Susanllewellyn's Blog

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.

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.

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