Susanllewellyn's Blog

January 29, 2011

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? The children of Nut

Filed under: Uncategorized,What kind of god do you think you are? — Valerie Billingham @ 8:42 pm
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Now, where were we?  As I recall, we were strolling down the mahogany-lined corridor of the company yacht of the ancient Egyptian gods, admiring the portraits of the founders of the divine dynasty and exploring their place in the company’s history.  We were just about to reach the portraits of the fourth generation, the “children of disorder”:  Osiris, Isis, Seth, Nephthys and their shadowy sibling Horus the Elder.   Here they are:

 

That’s Osiris on his throne with Isis and Nephthys behind him, and that’s Horus the falcon and Seth the we’re-not-sure-what-but-it’s-probably-mythological clapping their godly, supportive hands on either shoulder of the King. 

And what an appropriate time to return to them.  To look at them, as with many children, you’d think butter wouldn’t melt.  However, in the words of the Book of the Dead:

“..what is to be done with the Children of Nut?  They have fomented war, they have stirred up quarrels, they have caused disorder, they have fomented rebellion…”  words which must be echoing around a presidential palace not a million miles from Egypt as I type.

 As far as the senior members of the firm were concerned, the children of Nut had no self discipline and constantly gave in to their worse instincts.    Atum the chairman used to complain about them all the time to Thoth, the company secretary of the gods.  Thoth, who was also the office timekeeper, told him he shouldn’t have to put up with it and he should put a time limit on them:  cut their hours and put them all on fixed-term contracts.

Of course, you can’t curtail junior executives’ terms and conditions without imposing similar or even worse cuts on their subordinates.  Following through the inexorable logic, Atum placed limits on the lifespans of human beings and even on the length of time they could stay dead.  (I’m sure I saw that last bit in the Coalition Plan for Government.)  One day, Atum decreed, you lot, dead or alive, will all go back into the primeval ocean and I can put my feet up and have a snooze.

The older gods blamed the children of Nut for setting a bad example to mankind, leading them eventually to rebel against the rule of the gods themselves.  But that’s another post.

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April 10, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Nut (3)

Filed under: What kind of god do you think you are? — Valerie Billingham @ 8:38 am
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Have you had a proud mother come back to the office during her maternity leave, to show off the baby and horrify everyone with a blow-by-blow account of her labour?  If so, you may want to choose Nut as the appropriate goddess of the offering formula you write in her congratulations card. 

You’ll recall how Nut the sky and Geb the earth, separated by their father Shu, the air, had to resort to special measures to start a family, namely and to wit:  passing semen mouth to mouth in a kiss.  Well, they didn’t have turkey basters then.  They didn’t even have turkeys. 

It was unconventional, but it worked.  Nut became pregnant.  And it annoyed the hell out of the other gods.  Well, the divine family firm was still a small to medium-sized enterprise then, and the pregnancy of a key worker like the sky can hit an SME hard.  One of the senior directors, the sun god Re, took it badly and declared that Nut might be pregnant, but there was no way she was going to give birth on any day he was in charge of.  (You can understand why:  Nut’s job involved swallowing the sun at night and the stars at daybreak, and giving birth to them again at the appropriate time.  If she had offspring in there as well, he must have been concerned about overcrowding in the workplace.)  As the sun god, Re was basically in charge of days, so this presented a problem for Nut. 

 However, a good legal department can usually come up with a solution (even though the boss may feel they’re in league against him.)  Nut visited the company secretary in the form of the god Thoth, scribe of the gods.  Thoth did a quick stocktake and pointed out that, although Re was head of the day department, his department was not at full strength.  The Egyptian calendar was based on three seasons of four months, with thirty days to a month, making a grand total on 360 days in a year.  This immediately looks like a shortfall to us, but give them a break, they were making the market back then.  Thoth looked in the stores and came up with an extra five days’ worth of light, which he shoehorned in between the end of one year and the beginning of the next.  He told Nut she could have those five days off to give birth.  Talk about coming straight back to work.  (They never did figure out the extra quarter day.  It caused the office party schedule no end of trouble in the long run.)

 You’ll have noticed that the divine board of directors is becoming more complicated and causing more trouble with each generation.  It was all so simple when Atum was a sole trader.  He single-handedly brought up two kids, one of each, who didn’t give him a bit of trouble, probably because they were essentially cloned from himself.  It was only when the second generation became a two-parent family that things started to be less than straightforward, and their kids took up unusual sex and violence.  So what with that and Nut’s problem pregnancy, you can guess that the next generation is going to be even more interesting.

 For a start, there were more of them.  Nut made good use of her five-day maternity leave, and produced four children:  Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys.  There are also rumours of a fifth child, called Horus the Elder, which would make sense given the five days of labour.  The impact of this houseful of kids on the older gods was a bit like the baby boomer generation on the pre-war traditionalists:  there were too many of them, they were selfish, they didn’t know how to behave and they were wrecking the place.  The older gods called Nut’s children the “children of disorder”; little horrors, in other words.

 And they did take over.  As children of Geb and Nut, they laid claim to the earth and the sky, roaming around the land and circling the sky as stars, planets and constellations.  Despite her vast and quarrelsome brood, Nut was back on the day and night shift without missing a beat.  Sky goddess, fine; glass ceiling, no way.

February 5, 2010

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

Imagine we’re in the gods’ boardroom.  It’s a typical boardroom in an old established family firm, with cedar panelling and portraits of the founders hanging on the wall.  We’d better imagine it’s on a yacht, as the Egyptian gods did not have an office but a boat, on which they sailed through the heavens.  The yacht does make the family sound more like a lot of Russian oligarchs, but you can’t have everything.

Anyway, we’re strolling down the gallery of portraits and we stop at the portrait of the founder of the dynasty and chairman of the board:  the god Atum.  And here he is.

A fine figure of a god. I’m sure you’ll agree:  a king among gods, in fact, and dressed as an Egyptian king to make his status clear.  You might be prepared for the revelation that the portrait is a little flattering; Atum was a very old god, associated with the setting sun, and the Egyptians sometimes depicted him as a stooped old man.  You wouldn’t think, though, would you, that underneath that kingly exterior, he was a real snake? 

Atum was so old he existed before the world began.  Back in the primeval ocean, Atum floated as a gigantic snake, his tail in his mouth, with no beginning, no ending, eternal.  But he knew he had it in him to be so much more than that.  So he emerged from the primeval ocean (which was called Nun), standing on the very first mound of dry land – the original self-made man. 

Atum separated land from water and basically had to organise everything himself from then on.  For a long time, he was the organisation.  And he laid good foundations.  During his tenure, he cooled down the air and dried out the land, and those who came after can thank him for that. 

In those days, Atum was king of all he surveyed.  But it’s lonely at the top.  Atum had no goddess to share his exclusive waterfront development.  What is a bachelor god to do?  Atum did the only thing he could, and took himself in hand.  His act of procreation produced twins, a boy and a girl, called Shu and Tefnut.  We’ll meet them later.  So in the early years, Atum was a single Dad, bringing up a family on his own as well as founding a planet.  You’ve got to admire him. 

And no, he was not the least bit ashamed of the hand thing.  Atum scorned cover-ups.  In fact, he was proud of his hand, and so were the Egyptians.  They put together a whole PR strategy for Atum and his hand.  They painted it on coffins, and some priestesses at Thebes took the title “God’s Hand” to show how indispensible they were to the god.  So much better when you don’t have to deny anything because everyone knows anyway and thinks it’s great.  He was a smart god, Atum.

As you would expect of a founder, Atum was very protective of his dynasty.  Eventually, it would extend through several generations of gods to the Egyptian King, whom he regarded as his particular protegé.  (Kingship was all about organisation to the Egyptians.) He even had him dress the same.  When Isis was looking for somewhere safe to give birth to Horus, Atum found her just the spot and made it inaccessible to their arch enemy Seth.  When the King died, Atum would lift him up out of the pyramid and transform him into a star god. 

Every night, Atum would sail through the Underworld, executing the King’s enemies and fighting another gigantic serpent called Apophis.  Apophis was a rival concern, hell bent on swallowing up the whole ship of the gods in the world’s most hostile takeover bid.  We’ll come back to him another time.  It takes a snake to know a snake, and Atum knew what it took to kill one; a mongoose.  So Atum would transform himself into a mongoose to defeat Apophis.  You see- he was adaptable.  He refused to be limited by his origins. 

Lizards, bulls and lions were also sacred to Atum.  He was associated with the scarab, because the scarab beetle emerging from its ball of dung reminded the Egyptians of Atum emerging on the primeval mound.  (Atum was obviously good at digging himself out of the brown stuff. ) But everyone expects that, when the crash comes and the whole world falls back into the primeval ocean, Nun, Atum will revert to being the snake he originally was.

I don’t know whether you can see it in this portrait, but there was one characteristic that always betrayed Atum’s serpentine origins; his green eyes.  He had quite a party trick he could do with one of his eyes; he could make it cry worms. 

Now we’ve admired Atum’s portrait, we’ll take a closer look at his name and titles.  If you think you recognise any of your colleagues from this account of Atum, you’ll want to be able to invoke him for their personalised offering formula.  But that’s for another post.

January 29, 2010

What kind of god do you think you are?

Welcome back.  Have you missed me?  I’ve been taking a break to look at other people’s blogs, tweets, websites, Facebook pages – look at and admire.  What a talented, committed, creative lot you are!  You’re absolutely divine – which brings me on to the subject of my next umpteen posts – the creative divinities of ancient Egypt.

If you dig back through the sedimentary layers of the last thirty posts, you’ll find, right at the beginning, that I made you a promise.  I promised that you’d learn how to vary some of the elements of the offering formula, to suit the person for whom you were writing it.  For a start, I promised to give you a selection of gods, so that you could swap one of them for Osiris if you prefer.

After all, Osiris may not be the patron you would select for that particular colleague.  You may feel slightly diffident about invoking the god of the dead for someone on the eve of retirement.  They might even curse you. (Maybe we’ll do curses later.  The Egyptians had some good ones.)  If ideal god or goddess who encapsulates your feelings about your colleague were rattling around the celestial vault unsummoned, and I hadn’t told you about them, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. 

So here I am, back, with a selection for you. We’ll look them over together, and see whether they remind you of anyone in work.  The Egyptians were a very organised people, and they arranged their gods in a hierarchy which often seems eerily familiar when you’re looking at it over an office keyboard. 

It’s a family firm.  At the top of the organisation is the creator god, Atum, the founder of the organisation.  Beneath him are two of his offspring, Shu and Tefnut, and beneath them two of theirs, Geb and Nut (like all family firms, it’s pretty incestuous).   They basically form the chair and non-executive directors of the firm, the solid, conservative old guard.  There are four executive directors – Osiris, whom we know, Isis, Seth and Nephthys; two married couples constantly at each other’s throats (and other body parts).  The Chief Executive is Isis and Osiris’ son, Horus – the young blood brought in in controversial circumstances.  Does any of this sound like anyone you know?

Around the family gathers a wider organisation of illegitimate offspring, distant relatives, hangers-on and their spouses and kids.  The convolutions of their turbulent lives!  The sex!  The fighting! The exotic locations!  The ships!  The festivals!  I can’t wait to go to work, can you?

August 14, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (14)

It’s the fourteenth post, and time to visit my favourite temple, Abydos, via the third of Osiris’ titles in this formula:

neb abdju hieroglyphs   nb abdju transliteration

neb Abdju, Lord of Abydos.

We’ve done neb, haven’t we?  We can get straight on to Abdju:

abju hieroglyphs   Abdju075

Just for a change, I thought we’d compare handwritten hieroglyphs and the more detailed painted hieroglyphs for the whole word side by side.  They’re facing in opposite directions, but that’s not going to bother experienced office scribes, is it?  And I know you’re going to take the spelling variation in your stride.  As for the slightly different arrangement of hieroglyphs for the sake of artistic balance – pah!  We laugh in its face.

OK, let’s do a bit of dissection. 

ab hieroglyph    ab transliteration

The first sign is – well, no-one’s quite sure, but it could be a chisel. In which case, the blade is probably the wide, flat bit that looks like the handle.  It’s painted green in the inscription on the right, which would figure if it were copper or bronze .  (Almost the whole of the Pharaonic Period, took place in the Bronze Age in Egypt – something to contemplate while you’re waiting for that response from the IT helpdesk.)  The horizontal lines in the painted version may be cords lashing the blade to the handle.

So, when you’re drawing it, you need to draw a shape something like a short, wide vase or jar, then add a long thin shaft to the bottom.

The second sign (or the third sign in the painted version)

b hieroglyph

b transliteration

is a reinforcement of the b already present in Ab.  It’s a human foot, and in the second version painted the normal colour used for male skin in ancient Egypt – a dark, suntanned he-man red.  Ladies (and, in later periods, privileged men like scribes who worked indoors), were painted a pale yellow.

When you’re drawing your foot, give him a straight shin, an indication of the toes and heel and maybe a bit of instep – unlike the painted one, which seems to be flat-footed.  I know what that’s like and it’s cruel, so be kind to your hieroglyphs and don’t deform them (unless you’re writing them for someone ina  traditionally flat-footed profession, like the police).

Which brings us to the third sign (or second in the alternative version)

dju hieroglyphdju transliteration

dju.  See how the artist in the painted inscription has given it a reddish, speckled, grainy appearance above a thick, dark baseline?  That is because the  dju hieroglyph is a depiction of the desert hills rising above the fertile plain of the Nile.  And the gap between the hills is where the sun would rise above or set below the horizon.  (The two pylons of a temple and the gap of the gateway also represent this idea.)

Finally, some familiar signs to complete the word;  the cute little quail chick reinforcing the u sound of dju in the painting; the city or village determinative, and the single stroke, as much to fill an otherwise empty space as for any other reason.

Abdju, or Abydos, was the major cult centre of Osiris in Upper Egypt, or the Nile Valley. 

It’s not as easy to get there as it used to be, for security reasons, and there are restrictions on how long you can stay (nowhere near long enough) but it’s the most wonderful place. 

For one thing, it’s very ancient.  There are royal tombs out in the desert which date back to around the time of the unification of Egypt – the tombs of several “he of the sedges”.  In later times, the Egyptians believed that one of them was the tomb of Osiris himself, and it became a place of pilgrimage for people from all over the country.  There was a huge festival there every year, where mystery plays re-enacting the death and resurrection of Osiris and the battles of Horus and Seth were performed.  People came from far and wide to be part of them.

Kings built magnificent temples to Osiris there: the temple of Seti I is just about the only Pharaonic temple of any size with it roof intact.  This plus the fact that the Christians whitewashed over the walls  meant sthat the colours of  the reliefs are the best preserved of any Egyptian temple – and Seti I went for quality; just compare them with his son Ramesses II’s temple next door – even allowing for the fat that the roof is gone, there’s no comparison really.  Behind the Seti I temple is a highly intrguing underground temple called the Osireion, with an island in an underground lake, and…

Oh, I can’t wait to go back!. Go, go, go!

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.

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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