Susanllewellyn's Blog

November 22, 2009

Office hieroglyphs (26)

Well here we are, three lines in to the offering formula and about to start on the fourth and last.  And here it is:

en ka en imakhy Senwosret, maa-kheru: for the ka of the revered one Senwosret, true of voice.

Sound like anyone you know?  Do you revere the colleague whose card or whiteboard you are embellishing?  Are they known for their honesty, the accuracy of their pronouncements or their karaoke prowess?  Never mind, it’s only a formula.  Let’s look at the first bit of it.

en ka en:  for the ka of.  Let’s do the easy bit first.   The Sherlock Holmeses among you will instantly have deduced that the squiggly lines top and bottom correspond to the en. 

Elementary.   And speaking of elements, the squiggly line in hieroglyphs represents the watery one.  It’s a ripple of water:

See the resemblance?  We’ve already seen wavy lines representing water, in the post on wabet.  But we haven’t had them as the actual letter n.  Here’s an original:

It’s a zigzag line.  What else is there to say?  The ka, on the other hand…

The Egyptians didn’t have souls.  Or rather, they didn’t just have single souls.  The deceased Egyptian exploded into a whole menagerie of afterlife entities:  the body, the shadow, the akh (a heron-like bird with a lamp who circled the skies with the stars), the ba (a human-headed bird that hung around the necropolis and twittered mournfully – they’ve made a comeback on the Internet lately) and the ka, or life force.

The ka had its advantages and disadvantages.  A disadvantage was that it was confined to the tomb, unlike the ba and the akh.  Maybe it kicked the ba and the akh out, so it could get some elbow room, with the body and the shadow.  Maybe that was why the ba twittered mournfully.  The advantage was that the ka got to ascend the burial shaft, come out through the false door into the offering chapel and feast upon the food and drink brought by the family or magically invoked by the passer-by.  The ka was the life force, and it fed upon the life force of the food.  But we’ve been through all this before.

The hieroglyph for ka is a pair of upraised arms, as found on the head of this royal ka statue:

What a beautiful, slender yet well moulded pair of arms and  shoulders, and delicate, detailed hands.  They didn’t always put so much work into the hieroglyphs,

although they have taken care to paint this ka the dark red colour they used for male skin (men being more likely to be outdoors than women, and therefore more tanned).  I draw my kas very simply:  three straight lines plus a little crescent at each end for the hands.

NB:  this ka is not to be confused with the ka meaning bull of a few posts ago.  Katie Hughes tweeted a good idea about that some time ago:  kh1369  @SusanLlewellyn Egyptians would be sustaining the ka (“spirit”) with ka (meat)? What a multi-purpose word! Also, is “kau” like “cow”? Easy!  She’s great at making these connections.

November 15, 2009

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!

July 22, 2009

Office hieroglyphs

I began to realise there was a real demand for hieroglyphs in the office when a colleague of mine asked me to write some on his whiteboard.  I’d been writing them on birthday cards and leaving cards in the office for years.  I thought people were intrigued for a few seconds then forgot all about them.  But this colleague wouldn’t let anyone erase my hieroglyphs from his whiteboard.  Work was write-on wipe off, but not these.  They stayed there for a couple of years.  The office moved from London to Leeds, and I had to go round to his new whiteboard and write him some more.

Inspired by this, I have expanded Egyptology in the office to include lectures, Egypt-themed walks and museum visits.  Egyptology is now part of my workplace identity. Who else would have given another colleague the hieroglyphic version of Peter Rabbit as a maternity leave present?  (I did give her the English version as well.)

I have a lot of fun with my office hieroglyphs, and my colleagues seem to enjoy it too.  This stuff is too good not to share.  I am going to use this blog to teach you how to write hieroglyphs for the office, and we are going to start with this:

The offering formula

The offering formula

Create a free website or blog at