Susanllewellyn's Blog

January 30, 2011

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Horus the Elder

OK.  So far so good.  This is where it gets confusing.  There are umpteen gods called Horus in the ancient Egyptian pantheon.  The most famous one is the son of Isis and Osiris, but that’s not who we’re talking about here.  Horus the Elder is his uncle, the fifth, anomalous offspring of Nut, although under the influence of other Horuses he has been known to be considered the son of Isis.  Well, you know what it’s like when two close family members have the same name.  They answer each other’s calls, open each other’s mail, get arrested for each other’s offences…  To make things worse, both the elder and younger Horuses married a goddess called Hathor.  Imagine what it must have been like in the company mailroom. 

Horus the Elder’s main cult centre was at Letopolis, modern Ausim, a dozen kilometres or so north-west of Cairo. There’s not much left of his temple there now, but there is rather more left of the temple of Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt, where Horus shared his accommodation with a flatmate, the crocodile god Sobek.  Here’s a portrait of Horus from his Nile Valley residence:

Regular readers of this blog will know that the divine company history had always been a turbulent one, even before the arrival of the Children of Nut.  You’ll also remember how ruthlessly the real stories of many attempted – and successful – boardroom coups by each succeeding generation were suppressed by the company founders.  But legends will persist, even in open plan offices. 

 The legend about Horus the Elder is that he owed his seniority to one such attempted coup.  Atum got wind that a faction in the family firm – the names of the guilty have been successfully withheld from the public – was plotting against him.  Atum was getting on in years by now and didn’t feel able to confront them directly, especially as they were his own family and would presumably get to choose his retirement home.  He needed to get a handle on the size of the forces ranged against him, so he sent out a company spy to hang around the water cooler, listen in to the gossip and report back.  We’ve all met them. 

 The spy discovered that eight senior executives and two hundred and fifty-seven of the workforce, backed up by a huge army, were doing nothing but slandering Atum at every water cooler, tea point, restroom and smoking break in the company.  Just as he uncovered this information, the conspirators realised he was a spy and took immediate action:  they stuck out their tongues at him.  This was apparently much more frightening then than it is now – maybe because it was a reminder that the Egyptians used to cut out the tongues of the slain on the battlefield.  Anyway, the spy acted in the time-honoured tradition of snitches everywhere and ran straight back to Atum.

Atum immediately called in company secretary Thoth for high-level counter-coup discussions.  Thoth advised him to choose a high-profile individual to champion Atum’s policies in the workplace.  Atum chose Horus the Elder, put him in uniform, armed him to the hilt and let him rip. The result was a massacre and a flight of the vanquished, some of whom turned into fish and birds to effect their getaway.  Well, even if they’d had company cars then, they’d have had to give them back.  But it was no use:  whatever they turned into, Horus copied, hunting them down and exterminating them wherever they were hidden.  It was worse than a government leak inquiry.  Eventually, though, company order was restored and Horus found himself promoted above his peers for services rendered, becoming “leader of the troops”.  Here he is, not in a portrait this time but in a rather fine bronze, as a Roman soldier:


You have to admire Horus the Elder all the more once you know t hat the company champion had battled disability to achieve his excellent performance rating and an enviable promotion. Horus the Elder’s two eyes represented the sun and the moon.  On pitch dark nights when these two heavenly bodies were invisible, the god used to go blind.   On these occasions he was known in the company as Mekhenty-en-irty, “he who has no eyes”.  In his blind form, he swapped his falcon’s head for the head of a shrew, an animal thought to fear broad daylight.  When he recovered his eyesight, he was known as Khenty-en-irty, “he who has eyes”.  At one of Horus’ cult centres, Kom Ombo, the priests commissioned a carving of surgical and medical instruments for the temple wall, in which the eye doctor’s equipment has a prominent place.

Well, it never ends there, does it?  If you promote one of five siblings, the others are bound to feel a certain grievance.  And you have to remember, company grievance procedures were much less sophisticated then.  At any rate, these events were soon followed by a rebellion of the Children of Nut against Chairman Atum.  Horus the Elder had to take up his sword again. 

The rebellion came to a head on board the solar bark.  It was a pitch dark night, Horus the Elder couldn’t see a thing, he was on a mission and he was armed with a sword.  You can imagine what was about to happen.  Horus didn’t let the mere fact of his blindness hold him back; he set about himself with a vengeance, lopping off heads left right and centre.  When the sun came up in the morning, he found that he had decapitated not only half the workforce but a lot of the gods as well.  Talk about swingeing cuts – Horus the Elder was the George Osborne of his day.  The company ship came to a halt – as the crew had been beheaded, that was probably inevitable – one of the four pillars holding up the sky fell into the primeval ocean and the universe stood tottering on the brink of collapse.  (That’s what happens when you implement radical retrenchments too quickly, George – let that be a warning to you.)  Fortunately, the Chairman was able to restore the gods’ heads to their shoulders and, after a kindly but firm word with the junior executives about their future career prospects, Atum was able to effect repairs and the company ship sailed on.

So, if you’re poised pen in hand over yet another leaving card, about to write your offering formula and wondering which god to select for yet another colleague whose job has been axed, Horus the Elder might be the one.  He’d also be good for one of those slash-and-burn types, or salami-slicers of services.  We’ll have a look at exactly how you write him in there next time.

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.

February 14, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Atum (5)

Remember that flaky basket hieroglyph we saw last time?  Well here’s an even flakier one.  Atum’s next title, nb ‘Iwnw, neb Iunu, Lord of Heliopolis, begins at the bottom of one column and continues at the top of the next:

Yes, those random black marks underneath nb t3wy are all that is left of another basket sign.  The three symbols at the top of the left-hand column form the word ‘Iwnw:

Don’t worry about the curly think snapping out like a frog’s tongue i n pursuit of a fly; that’s just the curly bit on the front of the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, which Atum is wearing in the picture.

We’ve had two of the hieroglyphs in this group before (sort of), but the first one is new:

 ‘Iwn, Iun.  It’s a pillar with a tenon, or tongue for inserting into a slot, on the top; part of the mechanism for locking the pillar into the structure of the roof.  This picture of columns at the Ramesseum will give you an idea:

 It’s another easy to draw sign; a tall, thin rectangle with a v neck, and a short stroke (or, sometimes, a cross) inserted into the v, and a line about halfway or two thirds of the way down, marking the border between the different colours with which the pillar is painted. 

We’ve had the second hieroglyph before, but lying on its side and standing on one foot – a real contortionist of a sign.  It’s the little water pot which formed part of the word wcbt, wabet, pure in the offering formula.  Standing up on its own two feet (but without the feet) it reads nw, nu, reinforcing the n in Iunu and adding the sound u.

The final hieroglyph is the place determinative, a circle with an x in it, representing a town wall and a crossroads, which we’ve seen before in Djedu and Abdju, Busiris and Abydos, in Osiris’ titulary.

So the whole group reads ‘Iwnw, Iunu, the ancient Egyptian name for the cult centre which eventually became know throughout the Greek-speaking world as Heliopolis, the City of the Sun. 

Heliopolis was one of the most important cult centres of ancient Egypt, the site of the first known sun temple and sacred to the solar cult.  The position of the sun was far too important a celestial occupation for just one god.  As well as Atum, the elderly god of the setting sun, there was Harakhty or Horus of the Horizon, god of the rising sun; Khepri, the scarab beetle who rolled the sun across the sky at midday, and the generic sun gods Re, (known to the producers of Hollywood epics as Ra) and Aten, credited with being the god of the first monotheistic religion.  Now that’s job sharing.

According to the ancient Greeks, Heliopolis was the destination of the phoenix, the sacred bird which, when old, flew to the temple of the sun god to burn itself upon the solar altar and rise again from the ashes.  Now it’s mostly buried under Cairo airport, and all that flies in there these days are planeloads of tourists. 

One obelisk is the only thing of any size now visible, but there are others closer at hand depending on where you’re reading this); Cleopatra’s Needle on the banks of the Thames in London and the obelisk in New York’s Central Park both came from Heliopolis.

The origin of the legend of the phoenix was probably the bird known to the ancient Egyptians as the benu bird, a sacred heron associated with the sun cult.  The legend lives on @Bennu on Twitter!

December 15, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (28)

You know how you sometimes get a Christmas card, but can’t for the life of you make out the signature, and spend the whole New Year wrestling with the guilty suspicion that you’ve missed someone off your list, while they kept you on theirs?  Well, this is not going to happen this time; not on Office Hieroglyphs, it isn’t.  We are about to decipher the cryptic symbols by means of which our revered tomb owner conveyed his name – or at least had someone else to convey it for him.

And here it is:

Senusret, sometimes transcribed as Senwosret or, in its later, Greek form, Sesostris; a name of commoners, nobles and of course a number of famous Twelfth Dynasty Kings.

If you cast your mind back to the very beginning of this blog, you may remember that we encountered the device known as honorific transposition, which is a pretty rotten trick to pull on the eager beginner.  However, we’ve seen it before and we’re not intimidated.  We know it just means that the Egyptians believed that some words were more important and magical than others, especially when they were written down, and that they had better write down the most powerful symbols in a word or phrase first, even if they were not actually spoken first, or the magic letters might get annoyed and start acting up. 

Well, Senusret is one of those cases.  It is a theophorous name, which means it contains the name of a god or, in this case, goddess:  the goddess Usret or Wosret.  Senusret means “Man of (the goddess) Usret”.  And you’ve guessed it; even though the tomb owner’s name was Senusret, the diva gets her name at the top of the bill.  This is why, in very old textbooks written before they’d figured it out, early Egyptologists sometimes wrote the name as Usertsen.

So, we’ll spend this post giving all our attention to the goddess:

Usret:  literally, “the powerful one”, perhaps an early version of “She-Who-must-be-obeyed”.  She was a relatively obscure goddess who is rarely depicted, probably because her cult flourished (at Thebes, modern Luxor) during the Middle Kingdom in Egypt (roughly 2000-1700 BC), and very little remains of the temples of that period – they’ve mostly been broken up, re-used and covered over by later monuments.  Similarly, later, even more powerful goddesses supplanted her as objects of worship.  However, the Kings of the time, who came from her home town, saw her as their patron goddess, which was why several of them were named after her.

We’ve got some new symbols here, too, which makes a change from the recycling we’ve seen lately.  Have a look at the first one:

It looks like a head on a stick.  In fact, it’s the head of some dog-like animal on a greatly elongated neck.  They did like their animal body parts, didn’t they?  When you draw it, you can just draw a head on a stick:  two pointy ears and a protruding snout, then a vertical line for the neck. The symbol is a triliteral – it conveys the sound wsr or user.  The next two letters are simply the s and the r written out in full for emphasis:


 is the letter s, one of two in the transliteration of ancient Egyptian.  A droopy looking sign, isn’t it.  After all the butchery we’ve had in this blog lately, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s a length of trailing intestine, but in fact it’s a folded cloth, something like the throw hanging over the back of the throne in our picture of Osiris from ages ago:

Maybe they need something to mop up the blood at this point in the formula.

is the letter r.  We’re back to good old body parts with this one; the r represents the human mouth. Here’s a slightly wonky inlaid technicolour version:


 Two curves touching at the tips will describe it nicely.

Finally, dedicated scribes will have spotted our old friend the loaf of bread

 representing the letter t, and forming the feminine ending, so we know Usret is a goddess, not a god:  “the powerful (female) one”.

Here they all are in the name of one of the Kings called Sesostris, enclosed by a rope border known as a cartouche:

Look at them all, like presents in Santa’s sack.  We’ll pull out the last couple next time.

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.

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 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.

August 6, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (8)

htp di nsw


      transliteration htp di nsw


An offering which the King gives; as we’ve already looked at the hieroglyphs for “King” and “offering”, the last symbol in the group, di

must betransliteration di



You’re right, and guess what?  It’s yet another loaf of bread; the third different kind we’ve encountered in the space of four symbols.  The ancient Egyptians may not have had coinage (not until very late, anyway) but they sure had a lot of dough. 

It’s easy enough to draw:  a big triangle with a little triangle inside it, on the baseline. Here’s an example of the hieroglyph from a carved inscription:








Bread has sacred significance in most cultures, and the ancient Egyptians were no exception, as you can tell.  Why was this?  Well, when you think about it, the invention of bread is a major technological advance, of the kind that changes the world.  Before we became farmers, we lived on perishable food.  We had fresh meat and fresh vegetables and, if we were living in Egypt, hot weather and millions of flies.  We had to eat the food quickly, before it decayed, then set about replacing our stocks.  This was pretty restricting.  

However, once we learned to grow cereal crops, process them and bake them into bread and cakes, we had a source of food which lasted longer.  We could store it long term, take it with us on journeys or dole it out to hired labourers or soldiers as their pay for the month.  A whole new way of life opened up, not least the ability to survive famines of meat and vegetables, during which people would otherwise have died.  In this case, bread really would have been the staff of life – hence its sacred significance.

Clay moulds you could stack in the fire for baking bread were the start of a series of culinary innovations which has taken us from the bread oven through the deep freeze and the microwave to the – er – electric bread maker. The Egyptians baked many different kinds of bread and cakes, flavoured with different fruits, spices and herbs. They gave lots of them in exchange for other goods and services, and gave lots more as offerings to the gods and to their ancestors, so much so that the name of one kind of loaf became synonymous with the verb “to give”. In fact, an alternative way of writing the same word was with an outstretched arm holding the loaf, as in this inscription:




NB:  don’t go looking for the words “an”, “which” or “the”.  Just understand that the sense of them is there.  All you want is to be able to write some convincing retirement wishes in colleagues’ memory books.  You don’t want to get any further into Middle Egyptian grammar and syntax than you have to, trust me.

So, what does this mean in practical terms, “an offering which the King gives”?  It stems from the ancient Egyptian principle that the King was owner, ruler, lawgiver and high priest of everything and every cult in the land.  Remember back at the beginning of this blog, when I said that the tomb owner would place a takeaway order with the local temple, as part of his or her insurance against starvation in the next life?  Well, the ancient Egyptian fast food chain was a long and complex one, and it began with the authority of the King.  Of which more anon.

July 23, 2009

Office Hieroglyphs (2)

Filed under: Office hieroglyphs — Susan Llewellyn @ 8:47 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


The offering formula.  Who, what, where, when, why?

 Well.  On the one hand, the ancient Egyptians are famous for thinking you can take it with you.  They made sure (if they were rich enough) that their tombs came with an entire wardrobe, a complete set of furniture, his and hers chariots and the Egyptian equivalent of the food hall at Harrods.  They also made it quite clear that the grieving relatives were supposed to bring top-ups of food and drink to their tomb chapels, just in case they were running short in the world below, and to make double certain, placed a regular takeaway order with the local temple so that the priests would bring them a share of the gods’ dinner. 

 But they weren’t stupid.  They knew that, eventually, the family would decide they’d had enough of grandma’s eternal front room and decide to picnic elsewhere.  They’d lose their place in the temple fast-food queue.  And one day, they’d be bound to have the burglars in while they were asleep.

 Hence the offering formula.  Like most Egyptian funerary texts, it’s a spell, and it was meant to be recited by the empty-handed tourist who stumbles upon your tomb when they’re poking around the necropolis looking at the gravestones.  By reciting the spell, they would magically conjure up for you anything you might need in the afterlife – food, drink, clothing, equipment, the lot.  And they’d get divine brownie points for doing it.

 The offering formula is a useful thing to know if you want to impress colleagues with the fluency of your hieroglyphic hand.  It’s authentic ancient Egyptian.  It’s a blessing, so you can use it to wish good things for someone.  It’s a formula, so it can be learned, understood and reproduced.  It is made up of elements which are logical and which can be varied and customised to suit the person you’re writing it for, the occasion and the things you’re wishing them.

 You can vary:  the name and titles of the god or goddess you’re invoking and the places they rule over; the gifts you want them to give your colleague; the name and titles of your colleague. 

 It will take a little effort to master, but hey, they had eternity – we’ve got the whole of this blog!  I’ll break it down into simple steps.  I promise.

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