More word play

In relation to my previous post about the Egyptian polyseme Å¡di which means both ‘to suckle’ and ‘to educate’, I thought I’d look at another polyseme which ended up being extremely influential in Egyptian tomb decoration. And which is an excellent excuse to examine some of my favourite masterpieces of Egyptian art, the tomb paintings of Nebamun at the British Museum, scenes of which are illustrated below.

One of the oldest, most common, and central scenes in Egyptian tomb decoration, depicts the tomb owner fishing and fowling in the marshes. It held a symbolic meaning, relating the tomb owner’s triumph over nature to the triumph of order over chaos and death. However, there was also another additional layer of symbolic meaning connected to fertility (and so, to rebirth in the afterlife), which can be discerned from some of the unusual features present in the scene.
Fishing and fowling was a form of hunting sport, a very masculine activity, but while other depictions of hunting never include female figures, in the fishing scene, the tomb owner is always accompanied by his wife, elaborately dressed, wearing jewellery and a wig, and his children. The marsh setting is associated with fertility and the goddess Hathor, who hid there to nurse the child god Horus, and was the goddess of love, music, beauty, and sexuality. Some marsh elements have erotic symbolism, like ducks, while others are connected with rebirth like lotus flowers (which open when the sun rises), tilapia fish (who swim into their parents’ mouths when there is danger, and then emerge again ‘reborn’). The word play involved in the scene involves the visual puns of the spear and the throwstick held by the tomb owner. The word ‘to spear’, sti, also means ‘to impregnate’, and the word for ‘throwstick’, qmA, also means ‘to beget’.

The word sti also serves as a pun in the banqueting scenes that frequently appear in 18th Dynasty tombs. The guests are shown having drinks poured for them, and sti can mean both ‘to pour’ and ‘to impregnate’. Drunkenness and intoxication, enhanced by smelling lotus flowers and mandrake fruits, are also associated with Hathor and fertility. Further, the guests are entertained by music and young naked adolescent dancing girls, completing what is obviously an erotically charged scene.

Word play contributed a central aspect of funerary decoration, and celebrated the Egyptians love of life, love, and words.


Food for thought

I really love when a certain word has dual related meanings that reveal the way people understand certain concepts and make associations between them. I mean not just homonyms that sound the same, but ones that actually have a deeper connection between their different meanings. They’re called polysemes. An example in English would be ‘mole’, meaning both an underground animal, and a person who goes undercover. Another amusing example can be found here.

My favourite Egyptian example of polysemy is the word Å¡di. It is written like this:

with a sign representing a water skin- the phonetic symbol for the sound ‘shed’, with an alphabetic ‘d’ sign- a hand, and then a breast sign serving as a determinative for the overall meaning. As the breast symbol suggests, the word means ‘to suckle’ or breastfeed a young child. It’s alternate meaning, which obviously derives from the original, is ‘to educate. Instead of meaning to nourish a young body with milk, it means to nourish a young mind with knowledge. It’s a beautiful parallel and gives us an insight into the importance literate Egyptians gave to educating their children.
Here are a couple of examples of the word being used in both contexts:

These ones are captions from the temple decorations at Karnak from the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III, which show the Pharaoh being addressed by the goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt, who were the symbolic mothers of the divine king of the Two Lands.

The first one records the speech of the vulture goddess of Upper Egypt, Nekhbet, to the Pharaoh:

Nekhbet speech

Which is transliterated as:
ink mwt.k bnr mrwt
šd.n tw m nḫn.k

And translates as:
‘I am your beloved mother,
Who nursed you in your youth.’

This is the speech of the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt, Wadjet, to the Pharaoh:

Buto speech

Transliterated as: šd.n tw m irṯt.i
Which means: ‘I suckled you with my milk’.

The next one is from the inscription on the false door of Ptahshepses’ mastaba at Abusir, vizier to Niuserre, a king of the Fifth Dynasty:

Which describes Ptahshepses as one: ‘whom he educated among the king’s children in the palace of the king, in the Residence, in the king’s harem, who was more honoured before the king than any child, Ptahshepses.’

While our versions of these words don’t have the same nuances, English does make a similar connection between nourishment and knowledge, in such expressions as ‘to chew things over’, ‘to ruminate’ and of course, ‘food for thought’, and such verbal associations colour the way we think. šdi is yet another wonderful word that sheds a little light on how the Egyptians thought.

Head North, or rather ḫd North


To the Egyptians, ‘travel’ was synonymous with ‘water travel’, and the Nile acted as the country’s superhighway. Since Egypt was entirely strung out along the fertile riverbanks of the life-giving Nile that served as the country’s backbone, the majority of travel and transportation was north-south oriented and much time and energy was saved by using boats. Therefore the words used to indicate north or southward movement were written with boat symbols.

The word ḫnti, a verb meaning “to sail upstream, travel southward” (definition from Faulkner’s Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian 1962, 195), was written like this:hnti

beginning with the phonetic sound ‘ḫnt’—a symbol of three (or four) jars in a rack, the wavy water symbol that stands for the letter ‘n’, a loaf of bread for the letter ‘t’, and a determinative symbol to give a visual clue to the word’s meaning, in this case a hieroglyph of a boat with a raised sail.

The word ḫdi, a verb meaning “to travel downstream, northwards” (according to Faulkner 1962, 199), was written like this:


with the symbol for the letter round ‘ḫ’, a circle filled with horizontal lines, the letter ‘d’ which was written with a hand, and a determinative depicting a boat with oars.

You may have noticed that while both these words designate travel using boat determinatives they differ slightly, one being shown with oars and the other with sails. This is because the Egyptians reflected the realities of travel in how they wrote—the word for southern travel is written with a sail because the prevailing wind in Egypt comes from the north and people travelling south would always make use of the helpful wind, harnessing its energy with sails, while the word for northern travel is written with oars, since anyone going north by boat would have had to travel against the wind, but following the flow of the river downstream towards the Mediterranean, using the water current and oars to propel the boat. Beautifully logical, isn’t it?

The visual dimension of Egyptian words means that they can often give us much more information about the culture beyond a literal reading and it’s worth reading between the lines.

Solar boat
A full-sized boat built from cedar wood that was buried beside the Great Pyramid of Khufu, rebuilt and now on display at Giza.

Egyptian word of the week

I’ve decided that it might be interesting to share some of my favourite Egyptian words each week, so that even if you don’t read hieroglyphs, you can enjoy some of the flavour and character of the language that is often lost in translation.

The basis of certain words and the special ways in which they were used can give us key insights into Egyptian culture and the way the people thought. For example, the Egyptians were very keen on puns or play-on-words, which often formed a key symbolic part of religious and political ideology. Also, although hieroglyphs weren’t just simplistic representative pictures, their pictorial form was still significant and often exploited in art and texts. And sometimes it’s not just our understanding of Egyptian culture that can be enlightened by examining Egyptian words—sometimes it’s our own culture as well. Some Egyptian words have made it into modern languages, including English.

I remember learning one of my favourite examples of an Egyptian loan word into English back during my undergraduate degree in Toronto when we read an inscription about Queen Hatshepsut’s trading expedition to the exotic land of Punt (which some argue is modern Eritrea). The word is hbny and you might be able to guess what the English loan word is!

hbny is written like this:hbny

with the phonetic ‘h’ symbol—a walled courtyard, the symbol for ‘b’—a leg, a plow sign that is the phonetic symbol for ‘hb’, the squiggly line depicting water that is the phonetic ‘n’ sign, two dashes representing the sound ‘y’, and a branch symbol acting as a determinative to the word to specify it’s wood-related meaning. hbny is the word for the dark tropical hardwood that we call ‘ebony’. We’ve just simply dropped the ‘h’ sound from the Egyptian word.

The word was borrowed by the Greeks and entered into English. So whenever you say ‘ebony’, bear in mind that you’re speaking ancient Egyptian!

Some examples of the word’s use in Egyptian texts can be found in lists of luxury products from foreign countries, such as in the autobiographical inscription in the rock-cut tomb of the official Harkhuf, describing the products he acquired during his travels:


Here is my translation of the above text transcribed in Sethe 1932, 126: ‘I returned with 300 donkeys, which were laden with incense, ebony, hekenu-oil, sat, moringa oil, panther skins, ivory tusks, throwsticks, and all good products’.

hbny is also used in the Punt expedition text that I mentioned above. A relief from the temple depicting Punt is pictured below:


In the temple of Hatshepsut (the Egyptian queen who ruled as king) at Deir El Bahri, over an image of ships being loaded with the products of Punt, is the inscription:
‘The loading of the ships very heavily with marvels of the country of Punt; all goodly fragrant woods of God’s Land, heaps of myrrh-resin, with fresh myrrh trees, with ebony and pure ivory…Never was brought the like of this for any king who has been since the beginning’ (translation from Breasted 1906-7 vol.2, 263-5).

hbny and ivory’. So it turns out that that old Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder lyric is actually over three thousand years old!