Egyptian art is rich in symbols related to royalty and its religious beliefs. By learning to read these symbols, one can gain a better understanding and appreciation of Egyptian art . Below are a few of the most common symbols.
In the shape of a mirror or a knot, the ankh is a symbol of life. It was often carried by deities or people in a funeral
procession, or offered to the king as the breath of life.
A cartouche is an elliptical outline representing a length of rope that
encloses the names of royal persons in hieroglyphs. It symbolized the
pharaoh's status as ruler of all that the sun encircled. Napoleon's
soldiers gave the cartouche its name. The word is derived from the
Italian cartoccio, meaning a cornet of paper (a piece of
paper rolled into the shape of a cone). In Italian art, the names
of the people represented in paintings were enclosed in a drawing
of a cartoccio.
Crook and Flail
The crook and flail are two of the most prominent items in the royal regalia. Kings held them across their chest. The crook,
in the shape of a shepherd's staff, is a sceptre symbolizing government and that
may be related to the concept of a good shepherd leading his flock.
Crowns and Headgear
Egyptian kings and gods are depicted wearing different crowns and headdresses.
Before 3000 B.C., there was the white crown of Upper Egypt
and the red crown of Lower Egypt. When Egypt was united, these
two crowns were amalgamated into the Double Crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Starting in the eighteenth dynasty, kings also wore the blue
crown, and the white crown with a plume on either side and a small
disk at the top.
The Egyptian symbol for gold (nebu) is a collar with beads along the lower
edge. Gold has long been associated with the gods and royalty. This
imperishable metal reflects the brilliance of the sun and the hope
of eternal life. Isis and Nephthys, two of the goddesses who
protected the dead, are often shown kneeling on the gold sign at the ends
of royal coffins.
The Isis Knot is similar to the ankh sign, but rather than having
a horizontal bar, it has two arms that are bent downward. It is closely
associated with the djed pillar that represents Osiris, Isis's
husband, and symbolizes the binary nature of life itself.
The blue lotus was a symbol of the sun god and the pharaohs. Like the
sun that sets in the evening and rises in the morning, the lotus flower
blooms in the day and closes each night. In one version of the creation
myth, the sun first rose out of a giant lotus flower that bloomed on
the primordial mound. The lotus thus became a symbol of rebirth, the
renewal of life and the promise of everlasting life.
This heavy beaded necklace with a crescent front piece and a counterweight at the back is associated
with the goddess Hathor. It
serves as a medium to transfer the goddess's power to the pharaoh.
The pharaoh's wife is sometimes depicted offering the necklace to her
husband, since she is the earthly representative of Hathor.
A water plant, the papyrus symbolizes the primeval marshes of the
creation story. The heraldic plant of Lower Egypt, it was used to
decorate columns in temples built by the pharaohs.
Reed and Bee
The Egyptian word nsw (he who belongs to the reed) is a symbol
for Upper Egypt, and the word bit (he who belongs to the bee)
is a symbol for Lower Egypt. When placed
together, they represent the
domain of the pharaoh, ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt.
habit of laying its eggs in a ball of dung, which is
then rolled along the ground and dropped into a hole, made it an
obvious symbol for the sun god. It represented the rising sun god
and, through association, the pharaohs.
The sceptre, or rod, is one of the oldest and most enduring symbols
associated with royalty and the deities. Two types of sceptres are found in Egyptian art. The was,
a symbol of power and dominion, has a straight shaft, a
crooked handle in the shape of an animal head and a forked base. The sekhem symbolizes divine power
and has a straight shaft with an enlarged cylindrical end.
The circular shen ring represents the concept of eternity,
having no beginning and no end. It is associated with the solar disk,
the serpent that bites its tail, and divine birds that are often shown
holding the sign in their claws.
A ceremonial instrument, the sistrum is a rattle that is often shaped
like the ankh symbol. It is associated with the goddess Hathor, and its sound is thought to
bring protection and divine blessing through fertility and rebirth.
The uraeus represents a rearing cobra with a flared hood. The cobra
is associated with the sun god, the kingdom of Lower Egypt, the kings
and their families, and several deities. A symbol of protection, it
guards the gates of the underworld, wards off the enemies of the royals
and guides the deceased pharaohs on their journey through the
The vulture was the symbol of Upper Egypt. Pharaohs wore the uraeus (cobra) and the head of a vulture on their foreheads as symbols of royal protection. The goddess Nekhbet was also portrayed as a vulture.