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.

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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 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.

July 27, 2009

Office hierogplyphs (4)

Yes but, yes but, yes but – what does the blooming thing say?  How do you expect us to concentrate on the first group of signs when we’re three lessons in and we still don’t know what the sentence means? 

Ok, sorry, I quite take your point.  I shall do better than that.  I shall both translate and transliterate it for you.  How about that?

Transliteration first.  Hieroglyphs are an alphabet which can be read and pronounced.  So, when the fascinated recipient of your birthday offerings gasps, “Wow!  May a gigantic owl eat the snake that’s about to crawl under your upside-down teacup, and may the little man with the squiggle er – erdo something with all the other squiggles..  Great!  How original.  Just what I always wanted,” you can say, “No, no, it doesn’t work like that.  It’s not a cartoon strip.  It’s more like those children’s puzzles, where the words are replaced by pictures which sound similar – an eye for “I”, a deer for “Dear”, etc.  It says: transliteration

 

Then you can pause while they blink at you, impressed but totally unenlightened. 

 Transliteration means turning the hieroglyphic alphabet into the Roman alphabet, so that we have at least a vague idea of what it might sound like.  A very good point, you may say.  How the heck do I read that out? 

Ancient Egyptian is a semitic language, like Hebrew, Arabic and others in that linguistic family.  In semitic languages, writers tend to set down the consonants, but make only very limited attempts, if any, to write down the vowels.  So, with hierogplyphs, we (mainly) have a string of consonants and have to guess the vowel sounds in between.  We don’t really know exactly how ancient Egyptian was pronounced, but the convention is to supply an “e” between consonants.  The transliteration above would sound something like:

Hetep di nesu Usir neb Djedu, netjer aa, neb Abdju,

di-ef peret-kheru (em) te, henket, kau apedu, shes menkhet,

khet nebt nefret wabet ankhet netjer im,

en ka en imakhy Senwosret, maa-kheru.

 

The beauty of the two-pronged transliteration and translation approach is that it gives you a double whammy – reading it aloud first, then nonchalantly explaining:

 “It means An offering which the king gives (to) Osiris, Lord of Busiris, the great god, Lord of Abydos, so that he may give an invocation offering (of) bread, beer, meat and fowl, alabaster, clothing and every good and pure thing on which a god lives, to the spirit of the revered one Senwosret, true of voice.”

Of course, that’s only if you haven’t customised it, and if your colleague happens to be a Revered One called Senwosret.  (If you’re reading this in California, that’s perfectly possible.) We’ll get on to customisation soon, after we’ve broken down the offering formula into its working parts.  You have to take the engine apart before you can rebuild it, after all.

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