Susanllewellyn's Blog

November 22, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (25)

Thereby.  And thereby hangs a tale… or, in this case, tail.  We can see it this time.  Last time it turned up, it was invisible.

 Im; thereby, by it.  Let’s have a closer look at the individual signs.  First, i:

 A simple sound, and a simple sign to draw.  I usually start at the top, making a little curve which turns into the downstroke, a bit like a walking stick.  Then I start at the walking stick handle and draw a slightly outward-sloping line which curves back in again to meet the bottom of the first downstroke, and closes off the bottom of the stalk.  And a stalk is what it is, as this symbol represents the flowering head of a reed, like these ethereal beauties:

It’s difficult to capture such fragile beauty in stone or ink, but the originals do retain their purity of line:


Now, we’ve had m before, but it was in brackets because the scribe hadn’t actually put it in to the inscription, as often happens with common symbols in formulae, when you’ve got umpteen to bang out in the workshop and most people can’t read anyway.  M was the invisible owl.  We can see him now:

 There, I told you he was gorgeous.  He’s tricky to draw, but he has four basic characteristics; if you emphasise them in your hieroglyphic hand, he will be recognisable.  They are:  a flat head; a front-facing face (unusual for the Egyptians, who were always presenting their best profile to the observer); a wing that folds right across his breast, as though he’s glaring at you over the top of his arm in his cape, like Zorro, and a square bottom to his tail.  Put them all together, and you’ve got yourself an ancient Egyptian owl.

Back to the drawing board.  I usually start left to right with the flat line of the head, then a sharp turn downwards and a little curve in for the side of the head and neck, and a long curve at about 45 degrees for his back.  Then I come back up to his shoulder and make the deep right to left curve of his wing, swoop it round and just make his wing tip meet the line of his back.  The I go back to my starting-point at the top left of his head and come straight down the side of his head and neck, slope down and in for his body (doing it this way means you get the line the right side of his wing.  If you do the outline first and the wing second, you sometimes don’t leave enough room.)  Do a sharp dogleg in under his belly and a couple of little vees for his feathery legs, then down again for his tail, squaring it off at the bottom.  Then you can draw him a couple of little stick feet emerging from his feathers, and a nice deep v with curly ends for his eyes and beak.  He’s a complicated sign to draw, but he’s worth it.  And look what they could do with him when they had time:

I am so glad we can see him this time.  He’s beautiful!

So there we are, Line 3 of the offering formula well and truly dissected:

khet nebet nefret wabet ankhet netjer im:  “every good and pure thing by which a god lives”.

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.

Blog at