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Tag: Heh

Eco: The Egyptian Alphabet

Rosetta_Stone

The Rosetta Stone, inscribed with a decree by Pharaoh Ptolemy V at Memphis, is dated to 196 BCE. Featuring three scripts, ancient Egyptian, Demotic and ancient Greek, the stele was discovered in 1799 by French soldier Pierre-Françoise Bouchard of the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt. Transferred to British control after the Capitulation of Alexandria in 1801, the stele has been on continual exhibition at the British Museum since 1802. The script was finally transliterated by Jean-Françoise Champollion in 1822, decrypting the mysteries of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. This photo © Hans Hillewaert in 2007, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“The hieroglyphic script is undoubtedly composed, in part, of iconic signs: some are easily recognizable–vulture, owl, bull, snake, eye, foot, man seated with a cup in hand; others are stylized–the hoisted sail, the almond-like shape for a mouth, the serrated line for water.

Some other signs, at least to the untrained eye, seem to bear only the remotest resemblance to the things that they are supposed to represent–the little square that stands for a seat, the sign of folded cloth, or the semicircle that represents bread.

All these signs are not icons (representing a thing by direct similarity) but rather ideograms, which work by a sort of rhetorical substitution. Thus an inflated sail serves to represent the wind; a man seated with a cup means to drink; a cow’s ear means to understand; the head of a cynocephalus stands for the god Thoth and for all his various attributes, such as writing and counting.

Not everything, however, can be represented ideographically. One way that the ancient Egyptians had found to circumvent this difficult was to turn their ideograms into simple phonograms.

In order to represent a certain sound they put the image of a thing whose name sounded similar. To take an example from Jean-Françoise Champollion‘s first decipherment (Lettre à Dacier, 17 September 1822, 11-12), the mouth, in Egyptian ro, was chosen to represent the Greek consonant P (rho).

It is ironic to think that while, for Renaissance Hermeticists, sounds had to represent the nature of things, for the Egyptians, things (or their corresponding images) were representing sounds (see, for a similar procedure, my remarks in chapter 6 on Bruno’s mnemonics).

By the time interest in Egyptian hieroglyphics had revived in Europe, however, knowledge of the hieroglyphic alphabet had been lost for over a thousand years. The necessary premise for the decipherment of hieroglyphs was a stroke of pure fortune, like the discovery of a bilingual dictionary.

In  fact, as is well known, decipherment was made possible by the discovery not of a dictionary, but of a trilingual text, the famous Rosetta Stone, named after the city of Rashid where it was found by a French soldier in 1799, and, as a result of Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of Nelson, soon transferred to London.

The stone bore an inscription in hieroglyphic, in demotic (a cursive, administrative script elaborated about 1,000 BCE), and in Greek.

Working from reproductions, Champollion, in his Lettre à Dacier, laid the foundation for the decipherment of hieroglyphs. He compared two cartouches which, from their position in the text, he guessed must refer to the names of Ptolemy (ΠΤΟΛΟΜΑΙΟΣ) and Cleopatra (ΚΛΟΠΑΤΡΑ).

He identified the five letters that both names have in common (Π, Τ, Ο, Λ, Α), and found that the two cartouches had five hieroglyphs in common as well. By supposing that each other instance of the same sign represented the same sound, Champollion could easily infer the phonetic value of the remaining text.

Champollion’s decipherment does not, however, explain a series of phenomena which can justify the interpretation of Horapollo. Greek and Roman colonizers had imposed on Egypt their commerce, their technology and their gods.

By the time of the spread of Christianity, Egypt had already abandoned many of its ancient traditions. Knowledge of sacred writing was still preserved and practiced only by priests living within the sacred enclosures of the ancient temples.

These were a dwindling breed: in those last repositories of a lost knowledge, cut off from the rest of the world, they cultivated the monuments of their ancient culture.

Since the sacred writing no longer served any practical use, but only initiatory purposes, these last priests began to introduce complexities into it, playing with the ambiguities inherent in a form of writing that could be differently read either phonetically or ideographically.

To write the name of the god Ptah, for example, the P was expressed phonetically and placed at the top of the name with the ideogram for sky (p[t]), the H was placed in the middle and represented by the image of the god Heh with his arms raised, and the T was expressed by the ideogram for the earth (ta).

It was an image that not only expressed Ptah phonetically, but also carried the visual suggestion that the god Ptah had originally separated the earth from the sky.

The discovery that, by combining different hieroglyphs, evocative visual emblems might be created inspired these last scribes to experiment with increasingly complicated and abstruse combinations.

In short, these scribes began to formulate a sort of kabbalistic play, based, however, on images rather than on letters.

Around the term represented by a sign (which was given an initial phonetic reading) there formed a halo of visual connotations and secondary senses, a sort of chord of associated meanings which served to amplify the original semantic range of the term.

The more the sacred text was enhanced by its exegetes, the more the conviction grew that they expressed buried truths and lost secrets (Sauneron 1957: 123-7).

Thus, to the last priests of a civilization sinking into oblivion, hieroglyphs appeared as a perfect language. Yet their perfection could only be understood by visually reading them; if by chance still pronounced, they would have lost any magic (Sauneron 1982: 55-6).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 146-9.

The Name

“… As mentioned earlier, almost all the root mantra in the Mystical Qabala involve the One Small Face Name.

The Name … is called the “Shem HaMeforesh” or “Brilliant Name of Fire.” It is often simply referred to as “HaShem” (lit. “The Name”), reflecting its central importance. The Name … is conventionally translated in scriptures as “Lord.” Within the context of Hebrew grammar, the word … is usually cited as a future tense third person form of the verb root  (lit. “to be”). Some regard the word as a composite that combines the past, present, and future tense forms of the verb root.

Orthodoxy has proclaimed the pronunciation of the letter-formula as a Name to be blasphemous. When the Name is encountered in the Torah or when chanting prayers, religious Jews will either pause in silence out of respect or substitute another power name, traditionally “Adonai” ( lit. my Master).

In the Latin Vulgate edition of the Tanakh, Jerome set the precedent of changing the pronunciation of the Yod to “J” and using the vowels from Adonai to produce the anglicized variation “Jehovah.” Jehovah is the way that most contemporary non-Jews pronounce the Name. The Name … is sometimes pronounced “Yaweh,” reflecting the tradition that the High Priest in the Temple of Jerusalem made a monosyllabic pronunciation of the Name … on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).

The halachic prohibition specifies to avoid pronouncing the four letters … as a Name. If one is inclined to follow their prohibition, one can use the Atziluthic version wherein the letters are considered to be standing alone, and therefore pronounced individually–“Yod” (as in “code”), “Heh” (as in “day”), “Vav” (as in “love”), “Heh.”

The Atziluthic version can be regarded as the most powerful way of pronouncing the Name …”

–Daniel Feldman, Qabala: The Mystical Heritage of the Children of Abraham, 2001, pg.  168.

Thoth, Scribe of Truth

Ra next sent for the god Thoth, and when he came into the presence of Ra, he invited him to go with him to a distance, to a place called “Tuat,” i.e., hell, or the Other World, in which region he had determined to make his light to shine.

When they arrived there he told Thoth, the Scribe of Truth, to write down on his tablets the names of all who were therein, and to punish those among them who had sinned against him, and he deputed to Thoth the power to deal absolutely as he pleased with all the beings in the Tuat.

Ra loathed the wicked, and wished them to be kept at a distance from him. Thoth was to be his vicar, to fill his place, and “Place of Ra,” was to be his name. He gave him power to send out a messenger (hab), so the Ibis (habi) came into being.

All that Thoth would do would be good (khen), therefore the Tekni bird of Thoth came into being. He gave Thoth power to embrace (anh) the heavens, therefore the Moon-god (Aah) came into being.

He gave Thoth power to turn back (anan) the Northern peoples, therefore the dog-headed ape of Thoth came into being. Finally Ra told Thoth that he would take his place in the sight of all those who were wont to worship Ra, and that all should praise him as God. Thus the abdication of Ra was complete.

In the fragmentary texts which follow we are told how a man may benefit by the recital of this legend. He must proclaim that the soul which animated Ra was the soul of the Aged One, and that of Shu, Khnemu (?), Heh, &c., and then he must proclaim that he is Ra himself, and his word of power Heka.

If he recites the Chapter correctly he shall have life in the Other World, and he will be held in greater fear there than here. A rubric adds that he must be dressed in new linen garments, and be well washed with Nile water; he must wear white sandals, and his body must be anointed with holy oil.

He must burn incense in a censer, and a figure of Maat (Truth) must be painted on his tongue with green paint. These regulations applied to the laity as well as to the clergy.

E.A. Wallis Budge, Legends of the Gods: The Egyptian Texts, edited with Translations, London, 1912. (No page numbers are given in my edition).

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