Susanllewellyn's Blog

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.

Office hieroglyphs (22)

We’re on a famous syllable now:  nefer, the Egyptian word for beautiful or, as in this case, good.  It has sounded down the ages in the names of some of Egypt’s most famous queens: 


Nefertiti, “the beautiful one is come”;


Nefertari, “the most beautiful of them all”. 

So what symbol did the Egyptians choose to represent the sound of good and beautiful?  Have a look and see if you can tell what it is:


Nope?  Give up?  OK, I’ll tell you.  It’s the heart and windpipe, possibly of an ox.  Aaaah, of course!  You’re smacking yourself on the forehead now, aren’t you?  What else would you use to convey the sound for good or beautiful?  Well, I suppose these abstract concepts are hard to draw.  You have to reach for the practical, and the practical can be pretty earthy.  I suppose that, as writing was invented to keep inventories of valuable commodities, the butchered components of an expensive animal like an ox would be something you would want to itemise on a list.  The sound is just a coincidence. When writing is developing beyond the practical to capture abstract qualities, if a symbol already exists for that sound, that’s what you use.  So, they used the heart and windpipe for nefer, meaning good or beautiful.

Or rather, in this case:

nfrt transliteration




The nefer hieroglyph is a triliteral, conveying in one symbol the sound of three consonants:  n, f and r.  The second and third of these letters are written out more fully in other examples: nfr full099

However, in the case of our offering formula, like nebet in the previous post, the adjective is feminine, to agree with khet, “thing”.  You could put a loaf of bread after it, to stand for the “t” if you wanted, but as it’s a formula and things tend ot get compressed in formulae, the scribe hasn’t bothered in this example.    To draw the nefer sign, I usually start with the downward stroke, loop it around to make a squat little jar shape for it to stand on, cross the upright like a Roman t (I usually cross it twice, as the Egyptians often did, too) and then put in the details on the jar shape:  a little crescent above, and a little loop below.

Here are a couple of examples of the real hieroglyph, one a sculpted relief, the other an inlay in semi-precious stone:

nfr relief101

nfr inlay100

You can see the internal markings of the heart carved into the limestone, but not into the tiny bit of gemstone – too fiddly, perhaps, when you have a lot of them to do.

Again, I did consider putting a picture of a real, gory specimen on the blog – but if you really want to see one, you know where to look.  I’m not squeamish, but I don’t want to put people off.

So, if you fancy one of your colleagues but don’t know how to tell them, you can write the hieroglyph for beautiful on their whiteboard, and take it from there.  Or, if you really loathe them but are forced to write the offering formula on their birthday card because you’ve done it for yourself, you can console yourself that what you’re drawing for them is something really gory.  Fill in those details with relish!

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