Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Color of Luck

Every culture and religious or spiritual path has colors they associate with luck. The Egyptians were no different. They too had colors that meant good fortune. Before we get into talking about tombs and tomb paintings it might be worth while to discuss what the colors meant to Egyptians.

Black: considered one of the most lucky colors by the Egyptians. This association was linked to the black soils left by the flooding Nile. Black was the color of fertility and of the ideas of being blessed. Black was also associated with chaos and unknown/mysterious things because of night time and darkness associated with it. It often makes me wonder what an Ancient Egyptian might call out when he or she stubbed their toe on the couch walking in a dark house. Several gods are associated with the color black including Set, Sobek, Khnum, Hapi, Osiris and Apep. Horus is named the Ruler of the Black Land, ie the Nile Valley.

White: The color of truth and harmony. White is most often associated with Ma'at and the life giving powers of the lotus. White was also the color of the traditional garments of most Egyptians. Egyptologists suggest that the good fortune of white might be related to the way white repels the heat of the sun while black becomes blisteringly hot in the sun. White is also symbolic of the prevention of decay, likely, because of the white wrappings of a mummy. White is associated with Lower Egypt and rulership due to the white crown of the pharaoh.

Red: The color of blood and strength in the Egyptian mindset. It has the dual ideas of being a color of bloodshed and healing. The color is sacred to both Hathor and Sekhmet, both goddesses who went from rampaging menaces of blood lust to kind and caring goddesses. Red is the color of Upper Egypt and the pharaohnic crown of that region. Red is also associated with the desert regions. Set was given the Red Land to rule.

Orange: The color of death and rebirth. Orange is associated with the sunrise and sunset, there fore with death and resurrection of god and mortal alike. Orange is one of the sacred colors of Khephra, the beetle form of Ra, associated with rebirth, resurrection and change.

Yellow: This is the color of Ra, Horus and all the solar deities. Associated, like gold, with the rays of the sun yellow is a color of warmth and comfort. Yellow is also symbolic of power and kingship because of its association with the sun.

Green: The color of fertility and lush growth made green a very positive color in the Egyptian mind. Green was a color associated with many gods of prosperity and plant growth such as Hapi, Osiris, Sobek and Tuaret.

Blue: Blue is a very sacred color with a wide range of meanings. Blue is the most common color associated with amulets and therefore protection. Blue is also the color associated with death. This often makes me wonder if it is related to the blue-ish hue of lips when someone dies. I haven't seen any information to tell me either way. Blue was also associated with death because of the Egyptian belief that the dead passed through the sky. Blue has some associations with lotus flowers which might give it some connection to life or rebirth. It is likely that there were life associations because Tuaret statues are often shown in blue when she is given the duties of protection.

Violet/Purple: I have seen almost no references to purple in my research thus far. I will be sure to look more deeply into this. In fact, I didn't even realize I hadn't read about purple until this post. Good reminder that there is always more to learn.

Gold:  The sacred color (and material) of both the sun and the pharaoh. Gold is the color of power, control, destiny and worship. The list of the importance of gold would be a whole article. It might be explained by simply saying gold is the most important color to Egyptian culture and religion.

Silver: Silver isn't often used in Egyptian metal working but there are associations with the priesthood, night and the common people given to silver from time to time. Silver is also related to the ideas of health and knowledge, likely due to the association of Thoth with silver in some myths.

That covers all the basic colors. If you want to know about a color I didn't list feel free to ask. I will do my best to find references and meanings for the rest of the myriad of colors.

On a side note, as I was already asked this via email..... The color associations I listed above are related to the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms. Greeks, Romans and more modern people may have had other associations when they viewed the Ancient Egyptian religion or when a blended religion was created. So, what I have said may not be agreed upon by all practitioners of Egyptian style religions/paths.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Understanding Pyramids I - What is a pyramid?

There are several pyramids in Egypt. Giza is of course the most commonly known five pyramids (Khufu, Khafre and the three queen's pyramids). There are also the red pyramid, the step pyramids, the bent pyramid and others. We also have to consider the mastabas at some point.

It may seem odd to ask what a pyramid is. Mathematically, it is an object consisting of a square base and four isosceles triangle sides.  This defines which monuments can be considered pyramids. However, talking about a pyramid and nothing else would be like talking about a house without commenting on the yard and landscaping. There is more than just a pyramid built when a pharaoh undertakes this kind of construction. First, we are going to talk about what makes up the building of a pyramid complex, i.e. the pyramid and the buildings associated with them.

Pyramids- these are the burial areas. We will get more into exactly what is constructed and included in a pyramid in later posts. For now, we will just consider this the focal point of the pyramid complex.

Workers Camp - during the production of a pyramid there are towns built up around them. These "towns" house the workers which can include painters, stone cutters, scribes, managers and other craftsman. These towns also had food production facilities to feed the workers. Other people who would live on site were overseers, sculptures and those in charge of gathering the vast resources.

Pyramid temple - This had several purposes which change over time as the pyramid is built. Early in construction this would be the place where the priests would reside who took care of the sacred elements of a pyramid's construction. Planning of writings and artwork would take place as well as sacred imagery such as statues would likely be constructed in or near the temple. Another function of the temple would be to minister to injured workers. The priests/tesses of several gods served as doctors in Ancient Egypt. After construction the Pyramid temple would become the place where the mummy would be prepared. After burial then it would become an offering location for sustaining the pharaoh.

Step pyramid of Djoser with enclosure wall Photo © Peter Brubacher.

Enclosure wall - This is a common element of both pyramid complexes and temples in general. The enclosure wall was a short stone wall, usually, that separated the sacred areas of the temple or pyramid from the rest of the world.

Subsidiary grave- These can include graves of officials, pyramid workers or other family members.

Avenue of Sphinxes - Luxor
Statue avenues or plain avenues - Most pyramids and temples have an avenue connecting the pyramid to the enclosure wall. Some temples have avenues of sphinxes. These are stone roads flanked by multiple stone statues.

These are the basic buildings and structures associated with pyramids. The subsequent posts will explain most of these items in depth but for now this is a good basic start for a discussion of pyramid construction.

By Request

I asked around for what people reading this blog might want to know about. The overwhelming response was, how were the pyramids built?

This topic on the surface seems very simple but there is more than the building involved in how. As with any great undertaking (think the first skyscrapers in our own time) there has to be a government to manage it, people to work, architects, plans, reasons, materials, shipping lines and a whole list of things. In order to properly speak about these monuments, and likely some of the temples along the way, it is going to take many posts to get to the point of actually putting the stones on the sites. The first question has to be why build them? Why even try?

So, this will be our voyage for the next few weeks... what, how, why and when for the pyramids of Egypt.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Art of Nature

Ancient Egyptian art has many beautiful qualities; color, form, balance, some might say perfection. There is one interesting fact that many people overlook. Egyptian art commonly catalogs nature. Before reading texts you can tell the season by the birds and fish in the art. There are vast illustrations of what plants and animals were in Egypt or brought from other countries. There are a few things I wanted to share on this subject.

First, this video (not in English but there are subtitles) about Karnak.

and the second is the research of Rozenn Bailleul-LeSuer. Who studies avian imagery in Egyptian art. I had the chance to see her speak at the 58th annual meeting of ARCE (American Research Center in Egypt). Her work centers around both dating tomb representation with seasons and using the imagery in marsh artworks to research how and if migratory bird patterns and numbers have changed. It also gives us a glimpse into how Egyptians categorized various behaviors such as brooding and chick rearing.

I am personally fascinated by the way meticulous Egyptian art is giving us a good look at ancient ecosystems.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hey YOU! Put Those Artifacts Back.

In modern archeology there is a movement to put artifacts and bodies back where they had been found. In many cultures this is the respectful thing to do regarding religion and/or culture. Egypt and the mindset of the Ancient Egyptian puts a very different twist on the idea of returning items. Were an Ancient Egyptian to enter into this discussion they might disagree with those who want Egyptian artifacts returned to where they were found. I'll try to work through several of these arguments based solely on information we have currently about Ancient Egyptian culture and religion.

Anyone who has seen an Egyptian monument of huge stones can easily understand the Egyptians built things to last. This can also be seen reflected in their religion. Continued life after death was partially attached to the continuation of the mortal body. This was the purpose for mummification and why many dynasties of Egyptian rule had harsh and deadly punishment for tomb raiders. Preserving the body was important to religion and the very soul of a person. Through this lens of an Ancient Egyptian let us explore the idea of a mummy in a museum. A mummy in a museum is kept in a temperature and moisture controlled area. It is protected from decay and any living things which might disturb or destroy it, such as tomb robbers or rodents. A mummy in a museum can be expected to go on as long as the museum stands and is maintained. For an Egyptian this doesn't seem to be a bad plan for preserving their body into eternity. This is especially true when we consider the incidents of tomb robbing, burning mummies for fuel and grinding them up for medicines.

There are other considerations to the idea of Egyptian artifacts in a place such as a museum where they are viewed by the masses. These ideas all deal with images... one of the images itself and the other dealing with language. We'll start with the language one since it is usually easier to understand. Egyptians had magical standard that when a word was said it gave power and life to that thing. So, every time someone says King Tut his being in this world and the after world gains more power. In fact, in order to weaken others Egyptians would often attempt to erase them from the world. We see this with both Hashepsut and Ankenaten whose names were systematically carved off of stone items. An Egyptian seeing a plaque that had a king or gods name on it that was read by thousands of people every year doesn't seem too bad after all. The more we say the names of those who have passed on the more power hey maintain.

The other image related consideration is the Egyptian idea of imagery. An image was not just an image but the item itself, a manifestation in some sense of the word. For example, a statue of Ramses the Great is not just his likeness but actually the pharaoh himself standing there before us. Seeing the image of someone or some thing in a whole and healthy form also gave energy and power to them. If a statue of Anubis is standing in a great hall of a museum to be seen by thousands of people a year then he will remain a strong god. Here again an Ancient Egyptian might well agree with putting things on display.

The final question we might address from the aspects of an Ancient Egyptian is all of the replica tombs and monuments we see. What would an Egyptian thing of these? Given our past few paragraphs I think that the repetition of imagery would be something that would meet with their approval. Very often the Egyptians themselves did this very thing. The sacred texts such as the Book of the Dead are copied widely as are motifs and kings lists. Repetition ensured survival of at least one copy which was necessary.

Over all, unlike many cultures and religions, Ancient Egyptian practices might well approve of the care a museum or other qualified facility could give to their dead and artifacts. It is something to consider not only when looking at Egyptian artifacts but those of any culture. What was the standard care practices of the culture or religion and do facilities such as museums provide those requirements?

Monday, January 09, 2012

One thing that Egyptian research has brought into my life is a love of learning languages. From the Hieroglyphs, Coptic and Hieratic of Egypt to the Greek and Latin that began our sources of Egypt to the German and French texts about early translation.... Egyptology requires a desire to explore language. One early text I found was a piece called "Totemism, Tattoo and Fetishism as Forms of Sign Language" by Gerald Massey. The book talks about Ancient Egypt as well as other cultures but in this whole paper one thing stuck with me. It was a minor portion, merely 2 pages in Gerald's work. The words for phrases like "my home' and "my tribe" are similar all around the world. The list he gave in his book includes:
Algonkin: Otem
Ottowa Indians: Odem
Ojibway: Daim
Sanskrit: Dama
Greek: Domos
Latin: Domus
Sclavonic: Domu
English: Dome
Zulu: Tumu
Maori: Tam
Scottish: Tom
Japanese: Tomo
Assyrian: Timi
Coptic: Tem
Ancient Egyptian: Tem-t
Aboriginal: Tumba

I look at this huge list and I am amazed. Though it is just a selection of the languages across the world the similarity is something that we can't ignore. How did so many of these words sound the same and have the same meaning. Though Massey doesn't address it, to my recall, in his works I have always seen this as an idea that the word for home/tribe must have been an early word. And that this word must have been spread with the spread of early languages.

This is one of those subjects I need to look into in the near future. I want to know the language lines for the word home/tribe over time.

A side not one these words above is that these words represent the roots of many words such as Kingdom in English and also words for community, city, town, men and gathering of people in many languages. The study of linguistic is one of the things I find fascinating.

Friday, January 06, 2012

What price is better than free?

I don't yet own a Kindle from Amazon but I have the application for my computer. This allows me to read and make notes from books on my computer. Super good for graduate school but wait that isn't all.

While surfing around today after buying my text books I discovered a pile of free books. Many of these books, quite applicable to this blog. One such book is THEE source material for Ancient Egypt... ok maybe not as correct as we would like and filled with some artistic license but if you have a Kindle or a Kindle application for your computer you can acquire An Account of Egypt by Herodotus for free. There are many other Egyptian related books to be found there as well. Some, admittedly better than others. However, if it is free there is no reason to not explore it. And unlike a book, with digital media no need to find someone to take the wayward text... one click and it is gone forever.

The best way to access this wealth of free books. Go to the Kindle store on, search for whatever subject you like and then sort by lowest price first. TADA! all the free books show up first. Just be wary some are listed free for Amazon Prime users and not so for us normal users.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

While we're talking about confusing symbols....

This hieroglyph has caused great debate over the years. The sound associated with it, neter, has an agreed upon definition in Western culture. Everyone seems to agree that it means god.

It all seems clear until you ask someone what the image is. Many hieroglyphs are easily identifiable. There are jackals and owls, vultures and thrones but this one was different. For years the debate went on. Was it a pennant, a military standard, an axe, an adze, a hoe? What the heck was this symbol anyway?

The argument was finally laid to rest when people stopped considering just the image and looked at the cultural context and other hieroglyphs with the same symbol in the image. The hieroglyphs for natron, the salt used in mummification, and the glyph for cemetery both contain this mysterious image. The glyph for cemetery was a dead give away (no pun intended) for the identity of this image.


 Here we see a set of hills with the image standing between. AH HA! It is a flag on a pole. From texts and imagery we know that flags were flown at temples and other sacred places on high poles to give orientation to their location. We can think of this as being the same idea as why churches are built on hills with tall crosses at the top of the eaves. This is to make the site, a sacred place, visible over long distances. 

Now we know this glyph is a pennant on a pole. We used cultural context to discover the identity of the image. We need to continue the cultural context to evaluate the definition. Would this glyph mean "god" to an Ancient Egyptian? The neuter, ie genderless, ideas of this word would be accepted but we must go deeper than that. Would the word god be associated with cemetery and natron?

When we consider the application of the image to three ideas; natron, cemetery... well let us stop using the Western word and use a more applicable word, necropolis, and an unknown word what can we deduce? Natron was that compound that prevented bodily decay. It dried the body. Necropolis was the place where these bodies were rested in hopes that they would stay intact forever. Both of these words deal with the lack of decay. The third word, that mysterious neter, should be a comparable word. (The Egyptians were very literal when relating imagery.)

If we follow the cultural implications then neter means something sacred that does not decay. It is the incorruptible, the undying. Western mind would define that as "god" in some form or another but we shouldn't assume this is the meaning the Ancient Egyptians would have. What would they define as that which is least likely to decay? The Egyptians applied neter to all matter of things... people, gods, spiders, cows, vultures, trees, plants and bodies of water among the huge list. What could all these have in common? How can one word apply to so many varied things?

Sometimes the easiest answer is the right answer. In a mythology and culture where images and animal are not representation but actual manifestations of the gods we have an easy answer. Neter are those things that are "sacred". What we define as "god" truly means "that which is sacred", "that which is beyond corruption". Neteru, a word commonly translated as gods, could now be defined as those things which do not decay, do not die. How we define god is but a small portion of how an Egyptian might define this word. After all, I doubt any culture would argue that gods are not the most sacred thing in a religion.

For more on hieroglyphs: Check out this website, which has many resources on the Egyptian language.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Whose Eye is this anyway?

The Egyptian eye is probably one of the most widely recognized Egyptian symbols. From the fancy make-up and tattoos to the amulets in the museum the icon has become a widespread image. Sometimes we see it called the Eye of Ra and others, the Eye of Horus.

Like most people, for years I was confused about what this symbol actually was. It was so often that both illustrations looked exactly the same and heads or tails couldn't be made for when to tell them apart. In fact, if you do a google search the exact same images will come up for the "Eye of Ra" and the "Eye of Horus". It took me many years, almost 20 now, to get to the bottom of this mess about which one is which. Just this past year I found a text, both a translation and images of the original Papyrus of Turin, that told me once and for all what the difference was.

Before we get into how to resolve this problem of determining what is and is not whose eye we can start by talking about those things we do know. There are times in mythology and writing where one of these eyes is referred to and not the other.

The Eye of Ra
The Eye of Ra is defined universally as several things that are never given the name Eye of Horus. These include the goddesses. Sekhmet, Hathor and Bastet are often given the name Eye of Ra and associated with the symbol. When we see these goddesses and the eye symbol we can be certain that this is in fact the Eye of Ra. The Eye of Ra is also a common theme in creation myths to light up the water of Nun. The eye of Ra can be shown alone or as a pair.

The Eye of Horus
Horus, and that is Horus the Elder brother of Set and not Horus the Child, had his eye ripped out by Set in the first battle that Set waged against his family. This eye was then healed by Thoth or sometimes Isis depending on the version of the myth you are actually reading.
........But wait, there is actually a second Eye of Horus. Set must have a tendency for eye removal as some myths state that he also removes the eye of Horus the Child just before the other gods tell them enough fighting and force them to go to trial. The eye of Horus, no matter the Horus, is almost always a single eye and usually a right one.

..........AND then the Egyptian make it exceedingly complicated.
A god named Re-Horakhty or Ra-Horakhty, if you like, comes on the scene. This god is a merger of Ra and Horus, the child in this case. Now whose eye is it? Is it the Eye of Horus? The Eye of Ra? Do we have a third Eye of Ra-Horakhty? How do we figure out what to call the eye associated with this god?

There is an explanation!
Until just last year I would have been sitting there scratching my head just as most people do when faced with this conundrum of eyes. I told you that I had found a myth from a papyrus that clears this up once and for all. The myth is a common one telling the story of how Isis used magic and trickery to force Ra to divulge his true and secret name. Most of the versions of this myth Isis only asks for Ra's name. However, in some versions, such as the 20th dynasty one in the Papyrus of Turin, Isis adds another stipulation that Ra give Horus his eyes as well or die in agony. The writer of this myth even states that there after the Eyes of Ra are called the Eyes of Horus by men. EUREKA! There seems to be an answer, that though we call it the Eye of Horus all of the eyes are actually Ra's.

There is one loose end though. What about the eye of Horus the Elder? This eye is named in a few myths but the Eye of Horus the Elder is rarely, exceedingly rarely, used outside of the mythology of his battle with Set. Usually, we are looking at amulets, artwork or tattoos designed for protection. The Eye of Horus the Elder is never given the attributes of protection so we can usually rule that name out for items that are designed to give protection. If we are picking up an eye to use as a religious item it has to be either Ra or Horus the Child whom that eye belongs to.

The question remains do we call it the Eye of Horus or the Eye of Ra? Honestly, it can be either. The Eye of Ra is the original form, the owner of the eyes and reference to either Bastet and/or Sekhmet/Hathor. We could use the Eye of Horus as well but it comes with the mythology of these eyes truly being the stolen property of Ra. Though, occasionally we can use the Eye of Horus as the one Set removes but having your eye plucked out hardly sounds like an image of protection to me. It is an interesting set of mythology.

If you want to read a translation of this myth check out Legends of Ancient Egypt by M.A. Murray.

Beginning of the road.....

All journeys have a start and this one does too. The start is...... What does "Ancient Egyptian" mean? How do we delineate this term from Egypt in general, modern or in the past.

The short answer is time. As far as time is concerned Ancient Egypt ends at 30 BC with the defeat of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony. (That is a story for another day I am sure) Those dates are etched into the writing of Greco-Roman scholars. We know them as fact. Where it started is a completely different concern altogether. The beginning can be as early as 8,000 BC  up until approximately 5,500 BC. The debate over these dates has been going on for some time. Do we start when the images of the gods first appear or do we wait until there is a tribe with some Egyptian qualities living along the Nile River? The earliest examples of what is claimed to be an image of Anubis and another of the Apis bull and perhaps even Sekhmet are to be found on the rocks near where the Tashwinat Mummy was found in Libya.

The one thing we can be sure of is by the time the Naqada culture came around in 4,000 BC there were people we would recognize as Egyptians along the Nile. These people even had hieroglyphs, a full set of them. This also brings us to a very important word that is km.t (pronounced by most Kemet). This is the Egyptian word for themselves. No longer can we debate on which people were Egyptian and which were not. Those historical people, long ago, are kind enough to give us a slap in the head to recognize them as a contiguous group.

So, we call km.t Egypt but what did it mean to the people who wrote these texts thousands of years ago? km is the word for black and it is theorized that km.t means black soil or refers to black soil and the fertile areas of delta and bank along the Nile River. How ever we translate it by 3,100 BC we have a pharaoh ruling Egypt from Memphis, religion in place, writing and no way to deny that these people are Egyptians as our modern minds would define them.

In short, this is the brief definition of when Ancient Egypt begins and ends.

Why oh why?

When I sat down to contemplate starting a blog the first question is always...why? Was I looking to share information, cut out my little space on the internet, perhaps it was just a fallacy many have that we are awesome writers of things that other people want to read. When I really got to the end of this thought I came to curiosity. Curiosity about who would be interested and curiosity about what writing a blog might force me to learn and the biggest curiosity being the topic itself.

The other concern is how to make this blog different (better?) than all the other Egyptian blogs I am certain are floating around out there.What can I do to make this blog special?

After a long time thinking I am not sure I have the answer to that last question. I am not sure it needs an answer.

For now, I will leave it at this: I made this blog to share those things I am learning, have learned and will no doubt learn in the future concerning Ancient Egypt mostly and some of human nature along the way.