Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

‘My name is Usermaatre, King of Kings’

My friend Bob Eaglestone tagged me into the replies to this tweet, from teacher Julia Murphy wondering if her pupil’s speculative account of the name Ozymandias was correct: ‘had a student write that Ozymandias means ruler of nothing, derived from Greek “‘ozium’” meaning air and “mandate” rule. My dept are not convinced. Have you heard this before?’

It’s a neat idea but not, on its face, correct. In fact Ὀσυμανδύας is mentioned by Greek historian Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca Historica (1:47), and is the Hellenization of one of the tomb-names of Ramesses II. Osumanduas or Osymandyas is an approximation of Egyptian wsr-mꜣꜥt-rꜥ stp.n-rꜥ, or Usermaatre Setepenra, which — the experts say— means The righteousness of the Sun is powerful: he whom Ra has chosen . To break this name down a little further: setep.en-ra/he whom Ra has chosen was a common epithet, often added to the throne names of pharaohs. Usermaatre was the name Ramesses selected to indicate his military successes: he had taken an army of 400,000 men and 20,000 chariots and with it destroyed the Hittites. There’s no way Shelley could have known the actual meaning of the pharaoh’s name, however: in 1818 when the poem was published Jean-François Champollion (the first Westerner to decipher heiroglyphics) was still three years away from his first publication on the subject. Though Shelley surely knew about Ramesses II’s enormous army and military successes: that was in every history book.

More, Shelley was an excellent classicist, who translated Plato and Sophocles and read Ancient Greek fluently, so he could well have read Diodorus Siculus in the original. And what does Diodorus say? Well: he reports back on his time in Egypt where are located the tombs erected for the concubines of Zeus, and ‘ten stades’ beyond them a monument to the king called ‘Osumanduas’ (spelled in some editions of Diodorus ‘Osumandias’). This monument comprises three statues carved out of gigantic black stone from Syene. One of these statues, a pharaoh posed in a sitting posture, is the biggest of all the statues found in Egypt, its foot alone being more than seven cubits in length (a Greek cubit was the length from the elbow to the end of the middle finger). The other two statues, to the right and left of the pharaoh’s statue, representing his mother and daughter, were only as high as the knees of the main statue. Diodorus comments, in a detail Shelley surely found nicely ironic, that the centre monument is not only remarkable for its size but for its finish and workmanship, ‘no crack or blemish being visible’. Then he quotes the legend inscribed upon it:

βασιλεùς βασιλέων Ὀσυμανδύας εἰμί. εἰ δέ τις εἰδέναι βούλεται πηλίκος εἰμì καì ποῦ κεῖμαι, νικάτω τι τῶν ἐμῶν ἔργων.

Which means: ‘King of kings Osymandyas am I. If any one would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass any of my works’. Surpass in the sense: if you want to understand just how great I am, just you try to do better: νικάτω is from the verb ‘to win, to prevail, to be superior, to overpower’. Beat this, loser!

from John Campbell’s, “The Hittites: Their Inscriptions and Their History” (1880) 2:16

On the anglicisation of the name, I did wonder if there was some significance in Shelley going for Ozymandias with a z, rather than the Osymandias with an s of Diodorus; but Googling around eighteenth-century histories of Egypt and editions of Diodorus tells me that both anglicisations were in use, and were pretty interchangeable.

Might Shelley have had in mind his own guess as to the ‘meaning’ of the Greek? Maybe: he liked to play those sorts of games. You can see, from the image at the top of this post of the poem as first published, that he signed it “Glirastes”, a combination of the Latin glīs (“dormouse”) with the Greek suffix ἐραστής (erastēs, “lover”); an in-joke for his wife Mary Shelley, whom he nicknamed “dormouse”. We could perhaps approach Ozymandias in the same way: ὄζω is the Greek for ‘I smell’ (in the sense of: I give off an odour, I stink) and ὄζη, ‘ozee’ or ‘ozy’ means ‘a bad smell, particularly bad breath.’ And μανδύας is a type of rich woollen cloak or cape, one worn by royality in Aeschylus, where it is coloured purple or red. Who had bad breath and wore a fine red cape? Hmm.

According to British propaganda at any rate, Napoleon’s breath reeked (Lord Rosebery, accompanying Bonaparte to exile, declared that: ‘the Emperor’s teeth are bad and dirty, and he barely shows them.’) Ozymandias took an army of 400,000 men and with it destroyed the Hittite empire. Napoleon took an army of 400,000 into Russia in 1812 and lost it all. But we’re getting pretty far-fetched now, so it may be time to stop.

‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

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Various jottings and thoughts.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.

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