Susanllewellyn's Blog

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? — Susan Llewellyn @ 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.

April 8, 2010

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

Filed under: Uncategorized,What kind of god do you think you are? — Susan Llewellyn @ 10:44 pm
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It’s been a while since we left the terrible twins Geb and Nut, fighting and fornicating like an episode of Skins.  That’s almost poetry.  Well, maybe not.  Time to have a look at Nut’s name and titles.

We have two examples of her name from the pictures in the previous post.  In the family portrait on papyrus, Nut’s label is fixed, not tastefully in the bottom centre of the mahogany frame, as one would expect in a boardroom, but is slapped, rather tastelessly to modern eyes, right in front of her pubic area:

This is the kind of thing which starts rumours in the office:  I leave you to contemplate the appropriateness of the position as it may or may not apply to any members of yours.  The arm pointing to Nut’s genitals belongs to her father, Shu.  You can’t blame him:  he’s just trying his best to prop her up and keep her away from Geb, and she is a big girl.

Shu is not the only one being familiar; zooming in on the hieroglyphs which make up Nut’s name, we find most of them looking familiar too:

There’s a rather apathetic version of the zigzag line of the letter n, reinforcing the n in our old friend the water pot nw, the loaf of bread for the letter t, all spelling Nwt, Nut and rounded off with two determinatives:  the sky symbol for obvious reasons, and a seated goddess holding a slightly smudged lotus blossom drooping on a stem.

The second version of Nut’s name appears, rather more respectably, above her head on the inside of the coffin lid:

You can just make out the nw-pot, letter t and the sky hieroglyph.  There’s no room there for the embellishments of the first version.  However, the coffin lid also depicts Nut’s favourite title:  ms(t) ntrw, mes(et) netjeru, mother of the gods.  This may be the reason why the scribe of the papyrus thought writing Nut’s name as close as possible to her birth canal was just as appropriate as writing it next to her head.  The ancient Egyptians were a practical people.  They weren’t prudish as we are.

This is the first word, ms, written in front of Nut’s face:

Reading from the right, the first symbol is a new one:  the biliteral ms, mes. It’s easy to draw in its simple form:  one straight vertical line and two curved ones overlapping the top coming in from  different directions.  However, the simplicity is deceptive; the original object from which the hieroglyph derives is an apron made of fox skins tied together.  More elaborate versions can be found, such as this one, where you do get more of a sense of fox pelts tied together, with their brushes hanging down and the limbs dangling:

We’ve had the second symbol before; the strip of folded cloth reinforcing the letter s in  ms.  There should be a letter t for the feminine ending of mother, but, well, there isn’t in this example.  Perhaps Nut is trying to cut down on the bread – she is on the large side.

The second half of the title, ntrw, netjeru, gods, is written behind Nut’s head, so the whole thing reads top down and right to left:  Nwt ms ntrw, Nut mes netjeru, Nut Mother of the Gods.  We’ve seen the flagpole hieroglyph for god before.  This time, instead of three short strokes to convey the plural, the artist has painted three flagpoles out in full.  It means the same thing.

We all know colleagues who talk and act as though they invented a product or a practice when it’s been around in the company for a generation.  Nut was not the first goddess, nor the first goddess to give birth.  Her mother Tefnut had done it all before her, but you didn’t hear her bragging about it the way her daughter did.  What was so special about Nut’s experience of motherhood?  What was so fantastic about her kids?  We’ll find out next time.

March 28, 2010

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

If Geb was the earthy type, his twin sister Nut was the original heavenly body.  While Geb the earth lay under the feet of their father Shu, Nut arched herself over his head as the sky, her hands and feet standing at the four cardinal points:

 Nut formed a vault over the world, stopping malevolent forces from the cosmos from invading Egypt.   The stars travelled over the vault of Nut, and like many other heavenly bodies with star quality, pictures of Nut appeared everywhere, especially on royal tomb ceilings, like this one:

You can see a line of stars painted in blue, running over her shoulder and down her back like a tattoo.  Nut had a tremendous appetite; every dawn, she ate all the stars for breakfast.  Every evening for supper, she swallowed the barque of the sun god when it reached the western horizon.  Every morning, presumably while stuffing her face with the stars, she gave birth to the ship, the god and his retinue, and the whole cycle began again.   The red disks painted along Nut’s body represent the passage of the sun through her inner workings.  The different parts of her body represented hours of the night.  Her lips corresponded to the second hour of night, her teeth to the third, her throat the fourth, her chest the fifth and so on.  Remember, if you’re tempted to snack as much as Nut was:  a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips…  But then, everything she ate seems to have passed straight through her.  She doesn’t seem to have digested anything, just like all the other supermodels.

Nut was also a favourite pin-up on coffin lids, where she arched protectively over the deceased, offering the promise of rebirth and eternal life among the stars:

In the underworld, Nut was present as a sycamore fig tree, and provided air, water and nourishment to the departed.

Like certain supermodels, too, Nut wasn’t all celestial sweetness and light.  Occasionally, she could appear as a cow or a pig.  She was known to fight with her brother Geb; in one quarrel, he split her head right open.  No wonder their Dad Shu is holding them apart.  The quarrel was hushed up, though, and no-one was allowed to talk about it, for fear of spreading disorder in the company ranks.

Geb and Nut’s parents, Shu and Tefnut, were the first gods to produce children through sex and, like many parents, decided that the kids at better not know anything about it.  This is another reason Shu is holding them apart.  However, the more you deny them something the more they want it.  You could say that Geb and Nut had a love-hate relationship.  Geb’s passion for Nut did not only manifest itself in violence.  Unable to consummate his lust, he became so frustrated that he resorted to blowing his own trumpet, so to speak.  But Nut’s head did touch the ground at the western horizon.  Geb was able to pass his semen to her secretly through a kiss, and in this way Nut became pregnant.

But that’s another story.  We’ll have a closer look at her name first.

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 25, 2010

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

The first generation in a successful family firm has made its way from the bottom to the top.  The old man’s had it tough, and tough is character forming.  The second generation may have been born into affluence, but they’ve been brought up by a Dad who knows how lucky they are and never lets them forget it.  So the kids feel all the responsibility of getting the fruits of Dad’s labour on a plate.  The trouble always starts with the third generation.  The grandkids are spoiled rotten.  They’re ungrateful, arrogant brats – or worse.

Look at this family portrait:

You’ll recognise the fine, upstanding figure in the middle immediately; that’s Shu.  Ignore the ram-headed characters; on either side of Shu; they don’t concern us in this dynastic history.  The other two figures are Shu’s children, Geb and Nut and, like many a Dad then and now, he’s having to keep them apart.

That’s Shu and Tefnut’s boy, Geb, on the bottom, lying at Shu’s feet.  Geb was the god of the earth, so that’s a very good place for him to lie.  The Nile rippled the length of his naked torso, which is often coloured green to represent the fertile vegetation of the Nile Valley.  In fact, Geb was so fertile that barley sprouted from his ribcage.  He sounds quite attractive, doesn’t he?

However, beneath many a lush exterior lurks a far less enticing interior, and it was certainly better to stop at the surface of Geb than to gain a more intimate acquaintance with what went on underneath.  For the deceased Egyptian, buried in the soil of Geb, he was a malevolent imprisoner.  Sound like any of your board?  Read on…

You’ll notice that Geb’s mother Tefnut is not in the family portrait, even though Shu had left her behind as regent when he retired to the heavens following the rebellion in the company ranks.  The ugly truth is that, when Shu retired, Geb sexually abused his own mother Tefnut, and tried to seize his father’s crown.  You can’t blame her for not turning up for the photoshoot. 

The incestuous rape of Tefnut was probably just another way of Geb usurping his father’s position.  Geb’s real design was on the crown.

When Geb tried to steal Shu’s crown, he came with a crowd of supporters and yes-men to take it from the casket in which it lay.  As soon as he lifted the lid, the sacred cobra which sat on the King’s brow shot out spitting fire, killed his whole entourage and injured Geb himself.  Well, you know what vicious threshold guardians these bosses’ secretaries can be.

The immediate result of Geb’s attempt to steal Shu’s crown was a badly burned hand which needed specialist treatment from the sun god, Re.  However, there was a nine-day stormy period when the company was in crisis and no-one seems to have been in charge.  When, finally, order was restored, guess what?  The thieving, incestuous rapist Geb was crowned King in Shu’s place.  We’ve all seen the crown go to the undeserving.  And it makes you suspect that Geb may have had something to do with the original rebellion.

Deserving or not, the ancient Egyptian throne came to be knows as the throne of Geb, and the Egyptian King himself was known as the heir of Geb, so Geb was pretty good at rebranding.  The floor of a temple, or of the embalming house, was regarded as Geb.  The bedrock of the company – or maybe just a pile of dirt.

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.

 

March 20, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You are? Tefnut (1)

If twins are born around midnight, the delivery room staff will do everything they can to ensure that they have the same birthday.  I’d obviously never make it as a midwife, as it’s almost a month since my last post, and Shu’s twin sister Tefnut is only now putting in an appearance.  Sorry, kids.

Never mind, I’ve whipped her out, slapped her bottom, and here she is:

What can I tell you about Atum’s bouncing baby girl?  Well, even though she had the head of a lioness, she’s the spitting image of her Dad:  whereas Atum sneezed Shu into existence, he spat out the goddess Tefnut; the word tef in ancient Egyptian meant to spit. 

As you can tell, Shu and Tefnut were not identical twins.  As the god of air, Shu was a pretty dry character.  Tefnut, on the other hand, was a bit wet.  She personified moisture, particularly the morning dew.

Opposites attract and, let’s face it, there wasn’t much competition.  Atum had had no mate, but Shu and Tefnut paired off immediately in a brother-sister marriage.  At least that way, Atum was able to keep the business in the family. In due course, they had children of their own; we’ll come on to them later. 

As with many a good Mum, it was not only Tefnut’s own children who benefited from her mothering; other kids on the block came in for some tlc, too.  One of her jobs, for example, was occasionally to cleanse the King of his impurities.  She could be strict, though, and always sided with Shu when it came to discipline, even joining him in his fiery torture activities in the netherworld. 

Shu clearly trusted Tefnut absolutely.  After the rebellion which led to Shu and Tefnut’s palace being sacked, Shu and his entourage retired to the penthouse office in the sky after defeating the invaders and left Tefnut on earth in the ground-floor boardroom as regent.  If only the kids had turned out ok, everything might have been different, but you know how even well brought up offspring from stable, loving families can sometimes turn out to be problem children…  But that’s another story.

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.

February 19, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Atum (7)

Lord of the Sacred Land.  As Atum was the god who made the first land rise from the waters of the primeval ocean, and as he was the only god around to lord it at the time, the title is no more than his due.  Here it is, the last in the sequence of titles in this inscription:

 

Nb t3 dsr  neb ta djeser  Lord of the Sacred Land

Our old friend neb, Lord, is such an old friend it needs no introduction. 

Ta, land, we’ve also had before, in tawy, the Two Lands of ancient Egypt.  It was written in an abbreviated form in that example.  Here it’s written out more fully,

with the strip of mud bank sign we’ve had before – which is the bit pronounced ta –  followed by a single stroke and another sign.  Neither of these two signs is pronounced; they are both determinatives to give the reader a clue about the type of word this is.  The single short stroke indicates that the ta sign is to be taken literally – it is the word for land, not a different word which sounds like the word for land. 

The third sign is – wait for it – another bit of land! It’s easy to draw; one short straight side and the two long sides come together in a curve, not an angle – just like a tongue.  This particular hieroglyph is a spit or tongue of land, like this one:

What they really want to emphasise here with these three hieroglyphs is that this is the word for land.  Land, land, land.  Not water.  Not air. Land.  Have you got that? Good.  (They also want to fill an awkward space at the bottom of the column.)

Dsr, djeser, sacred, by contrast, fills the last remaining space very nicely on its own:

It’s an arm holding a certain type of ritual implement, a kind of wand.  If you draw an arm holding an ice cream cone, one of those soft ones that extrude from a nozzle (yum) you won’t go far wrong.  Stop short of the raspberry sauce and the chocolate flake, though.  That would just be ridiculous – or maybe that’s a good reason to write them in someone’s card.  You decide.  (Come to think of it, the arm does look as though Atum, the divine ice cream man, is leaning out of the serving hatch of the ice cream van … )

I have tried hard and failed to find a picture of an actual wand of this type for you, so here is at least a picture of a more colourful version of the hieroglyph, in the cartouche of King (Djeserkheprure Setepenre) Horemheb (Merenamun):

If anyone does have a picture of the wand, I’d love to have it for the blog.

So we’ve come to the end of Atum’s career as founder of the universe and the titles he acquired on the way. In the next post, it will be time to look at the contribution of the next generation; Atum’s twin offspring, Shu and Tefnut.

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.

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