a lioness rather than a cobra, but her Dad Atum was the original giant serpent, so I suppose she felt entitled.  And she ate those little horned vipers for lunch.

The cobra determinative is tricky to draw, but it can be done.  You may want to start with a little flat head, like a sock puppet looking straight ahead.  Then you can make the wide sweep of the hood, tapering down to the narrow body; turn and continue horizontally, then make a downturn for the tail.  The you can add a loop in each “elbow” to suggest the coils.

Here’s one doing some textbook rearing:

You’d need a whole row of baguettes to make a sandwich out of that.

Tefnut’s title, nbt pt, starts with a familiar object: 

the basket hieroglyph nb, neb , Lord, which should really be followed by a t in Tefnut’s case, to make it the feminine nbt, nebet, Lady, but the scribe hasn’t put it in. Well, you can see he was in a hurry from his cobra.  The group of three signs underneath the basket is this one: 

pt, pet, the sky or heaven.  The first two symbols are familiar; you’ll remember from Office Hieroglyphs the stool made of reed matting which represents the letter p.  The scribe in Tefnut’s case has abbreviated it to three short strokes, which was quite common in cursive hieroglyphs, but I recommend you draw it as a square.  And there’s yet another loaf of bread t.  The rectangle with two downward-pointing corners is the sky symbol.  You can see it painted blue on the top of this stela, although the artist has had to bend it around to fit the curved top:

Bendy or not, it gives the sun disk somewhere to hang.

The sky had a particular significance for Tefnut, as we’ll find out when we meet her and Shu’s children.  In the meantime, just remember:  however heavenly the chairman’s daughter, if she invites you to lunch, take your own sandwiches.


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.

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.

December 16, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (29)

In the last post, I mentioned that there are two letters s in ancient Egyptian.  You won’t have been impressed.  Who is going to be impressed by two s-es when they already know about the four h-es (even though they haven’t met them all yet)?

Actually, the s situation is a bit more complicated than I let on.  There are two s-es rendered in transliteration, but one of them has two hieroglyphs to go with it.  We had one in the last post:

That was the vertical one.  Now meet the horizontal one:

Originally, it was pronounced more like a z, but it evolved into an alternative way of writing s, depending on whether or not the scribe had to fill a vertical or horizontal space in a group of signs.  You can see the point immediately in the full version of our tomb owner Senusret’s name:

We’ve already met the goddess Usret, “the powerful (female) one”, whose name appears first in writing, even though it comes second in pronunciation.  Now we’re on the second part of the name in writing, although it was the first part of his name when spoken: 

     se-en; “man of”.  The horizontal s hieroglyph depicts a bolt, of the type you can see on the doors of the golden shrines of Tutankhamun:


Here’s the carved relief version from the cartouche of King Sesostris in the last post: 

It’s simple to draw:  a straight line with a couple of short cross-hatches in the middle will do.  And there we have it:  se = man.

The n holds no mystery for you.  We’ve seen it all before.  It’s a ripple of water.  It means “of”.  You know that.  So, on to the final sign in this group:

Isn’t he lovely?  He’s a seated man, and he has no sound – he’s the strong, silent type.  He has no sound because he is a determinative – a hieroglyph stuck on the end of a word to show what kind of word it is.  We’ve had a determinative before, remember?  The town or city determinatives in the first line of the offering formula are the same kind of sign.  I explained then that, because the Egyptians wrote very few vowels, they had to use some device to distinguish between words which sounded different when spoken, but had the same sequence of consonants when written down.  This is what the determinative does – it shows it’s the word for man, as opposed to a similar word meaning something else.  But you remember all that. 

In this case, though, he’s not part of se, man, but of the name as a whole:  he’s the male  determinative for the masculine name, Senusret.

He’s complicated to draw, but he’s worth it for the animation he will add to your enigmatic line of Christmas card hieroglyphs.  Inanimate symbols are attractive enough, but you can’t beat a cute little animal or a tiny little person for instant appeal.  I usually start with a circle for the head, then a triangle, pointed side down, for the torso. A second triangle, pointing left (in this case) forms the lower leg, and a smaller one sticking up behind it forms the raised knee.  You can put in two short strokes for the feet, and two bent lines for his arms, as though he’s doing an impression of Toulouse-Lautrec power walking.  And you’ve created a little man.

Here’s one they made earlier, when they were painting texts on a coffin:

See?  He doesn’t have to be that complicated.  They’re simple creatures, after all.

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”.

November 15, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (23)

And after goodness, purity:


wabet transliteration

Wabet,  “pure” or “clean” – in the feminine form when spoken, but without the loaf of bread representing the t , because it’s so obvious to those in the know that the scribe, dashing off yet another offering formula, hasn’t bothered to write it down.  But we know it’s there, don’t we?

Advanced office scribes like us will also have deduced that the masculine form is wab, and that the rather curious sumbol above is a triliteral sign conveying the sound of three letters, w a and b. 

We’ve had b before, haven’t we?  If you cast your mind back to the first line of the offering formula, when we were looking at Abydos or Abdju, one of the major cult centres of Osiris, you’ll recall that the letter b in ancient Egyptian is represented by the human foot.  And what do we have as the bottom half of this symbol?  A human foot!  That’ll be the b, then.

But what’s that spout on top, and what’s it spouting?  No, it’s not what you’re thinking.  They could draw what you’re thinking much better than that.  The upper part of the symbol is a little water pot, and it’s pouring forth a libation of purifying water.

You can see the kind of pot in full pouring action in this scene from the sarcophagus of a royal lady:

lady pouring102

In this scene, one of the lady’s servants is pouring her a drink.  In temples and in funeral rites, water was used for ritual purification, as in this scene where a priest is pouring water over the coffin of the deceased:

priest pouring103

It’s a shame the painting has flaked away just where I want to show you the water spouting out of the pots, but never mind.  And the blue wiggly lines for the water have come out nicely.  So, the symbol for “pure” was the standard ritual purification device of ancient Egyptian religion, the pot pouring out clean water, rendering the person or object it was poured over cleansed and pure.  Wab was also the word for “priest” in ancient Egyptian; literally, “the pure one”.

Here’s an example from a temple relief:

wab seti relief104

We already know how to draw the foot.  Then just draw a little oval on top for the pot, like an egg lying on its side, but square off the pointy end a bit for the rim.  Then draw a zigzag line for the water, arcing out of the pot in a graceful curve.

Finally -please remember all this when the office plant contractors come round and water the aspidistras.  And stop stubbing out illicit cigarettes in the rubber plants, and using the weeping fig as a receptacle for your coffee dregs, or the office party plonk.  They’ve been ritually purified.  Have some respect.

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