Ancient Egyptian Grammar 101

I have been involved in ancient Egyptian religion for a very long time. I fell in love with everything about that culture in my ancient history class in the 7th grade. That love has never waned. Along with the culture and history, I have studied the hieroglyphs on and off for about 25 years. I am by no means a master of any of the above.

However, there is one thing drives me into absolute fits. Those that make these faux pas clearly indicate those who grasp the concept of the religion, and those that just sort of use it as an overlay to what they think they already know about the subject.

The Ancient Kemetic / Egyptian word for God is Netjer Ntr). The plural of that is Netjeru (Ntrw). When people use the words, “The Netjer” or “The Netjers”, I feel myself start to grind my teeth. The Ancient Egyptians believed in the One and the Many, the Many in the One. Isis and Ra and Osiris and the Aten all were a part of a concept of an unfathomable, unknowable ‘ONE’ and was referred to as Netjer. It is sort of like the ancient Hindu concept of Brahman. Each of Them in and of Themselves is indeed Netjer – and each of Them also feeds into that Whole. They are both individual and separate.

Are we good so far? Hmmm? Yes? Good.

When someone talks about going into Deity’s presence – or a specific Deity or God’s presence, they do not say, “I went into the sanctuary of the Netjer.” That’s grammatically and theologically incorrect, You would instead say, “I went into Netjer’s presence.” God is God, no matter what Face He or She is wearing, or whether They are clothed in a kilt or a kalisari…or nothing at all! We determine the difference by saying Name of Netjer or referring to Them in plural as The Names, the Netjeru (plural) – which is all inclusive, whether or not you are speaking about the range of Names from 2 all the way up to the 4,000+ Names of Netjer that are known. I am quite sure there are several that have been missed somewhere along the way.

Gender issues with Netjer can get a little trickier. A Female Name of Netjer are sometimes referred to as Netjert or Netjeret. The plural for more than one would again revert back to the word Netjeru or Names of Netjer. Bast is, according to many scholars, and with veru good reason, not really ever called “Bastet. ” This has also been credited back to a translation error in early Egyptology (What a surprise!) The Extra “t” is in fact a female determinative and that extra “t” in that particular Name of Netjer is used to underscore that this Goddess, which was in her earliest form represented by a leonine figure, rather than a domestic-sized cat, Who was in fact a Goddess and not a God. So, whether it’s comfortable or not, techncally, it is simple just “Bast” (Pronounced ‘BAH-st’). That’s it. Nothing more. Believe me, as a Goddess, She does NOT need anything more than that! If you do put any more on te mame and insist on using the word “Bastet’, it really does tend to conjure up images of Josie and the Pussycats or Bast and the Bastets. And no, they will not be opening up in Las Vegas for the Wayne Newton show at the Luxor Hotel.

So….here we have a quick recap:

It’s “Netjer” , NOT “The Netjer”
“Netjeru” NOT “The Netjers”
“Bast” NOT “Bastet”

Anyone who writes Egyptian fiction absolutely classify themselves into who actually understands Kemetic culture by using correct terminology in a correct fashion and those who just play at (unconvincingly) it on the Internet or in books. If you don’t believe me, please take a look at the works of legendary author of all things Ancient Egyptian, Pauline Gedge. You will NEVER see her making any of these mistakes. Her understanding of language, culture and history is impeccable. The lady does her research and puts just about everyone else to shame in that area , with the exception of Elizabeth Peters who is in actuality Egyptologist, Barbara Mertz. So, if you want to sound credible and characters believable as having come from ancient Egypt, you need to consider these things very carefully.

Not to do so just looks like someone who has donned a virtual costume and wig that they’ve put on and started ‘walking like an Egyptian’. The audience can more than likely see through such a thin disguise.


Filed under kemetic, writing

8 responses to “Ancient Egyptian Grammar 101

  1. Ironically, the use of the word “netjer” (as far as I can tell) is similar to kami. You worship kami, you talk to kami, you visit kami… it’s never ‘the’ kami. But this is due to Japanese not having plural forms (you can have 1 kimono, or 5 kimono, but never ‘kimonos’). I would love to see the stuff about Bast vs. Bastet more wide-spread, because I see a lot of people calling her Bastet.

    • I didn’t know that much about kami, but had heard that the Japanese and Japonphiles say this. It makes them about as crazy as this particular issue makes me.

      As for Bast, I heard part of the Bast vs. Bastet argument on an email list dealing with hieroglyphs and also via Stephanie Shaver’s (Merybast’s) website,.

  2. Ayman Amer

    It brings to mind the christian concept: three in one. It has been a deep rift between the Muslim and Christian Dogma. On the other hand, Muslim Sufis like Ibn Arabi contend that all things not only belong to God but are manifestations of God or God disguised in other forms. in a well known poem, Ibn Arabi says that “things” are nothing but veils of the Deity. They point us to God but also deprive us of him. In the Quraan, God told Moses: you can not see me but look at the mountain top. When the Face of God appeared.. the mountain collapsed and Moses fainted. in that view: Nothing exists in reality but God. Everything else is an illusion. And nothing is independent of God.. eternity is his name.

    • I like that very much, Dr. Amer. As I am very fond of saying, “May the Truth keep you free from the lies.” Deity / God speaks to us in a language we can all best understand and yet, there is nothing else but that, and we were and are never separate from It.

  3. The he or she in naming the deity are what we are used to. Similarly with the plural and singular. God created gender and singular and plural. I am still not so clear about many in one and one in many despite the sufi hints. Are we mirrors of each other or images of him . Language does not evolve in a vacuum. Language conveys ideas context – symbols. Karen Armstrong who wrote on Monotheism says that even Mythos are not supposed to happen sometimes; Rather they happen all the time that is why they exist in all faiths and are similar too..But we are in a time of Logos (I feel the world is hungry of Mythos .. kind of opportunity for you??
    I read your writing when I need something intellectual and meaningful. Thank God – Netjer (Am I learning?) or thank god for you – as you say. Somebody is now taking whatever they have been told, But go on .. Fanny .. Reflect away, start a language. You have a fan here. Build community. Sorry I am responding to many of your articles at once.. See I read. And I write..You are good.
    Also on the importance place for worshipers? yes I think they need a place – a-location . this electronic church does not fulfill the human need to pray together.. thus the sunday and saturday and Friday.. and the Pilgrimage . Thanks again, thinker priestess. enlightening.

    • Whenever I write something, my friend, I have remind myself that someone such as yourself is reading. I have to confess, I find that a little bit intimidating, but not too much so. You are a professor, so you calling my writing intellectual and meaningful is humbling. Thank you for that. I am always acutely aware that of the readers of my blog, you are from Egypt. This is your heritage. The thing that used to get me so frustrated were the people who did not share my American Indian heritage telling me how things were for my ancestors, or what they felt or believed outside of the purely scholarly sphere. What that means is, if I screw something up, I will look to you to tell me so! 😉

      Here is my thought about what I proposed with the language.Since Champollion worked with the Rosetta Stone and we know and are continuing to learn, and because we also have neighboring, extant Hamito-Semitic languages that also, inevitably picked up some loan words, we can make a good estimation as to what it sounded like. One of my lifetime heroes, former American Indian Movement President and Sioux activist, John Trudell said that, “English is the great equalizer.” Trudell further asserts that with that equalization, cultures are rendered extinct. The Inuit Eskimo People have over 100 words to describe snow and its subtleties, English doesn’t. Ancient Egyptian has 17 tenses, several hundred signs, more than 3000 different Names for the Divine, and I think that the whole anthropomorphic company were in fact describing subtle things within Nature that were seen as Divine, a part of life and yet a part of a greater whole.

      I do agree on a sense of place. In my own practices, and how our own Temple teaches our members and largely what we know from antiquity, there were large, communal spaces for certain rituals and festivals and yet everyone had their own household shrine – one for the Divine and one for the Ancestors or Akhu. These were not combined in antiquity. Each year, usually during the first week in August, we go to our Temple location in Chicago if possible and celebrate Wep Ronpet or Egyptian New Year. The rest of the time, whether we are in the priesthood or shemsu (followers or worshipers in the Faith) we concentrate on being Ma’at in the world. Ma’at is such an incredibly profound concept. It means the rightness and justice and order on both a Universal and Personal level. When you focus on being that, doctrinal, liturgical text is less necessary. The so-called Golden Rule and all of the extant Wisdom Literature seems to be written upon the heart and you have no choice but to do all that you may to embody that. Every culture has its philosophical and wisdom teachings. I believe that they all have value. We are all human beings, we are all expressions of the Creator, and treating each other with that level of respect is imperative. Things like skin colour, geography, and those varying and differing customs are so secondary if we just remember that we all come from the same place ultimately, and that is within each of us.

      • Ayman Amer

        Hey Fanny that is a thoughtful answer. Keep writing. Forget the professor stuff. So what.. We all came from going to the same place. We think (not everybody) and we have emotions and successes and failures bur some of us find comfort when they see somebody thinking along the same lines even after you factor in our differences. it is comforting and enjoyable. Actually some of us find comfort when we find somebody is actually thinking.. just merely thinking. I believe you crossed that line and you are becoming more engaged and focused. Your knowledge is evident. I wish at some point that you teach. That is the profession I know this passion that you have would make a great teacher. But you are also a writer and an artist and a mom and so many other roles.. So write what you like to write and I will tell you what I think. So far you are doing great. I say that as a reader and a human being.

  4. To use the inscription from the Golden Shrine of Tutanknamun, “Your words are as a balm unto my heart..” Thank you for them. 🙂

    I do think we all teach in our way, and there are many, many ways to teach. Be careful what you wish for, you may get it! There are some things coming up in February of next year where that may be possible. If not teaching, certainly speaking.

    I bless the day that I met you, even though the events leading up to it were borne out of profound changes in Egypt.

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