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.

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