Susanllewellyn's Blog

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.

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:


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:


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:


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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