Icono-Graphy, Egyptian Hieroglyph Style

It turns out that a lot of Egyptian artworks don’t just _include_ inscriptions. Sometimes, the picture _is_ an inscription. Egyptologists call this kind of thing a “rebus,” and sometimes they are very beautiful and clever.

For example…

The Greeks and Romans were fond of an Egyptian god they called Harpocrates, and the Egyptians called Har-pa-khered, or Horus the child.

Har-pa-khered was portrayed as a boy with his finger on his lips or in his mouth. (For which reason the Greeks and Romans associated him with shushing and silence.) The hieroglyphic sign for the syllable “khrd-/hrd-“, and hence the word “khered”, is a boy with his finger on his lips or in his mouth. So basically, statues of Har-pa-khered are not just pictures, but writing. His posture says his name, or at least his title. 🙂

Another example is Aten, aka Ra-Horakhty (Ra, Falcon of the Horizon). The hieroglyphic sign for the syllable R’ is a sun disk. The sign for the sun on the horizon is the sun disk with three rays pointed downward. And the picture used to depict Ra-Horakhty is the same thing, albeit with a few extra rays!

Here is a “rebus statue” of Ramesses II. As you see, he is also portrayed as a minor with his hand in his mouth, but he’s a baby or toddler (“mes”) instead of a child (“khered”). The falcon over him would normally be “Hor”, Horus, but this specific one is portrayed as “Ra,” because he has the sun disk on his chest. At the kid’s foot is a sedge stalk, and the word for sedge is “su.” So the statue is read as “Ra-mes-su.”

Here is another rebus statue. It shows Senenmut, the head steward and architect of Queen Hatshepsut, aka Pharaoh Maatkare. He is kneeling, offering a statue of a rearing cobra (the uraeus or i’irt, a symbol of royalty and of Lower Egypt, as well as of the goddess Wadjet). The uraeus is wearing a sun disk (“Re”) between cow horns, which are associated with female deities like Hathor; “Maat” is the daughter of Ra/Re. On either side of the uraeus at the bottom, there are upraised arms supporting it; these praying arms are the syllable sign for “k-” and hence, for the “ka” soul. So Senenmut is really presenting a statue of “Maat-ka-Re.”

The actual hieroglyphic inscription on his right arm says, “The good goddess Maatkare given life.” The inscription on the bottom and back shows Senenmut’s name purposefully eradicated, just as Hatshepsut’s names usually were. (There are 22 statuettes like this from Senenmut’s tomb. The first Wikimedia pic is of one from the Brooklyn Museum; the second pic is at the Kimbell Art Museum.)

So this is something to look for, in Egyptian art.

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1 Comment

Filed under History

One response to “Icono-Graphy, Egyptian Hieroglyph Style

  1. ….I am now having flashbacks to the Heraldry scenes in Pratchett’s Watch book.

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