Susanllewellyn's Blog

December 22, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (30)

You’ve heard them singing carols in the office.  You’ve heard them karaoke down the pub. This is the best time of year to decide which of your colleagues merits the last phrase of the offering formula:

maa-kheru; true of voice.

We’ve had kheru, voice, before.  It was in the complex little group of signs which make up the standard phrase for “an invocation offering of bread and beer”:

where “invocation” is literally “that which comes forth by the voice”.  And there’s kheru, right in the middle of the group, like a wooden spoon ready for stirring the pudding (which would make the other signs a chopping board, a bag of flour and a bottle of brandy in seasonal montage straight out of the Lakeland kitchenware catalogue.  Except they’re not.)  But you know it’s an oar, and the other signs are a house, a loaf of bread (naturally) a jug of beer and the invisible owl.

So now we have the oar again, twice in one formula.  They did like sticking their oar in, the ancient Egyptians.  But what’s the first sign,

maa?  A doorstop?  An eraser? Nothing so mundane.  The wedge-shaped sign maa (very easy to draw) represents a platform or pedestal, as here supporting a figure of the god Ptah (from Tutankhamun’s tomb furniture):

(Ok, you could use him as a door wedge, I’ll give you that.  But he would be far from mundane.  There could be a whole interior design industry in this for someone – and that someone will need an office, and that office will need hieroglyphs…. I must stop getting carried away.) 

Back to maa – the pedestal has that distinctive shape because it in turn is a representation of nothing less than the primeval mound; the first bit of land to appear from out of the waters of chaos at the very creation of the world.  The Egyptians were used to seeing mounds of land rise from the water every year, as the floodwaters of the Nile receded after the annual inundation, leaving behind fertile silt which they could cultivate.  (So, we have to assume that Ptah is standing on a little island, with the waters of the primeval ocean lapping almost at his feet, at the bottom of the little slipway on his pedestal.)  The Egyptians assumed that this was how the gods had first created the land on which they lived.  To them, this pristine terra firma meant the world the way the gods had created it, the way the world was meant to be.  Maa meant “true” or “right” or “just” in the sense of  “the proper order of things”.

Here is an example of the maa kheru group in a  carved relief:

 True of voice:  the “of” is unwritten but understood from the construction.  The maa hieroglyph is easy to draw:  a thin rectangle with one slanting short side.

But if our tomb owner Senusret was “true of voice”, what did that mean?  They didn’t have karaoke in the netherworld, did they?  No.  It was much worse than that.  To get into the Egyptian afterlife, you had to win the divine version of the X Factor.

Anyone who thinks the X Factor is hell on earth will get the idea of the Egyptian afterlife.  If life on earth was Round 1, to go forward to the afterlife or Round 2, you had to impress a panel of judges.  Here’s a scene from the show:

On the left,we have the tomb owner being led onstage by his divine sponsor, the god Anubis.  In the middle, the scene shows an early version of the machine used to record the audience’s verdict.  Back then, in the days before electronic voting buttons, they used a weighing scale.  In the right-hand pan of the scale is a feather, representing truth, order, justice and all those primeval virtues.  In the left is the tomb owner’s heart.

On the right of the scene, in their own special booth, sit the judges:  Osiris, the Simon Cowell of the underworld, sits on his throne, backed by two divas of the day, the goddesses Isis and Nephthys then, and fronted by four lesser judges, his own four sons, who stand on a lotus blossom.

The format of the show is this:  to qualify for the next round of existence, the tomb owner has to declare that he has led a good life on earth.  But just saying so is not enough; he has to prove it.  To test whether or not he is speaking the truth, the gods weigh his heart against the feather.  If his heart is not weighed down by sin and falsehood, it will balance the feather and he will be let through to the next round.  If it is heavier than the feather, it will be thrown to the crocodile-headed she-monster waiting by the weighing scale, (her name is Devourer-of-Hearts, but let’s call her Anne) and the tomb owner will be thrown off the programme – you are the weakest link, goodbye.  That won’t happen, though, because in the finest traditions of audience voting reality TV, Anubis is rigging the result by fixing the scale.  The Ibis-headed god Thoth is standing by like the Lottery adjudicator to verify the outcome.  And sure enough, Anubis is conducting the tomb owner, who has been proven to be speaking the truth, to Simon, sorry, Osiris, who declares him fit to go forward to the final. 

And ever after, our tomb owner is known as “true of voice”, as a sign that he has passed the test and successfully entered the next world.

So there we are:  at the end of the offering formula.  You know it all now:

Hetep di nesu Usir neb Djedu, netjer aa, neb Abju, di ef peret-kheru (em) te henqet, kau apedu, shes menkhet, khet nebet nefret ankhet netjer im, en ka en imakhy Senusret, maa-kheru.

“An offering which the King gives (to) Osiris Lord of Busiris, the great god, Lord of Abydos, that he may give invocation-offerings (consisting of) bread, and beer, meat and fowl, alabaster and clothing, and all good and pure things by which a god lives, to the ka of the Revered One, Senusret, True of Voice.”

How’s that for a Christmas list?

December 16, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (29)

In the last post, I mentioned that there are two letters s in ancient Egyptian.  You won’t have been impressed.  Who is going to be impressed by two s-es when they already know about the four h-es (even though they haven’t met them all yet)?

Actually, the s situation is a bit more complicated than I let on.  There are two s-es rendered in transliteration, but one of them has two hieroglyphs to go with it.  We had one in the last post:

That was the vertical one.  Now meet the horizontal one:

Originally, it was pronounced more like a z, but it evolved into an alternative way of writing s, depending on whether or not the scribe had to fill a vertical or horizontal space in a group of signs.  You can see the point immediately in the full version of our tomb owner Senusret’s name:

We’ve already met the goddess Usret, “the powerful (female) one”, whose name appears first in writing, even though it comes second in pronunciation.  Now we’re on the second part of the name in writing, although it was the first part of his name when spoken: 

     se-en; “man of”.  The horizontal s hieroglyph depicts a bolt, of the type you can see on the doors of the golden shrines of Tutankhamun:

 

Here’s the carved relief version from the cartouche of King Sesostris in the last post: 

It’s simple to draw:  a straight line with a couple of short cross-hatches in the middle will do.  And there we have it:  se = man.

The n holds no mystery for you.  We’ve seen it all before.  It’s a ripple of water.  It means “of”.  You know that.  So, on to the final sign in this group:

Isn’t he lovely?  He’s a seated man, and he has no sound – he’s the strong, silent type.  He has no sound because he is a determinative – a hieroglyph stuck on the end of a word to show what kind of word it is.  We’ve had a determinative before, remember?  The town or city determinatives in the first line of the offering formula are the same kind of sign.  I explained then that, because the Egyptians wrote very few vowels, they had to use some device to distinguish between words which sounded different when spoken, but had the same sequence of consonants when written down.  This is what the determinative does – it shows it’s the word for man, as opposed to a similar word meaning something else.  But you remember all that. 

In this case, though, he’s not part of se, man, but of the name as a whole:  he’s the male  determinative for the masculine name, Senusret.

He’s complicated to draw, but he’s worth it for the animation he will add to your enigmatic line of Christmas card hieroglyphs.  Inanimate symbols are attractive enough, but you can’t beat a cute little animal or a tiny little person for instant appeal.  I usually start with a circle for the head, then a triangle, pointed side down, for the torso. A second triangle, pointing left (in this case) forms the lower leg, and a smaller one sticking up behind it forms the raised knee.  You can put in two short strokes for the feet, and two bent lines for his arms, as though he’s doing an impression of Toulouse-Lautrec power walking.  And you’ve created a little man.

Here’s one they made earlier, when they were painting texts on a coffin:

See?  He doesn’t have to be that complicated.  They’re simple creatures, after all.

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