Green is for Regeneration

Color symbolism was a big deal in Ancient Egypt, and numerous books and articles have been written on colors in Egyptian art. In honor of the Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations this weekend, I’ve decided to focus this post on the symbolic significance of one of these colors in ancient Egyptian art–green.

The Egyptian term for green could encompass both the modern Western concept of the color green as well as some shades of blue. The term was frequently used in association with vegetation; for the ancient Egyptians, who raised crops in a very limited amount of fertile land within a vast, largely uninhabitable dessert, the color green easily came to represent life, virility, and regeneration.  


Fertile land vs. desert.

This also explains the very bizarre looking depictions of the god Osiris (god of resurrection and the Underworld) with vivid green skin. He’s not violently ill, he’s that color because he’s a resurrected being. 



So if you’re flippantly wearing, eating, or drinking something green this weekend, now you know how significant the color green could be in ancient Egypt. 


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Egypt Everywhere

Short post this week, since I’m headed off on vacation.

You know that thing where you hear/see/notice something and then it seems like that thing  is EVERYWHERE? It’s called “Frequency Illusion” or the “Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.”

And I know it happens to me with Egyptian stuff when I see a billboard that looks like this

And think of this

Barque of pharaoh Khufu.

Now YOU won’t be able to stop seeing the royal barque everywhere…

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Book Review: How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Have you ever wanted to learn how to read Egyptian hieroglyphs?

There are lots of places online where you can look up the phonetic equivalents to hieroglyphic symbols–by memorizing them, you can learn to read some of the names of famous pharaohs, or try your hand at writing sentences in English, but “spelled out” in hieroglyphs.

But if you’d like to be able to understand Egyptian inscriptions and how sentences were actually formed in Ancient Egyptian, you need more than that. For that, you need a book like this.

How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself. By Mark Collier and Bill Manley. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. 179.

The purpose of this book, as described in its introduction, is to help the reader learn to “read and enjoy the hieroglyphs and the language of ancient Egypt” (vii) and learn to read hieroglyphic inscriptions on museum objects.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each of which covers a few key grammatical concepts; practice exercises in transliteration and translation are found at the end of each chapter. Many of the chapters also include a short excurses on an aspect of Egyptian culture or history that is related to the Egyptian artifacts shown in the practice exercises.

This book is a good choice for those who do not have the opportunity to take courses to learn Egyptian. It is affordable (list price of U.S $26) and is relative thin (psychologically and physically manageable). It is user-friendly, with simple explanations of grammatical concepts, relatively little use of grammatical jargon, easy to reference chapters and section numbers, and a concept organization appropriate to teaching the grammar and vocabulary necessary for reading hieroglyphic inscriptions on museum objects.

The greatest strength of the book is the exercises in transliteration and translation found at the end of each chapter. The student can test his or her understanding of the material by checking answers against the key. Furthermore, many of the study exercises have line drawings or photographs of actual objects. This provides the context that isolated sentences may not have, and allows the student to see scribal variation in writing as well as view how aesthetic considerations are dealt with in inscriptions. Each of the exercises also has accompanying object-appropriate grammatical notes and a vocabulary list, which allows the reader to translate the passage easily, building confidence in their ability to read hieroglyphs.

Because the book has the specific purpose of being a concise and simplified reader, it has limitations to its usefulness. There is no description of the Egyptian language or its history, so the reader does not have appropriate context for Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Also, in an attempt to simplify transliteration, the authors state that the dots and dashes they use in transliteration are important, but do not explain why. Furthermore, because complex concepts are glossed over quickly, those who continue their study of Egyptian after reading this book may be astonished to learn how complex the Egyptian language truly is, and will not be prepared for the barrage of grammatical jargon associated with the Egyptian language. Lastly, those who use this book to learn hieroglyphs and expect to then read written documents will be disappointed—the vocabulary list provided with each exercise limits the reader’s experience with other hieroglyphic dictionaries, and the book’s focus on stele inscriptions and coffins does not prepare the reader for longer treatises and bibliographies.

Because of its relative simplicity, How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs cannot act as a stand in for more detailed grammar books (such as those by James Allen, Alan Gardiner, and James Hoch) for serious students of Middle Egyptian. However, the book does an excellent job of fulfilling its stated goal of helping a beginner student teach herself how to read basic hieroglyphic inscriptions.


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Love is In the Air

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Just wanted to share with you some Ancient Egyptian love poems. Maybe they’ll even help you with some ideas for your own love poems…

Papyrus Harris 500 (in the British Museum), which includes some love poetry.

Modern readers might  be surprised by some of the terminology used in Ancient Egyptian love poems, including numerous comparisons to plants and fruit familiar to the Egyptians, like the pomegranate and the lotus flower. Ancient Egyptian love poems also frequently use the terms “brother” and “sister,” to refer to their lover; in these poems, those words are used as terms of endearment (there’s no indication that Egyptians, other than the royal class, married their siblings; in the translation below, the translator* has chosen to use “lover” and “beloved” to avoid confusion or revulsion by modern readers).

Despite the fact that poetry loses a little something in translation (especially in translation from a dead language), I think you’ll find that a lot of it still rings true to modern readers.

(How) intoxicating are the plants of my garden!

[The lips] of my beloved are the bud of a lotus,

Her breasts are mandrakes,

And her arms are ornate […].

Behold, her forehead is a snare of willow,

And I am a goose.

My [hands are in] her hair as a lure,

Held fast in the snare of willow.

(p. 309)

The voice of the dove speaks, saying:

“The earth brightens; whither are you going?”

Desist, bird, from prattling at me.

I found my lover on his bed,

And my heart was more than happy.

We said (to each other):

“Never shall I be parted (from you).

With my hand in yours,

I shall wander with you

Through all choice places.”

He has chosen me as foremost of beauties,

And he will never wound my heart.

(p. 314)

Mask of Tutankhamun, with blue lapis lazuli inserts visible in the headdress and around the eyes. Lapis lazuli hair (and gold skin) were said to be attributes of the gods.

My beloved is unrivaled,

There is none to equal her,

She is beautiful beyond all women.

Behold, she is like the star which appears

At the onset of a prosperous year.

Exquisite is her splendor,

Gleaming is her complexion,

Brilliant are her gazing eyes.

Sweet are her lips when they speak,

For she is not given to excessive speech.

High is her neck, resplendent are her breasts,

Of pure lapis lazuli is her hair.

Her arms surpass (even) gold,

Lotus Flower

Like lotus flowers are her fingers.

Her buttocks are soft, her waist is slender

And her thighs extend her beauty.

(So) charming are her movements as she strolls on the earth

That she seizes my heart in her embrace.

She causes the necks of all men to turn to watch her,

And everyone rejoices who embraces her,

For he is first among (all) lovers.

When she goes outside, she is revealed

As that goddess without rival.

(pp 322 and 323)

I shall go out [to seek my lover].

[I yearn] for your love,

And my heart stops within me.

To look at a sweet cake

Is like looking at salt;

Sweet pomegranate wine in my mouth

Is like the bitter gall of birds.

The breath of your nostrils

Is the sole thing which can revive my heart,

And I am determined that Amun will grant you to me

For ever and eternity.

(p. 313)

* All poems taken from “The Literature of Ancient Egypt,” 3rd edition, translated by Vincent A. Tobin, edited by William Kelly Simpson, Yale University Press, 2003. Please also note that these stanzas are taken from different original documents not solely one work.

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So You Want To Be An Egyptologist

So you want to be an Egyptologist?

Really? Are you sure?

Just kidding.

In actuality, almost every time I tell someone I studied Egyptian art and history, or manage to casually point out that I can (with difficulty) read Egyptian hieroglyphs, they tell me something along the lines of, “I loved Egypt when I was a kid!” Many people seem to go through an Egypt-loving phase. With mummies, hundreds of anthropomorphic gods, and fantastic treasures, what’s not to love?

However, if you’re considering Egyptology as a career, be warned—its a difficult field. There are not a lot of excavation jobs available in Egypt, and if you do snag one of those, it will mean long, hot, dirty hours of work. Other options for Egyptologists who would like to stay in their native country include college professor or museum curator. If you aren’t willing to put up with the rigors of excavation work or the training and education it takes to become a professor or curator, consider the option of pursuing another career while keeping your passion as an armchair Egyptologist (like I’ve done).

If you’re 18 or younger and think you might like to study Egyptology in college, do what you can now. Read as many books as you can and consider studying French or German if you are able (since many important scholarly works on Egypt are written in those languages). The University of Memphis Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology discusses what you should start doing here.

For undergraduate studies, if you are not going to attend a college that has an Egyptology program (ones that offer Egyptology programs for Undergrads in the U.S. are rare), consider a related field like archaeology or history. Find some more tips here.

If you are interesting in pursuing an advanced degree (MA or PHD) in Egyptian studies, here is a list of colleges that may currently be offering degrees in Egyptology (these programs change occasionally based on staff availability and funding).

There’s also some very useful information in the FAQ for Egyptology Resources hosted by the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Finally, if you would like an inspiring but down-to-earth viewpoint of Egyptology from a famous Egyptologist-turned-mystery-writer, check out this post by Elizabeth Peters.

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Groundhog Day Special–Hedgehogs in Ancient Egypt

Happy Groundhog Day!

I thought it would be fun to occasionally have some posts about Ancient Egyptian connections to modern holidays.

But as you may already know, groundhogs have nothing to do with Ancient Egypt (since they are natively a North American creature).

But I DO happen to know quite a bit about hedgehogs in Ancient Egypt. And hedgehogs are REALLY cute.


See? Adorable!

So even though groundhogs and hedgehogs are not at all related, this seemed like as good a week as any to tell you about hedgehogs in Ancient Egypt.

The Ancient Egyptian word for “hedgehog” was either HntA or Hnty.

However, this Egyptian word may also refer to porcupines and there’s no definitive evidence that the Egyptians used separate words for “porcupine” and “hedgehog.”

Practical uses of the hedgehog

Actual hedgehogs and depictions of hedgehogs in Ancient Egypt had a few practical uses.

Medicine–Hedgehog quills may have been used as medicine; in one medical text, a recipe for curing baldness calls for the burnt spines of the Hnty, mixed with oil.

Food or pets–There are also some tomb scenes that show people carrying cages with hedgehogs in them. Because those scenes also show food offerings for deceased individuals, it may indicate that hedgehogs were used as food. However, those same images may indicate that live hedgehogs were brought back from the dessert in cages to be pets (or as symbolic figures to ward off danger. More on that below).

Decoration–Depictions of hedgehogs are found in tomb scenery to indicate the dessert. They also appear on many three-dimensional objects like boats, pottery vessels, amulets, and stamp-seals.

Letter seal in the shape of a hedgehog from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

But hedgehogs also seem to have had an important symbolic role.

Possible symbolic significance of the hedgehog

Protection–As a nocturnal animal, the hedgehog may have been viewed as an advantageous apotropaic (meaning “protective) creatures to ward off the dangers of the nighttime. Additionally, hedgehogs have some natural resistance to poison from scorpions (and snakes) and a good defensive position; although hedgehogs generally avoid conflict and are more likely to flee when possible, they will roll into a ball when severely threatened, so their softer bellies are protected by the defensive spines of their back. The ability to resist poison and to protect themselves when in danger are probably the reason that many Ancient Egyptian amulets are in the shape of a hedgehog.

Hedgehog amulet from the University of Memphis, TN.

So there you have it both ways. Depictions of these adorable creatures were used in Ancient Egypt for decoration, but many of them also had symbolic significance.


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Ancient Egypt Everywhere

Last year, I participated in a charitable event here in Utah, called the Festival of Trees. Every year, individuals or organizations volunteer their time and money to design and decorate Christmas trees with a theme of their choice. Others are then able to view (for a nominal fee) or purchase (for the cost of the materials) the trees; all proceeds from the event go to the Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

I decided it would be fun to decorate a tree with ancient-Egyptian-themed ornaments–I’ve never seen an Ancient Egypt tree there before, and I figured I was just the person to do it.

Here’s how it turned out.

The finished product--Entitled "Out of Egypt."

I decided to do a table top tree, since decorations for the full-size trees take thousands of dollars and hundreds of man-hours.

I was able to make ornaments out of the plastic figurines from this Egyptian Toob by using hot glue to attach wire to each of the figurines.

You can see two of the figurine ornaments here--a sarcophagus and a set of the pyramids at Giza.

I also purchased both silver- and gold-colored ankh charms to make ornaments out of, since the ankh is one of the most recognizable ancient Egyptian symbols. They were fairly small compared to the other ornaments, but they added some sparkle.

I made ornaments out of the stickers and temporary tattoos from this kit in a similar fashion, by attaching wire to each of them. These were great since they included stickers of famous rulers, museum objects, and scenes from daily life in Ancient Egypt.

See if you can spot an Eye of Horus, a Sarcophagus, a Falcon, some Men Building a Brick Wall, and a bust of Queen Nefertiti.

I also bought some papyrus and used the stencils from the aforementioned kit to make these papyrus ornaments.

Papyrus decorations.

For the top of the tree, I chose a Christmas-themed ornament (since the event is designed for people who purchase Christmas trees). It’s a lovely wooden ornament depicting the Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on their “Flight Into Egypt.”

Rather than a standard tree skirt, I tied together strips of linenesque fabric to imitate mummy wrappings. I was also able to find some really interesting items to display underneath the tree. A kid’s pyramid and sphinx toy and an archaeological pyramid excavation kit (that I was sorely tempted to keep for myself), as well as the leftover papyrus, a set of Egyptian-themed mazes, some God/Goddess figurines, a copy of the book The Egypt Game, and even a king Tut nutcracker.

I was pretty happy with it! What do you think?

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