Susanllewellyn's Blog

August 9, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (10)

Wsir hieroglyphs         Wsir transliteration

So – Usir, god of the underworld, or Osiris, as the Greeks called him.  In this spelling, his name is pared down to its two basic symbols, standing for its two basic sounds; a throne for the Us and an eye for ir.  You can see slightly more elaborate versions in this inscription:

Wsir inscription067

This version has a third sign, which is called a determinative.  A determinative does not have a sound; it is a sign stuck on the end of a word, to give the reader an extra clue about what kind of word it is they’re reading.  Remember I said that (mostly) the Egyptian script does not include the vowels?  What they wrote down was (mostly) a series of consonants.  Two words with the same pattern of consonants might have completely different vowels.  You would have been able to tell them apart when you were listening to someone speaking, but it would have been more tricky when you were reading what they’d written.  Hence, the detrminative. 

In this case, the determinative is the symbol for a god, so the reader would have known the two preceding hieropglyphs were stood for the name of Osiris.  You can tell he’s a god by his beard.  And he’s sitting on the floor, with his knees sticking up.

And in which direction do you read it?  Yep, right to left, as hieroglyphs face the beginning of the sentence.  Well remembered!

The throne symbol is a very simplified version of the rone on which Osiris is sitting in the picture I posted last time:

osiris 2

The eagle-eyed will spot his name again, written just above his face.  However, you don’t have to go into this much detail when writing your own throne hieroglyph.  Just draw a capital L, then box off the corner.

Is there anyone who can’t draw a basic eye?  Slightly curved line for lower lid, more curvaceous line for upper lid, circle for the eyeball?  I’m assuming anyone who can’t get that far has given up long ago and is no longer reading this blog.  For those still here, here’s a close-up from the same tomb painting:


It doesn’t look all that much different from any of the others in this post?  Why did I bother?  Well, it underlines the point that there’s not much to the drawing of an eye, I suppose.

Before I go, I realise that I left you on a cliffhanger a couple of posts back.  I said we would have more anon about why the King was giving an offering, and how it was just the beginning of a long fast food chain.  We can get a step further down the chain at this point.

The temples of the major state gods of ancient Egypt were major economic centres.  They controlled vast tracts of land, grew crops and managed herds and flocks, had armies of labourers as well as priests, and sometimes had dedicated fleets who traded abroad.  The temple complex itself  had workshops and cattle yards and huge magazines, where all this wealth was amassed, and where taxes, in the form of grain, were collected and stored.  Temples were like incredibly wealthy towns, ruled over by the god, who was woken up in his shrine, washed and dressed, served three meals a day, undressed and put to bed again every day – not counting festival days, when he would come out and parade around the streets and everyone would have a party.

But, technically, all this belonged to the King.  Basically, the King had a deal with the gods.  The deal was this:  the gods would keep the primeval waters from swamping the earth (a constant threat, like a meteorite strike or swine flu today), would make the sun come up and the Nile flood and the crops grow and the King on his throne in a peaceful land, as long as the King kept their cults going and gave them their offerings every day.  And the King could own everything, that was fine by them, as long as he gave the gods fair dues. So, the offerings Osiris received in his temple were offerings given by the King.

The next step in the food chain comes later on.

July 30, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (6)

Hang on, you’re probably saying; you mean the ancient Egyptians – the same Egyptians who built pyramids and temples, quarried tombs in the Valley of the Kings and filled them with treasure, organised the massive machine of state and sent armies marching and conquering all over the Near East, those Egyptians – thought the best possible way they could represent in writing the King they believed was a god on earth, was:  a blade of grass and a loaf of bread? Are you sure we’re talking about the same Egyptians? And anyway, the Mesopotamians invented writing first.

 Well, I could conduct a forensic investigation into the etymology of the Egyptian word for King, but I think you’d doze off long before the end.  You’d wake up to a dark office (especially if you’ve got motion sensors on your lights), the baleful glare of the screen saver and the symphony of banging sounds that denotes the arrival of the cleaners.  So I’ll try to make it a bit more interesting by bringing out the narrative.

 Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (unless you’re reading this in Egypt, in which case it’s pretty close), some forty-odd independent tribes occupied the valley and the delta of the river Nile.  We’re talking about a time way before the invention of writing.  For at least one of the valley tribes, the sedge plant assumed great significance.  It’s a useful plant (papyrus is a member of the sedge family, and you can make lots of things with it besides writing materials) and it also has a symbolic significance, as the green shoots sprouting through the mud in the ancient springtime came to represent the rebirth and regeneration part of the cycle of life and death.

 For these and who knows what other reasons, the sedge plant became a heraldic emblem among the tribes in the Nile valley. All the tribal leaders had different emblems, although some of them were out of the same design stable.  Anyway, as tribes will, they went to war.  Over many years, through a process of conquest and assimilation, two leaders managed to unite the Nile Valley and the Nile Delta tribal lands respectively into two kingdoms:  Upper Egypt or the Nile Valley, and Lower Egypt, or the Nile Delta.

 The King who united Upper Egypt used the sedge plant as his emblem and was strongly identified with it; so much so, that he was known as “He of the Sedge”.  The Egyptian word for sedge is swt (pronounced sut to rhyme with loot) and “He of the Sedge” is ny swt. 

 The inevitable battle for supremacy over the whole of Egypt took place somewhere around 3000 BC, and of the rival Kings, He of the Sedge won.  So the title which had once meant only “King of Upper Egypt”, although it continued to be used as such, also came to be used simply as one of the words for King.  Over time, the letter t became silent and the word evolved into nsw / nesu

 Remember when I said a few posts back that the principle of Egyptian writing was to use pictures to represent sounds?  When they wanted to write the sound sw / su, they drew a little picture of the sedge plant, because that was how its name sounded:


  They had another symbol they used to write the letter t : the word for bread was t / te, so they used the loaf sign to represent the t which once existed in the word swt but fell out of use:

 Stop there a minute, you’re probably saying; I’m looking at the word for King.:


 Nsw, right?  So what happened to the nyNy obviousy means “He of”. Where is it?  We’ve got a sw all present and correct, a t that’s superfluous to requirements and a completely missing ny.  

Well spotted.  This is a very abbreviated spelling of the word nesu, pared down to its basic heraldic element, the sedge sign.  This is the kind of thing that happens with formulae.  You want to write them quickly because you have to write them so frequently, so you strip them down.  You’ll appreciate that when you’re scribbling on that card, especially if your office has clustered birthdays / lots of women of childbearing age / a high turnover of staff / all of the above.

 However, paring it down to one tall, thin letter would leave an unpleasing gap above the short, wide sign which comes next, so they filled it with the superfluous t.  Whatever you may think of their flexible approach to writing, they allowed nothing to compromise their artistic integrity. 

 If you look at the longer spellings of nsw, you’ll see the missing n:  it’s the wiggly line:


  We’ll come to the letter n later in the formula.  Don’t worry, it’s there.  In fact, it’s got a whole word to itself.

Oh, and about the Mesopotamians – shh, don’t tell the nsw.  You never know what a powerful sign like that might do.

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