ANCIENT EGYPTIAN SYMBOLS

ANCIENT EGYPTIAN RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS


Eye of Horus

The Ankh is the symbol of life. Worn only by pharaohs and gods, it indicates that the wearer has the power to give and take away life. Obelisks, cobras and discs are all symbols of the sun. The cobra and vulture symbolize the Upper and Lower kingdoms of Egypt.

The prevailing eyes (the holy symbol of the ancient Egyptian religion) represent the eyes of Horus and symbolize the sun and the moon and represent good health. According to legend, Horus lost the eye in a fight with Seth and had his eye restored by the goddess Hathor. It is a common motif in Egyptian art and often appears on amulets and tomb paintings.

Hieroglyphic texts are filled with titles and names. For example a walking duck followed by a circle with a bull’s eye means "son of [the sun god] Ra." This combination of symbols often preceded the name a pharaoh. Various combinations of symbols can represent objects, pronouns, possessive pronouns and question words. Some hieroglyphic letters serve as prepositions: The owl can represent "of" or "with"; the water line can represent "to" or "for." Other hieroglyphic letters can represent personal pronouns. A horned snake can be "he," "him," "his" and "it" and a basket with a handle can represent "you."

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Mace

Maces, club-like weapons, have been found in ancient Egypt from the Predynastic Period onward,. They played both functional and ceremonial roles, but are associated most with the latter. By the First Dynasty they had become closely linked with the power of the king, arguably so much it became of a symbols of this power. The archetypal image of pharaoh wielding a mace endured until the Roman Period. [Source: Alice Stevenson, University of Cambridge, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]

Alice Stevenson of University of Cambridge wrote: “A mace is a club-like weapon with a heavy head pierced through for the insertion of a handle. The mace is often considered to be the characteristic weapon of Predynastic Egypt, as Predynastic maceheads (which usually survived their handles) are comparatively numerous. Nevertheless, even in the Predynastic Period, the mace’s additional function as a ceremonial object—a role ascribed to it throughout Egyptian history— seems likely.” <>

The “image of the smiting pharaoh held great iconographical significance throughout Pharaonic history as is evidenced by numerous temple inscriptions and reliefs, although it was most prevalent from the New Kingdom through the Roman Period. In representative scenes the king smites an individual or group of enemies...most commonly with a mace. As one of the most frequently depicted themes in royal iconography, it has been referred to as the “Smiting of the Enemy” topos and has been cited as an important motif of the Pharaonic “Great Tradition”. Notable examples of (intact) maces include two gessoed and gilded wooden maces found between the outermost and second shrines in Tutankhamun’s burial chamber. <>

Two types of mace appear as hieroglyphic signs—the mnw-mace and the HD-mace —and there is a clear distinction between them in the terminology. A third sign depicts the HD-mace with straps. The mnw sign features a representation of a disc-shaped macehead and is used in the writing of the word “mnw-mace” on coffins, where it is frequently contrasted with writings of the word “HD-mace,” which feature a depiction of a round or piriform macehead. The mnw-mace hieroglyph is attested in writing the word “mace” only from the Middle Kingdom to the Late Period (712–332 B.C.); however, the sign (and accordingly the word) must necessarily be older, as it is already used as a phonetic component in the Pyramid Texts. The regular word for “mace” in the Pyramid Texts is HD.”

Predynastic Period Maces


Narmer macehead

Alice Stevenson of University of Cambridge wrote: “Polished stone maceheads are attested in Egyptian burials from as early as the Predynastic Period. Disc-shaped maceheads are found in some Naqada I graves and are known from the Khartoum Neolithic. Pear-shaped, or “piriform,” maceheads were favored in Naqada II, although the earliest examples are from the Neolithic 5th-millenium settlement site of Merimde Beni-Salame. Very infrequently ring- shaped and double-ended examples are encountered, but it is the pear-shaped form that became prevalent in dynastic Egypt. Maceheads were made in a wide variety of stones including diorite, alabaster, dolomite, and limestone, the latter material becoming the preferred medium in the late Predynastic. [Source: Alice Stevenson, University of Cambridge, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]

“The handles to which maceheads were hafted were probably organic and rarely survive, or may not have been commonly included in graves. The exceptions include a handle of wood from a grave at el-Mahasna; the handles of two intact discoid maces from grave B86 at Abadiya—a 330-mm handle of oryx horn and an ivory example of similar length; an especially elaborate handle of sheet- gold casting embossed with an animal frieze, from grave 1 at Sayala, in Nubia; and a more recently excavated example painted with red and black stripes, from grave 24 at Adaima. <>

“In an initial study of 100 Predynastic graves with maceheads, Cialowicz noted that the maceheads were more common in the graves of males, but were not rare in the graves of females. Given the unreliability of sex attribution in preliminary excavation reports, however , these conclusions are, at present, tentative. The presence of maceheads in graves is often assumed to be an indication of authority or status, but this assumption is based on later historical parallels: whether the value and meaning of maceheads remained unchanged from much earlier Predynastic conceptions remains open to debate.” <>

Ceremonial Maces

Alice Stevenson of University of Cambridge wrote: “Not all maces were employed in a functional capacity—that is, as actual weapons. Their symbolic role is certainly suggested in the Predynastic Period by the presence of model maces, such as that found at el-Amra. Moreover, maceheads found in the “Main Deposit” at Hierakonpolis— particularly four large pear-shaped limestone examples, together with a smaller ivory one—appear to demonstrate a linkage with the emerging ideology of kingship. They are carved with elaborate raised reliefs arranged in registers datable to approximately the early First Dynasty, and their exceptional size and artistic accomplishment clearly set them apart as “ceremonial” objects. [Source: Alice Stevenson, University of Cambridge, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]

“A brief description of the exceptional maceheads from the Main Deposit is in order. The “Scorpion macehead” measures about 250 mm high. The surviving portion (less than half) depicts an individual, often identified as King Scorpion on the basis of the scorpion carved in front of the face, wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt, a tunic, and a bull’s tail, and holding a hoe. The “Narmer macehead” portrays Narmer seated in a kiosk, wearing the red crown and a close-fitting cloak, with attendant officials and standard- bearers. The scene has been variously interpreted as a marriage ceremony, a year-name, and as Narmer’s participation in a Sed-festival . <>

“The relief on the “King’s macehead” is badly damaged, but the surviving portion shows the king attired in the red crown and a cloak, seated in a kiosk with a falcon facing him. The preserved sections of the “Bearer macehead” show only the fragmented images of several individuals, some holding vessels and/or animal skins. The small ivory macehead depicts captives tied at the neck, their arms bound behind their backs. <>

“Some scholars have preferred not to interpret these scenes literally—that is, as representations of actual events—but consider them part of a wider repertoire of ceremonial objects, including palettes and knives, that were appropriated to play a role in the secluded world of elite culture . Rather than abstracting the scenes from the objects upon which they are depicted, these scholars propose a more holistic interpretive approach that reasserts the images as an integral part of the (tangible) artifacts themselves, linking the artifacts to their Predynastic development and thus connecting decorative form with object function. <>

“In addition to the Late Predynastic/Early Dynastic ceremonial maceheads in the Hierakonpolis “Main Deposit,” several plain “functional” maceheads of pink limestone and of standard size, as well as a number of decorated mace handles, were found at the site. The phenomenon of collecting both weapons and symbols together in a deposit is also attested in the eastern Nile Delta at Tell Ibrahim Awad, where several plain calcite maceheads were discovered along with small votive objects of various kinds, including faience tiles and faience baboons, all presumably of Early Dynastic date upon comparison with similar examples found in the Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis. It is significant that both deposits also contained Old Kingdom material datable up to the Fifth Dynasty, suggesting that a process of decommissioning of symbolically potent Early Dynastic objects, including maces, took place throughout Egypt toward the end of the Old Kingdom. <>

“The Hierakonpolis Main Deposit also provides further evidence that the mace had become an important component of the regalia of kingship by the Early Dynastic Period, as a potent symbol of royal power. Such symbolism is manifested in the form of another class of ceremonial object—the palette—with which ceremonial maces share close stylistic similarities. Representative is the Narmer palette, upon which the king is shown brandishing a mace above a group of captives.”

Scarabs

20120214-Scarab_BrooklynMuseum.png
scarab
The black scarab beetle was revered as a symbol of the sun god and rebirth. They were believed to be the source of the power that makes the sun move across the sky and were connected with Kheperi, the god of the rising sun an resurrection.

Scarabs were buried with mummies. Small statuettes of scarabs were carved from valuable stones. The Egyptians worshiped scarabs as symbols of immortality because they entered the ground and later emerged again as if resurrected.

Scarab beetles are dung beetles. They feed on recycling plant matter and feces. Some have brilliant iridescent colors. African scarab beetles roll animal dung into balls, which are buried and eaten by beetle larvae. Their association with power and energy is believed to be tied to their energetic rolling of dung. Their connection with rebirth is tied to fact the bugs lay their eggs in dung, and are thus reborn from waste.

Dung beetles work by themselves or in pairs to build perfect balls of dung larger than themselves and then stand on their front legs and push and roll the balls of dung backwards with their back legs and then bury it. The dung beetle selects the least fibrous bits of dung for its ball. They bury tons of material a year, fertilizing the soil by entrapping nitrogen underground where I can be utilized by plants.

Dung beetles are thought to have got their start by feeding on dinosaur dung before moving on to mammals. Today they occupy an important environmental niche, moving dung underground, where it can be used as fertilizer for plants and can sprout seeds rather than staying aboveground where it can attract flies, diseases, beastly smells or be washed away and fowl waterways.

Some species cut out pieces of dung and roll it away for private consumption. Others dig under a deposit and draw it into their tunnels. The tunneling species have evolved horns which the use to protect their tunnels from other males.

Dung beetles bury the dung to keep it away from competitors and provide a safe place for their offspring to grow up. Females lay their eggs in the dung and the larvae fed on the dung until they develop into beetles.

The beetles do their work mostly at night When a ball is complete, a beetles moves it as quickly as it can to a shelter so the ball is not stolen by another beetle. Studies have shown that dung beetles are able to strike out in a direct line to their shelter when the moon is full but have difficulty finding the way on moonless nights. Further studies shows the beetles oriented themselves not to the moon itself but used moonlight to navigate their way.

Kathlyn M Cooney of UCLA wrote: “The Latin scarabaeus (“beetle”), from Greek karabos (“beetle”; “crayfish”), is an artistic representation of the indigenous Egyptian dung beetle (species Scarabaeus sacer), an insect that rolls balls of dung in which to lay its eggs. The ancient Egyptians linked this unique reproductive behavior to mythological cycles of solar death and rebirth. The scarab was used by the ancient Egyptians as a symbol of the rising sun being pushed across the sky (just as the beetle pushes balls of dung across the sand), exemplifying the notion that the sun god can create his own means of rebirth. Such representations can be seen in the scarab’s multiple depictions in the Amduat, a New Kingdom composition describing the sun’s nighttime journey through the netherworld. This notion of masculine self- resurrection is clarified in the scarab’s function as a hieroglyphic sign, an example of which is featured in the verb xpr, “to come into being,” and its derivatives. The noun “scarab,” xprr (literally “that which comes into being”), could refer to either the scarab beetle or to the amulet. [Source: Kathlyn M Cooney, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]

Types of Scarabs


Kushite victory commemoration scarab

Kathlyn M Cooney of UCLA wrote: There are a number of different kinds of scarabs, including heart scarabs, commemorative scarabs, and scarab amulets, indicating their different functions within varying social contexts—from apotropaic to amuletic, socioeconomic, and propagandistic. The blank oval underside of the scarab amulet was an excellent location for the inscription of personal names, kings’ names, apotropaic sayings, or geometric or figural designs. [Source: Kathlyn M Cooney, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]

“Heart Scarab: The best known is the heart scarab, the earliest examples dating to the 17th Dynasty. The heart scarab is a large amulet, ideally made of green stone (nmHf), inscribed with Chapter 30B from the Book of the Dead . It was placed on the mummy, often within a pectoral, or in the vicinity of the mummy, in order to control the consciousness and memory of the deceased in the halls of justice, lest the heart speak against its owner. The so-called winged scarab, similar to the heart scarab in form and size but lacking an inscription on the underside, was common in the Late Period (712–332 B.C.); this faience scarab allowed identification of the deceased with the reborn sun god. It was placed on the heart of the mummy with detached outspread wings on either side, all usually part of a faience beaded network that covered the chest and legs of the mummy. <>

“The Commemorative Scarab: Another well-known scarab type is the so- called commemorative scarab, the underside of which is inscribed with an announcement from the royal family. These large scarabs were first produced in the 18th Dynasty in the reign of Thutmose IV, reached a height of production under Amenhotep III, and continued to be produced, but to a lesser extent, under Akhenaten. The underside of the commemorative scarab includes about ten lines of text, the most famous of which relate the building of a lake for Queen Tiye, the hunting prowess of Amenhotep III, and this same ruler’s marriage to Mitannian princess Gilukhepa. The commemorative scarab played a number of social roles, in particular that of spreading knowledge of royal achievements, status, and wealth throughout elite society in Egypt and beyond, creating a kind of mobile and personalized propaganda network

“Scarab Amulet: The most common scarab type is the scarab amulet, so ubiquitous that it is usually referenced in the Egyptological and archaeological literature simply as “scarab”. The beetle form was ideal for use as an amulet. Most scarab amulets are quite small, measuring between 10 mm and 50 mm in length. They are ovoid in shape, the back of the amulet depicting the head and folded wings of the insect and the sides depicting the legs. The scarab amulet is usually pierced longitudinally, so that the owner could wear the object as a ring, necklace, or bracelet. The blank oval underside of the scarab amulet was an excellent location for the inscription of personal names, kings’ names, apotropaic sayings, geometric designs, or figural representations. The scarab amulet could be carved from a variety of stones, including costly amethyst, jasper, carnelian, and lapis lazuli, or from less expensive stones, such as steatite, which was usually glazed. A great many scarab amulets were molded from faience, especially in the New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.). The earliest scarab amulets are dated stylistically to the 6th Dynasty; most early examples are uninscribed. The first scarab seals, bearing the name and title of the owner, developed in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.). The scarab’s use continued in ancient Egypt until the Ptolemaic Period , although production after the reign of Ramses III was limited. The so-called “scaraboid” also belongs to this class of object and describes any amulet carved in the standard ovoid shape but depicting an animal, such as a goose, cat, or frog, rather than a beetle.” <>

Scarab Amulet Decoration and Meaning

Kathlyn M Cooney of UCLA wrote: “It is quite common to organize scarabs by the type of decoration found on the scarab base. The first type of scarab base decoration includes examples ranging in date from the Middle Kingdom through the Late Period, depicting apotropaic and divine iconography, including images of gods and so-called good- luck sayings. This group also includes scarabs from the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period that are particularly associated with the god Amen and the many cryptographic writings of this god’s name. [Source: Kathlyn M Cooney, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]

“The second type of scarab base includes rulers’ names, epithets, and images, and these examples also date from the Middle Kingdom through the Late Period. The scarab represented the rebirth of the sun god and was therefore intimately associated with cycles of masculine royal renewal and, by extension, Egyptian political power systems. Because of the association of the king and the sun god, scarabs were often inscribed with the names and/or depictions of the king (either currently reigning or deceased). In many ways the scarab was meant to be a gendered object. The word xpr, when used as a noun, is masculine, and most iconography on the underside of scarabs revolves around the masculine political world—of kings and courtiers. This is not to say that a scarab amulet could not depict or be owned by a woman, just that it was more representative of masculine spheres of power and kingship. <>

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scarab with wings

“A third category of scarab base decoration features non-royal personal names and titles, suggesting the scarab’s use as the owner’s personal seal, a type that reached its height in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.). Most of these non-royal names and titles belong to holders of elite offices or priesthoods. A fourth decorative group depicts motifs of northwest Asian origin, in addition to foreign adaptations of Egyptian iconography. Many of these scarabs date from the late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period (the period of Hyksos domination). Others date to the New Kingdom, when Egypt’s empire reached its apex. <>

“A fifth scarab amulet group features geometric and stylized patterns, many of them dating to the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period. Most common within this group are abstract geometric, scroll, spiral, woven, floral, and even humanoid patterns. It should also be mentioned that many scarab amulet undersides are uninscribed, and many such examples are made of semi-precious stones.” <>

Uses of Scarab Amulets

Kathlyn M Cooney of UCLA wrote: “The small size and compact shape of the scarab amulet facilitated mobility and distribution, making the object amenable to various public and private political agendas. In the Middle Kingdom, scarabs were often utilized as seals by non-royal bureaucrats, and many personal names and titles are found on scarabs. Scarabs were manipulated as political tools by the Hyksos kings and their officials during the Second Intermediate Period, when inscribed examples were ostensibly distributed to elites and vassals. During the New Kingdom, scarab amulets and seals were spread throughout the increasingly connected Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds, and particularly the Levant; as such, the occurrence of kings’ names and figures became especially common. The New Kingdom also saw a blossoming of personal piety in scarab amulet design, when seal iconography increasingly turned towards divine figures, aphorisms, and cryptography. [Source: Kathlyn M Cooney, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]


King Tut scarab


“The wide range of scarab decorative genres complicates the issue of scarab meaning and, by extension, function. Scarab amulets fulfilled multiple uses: as administrative tools, as markers of social status, as distributed propaganda messages, or as apotropaic talismans. It is therefore very difficult to place these objects into specific religious, political, or socio-economic categories. Discussion of a given scarab’s decorative genre and function is partly dependent on its production, distribution, and reception—all processes that are difficult to discern in the preserved ancient record, and especially that of unprovenanced scarabs from private collections. <>

“The small size of the scarab base required the creation and utilization of abbreviated, abstracted, and “loaded” iconography that could be multi-functional and multi- interpretational for the scarab owner. Such iconography provided layers of complexity, because conceptual signs and symbols have multiple grammatical and semiotic meanings, resulting in the overlap of genres and thus scholarly confusion about scarab function. Ultimately, the best explanation of scarab function is that the scarab amulet held a number of meanings and functions simultaneously, depending on the manu- facturer’s intent, the owner’s understanding of the piece, and the occasions of its use. Some of these meanings are amenable to protection and personal piety, while others point to a socio-political use. The scarab amulet’s symbolism was intended to be inclusive and broad, rather than confined to one particular meaning in a given circumstance.” <>

Scarab Amulet Dating

Scarabs are extremely difficult to date; very few are found in archaeological context and most are unprovenanced in private and museum collections. Kathlyn M Cooney of UCLA wrote: “Scarab base-decoration is commonly used as a dating tool; nonetheless, it is notoriously difficult to use a scarab found in context to date an archaeological site. Many scarabs are inscribed with the names of rulers already dead at the time of production; others are heirlooms, found entirely out of their production context. Many scarab and seal specialists rightly call for contextual study that incorporates historical and archaeological data, but this is impossible with art-market pieces, which make up the bulk of scarab collections aroundthe world. Modern forgeries complicate the issue of dating even more. In the end, many scarab specialists base their dating on stylistic comparison to other scarabs, only some of which are found in archaeological contexts. [Source: Kathlyn M Cooney, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]

“Even scarab inscriptions with royal names cannot necessarily be dated to the reigns of those rulers, because such names are often inscribed long after a ruler’s death— particularly those of the 4th-Dynasty king Sneferu, the 18th-Dynasty Thutmose III, and the 19th-Dynasty Ramesses Scarab amulets inscribed with royal names contribute less to scarab typological development than one would hope, providing only the terminus post quem date. Nonetheless, many scarab publications have used the royal names inscribed on scarabs as dating criteria, dating other, non-royal, scarabs based on stylistic comparison with these named scarabs. Other scarab experts have reacted against this circular use of unreliably dated comperanda by not providing dates at all . Egyptologists and archaeologists have also attempted dating typologies based on the style of scarab backs, heads, and legs, so as to avoid or to check the suggested date of the decoration . Typological dating of scarab forms is most useful when dealing with larger scarab groups statistically, but it is not very helpful for dating individual scarabs without common archaeological provenance. Recent scarab studies use all available criteria—inscription, form, material, size, and archaeological context, for example—to provide wide date-ranges rather than exact reigns. Very broad date-ranges are now the norm in scarab publications

Akh


Ankh mirror from
Tutanchamun'sTomb
Jírí Janák of Charles University in Prague wrote: “The notion of akh, often translated as (effective) spirit, pointed toward many different meanings, such as the identity of the transfigured dead as well as that of living persons who acted efficaciously for (or on behalf of) their masters. The akh belonged to cardinal terms of ancient Egyptian religion and hence is often found in Egyptian religious texts, as well as in other textual and iconographic sources. Its basic meaning was related to effectiveness and reciprocal relationship that crossed the borderlines between different spheres. [Source: Jírí Janák, Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“The akh is included among religious terms connected to the Egyptian conception of human and divine beings, their status, roles, and mutual relationships. Since it was linked to a wide range of ideas and beliefs at the core of ancient Egyptian religion, this term and its derivatives occur regularly in Egyptian religious texts, as well as in textual and iconographic sources of other character. <>

“Although the akh—like the words ka and ba—lacks an exact counterpart in any modern language, it has often been translated as “spirit”, leaving aside the impossibility to find exact counterparts for words in different languages. The Egyptian term, however, pointed toward many different but interconnected meanings, for instance, the ideas of the transfigured, efficacious, glorious, or blessed dead. The term akh also had to do with the notions of being an intermediator between the living and the divine (see below). The core meaning of akh had to do with the idea of “effectiveness” and mutual relationship or dependence that crossed the borderlines between the human and divine spheres, and between the world of the living and the realm of the dead. <>

“The Egyptians used a representation of the northern bald ibis for the hieroglyphic sign “akh”. The bird (as well as its ancient images) is easily recognizable by the shape of its body, posture, shorter legs, long curved bill, and a typical crest covering the back of the head. Although there are many aspects of this bird’s nature that must have had impact on the mind of the Egyptians—such as the glittering colors on its wings — the main factor in holding the bird in particular esteem and relating it to the concept of the akh was its habitat, since the northern bald ibis used to dwell on rocky cliffs that stretched out along the eastern bank of the Nile. It was the region that the Egyptians called the akhet, and considered the region of sunrise, rebirth, and resurrection. Therefore, these birds were connected with powers and beings believed to dwell within or behind the region of the horizon. <>

“Although recent research has shown that no primary link probably existed between the word Ax (akh) and the term jAxw (jakhu) meaning “light, radiance, or glow”, the akh was often connected with solar light and stellar brilliance, or even with the light-based creative power. K. Jansen- Winkeln has put forward the idea that the original notion of the akh and of its derivatives was linked to the mysterious, invisible power and efficacy of the sun at the horizon (e.g., akhet) during the dawn and the dusk when the light was visible although its source remained hidden.” <>

Egyptian Cosmology and Akhu


Ank, Djed and Sun

On Egyptian religion and cosmology and the akhu, Jírí Janák of Charles University in Prague wrote: “The three levels or realms of created cosmos (the earth, the sky, and the underworld) converged at the horizon (akhet). The latter term represented the junction of cosmic realms, and it was also viewed as the place of sunrise, hence the place of birth, renewal, and resurrection. Moreover, it was considered a place where divine beings (both gods and the blessed dead) dwelt and from whence they could venture forth. [Source: Jírí Janák, Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“The notion of the akh has often been translated as “spirit” or “blessed dead,” though the range of its aspects and powers covered also the meanings of “superhuman power” or “sacred mediator”. The Egyptians considered their blessed and influential dead—the akhu—as “living,” i.e., as “the resurrected”; however, human beings had to be transfigured and admitted into this state. Finally, the akh represented a mighty and mysterious entity that was part of the divine world and yet still had some influence upon the world of the living. They could interact with the living by means of superhuman powers and abilities, guard their tombs, punish intruders or wrongdoers, help in cases when human abilities were insufficient, or act as mediators between gods and men. <>

“In a parallel with the gods and people, a certain hierarchy existed even within the society of spirits. The deceased king thus represented “the head of the akhu” (Pyramid Texts Spell 215, §2103). According to Egyptian cosmology and mortuary texts, the akhu were “born” or “created” at the horizon, where they also dwelled and where they came from. Some sources (e.g., the so-called Book of the Dead), thus, use an expression jmyu akhet (“those who dwell in the horizon”) to denote or describe the blessed dead. Since the akhu were dependent on ritual actions performed by the living, a mutual relationship and cooperation between men and akhu formed one of the pillars of ancient Egyptian religion.” <>

Gods, Akhu, and Men

Jírí Janák of Charles University in Prague wrote: “The Egyptians divided the cogitative beings of the world into different types or categories with regard to the degree of their power and authority. This concept occurred for the first time in Middle Kingdom texts and remained in use until the Roman Period. The division of the categories of beings appears also in the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead, as well as in hymns, ritual or educational texts, and onomastica. [Source: Jírí Janák, Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“The highest position among the beings was held by the gods (nTrw) and the lowest was reserved for human beings (rmT; occasionally subdivided into pat, rxyt, and Hnmmt), or rather the living (anxw tp tA). The boundary sphere between the human and divine worlds was believed to be operated by semi-divine entities or beings with super-natural status and power, such as the demons and the blessed and the damned dead (the Axw and the mwtw), and by the supreme intermediator, the king. Royal annals or king-lists, which sometimes record divine dynasties and rule of the akhu prior to the historical or at least legendary rulers, witness a very similar concept of hierarchy. <>

“As to the role of the akh among other terms relating to composites, parts, or manifestations of human and divine beings, unlike the body, the ka, the shadow, it was never believed to represent part of the composition of a human entity. The Egyptians considered their blessed, efficient, and influential dead (i.e., the akhu) as “living,” that is, as “resurrected.” According to Egyptian ideas on life, death, and resurrection, a person did not have an akh, he or she had to become one. Moreover, this posthumous status was not reached automatically. Human beings had to be admitted and become transfigured or elevated into this new state. The dead became blessed or effective akhu only after mummification and proper burial rites were performed on them and after they had passed through obstacles of death and the trials of the underworld. Thus, only a person who lived according to the order of maat, who benefited from rituals or spells called the sakhu—those which “cause one to become an akh” or the “akh-ifiers” —and was subsequently buried, could be glorified or become transfigured into an akh. Late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period offering formulae attest the idea that a person was made akh by the lector priest and the embalmer. After reaching this status, the dead were revived and raised to a new plane of existence. The positive status of the mighty and transfigured akhu was mirrored by a negative concept of the mutu who represented those who remained dead, i.e., the damned. <>

“From a cosmological point of view, the horizon (e.g., akhet) played a very important role in the process of becoming an akh. Although it mainly represented the junction of cosmic realms (the earth, the sky, and the netherworld), the horizon was a region in itself. The akhet was believed to be the place of sunrise, hence the place of birth, renewal, and resurrection, and, moreover, it was considered a region where divine and super-human beings dwelt and from whence they could venture forth. Thus, the horizon represented the very place of “birth” or “creation” of the akhu. In the Book of the Dead, the blessed dead were denoted as “those who dwell in the horizon”. <>

“Besides the above-mentioned moral and ritual prerequisites, one’s intellectual power and knowledge as well as his or her social status might have been important factors in reaching the akh-status. In a parallel to the world of the gods and human beings, a certain hierarchy and stratification existed even within the society of the akhu. Thus, the (deceased) king or Horus represented “the head of the akhu” (Pyramid Text §§ 833, 858, 869, 899, 903, 1724, 1899, 1913 - 1914, 2096, 2103) or was considered the first of the akhu, the “akh akhu”.” <>

Role of the Akh


Ankh

Jírí Janák of Charles University in Prague wrote: “When a dead person’s journey to the afterlife had successfully finished and he/she was justified, transfigured into an akh, and resurrected, the person became a mighty and mysterious entity, which participated in the divine sphere of existence and yet still had some influence upon the world of the living. The akhu guarded their tombs where they promised to punish intruders on the one handand be inclinable to those who presented them with offerings on the other. But they also interacted with the living by means of superhuman powers and abilities: they could help in cases when human abilities were insufficient, as evidenced by the so-called Letters to the Dead, and acted as mediators who could intercede on behalf of the living with the gods or other akhu. [Source: Jírí Janák, Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Although the akhu had reached the afterlife existence, they still needed the living, since it was the latter who performed rituals, carried out the embalming and funerary requirements, and provided their dead ancestors with offerings. Sus- taining the needs of the akhu is attested by a ceremony called “the feeding the akh” with the glorified deceased depicted in front of food offerings in the 4th and 5th Dynasty tombs at Giza. This ceremony was later incorporated into the Opening of the Mouth ritual. Later still, Ani in his Teachings reminds his audience that one should appease the akh with everything he desires, since that spirit is capable of doing all kinds of evil things. <>

“As for the above-mentioned “feeding of the akh” scene, some scholars have connected it to depictions attested on Early Dynastic cylinder seals where the šps- noble is represented seated opposite a head- turned akh-bird with an offering table in between them, and by doing so, traced the feeding of the akh ritual back to early periods of Egyptian history. Such interpretation is, however, still uncertain, as is the identification of the bird on these seals, since the depicted animal does not bear the main characteristic features of the northern bald ibis, and it thus would represent an unprecedented way of imaging this bird, unique both in Egyptian script and art. <>

“The akhu and the living represented co- dependent communities, and their mutual relationships and cooperation formed one of the pillars of ancient Egyptian religion. And it was precisely the bilateral akh-efficient, reciprocal actions of both categories of beings, which crossed the threshold of death and the border of this and the next world. In this funerary context, the living son was efficacious and serviceable for/on behalf of his father, as much as the father was akh-efficient and beneficial for/on behalf of his son, besides being an akh himself. The son gained this status by providing his father with burial and offerings, as well as by assuming the father’s earthly position and authority, and the latter by legitimizing the son’s heritage and authority as well as by supporting and protecting him from the afterlife. <>

“This type of a mutual efficacy between father and son found its mythological model in the relationship between Osiris and Horus. As early as in the Pyramid Texts, Osiris is said to have become an akh (blessed, justified, glorified, resurrected, mighty, etc.) through the deeds of his son Horus; in the same way, Horus was believed to have become akh- effective and was legitimized by his father Osiris. A similar idea is attested also in the Book of the Dead Chapter 173 where Horus comes to Osiris to revive him with the embrace (of his ka), that is, to make him an akh.” <>

Power of the Akh

Jírí Janák of Charles University in Prague wrote: ““From the Old Kingdom onwards, the term akh often received an adjectival qualification within mortuary texts and tomb inscriptions. Thus, the akh could be mnx (proficient, potent), Sps (noble, venerable), but mainly jqr (excellent, competent) and apr (equipped). These expressions should describe the status and the power of the akh that were based on undergoing proper rituals, having proper tomb equipment and cult, and knowing proper spells or magic. Moreover, they should also draw attention towards his ability to act effectively for/on behalf of the living, since the akhu were both efficacious/helpful and influential. The efficacious power or competency of the akh was not restricted only to the above- mentioned bilateral, reciprocal relationship between two agents, mainly father and son, Horus and Osiris: it also covered a trilateral relationship where the akh functioned as a mediator, intercessor, or messenger between the living and higher super-human authorities, other akhu, and the gods. Using a word-play or pun as the Egyptians often did, we can say that a blessed, glorified deceased was believe to operate as an “akhtaché” of a divine authority among the living, who could intercede on behalf of his or her worshipers. [Source: Jírí Janák, Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“From the Old to the Middle Kingdom, the living (both direct descendants of the deceased and the passers-by) could turn to the akhu in their tombs with offerings and spoken pleas, or even with requests written in “letters”. From the New Kingdom onwards, however, different media in this type of ancestor worship or private cult are attested: these include the so-called anthropoid ancestor busts and mainly the Ax iqr n Ra (akh jqer en Ra) stelae. The latter artifacts (attested from the late 18th Dynasty to the 20th Dynasty) showed the deceased person seated, usually with a lotus flower at his or her nose, and denoted him or her as an excellent akh, who is in a close relationship to the sun-god Ra and who can thus operate for/on behalf of him and intercede for/on behalf of worshipers. The akh was believed to have similar qualities and dispose with similar powers that have much later been ascribed also to angels in Greek magical papyri), ghosts in Coptic literature, and the saints in Christianity. <>

“However, the akh-effectiveness and its reciprocal relationship were not restricted to the sphere of the afterlife and to the mutual relationship between the living and the dead. Also the living of all social levels could become akh-effective on behalf of a higher earthly authority, or they could perform akhu-deeds for somebody. Thus, kings, officials, and townsmen could act with akh- effectiveness on behalf of their gods, kings, lords, or one another. The efficacious power of the akh was again connected both to the reciprocal relationship between father and son and to the trilateral relationship with the akh acting responsibly on behalf of a superior authority and helpfully for his petitioners.” <>

Akh-Relationship in the Amarna Period

Jírí Janák of Charles University in Prague wrote: “Recent research has shown that the above- mentioned Ax iqr n Ra stelae probably had their direct precursors in the so-called “Family- stelae” of the Amarna Period that have been interpreted as media of religious practice rooted in ancestral worship with the king Akhenaten and his wife as Aten’s direct intermediators towards the people. Thus, the king was truly operating according to the proclamation of his new name, that is, as an (or rather the only) akh en Aten. Not only did he claim that he was akh-effective for/on behalf of his father Aten in the same way his divine father was akh for him, but he himself became a direct object of cult as Aten’s only intermediator, messenger, and image. [Source: Jírí Janák, Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“The importance of this concept is also strengthened by the fact that in the Amarna tombs we lack the former notion of the glorified and effective deceased (akh). The deceased are intentionally denoted almost exclusively as the righteous (mAatjw) or favored ones (Hsyw) there. The expression akh and the hieroglyphic sign of akh itself occur mainly within the name of the king or with regards to the relation between the king and the god. Other attestations speak about the earthly “akh- effective” and “serviceable” power of scribes and priests or about the akh-effectiveness of the deceased officials to their lord, the king. Similar akh- effective relationships of officials towards the king are attested, for example, in Parennefer’s Theban tomb or within an offering formula found in a private house in el-Amarna . A unique phrase was discovered among inscriptions in the tomb of Aye at el-Amarna: “You are first among the king’s companions, while similarly you are the first in front of the akhu” . W. J. Murnane translates the last term as “illuminated spirits,” however, in the light of the above-mentioned evidence on the akh reciprocity and relationship, we may assume that the expression was not endowed with its earlier mortuary meaning, but that it referred to Aye’s earthly position and his role as the highest official. Thus, priests and officials of the Amarna Period acted as akhu for/on behalf of the king, who himself operated and interceded as the akh of the supreme authority of Aten. The same officials, however, did not receive the status and function that was assigned to the glorified deceased prior to the historical period in question. They did not became the akhu who would act on behalf of gods and intercede on behalf of the petitioners, since this position was already occupied by the god’s sole earthly image, emissary, and intermediator, the king, as the sole akh of Aten.” <>

Akhu Power in Ritual and Magic

Jírí Janák of Charles University in Prague wrote: “Besides the plural form akhu, a similar term (akhu as an abstract) is attested in Egyptian sources. It referred to akh-effective deeds, creative power of words, or ritual and magical spells . It also covered the aspects of secret knowledge and magical power of “invisible efficacy” possessed and operated by the gods, the deceased and magicians, or present in magical and medicinal texts. [Source: Jírí Janák, Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“As was already mentioned above, the deceased were both respected and venerated for the akh-efficacious help they offered, but they were also feared for their power and for revenge they might bring. In this respect, the term akh referred not only to the deceased individual but also to his powers and potential manifestation. Usually, the living asked these mighty, effective, and influential deceased forhelp by cultic means (see above). However, in several attested cases, we read about the summoning of an akh-spirits to work for a magician or to speak to him, and there is also evidence for repelling of malevolent akhu and exorcisms, as in the case of the famous Bentresh Stela. These ideas on the nature, power, and function of the akh survived even within Coptic words, particularly the jkh (demon).” <>

Northern Bald Ibis — the Akh Bird


the ba bird, symbol of the soul

Jírí Janák of Charles University in Prague wrote: “Three different kinds of ibis species are attested from ancient Egypt: the sacred ibis, the glossy ibis, and the northern bald ibis. Pictorial representations of the latter bird—easily recognizable by the shape of its body, the shorter legs, long curved beak, and the typical crest covering the back of the head—were used in writings of the noun akh and related words and notions (e.g., the blessed dead). We can deduce from modern observations that in ancient times this member of the ibis species used to dwell on rocky cliffs on the eastern bank of the Nile, that is, at the very place designated as the ideal rebirth and resurrection region (the akhet). Thus, the northern bald ibises might have been viewed as visitors and messengers from the other world—earthly manifestations of the blessed dead (the akhu). The material and pictorial evidence dealing with the northern bald ibis in ancient Egypt is accurate, precise, and elaborate in the early periods of Egyptian history (until the final phase of the third millennium B.C.). Later, the representations of this bird became schematized and do not correspond to nature. Thus, they do not present us with any direct and convincing evidence for the presence of the northern bald ibis in Egypt, and, moreover, they most probably witness both the bird’s decline and its disappearance from the country.[Source: Jírí Janák, Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“As for the connection between the northern bald ibis and the akh, some scholars reached the conclusion that there was no (or only a phonetic) intrinsic relation between the two; others connected the root word akh with the term jakhu (“light, radiance or glow”) suggesting that the “glowing” purple and green feathers on the wings of the bird represented its link to the ideas of light, splendor, and brilliance. There are, however, scholars who have challenged the theory that the word akh was primarily connected with light and glare and suggested that the original meaning of the notions akh and akhu might have been linked, for example, to the idea of a mysterious, invisible force and to the efficacy of the sun at the horizon. <>

“Although there are many (probably secondary) aspects of the northern bald ibis’ nature that could have been important for the Egyptians such as, for example, the above- mentioned glittering colors on its wings, or its calling and greeting display, the main factor in holding the bird in particular esteem and connecting it with the akhu and the idea of resurrection was its habitat. This member of this ibis species used to dwell at the very place designated as the ideal rebirth and resurrection region (the eastern horizon as the akhet); moreover, its flocks might have very well represented the society of the “returning” dead. The ancient Egyptians saw migratory birds as the souls or spirits of the dead, and the fact that the northern bald ibis counts among the migratory birds might also have been very important. The arrival of these birds could have been a sign of the coming “spring” or the harvest season, as was the case at Bireçik. Thus, we find circumstantial evidence, which seems to support the theory that in ancient Egypt, the northern bald ibises were viewed as visitors and messengers from the other world and were earthly manifestations of the blessed dead.” <>

Cartouche

Cathie Spieser, an independent researcher in Switzerland, wrote: “The cartouche is an elongated form of the Egyptian shen-hieroglyph that encloses and protects a royal name or, in specific contexts, the name of a divinity. A king’s throne name and birth name were each enclosed in a cartouche, forming a kind of heraldic motif expressing the ruler’s dual nature as both human and divine. The cartouche could occur as a simple decorative component. When shown independently the cartouche took on an iconic significance and replaced the king’s, or more rarely, the queen’s, anthropomorphic image, enabling him or her to be venerated as a divine entity. Conversely, the enclosure of a god’s or goddess’s name in a cartouche served to render the deity more accessible to the human sphere. [Source: Cathie Spieser, independent researcher, Switzerland, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]

“The cartouche derives from the Egyptian shen-ring, a hieroglyphic sign depicting a coil of rope tied at one end, meaning “ring, circle,” the root Sn (shen) expressing the idea of encircling. Symbolically, the cartouche represents the encircling of the created world by the sun disc—that is, the containment of “all that the sun encircles.” Originally, the shen-ring was probably an amulet formed from a length of papyrus rope looped into a circle with an additional binding. The cartouche is an elongated shen-ring, extended to accommodate and magically protect a royal name. <>

“The convention of enclosing the king’s name in a cartouche initially appeared on royal monuments and may possibly date back as early as the First Dynasty, although there is currently little conclusive evidence to support this supposition. Recent work on early writing may well shed light on the question. The cartouche was first used to enclose the king’s birth (given) name. The earliest attested example of an enclosed birth name— that of Third Dynasty pharaoh Huni, found on a block at Elephantine—is doubtful. Well attested, however, are examples on royal monuments of Sneferu (Fourth Dynasty) and his successors. By the middle of the Fifth Dynasty, during the regency of Neferirkara, the newly instituted throne name is also enclosed within a cartouche. <>

“The first occurrence of the use of cartouches to enclose queens’ names appears in the Sixth Dynasty. At this time we find the birth names of Ankhnesmeryra I and her sister Ankhnesmeryra II, also called Ankhnespepy—both wives of Pepy I— partially contained: cartouches enclose only the components “Meryra” and “Pepy,” these being the king’s throne and birth names, respectively. This convention reflects the queen’s position as “king’s wife,” but may further indicate, in a sense, that the king’s cartouche also became a part of the name of the queen, perhaps opening the way for queens to have their own names placed in cartouches. The name of queen Ankhnesmeryra I occurs in a private burial monument; that of Ankhnesmeryra II is found in her small pyramid at Saqqara. From the Middle Kingdom onward, cartouches enclosed the queen’s entire birth name; the birth name remained the only queen’s name to be enclosed by a cartouche. Occasionally epithets (both royal and non-royal) or god’s names could also be included. <>

“The cartouche remained in use until the end of Pharaonic civilization. When Pharaonic beliefs and the associated writing systems lost their relevance, the cartouche disappeared as well. The last pharaohs whose names are attested as written in cartouches are the Roman emperors Diocletian, Galerius, and Maximinus Daia of the beginning of the fourth century CE. The kings of Meroe in Sudan continued to use the cartouche until the fifth century CE.” <>

Function and Meaning of Cartouches


cartouche at Kom Ombo

Cathie Spieser, an independent researcher in Switzerland, wrote: “The purpose of the cartouche is to protect the royal name, the name embodying, supernaturally, the ruler’s identity. Moreover, as a solar element depicting “all that the sun encircles,” the cartouche establishes a parallel between the sun and the pharaoh as long as he rules. [Source: Cathie Spieser, independent researcher, Switzerland, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]

“The practice of encircling a written name to ensure its protection is ancient. In Predynastic times, a kind of cartouche formed by an elongated oval or square, sometimes crenellated and recalling the structure of a fortress, was employed to protect names of localities. A similar enclosure, the so-called serekh, or “palace façade,” was used from the First Dynasty onward to surround the king’s Horus name. <>

“The king’s throne and birth names enclosed in cartouches form a kind of heraldic motif expressing his dual nature: the birth name represents him on a terrestrial level as a human being, chosen by the gods, and the throne name represents him as an incarnation of divine power . The two cartouches may appear as a substitute for the anthropomorphic image of the king, but they are not its equivalent. When cartouches are used iconically, they reflect the king’s divine essence, in contrast to his anthropomorphic image, which is bound to his terrestrial aspect. Iconic cartouches could be worshipped by private individuals as an equivalent of the sun disc. They could also manifest the king in the role of various deities.” <>

Cartouches in Writing

Cathie Spieser wrote: “The cartouche isolates and foregrounds the name in a text while also magically ensuring the name’s protection. The cartouche could be written horizontally or vertically, with hieroglyphs oriented to the left or the right, or from top to bottom. [Source: Cathie Spieser, independent researcher, Switzerland, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]

“The cartouche is generally preceded by a title referring to the enclosed name. The king’s throne name is entitled either nswt bjtj, “He of the sedge and the bee” (reading uncertain), mostly translated “King of Upper and Lower Egypt”/“Dual King” or nb tAwj, “Lord of the Two Lands.” His birth name is entitled either zA Ra, “Son of Ra,” or nb xaw, “Lord of Crowns/Appearances”. <>

“Most often one royal name is enclosed within a cartouche; however, from the end of the Sixth Dynasty through the Middle Kingdom sometimes two royal names are enclosed. In such cases the throne name precedes the birth name within the cartouche; sometimes the throne name is itself preceded in the cartouche by an epithet, such as nswt bjtj. From the Fourth Dynasty onward, it became the practice to include the epithet zA Ra within the cartouche of the king’s birth name. From the Ninth/Tenth Dynasties onward, the throne name could be preceded within the cartouche by the epithet nswt bjtj, but there is no discernable regularity or pattern in this practice. The regular inclusion of zA Ra within the cartouche is characteristic of the names of Eleventh Dynasty Theban kings. This practice survives only into the Hyksos Period and the Seventeenth Dynasty. The meaning of this feature is not clear; it may have been an attempt to endow royal names with greater sanctity, or, in the Eleventh Dynasty, it may have been an assertion of local identity. <>

“From the New Kingdom onward, excluding some rare exceptions, non-royal epithets could occasionally be included in the cartouche, such as the title jt-nTr, used by the late Eighteenth Dynasty king Aye, or Hm-nTr, used by the high priests of Amun ruling in the Twenty-first Dynasty. An example of the latter practice is that of Herihor, whose throne name was Hm-nTr tpj n Jmn, “High Priest of Amun.”The use of cartouches was also sometimes extended to pharaohs whose names clearly evoked their non-royal origins, especially during the Second Intermediate Period. Examples include the birth names of kings Imiramesha, meaning “general” or “commander of the army”; Nehesi, meaning “the Nubian” or “a troop soldier”; and Shemesu, meaning “the escort”. <>

“From the end of the New Kingdom, a cartouche enclosing the name of a deity could also substitute for an anthropomorphicrepresentation of the god. Cartouches enclose, for example, the names of Osiris and Horus in their numerous variants, Horakhti, Amun- Ra, and Anubis, among others. A cartouche of a divinized king, such as Amenhotep I, functioned in a similar manner. Whereas the royal cartouche reveals some idea of the divinity of the king, the use of the cartouche for gods’ names displays an intent to bring the gods to a level closer to the human sphere. Gods’ names enclosed in cartouches appear, on the one hand, in a context deriving from royal ideology that associates them with the solar disc; on the other hand, they are also associated with the solar destiny of the deceased individual who is assimilated to the god. Many images displaying a cartouche enclosing a god’s name refer to Spell 16 of the Book of the Dead, especially in the iconography of post-New Kingdom Theban coffins.” <>

Cartouches Iconography and Ornamentation


cartouche for the Roman leader Trajan

Cathie Spieser wrote: “The cartouche takes on iconic significance when it appears in place of the anthropomorphic image of the king (or, much more rarely, the queen). It should be understood that in such cases the cartouche is not intended as a substitute for the ruler’s image but rather as a presentation of the ruler as a divine entity. One example shows Thutmose IV’s cartouche as a falcon with human arms—an iconic representation of “Horus slaying his enemies.” Similarly, artistic strategies serve to indicate when the replacement of the ruler’s image is intended. A cartouche of Thutmose III, worshipped by the viceroy of Kush called Nehy, is displayed on the same scale as Nehy himself. That the cartouche is ornamented further increases its sacredness. Additionally, gods or goddesses can be depicted protecting the cartouche. [Source: Cathie Spieser, independent researcher, Switzerland, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]

“Cartouches can be assimilated with a god and venerated as such. The autonomous cartouche (i.e., the cartouche shown independently) presents the king or queen as the manifestation of various gods or goddesses, sometimes in combination with rebuses, cryptograms, and wordplay. The cartouche becomes a component of the Horus falcon in representations identifying the king with “Horus slaying his enemies”. The cartouche could also depict the king as Horus Behdety, replacing the solar disc between the god’s wings. The king’s name written within a solar disc or ouroboros (“the snake that bites its tail”) rather than a cartouche assimilates the king with the god Ra. The king’s name written in the solar bark likely associates the king with Amun-Ra; indeed the birth name of Amenhotep III can be written with the solar- bark sign, connoting Amun. <>

“Ramesside royal sarcophagi in the form of a cartouche encircling the body of the king constitute a cosmogonic representation: they show the deceased king as Osiris enveloped by the bounded universe (“all that the sun encircles”). In such cases, the cartouche has an iconographic value but does not replace the image of the king. In the same way, the sarcophagus chambers from some earlier royal tombs—for example, the tombs of Thutmose I (KV38), Thutmose II (KV 42?), and Thutmose III (KV 34)—may take the form of a cartouche. The cartouche could also be used in the design of objects or furniture; for example, a wooden box in the form of a cartouche was found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. Cartouches, whether empty or enclosing a name, could serve as protective amulets, seals, and ring-seals, as displayed in the numerous examples found at el-Amarna. <>

“Ornaments served to protect the cartouche and to further emphasize the king’s or queen’s divinity. Some ornaments were placed atop the cartouche—we find cartouches surmounted by double-plumed solar discs, solar discs with or without a pair of uraei, and lunar discs, which in turn could be combined with ram, bull, or cow horns—whereas pairs of uraei with the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt are found adorning the sides. The cartouche can also occur without ornaments when it replaces the king’s or queen’s anthropomorphic image. <>

“The cartouche itself may surmount a potent associative symbol, such as the hieroglyph for “gold”, for “festival”, or for “the uniting of the Two Lands”, or the sign for the standard. The nbw-sign alludes to the “golden” radiance of the cartouche, considered an image of the sun disc. (In the Amarna Period, this solar radiance is reserved for the god Aten to the extent that the nbw-sign is excluded from iconography.) Moreover, the “nb” component of the nbw-sign perhaps also references “lord” and “all”—that is, the king as “ruler of all (the universe)”—constituting a display of multiple meanings. The Hb-sign may refer to the Sed Festival, the royal jubilee ritually celebrated by the king. The zmA- tAwj can bear one or multiple royal names. The jAt-sign is used to support many divinities and belongs to the emblems displaying the king’s (or queen’s) divine nature.” <>

Cartouche Veneration and Omission


King Tut cartouche

Cathie Spieser wrote: “In the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.), cartouches in temple reliefs are shown receiving offerings from Nile gods, especially in procession scenes. New Kingdom iconography features scenes of officials venerating kings’ names. The officials express their loyalty to the king by praying to the king’s cartouche, which is itself assimilated with the rising sun; they also present funerary wishes, expressing their hope for continued existence in the afterlife. Starting in the reign of Hatshepsut, foreign chiefs are depicted prostrating before the ruler’s cartouches. A distinctive elaboration in the Ramesside Period is the veneration of cartouches by royal children. [Source:Cathie Spieser, independent researcher, Switzerland, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]

“An empty cartouche serves as a hieroglyphic determinative for the word rn (“name”) when it designates either the name of a ruler or the king’s titulary, rn wr (“great name”). In the Ptolomaic and Roman Periods, a great number of reliefs (at the temple of Dendara, for example) display an empty cartouche for either kings or queens, designating the kingship or queenship, respectively. The idea of kingship can also be expressed at this time by a cartouche containing only the word “pharaoh”, examples of which may point to weaknesses in, or uncertainty regarding, the kingship at this point in history. <>

“Some names of the royal titulary—the Horus name, Two Ladies name, and Golden Horus names, specifically—were never enclosed within a cartouche. The selective use of the cartouche in the titulary may have been a way to emphasize the sanctity of the throne and birth names. “Conversely, it is noteworthy that in the Ramesside Period the absence of a cartouche enclosing a royal name—in particular contexts—could actually indicate the name- holder’s increased status and divinity. Kings’ birth and throne names without cartouches are displayed, for example, in monumental friezes on temple walls. In statuary, officials are depicted holding the king’s hieroglyphic names in their hands—the absence of cartouches now lending iconic value to the hieroglyphs. It therefore appears that each hieroglyphic sign of the royal name had, by this time, taken on power and divinity individually. The signs still belonged to a cohesive grouping that constituted a royal name, but each simultaneously took on its own role as a divine entity. <>

“This is particularly visible in a frieze from the bark chamber in the Temple of Khons at Karnak. Here, alternating images of Ramesses IV, in maturity and as a young man, are shown offering maat to the god Amun, the name of the god being part of the king’s throne name. Close examination reveals that the frieze is a kind of rebus. One of the alternating images shows the king wearing the khepresh crown surmounted by a sun disc, heqa scepter in hand, offering maat to Amun, who sits atop the signs reading stp n—thus presenting the king’s throne name, HoA-mAat-Ra stp-n-Jmn. The other plays on the king’s birth name and is rather more difficult to read. Itfeatures the young king or prince surmounted by a sun disc, maat feather in hand, offering maat to Amun, who sits atop the mr-sign. Under both the young Ramesses and the god Amun is a double-s. In this way, the king’s birth name is presented: Ra-msj-sw HoA-mAat- mrj-Jmn. Thus, we see that the hieroglyphs themselves played an integral role in the artistic design of the frieze, the absence of the cartouche enhancing their iconic value. “<>

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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