Friday, May 30, 2014

Write like an Egyptian: words of the gods

The ancient Egyptians called hieroglyphs the words of the gods. Two god had a special connection with writing.

The least known is Seshat (Sashet, Sesheta), the female scribe. She was the goddess of writing, historical records, accounting and mathematics, measurement, and architecture. (All Egyptian gods are overachievers.) She assisted the pharaoh and kept a record of his life. She also recorded the time allotted to him by the gods for his stay on earth.

The most well-known was Djhuty (Thoth), an ibis-headed god. Some say he created himself through the power of language. He is the creator of magic, the inventor of writing, teacher of man, the messenger of the gods, the divine record-keeper, and mediator par-excellence. (See what I mean about over-achieving?) The Book of Djhuty contained all the knowledge in the universe. It was hidden at the bottom of the Nile and locked inside a series of boxes guarded by serpents. Egyptians believed the gods' knowledge is not meant for humans to possess. Not that several didn't try, most famously Setne Khaem-waset, the fourth son of Ramses the Great.

Djhuty is often associated with Isis as her mentor, friend, and the arbitrator between her and the other gods during the Contending of Horus and Seth. In this scene from Queen of Heka, Iset (Isis) meets Djhuty for the first time:

    An ibis emerged from the fog. With each step, the bird lengthened into a man. The long, webbed feet became well-muscled legs. White feathers molted into an elaborately pleated kilt. The transformation ended at the neck. When the bird’s beady eyes fixed on me, all the noise in the world stopped. 
    Heru spoke into the inhuman silence. “May I present the teacher of all teachers, Djhuty, Lord of Truth and Time.”

    The great god bowed. His beak opened like a black crescent moon in the white mist. “Hail, Iset wer-Heka, Mistress of the Throne.” 
    “I’m just Iset.” I giggled for the first time that day. Daily commerce with Heru clearly had not prepared me for the company of other gods.

    “You are the lady who will learn words of power,” Djhuty said.

    “From the Book of Djhuty?” The prospect chased away every dismal thought. All the priests longed to read the scroll filled with heka and mysteries not even Ra knew. I bounced up and down on my toes, almost taking flight.
    “Pain and tragedy come to any mortal who reads my book,” Djhuty said.
    “Pain and tragedy also come to those who do not read it.” My whole body practically vibrated with anticipation. Heru snickered.

    “My book is dangerous.” Djhuty directed an anxious look toward Heru.

    “My life is already dangerous.” I thought of Seti and Oso, and I wanted to shake him for making light of my predicament. I might have if he hadn’t put his cool hand on my forehead. My heartbeat slowed straight away, keeping time with the waves lapping our feet.
    "So it is.”