Ancient Egyptian Symbols and their Meanings
To the ancient Egyptians, religion and the symbols used in religious rituals were of utmost importance as they helped in passing down important cultural values from one generation to another. Those symbols were part and parcel of the everyday lives of the people. Take the example of the Eye of Ra (also known as the Eye of Horus), ancient Egyptians believed that the symbol had the ability to ward off evil spirits and demonic forces. As a result, ancient Egyptian symbols were ubiquitous and extremely important across the land, particularly among Egyptian elites and clergy.
Here is our pick of the 12 most famous ancient Egyptian symbols and their meanings and significance.
Along with the djed and the was scepter, the ankh symbol ranks up as the most famous ancient Egyptian symbol. This symbol is said to evoke the concept of life and sustenance. Not only does it apply to the realm of the living, but it was also used to symbolize everlasting life and blissful afterlife.
In ancient Egyptian religion, death was not the end as it was believed that the soul of the dead journeyed from the land of the living into the afterlife. As a result, the ankh symbol held a very important spot in the hearts of the ancient Egyptians.
To the ancient Egyptians, the sun was the bringer of life and the vital force that sustained everything in the cosmos. This explains why many ancient Egyptian gods were generally depicted holding the ankh.
Ankh symbols also evoked the concept of duality – male and female; earth and heaven; and sun and moon so to speak. Its looped top symbolized the eternal life that awaited all living humans after their death.
Although it remains a bit unclear as to the origin of the ankh symbol, some Egyptologists have stated that it probably came from the ‘knot of Isis’ (also known as the tjet). The ankh symbol, or in some cases the ankh and the djed, were inscribed on sarcophagi, paintings on the walls of tombs, statues and obelisks.
EYE OF RA
Also known as the Eye of Horus, this symbol goes back to the Predynastic Period (before 3100 BCE). It was used on a regular basis, appearing on things from amulets to walls of the temples.
The Eye of Ra is said to have carried a lot of symbolic value to the ancient Egyptians. The belief back then was that the since Ra (or Re) was the sun god, then the Eye of Ra was the earthly manifestation of the sun.
This symbol in many ways reassured the Egyptians of the gods’ constant watchful presence over the land. It was known to bestow upon the holder good health and the protection of the gods, both in this world and the afterlife. In addition to all of that it was used to symbolize the power wielded by the pharaohs of Egypt.
Another name of the Eye of Ra is Udjat Eye, a reference to the Wadget, the Egyptian goddess of protection. In addition to its association with the sun god Ra and the goddess Wadget, the Eye of Ra was believed to be the personification of a number of Egyptian goddesses, including Sekhmet, Bastet, Hathor, and Mut.
- 10 Most Famous Ancient Egyptian Goddesses
- Everything that you need to know about Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom and knowledge
Nothing in ancient Egypt epitomized the concepts of kingly power better than the was scepter. This explains why the ancient Egyptian pharaohs were almost all the time depicted holding the was scepter.
It is widely believed that the canine head atop the was scepter is that of Anubis’ head, i.e. the head of a jackal. At the core of this symbol is the power possessed by the pharaohs, who were known as the physical manifestations of the gods.
The was scepter most likely developed from royal scepters used by the pharaohs as far back as the Early Dynastic Era (c. 3100-c. 2686 BCE). In some cases, the was scepter was combined with other symbols, including the djed and ankh. For example, the god of creation Ptah often held a was scepter with all three of those symbols.
The concept of duality comes to mind when the scepter is forked at the base. This type of was scepter can be seen in depiction of Hathor, the cattle goddess of fertility and love, and Isis, the goddess of healing, magic and women.
Next on our list of famous ancient Egyptian symbols is the Djed symbol. The symbol is basically a column-shaped bar that has four parallel lines at the top.
According to scholars the Djed goes way back into the Predynastic Period (c. 6000 BCE – c. 3150 BCE). It would then remain in use until the Romans invaded Egypt, i.e. the end of the Ptolemaic Period (323-30 BCE).
The Djed basically represented stability both in the land of living and the land of the dead. It symbolized the bond ancient Egyptians had with their gods, particularly with the god Osiris, the lord of the Underworld. Thus, the djed was a way of communicating the concepts of resurrection and eternal life. Some scholars say that the djed represented the backbone of Osiris. This explains why it was inscribed at the bottom of sarcophagi as it imbued the dead soul the vital force that enabled it to rise and enter into the afterlife.
It has also been stated that the djed represented the Tamarisk tree and the fertility pole – both of those items were related to Osiris and symbolized rebirth and regeneration.
There was something very special about the four parallel lines as the number four evoked the concept of wholeness. For example, the Four Sons of Horus (Imsety, Duamutef, Qebehsenuef, and Hapi) were usually depicted as the canopic jars that were used to house the body organs of the dead.
According to ancient Egyptian religion, in the beginning, the universe was made entirely of a dark water of chaos. However, that all changed when a primordial mound, known as ben-ben, emerged from the sea of chaos. Atop the mound was the Egyptian god of creation Atum.
Atum is believed to have stood on ben-ben before he began creating the universe. Owing to its association with creation, ben-ben is up there with the ankh symbol in terms of importance. Because pyramids rose from above the ground up pointing towards the sky, ancient Egyptians saw those structures as ben-ben.
The use of this symbol began around the Early Dynastic Period. It became extremely popular during the Old Kingdom era (also known as the ‘Age of the Pyramid’). This makes a lot of sense as pyramids were associated with ben-ben, the symbol of creation and eternity.
Ben-ben emerged from that primordial soup of chaos, forming the first dry land upon which Atum, or Ptah or Ra stood on to begin creating the universe.
A royal symbol, the cobra was said to have magical powers and protection for the kings. The Egyptian god of the earth Geb is believed to have bestowed the uraeus symbol upon the pharaohs of Egypt.
The scarab symbolized a number of things, including death, rebirth, power, guidance, and protection. Ancient Egyptians wore amulets with the scarab to call on the gods for protection and good life.
This symbol is shaped in the form of beetle which many believe that it depicts a species of the dung beetle called the Scarabaeus sacer. The scarab basically brings forth the concept of life emerging out of death. As a symbol for resurrection and the afterlife, the scarab was very popular among ancient Egyptians. To some of them, the dung beetle worked in similar fashion as the gods. Take the case of the god Khepri who ancient Egyptians believed was responsible for rolling the sun across the sky into the underworld and then rolling it back up come dawn.
Right from the late period of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686 BCE – c. 2181 BCE) until the early Christian era, the scarab symbol often appeared on amulets and other forms of jewelry.
The ancient Egyptian cartouche refers to the oval-shaped hieroglyphic symbol used to represent the nameplate of a royal member. It has been said that the cartouche in some way depicted the sun. As a result, the symbol, which was known in ancient Egypt as shenu, was believed to protect the royal member both in this life and the afterlife.
The pharaohs of the Third Dynasty were one of the first people to use the cartouche. By the Fourth Dynasty, the symbol had become a staple symbol among royals.
The ancient Egyptian cartouche symbol takes the shape of a circle or an oval with a horizontal line at one end at right angles to the circle. The symbol was mainly used to beseech divine protection, good luck and prosperity.
Primarily a symbol of Upper Egypt, the sesen symbol refers to an ancient Egyptian lotus flower that was associated with themes like creation, life and resurrection. Appearing in many Egyptian art and buildings, the lotus flower was sometimes seen as the sun. Thus, similar to the pattern of the sun, or even the ancient Egyptian concept of life, the lotus flower closes at dusk in order to sink down into the underworld. At dawn, it rises and opens up, bringing light and beauty to the people.
As a symbol of rebirth, the sesen was generally associated with the god Osiris. In some cases the Four Sons of Horus were depicted standing together on a lotus. Often in their company is Osiris. Due to its association with resurrection, the sesen was placed on sarcophagi and walls of shrines and tombs.
Use of the lotus flower symbol began around the Early Dynastic Period. By the Old Kingdom era, the sesen symbol had become very popular.
Especially when the Lotus is depicted along with the papyrus plant, the lotus has symbolized the unification of Egypt – Upper and Lower Egypt, whose symbols were the lotus and papyrus plants respectively.
CROOK & FLAIL
The crook and flail were symbols used by kings and queens of ancient Egypt as it symbolized the power of the monarch. Since Osiris was the first divine pharaoh of Egypt, the crook and flail was usually associated with the Lord of the Underworld. The origin of this symbol goes back to the era of the first kings of Egypt, i.e. the Early Dynastic Period. King Narmer is the first known Egyptian ruler to use the crook and flail.
Holding the crook and flail communicated the legitimacy of the monarch. According to the Osiris Myth, Horus inherited the crook and flail from his father Osiris. Prior to that Horus had to defeat his uncle Seth, the god of destruction and chaos, who had earlier usurped the throne by killing Osiris.
The shen refers to a circle with a line tangent to it at the circumference. Similar to the Egyptian cartouche, the shen can either be depicted vertical with a horizontal line tangent to the base, or a horizontal with a vertical line tangent to the base.
The shen was associated with Horus, the falcon-headed god of the sky. It was also associated with the goddess Nekhbet, the vulture goddess and patroness of Upper Egypt. In some cases, the goddesses Nekhbet and Isis are depicted kneeling as they rest their hands on a shenu.
The symbol shen evokes the meaning of encircle, which in turn means eternal protection and sustenance. The symbol, which dates back to the Third Dynasty, has been seen on reliefs from Djoser’s Step Pyramid complex.
As stated above, the Tjet, or the ‘Knot of Isis’, was a symbol closely associated with the ankh, the symbol of life. It is even likely that the ankh symbol emerged from the tjet. If that were true, that will mean that the tjet is as old, or even older, than the ankh symbol.
Owing to its association with the goddess Isis, some Egyptologists have stated that the ancient Egyptians viewed it as a symbol of the female reproductive organ. In addition to that it was seen as symbol of safety or a mother’s protection – both concepts that the goddess was believed to offer Egyptians. Like the ankh, the tjet also represented the concept of duality, merging the qualities of Egyptian couple Osiris and Isis.
Significance of ancient Egyptian symbols
Owing to the fact that a huge section of the population was illiterate, the symbols offered an avenue to communicate the essential things that their culture valued the most. The symbols mainly related to concepts like love, stability, power, protection, and death. The symbols were used on a regular basis, appearing on things from amulets to walls of the temples to a myriad forms of Egyptian art.
You may also like: 10 Most Worshiped Ancient Egyptian Gods