Egyptian symbols and their associated myths arose from human observation of natural cycles and other natural phenomena.
Ancient Egyptians drew parallels from certain characteristics of plants and behavior of animals to interpret their cosmological views. For example, the radiant yellow center of the Egyptian blue lotus (nymphaea cerulae) resembles the Sun emanating from the primeval waters as told in the myth of creation. The ancients believed that the dung beetle (scarabaeus sacer) was only male in gender, and reproduced by depositing semen into a dung ball. The supposed self-creation of the beetle resembles the self creation of Khepri, the god of the rising sun. Moreover, the dung beetle rolls the ball like the sacred scarab rolls the sun across the sky. Another animal full of symbolism was the Bennu bird, the mythological phoenix of Egypt, a heron type bird often seen on the top of small mounds in the middle of the Nile as the waters receded from the previous inundation. The Bennu was supposed to have rested on a sacred pillar that was known as the benben-stone as the primeval waters of creation receded in the beginnings of time.
While much of the symbolic content of ancient Egyptian objects, artistic representations and hieroglyphs is usually accessible only to the trained Egyptologist, there is much more to be gained from an Egypt tour experience by having a general knowledge of these signs and what they represent as Egyptian symbols.
Ancient Egypt was called the Two Lands, Lower Egypt in the north symbolized by the papyrus plant and Upper Egypt in the south symbolized by the lotus. Both flowers were used as Egyptian symbols and design elements of the Egyptian style, from delicate precious jewelry to the massive capitals of the columns in temples.
One of the most important events in ancient Egyptian history was the unification of the two lands circa 3100 BC. This unification was represented by the sema, an Egyptian hieroglyphic sign with the stems of the emblematic plants of Lower and Upper Egypt tied together in the center. This Egyptian symbol appears often in statuary, carved on the sides of the thrones of the pharaohs, and as a design element in royal furniture and vessels.
The dual nature of ancient Egypt was also symbolized by the Double Crown (pschent) worn by the pharaoh. As sovereign of the Two Lands, the king wore the White Crown (hedjet) of Upper Egypt and the Red Crown (deshret) of Lower Egypt.
The pschent was an Egyptian symbol of the pharaoh's power over all of unified Egypt. It bore two animal emblems: an Egyptian cobra, known as the uraeus, which symbolized the Lower Egyptian goddess Wadjet, and an Egyptian vulture representing the Upper Egyptian tutelary goddess Nekhbet. Together they were known as The Two Ladies, who became the joint protectors and patrons of the Two Lands.
The pharaoh also used other types of crown, among them the Akhet Crown and the Khepresh (Warrior Crown).
Atef is the feathered white crown of Osiris. It combines the Hedjet, the crown of Upper Egypt, with red ostrich feathers for the Osiris cult. Osiris wears the Atef crown as a symbol of the ruler of the underworld.
The ostrich feather has symbolic meaning too. It was an attribute of the goddess Maat and an Egyptian symbol for truth and justification.
The Khepresh is also known as the Blue Crown. New Kingdom pharaohs are often shown wearing it in battle scenes.
Other pharaonic regalia symbolic of the king's authority and divinity included the was, a wooden scepter, whose hieroglyphic character stands for a word meaning power, and the sekhem. The sekhem is a type of ritual scepter and an Egyptian symbol of authority. Both the was and the sekhem were also used by the priests and officials. New Kingdom tombs depict their owners with these objects in hand to denote their status as members of the ruling class.
The crook (heka) and flail (hekhakha) are two of the most important insignia of royalty, used in coronations and other royal ceremonies, as well as in representations of the pharaoh as an Osiris. Some scholars identify the flail as a whip and, together with the crook, they are Egyptian symbols of the dual role of the office of pharaoh as caretaker and punisher of his subjects. Others believe the flail represents the ladanisterion, an instrument used by very early goatherders and a symbol of the pharaoh's role as provider of food for his people.
The Djed pillar represents the concept of stability and is the symbolic backbone of the god Osiris. During the heb sed (Renewal Festival), the djed would be ceremonially raised as a phallic symbol symbolizing the vitality and fitness of the pharaoh to continue ruling.
In ancient Egyptian art, the pharaoh was represented performing the necessary functions associated with his condition as a living god in charge of preserving and protecting the state and the well being of all of his subjects.
Since childhood, depictions of the boy pharaoh as a deity emerging from a lotus blossom attest to his divine birth. And everywhere the king is to be represented in statuary and reliefs, he will receive the blessings of the gods or offer to them a small figure of Maat as a symbol of his role as bringer of divine order. Temple pylons, themselves Egyptian symbols of the two mountains in the middle of which the sun rises, show the heroic pharaoh establishing order by smiting the enemies of Egypt. The inside walls of the temple depict the pharaoh in his role of High Priest, leading processions and rituals or celebrating his sed ceremony to restore his virility.
The Egyptian artist could also resort to images of animals, specifically the falcon, the lion or the bull, as symbols of the king in association with certain faculties represented by these animals.
In the afterlife, the deceased were protected by amulets imbued with magical powers. Funerary amulets made to ward off evil were often made in the shape of the Eye of Horus. The right eye of the wedjet (also udjat or utchat) represented the sun, and its mirror image, or left eye, sometimes represented the moon and the god Djehuti (Thoth).
The scarab was of prime significance in ancient Egyptian funerary cult. Generally made of precious metals, blue faience or green stone, a color linked to vegetation and resurgence, scarabs were used as ornaments in necklaces, but also as royal commemorative items with inscriptions in its base and as powerful amulets placed on the chest of the deceased. The "heart scarab" was meant to ensure that the real heart would not bear witness against its owner during judgement in the underworld.
Scarab souvenirs in semiprecious stones or glazed ceramics are very popular items for visitors to Egypt, available at most Egypt's bead shops. At the Temple of Karnak, there is a huge dark stone scarab which, until recently, tourists were allowed to rub for good luck.
The ushabti (also called shabti or shawabti) are funerary figurines placed in tombs and intended to act as substitutes for the deceased, in the case of being called upon to do manual labor in the afterlife. They were widely produced and used from the Middle Kingdom (around 1900 BC) until the end of the Ptolemaic Period nearly 2000 years later.
Perhaps the most cherished Egyptian symbol is the Ankh.
The ankh is the Egyptian hieroglyphic character that means "life". Egyptian gods are often portrayed carrying it by its loop, or bearing one in each hand, bestowing life to the deceased. The ankh is a very ancient Egyptian symbol, but since Akhenaten employed it in its iconography of the Aten, many uniformed people relate it exclusively to Amarna art. Freemasons, Rosicrucians and other western mystics are very fond of this ancient sacred symbol, which they call crux ansata, Latin for "cross with a handle".
The ankh appears frequently in ancient Egyptian writing with two other hieroglyphs that mean "strength" and "health". Although its meaning is well known and it's still employed as an Egyptian symbol, the precise origin of the ankh remains to this day a mystery to Egyptologists.
Category: Ancient Egypt