In reading translations of some old papyri, discovered in the 1800s, I found something that made me absolutely crack up laughing. Apparently, at some point at least, it was considered polite to heap good wishes upon a ruler’s nostril.
You read that right.
For example, in the Adventures of Sanehat (which is a pretty good story, by the way), the main character writes this to the King Keper-ka-ra:
“Thou, the Good God, Lord of both Lands, Loved of Ra, Favourite of Mentu, the lord of Thebes, and of Amen, lord of thrones of the lands, of Sebek, Ra, Horus, Hathor, Atmu, and of his fellow-gods, of Sopdu, Neferbiu, Samsetu, Horus, lord of the east, and of the royal uraeus which rules on thy head, of the chief gods of the waters, of Min, Horus of the desert, Urrit, mistress of Punt, Nut, Harnekht, Ra, all the gods of the land of Egypt, and of the isles of the sea. May they give life and peace to thy nostril, may they load thee with their gifts, may they give to thee eternity without end, everlastingness without bound.”
Later, in the same letter, he says:
“O thou who art beloved of Ra, of Horus, and of Hathor; Mentu, lord of Thebes, desires that thy august nostril should live for ever.”
Still later, in another scene, the God-King’s children say “May the goddess Nub give life to thy nostril; May the mistress of the stars favour thee, when thou sailest south and north.”
I laughed so hard when I saw this. However, I can kind of think of why this would be a blessing. The nostril is where the breath comes in, after all, so it could be considered holy for that reason – the ancient Egyptians were very symbolicly minded. Also, since I live in a desert, I can relate to the truly titanic nose boulders that form when you combine dry air and blowing dust. Wishing someone a lively, peaceful nostril starts sounding pretty good to me.
Also, this could be as simple as “hey, I’m glad you’re still breathing, I hope the gods keep it that way!” with the breath being synonymous with life. Either way, it’s hilarious.
The Egyptian Nose story doesn’t end here. Tutankhamun had a professional nose picker. His wage was three head of cattle, plus food and lodging. Not too bad pay for digging out the boy king’s nose gold.
So, when you really want to show some monarch (like your boss) some respect, wish them a happy nostril!
Egyptian Tales, First Series, IVth To XIIth Dynasty Translated From The Papyri, Second Edition, by W. M. Flinders Petrie (1899)
The Book of Bad Habits, By Frank C. Hawkins, Greta L. B. Laube, MD (2010)
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