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.

February 23, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Shu (1)

Moving along the portrait gallery in the boardroom corridor of the gods, we come next to a family group.  Here they are:

Atum, the creator of the world, founder of the family firm known as the Nine Gods or Ennead, and his twin offspring, his son Shu and his daughter Tefnut.  That’s Atum at the front, but you know that because you can read his name in hieroglyphs in front of him.  The scribe who wrote this papyrus has stuck an extra hieroglyph in at the end – the quail chick which, as we know from Osiris’ titulary was pronounced w, making him (A)tmu, but that won’t have fooled you.  Nor will the rather stick-figure version of the seated god determinative.  You can still see his beard sticking out and his knees sticking up.  That’s Atum, all right, and in any case he’s wearing the double crown of the Kings of Upper and Lower Egypt.

That’s Shu sitting right behind him.  We’ll take a look at his name later.  Let me tell you a bit about him, first. We already know that he is the motherless product of self-assisted conception.  There is another story about his origins, though.  Some priests and scribes put it about that Atum sneezed him into existence – more of an atchoo! than a Shu.  Indeed, the name Shu is closely related to the Egyptian word for a sneeze.  So, basically, according to some people at the time, Shu grew out of a bit of snot.  But hasn’t he done well?  Some people prefer to translate the name as “he who rises up”.

Shu was both Atum’s heir and his air.  Having made the earth rise up and separate from the water, Atum decided he needed to let some air into the place.  He created Shu to be the god of air.  It’s difficult to draw air, so the ancient Egyptians represented it by drawing a feather, and a glamorous ostrich plume (or two or three or four) was Shu’s favourite headdress.  He’s wearing it in this picture.  Snot with feathers on.  If that reminds you of any of your non-executive directors, who am I to argue?  You be the judge.

You may think that an air god must have been a pretty insubstantial character, but Shu’s very flimsiness was at the same time his greatest asset.  He represented the space between earth and sky (we’ll come back to this later) which let the sun shine in.  One of the reasons that Atum created Shu was so that he could see all the other things he’d created.

Because he had this important role in channeling the sun, Shu was a close associate of the sun god in his various forms.  One of his responsibilities was to bring the sun to life every morning, and, like his Dad Atum, he did his bit to protect the sun from attack by the serpent Apophis. As the air god, it was Shu who enabled the solar barque to rise up and sail across the sky.

Shu was certainly the light of Atum’s life.  Atum was very proud of his son.  To him, Shu was life itself, and it was only after Shu was born that Atum truly found his voice and began to speak and have a dialogue with the universe.  Shu was therefore a very powerful driver of Atum’s creative enterprise, his reason to carry on. 

Atum even took the lad into the firm and, in due course, when the staff complement had grown a bit, sent him on errands, sorting out problems with the other gods.  Shu was an obvious choice for this kind of work; as the air god, he was everywhere at once and knew where everyone else was, so didn’t actually have to go anywhere.  However, some of these tasks were pretty stretching, and Shu did not always manage to carry them out.  His Dad tended to send him to find goddesses who’d run away or got lost, and talk them into coming back.  When it was a particularly aggressive goddess who’d gone on the rampage, got drunk and run away, for example, he wasn’t quite up to the job.

Nevertheless, Shu rose steadily up the ranks of the administration of his father’s new enterprise, and was credited with instituting the capital cities of the administration.  In due course, the old man decided he was going to retire, and handed over his throne to Shu.  Atum did not leave the company; he stayed around and kept an eye on it, but Shu was now running the show. 

Shu’s term in the Managing Director’s chair started in peace, as Atum’s whole term of office had been.  At some point, though – and this episode of company history is pretty obscure – hostile forces from the edge of creation tried to lead a revolution.  Shu’s divine palace on earth was sacked by the enemy, as though a whole lot of enraged graphic designers had trashed the top floor corner office.  Shu had to bring them to heel and kick them out.

This episode shows that Shu was not all sweetness and light.  In fact, there are scenes of the netherworld which show him as the gangmaster of a band of torturers threatening the deceased person in a fiery region of hell from which there is no escape.  But then, if you’re toiling away in the boiler room in the company basement, that may well be how you regard one or more of your board members.

Finally, Shu seems to have had a reputation for being able to relieve himself with ease.  For the Egyptians, being able to defecate like Shu was a highly desirable quality.  Excrement and the air god; the original stuff that hit the fan.

February 10, 2010

What Kind of God Do You Think You Are? Atum (4)

Running our inky fingers further along the polished brass of Atum’s nameplate, we come to the title:

 nb t3wy  neb tawy, Lord of the Two Lands.  We’ve had nb, Lord, before.  Some of the paint has flaked off, but it’s still quite recognisable as the basket hieroglyph from Osiris’ titulary.  Each of the thick black lines underneath it reads t3, ta, meaning land.  Taken together, they read t3wy, tawy, the two lands, as ancient Egyptian had a dual as well as a singular and plural. Sticking a -wy is the way they expressed a pair of somethings.  Sometimes the -wy ending would be written out in full, but the two lands, or I should say, the Two Lands, was such a common phrase that there was no need. Everyone knew how to say it.

Each of the two hieroglyphs represents a stretch of  the flat, black, fertile  silt brought down by the Nile, the river that made civilisation possible in what would otherwise have been desert:

  When you draw them, rather than making each one a thick line, it’s more usual to draw two cigar-shaped loops, and put three little dots representing grains of sand close together in the middle underneath each one:

The Lord of the Two Lands usually meant the King in ancient Egypt.  Atum has the title because he was the first divine King, and the not-quite-so-divine dynasties who followed the reign of the gods on earth inherited the title from him and his descendants. 

The Two Lands in question were Upper and Lower Egypt.  Way back in the mists of time, right at the beginning of Office Hieroglyphs, in fact, we heard how the tribes along the Nile in Predynastic times gradually became two kingdoms, one based in the Nile Valley and one in the Delta, until, eventually the two became united under one King.  After unification, Kings were careful to proclaim themselves the rulers of both kingdoms. 

Here are the Two Lands, in all their splendour:

You can see how dependent the whole of Egypt was (and still is) on that flat black soil with the sandy borders, and how the Delta and Nile Valley kingdoms would have kept their distinct characters even after unification. Right from the beginning, when he made the first mound of earth rise from the water, you could say that Atum was in two minds about his new venture.

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!

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.

July 29, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (5)

Ok, back to the first group of signs:

htp di nsw


or hetep di nesu, to make it slighty more pronounceable.

We’re going to dismantle this component even further, into the very first word – written word, that is.  Because, although in spoken Egyptian, the word hetep is the first word of the sentence, when it came to committing speech to writing, they put the nesu first.  

Yes, I know.  You’ve just gasped in disgust, chucked your pen across the desk and hit the whiteboard.  What were they thinking?

 Well, they were thinking, we’ve just invented something called writing, and it’s powerful stuff.  Your words don’t evaporate into thin air any more.  This newfangled writing contraption makes them stick around and come back to haunt you.  It transports your words across space and time.  It makes things happen, even though you’re not there to tell them to.  It must be magic.    

 If even tiny little words are so important once they’re written down, went their logic, think how powerful big, impressive words are.  Think how powerful a word like King must be.  It’s all the power of the King himself, in a word.  We’d better give it precedence and write it down first.  We probably don’t want to annoy it – the gods know what it might do.

 Egyptologists call the principle of putting important words like King, god, etc, first in the written sentence “honorific transposition”.  In the spoken language, they said the words in their natural order.

 You’ve guessed by now that nesu means King.  Technically, it means King of Upper Egypt, but it was also used simply to mean King.

In this version of the offering formula, it is spelled:


but you can also find it written as:


nsw versions 3 and 4nsw versions 1 and 2

nsw version 5In the case of the offering formula, though, both they and you want to keep it short and simple, so let’s stick to the two signs we have.


(The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted that there is one of these just behind my head in my profile picture.)

All hieroglyphs are pictograms – that is, they are all pictures of something, even though they may not be immediately recognisable.  However, I’m sure you recognised instantly that the first symbol is a simplified rendering of a plant, probably some form of sedge.  Here is a picture of a sedge plant: 

a sedge plant

You can see the likeness, can’t you?  On the other hand, you can also see why they didn’t go in for photo realism in the hieroglyphic department. When you draw your first hieroglyph in your first offering formula, it will be this one, and I suggest you start at the top and, in a single, deliberate stroke, draw a walking stick, then add two pairs of little curved leaves onto the bottom of the stem.

Now for the second sign:

It’s a loaf of bread.  Well, obviously.  But if you look closely at this scene of ancient Egyptian bread making, you’ll see they put the dough to rise in pottery bread moulds, and in the bottom left hand corner, there it is, rising above the mould in a similar shape.

bread-making scene

It’s an easy symbol to draw, anyway – a straight line for the bottom and a curved line on top.  A nice, gentle wind-down after the rigours of the lesson.

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