There is no vestige when it comes to the ancient Egyptians being primitive in any way. Their mythology, their art, and their symbols are all so arresting that a whole lifetime wouldn’t be enough to understand their ways.
Ancient Egypt has always been a subject of awe for the rest of the world. Amazingly, in an age when the rest of the world was trying to discover ways to attain a civilized way of life, the Egyptian civilization had almost reached its zenith. Not only had they created advanced technological systems such as calendars and clocks, but also knew how to read and write. They had developed a system called “hieroglyphs”, in which pictures and symbols represented sounds and words. It was from these hieroglyphic representations that we have been able to decipher many of their symbolism and thus their take on life. Given below is the list of some of the commonly depicted ancient Egyptian symbols and what they stand for.
The “ankh” is an ancient Egyptian symbol represented by a cross bearing a key-shaped loop.
Also referred to as “Key of Life”, “Key to the Nile” or “Breath of Life”, it stands for eternal life.
It supposedly reveals the enigmas of heaven and earth.
Most of the Egyptian gods and goddesses are seen holding an ankh by its loop.
It was believed that people needed the ‘breath of life’ after the death, which was probably due to their belief in the notion of the afterlife. “Ankh” most frequently appears in the paintings on ancient Egyptian tombs that depict deities of the afterlife bestowing upon a dead man, a ‘breath of life’. Ancient Egyptians also carried this symbol with them in the form of an amulet.
The “amenta” signifies the world of the dead.
It stands for the underworld, or the world that lies beneath the real world.
It symbolizes the land where the dead are buried and thus also represents a place from where the journey of the afterlife of the dead begins.
“Amenta” is believed to be a mythical land, and is referred to in the Egyptian literature as the ‘”Desert of Amenta”‘.
The land of “Amenta” was believed to be the region lying near the west bank of the river Nile, as that was where the dead were generally buried. This was because the sun sets in the west. This symbol is found on the paintings on ancient papyrus scrolls on which the “Books of the Dead” were written. They were, to a large extent, found within the hieroglyphic texts that had to do with the dead and their afterlives.
The “Djed pillar” is a mythical symbol that is most commonly used in Egyptian mythology.
It stands for strength and stability.
Initially, it was associated with the creation of “Ptah”, who is referred to as the ‘”Noble Djed”‘.
Later on, it came to be associated with the backbone of “Osiris”, the god of the afterlife, as the myth became popular.
This symbol stood for the human backbone, in general, as its shape resembled the same, duw to which it made frequent appearances on the bottom of coffins of the dead, where their backbones would be placed. It was also made in the form of an amulet and placed near the spines of the mummified dead to ensure resurrection. Interesting references to a ceremony called ‘”Raising the Djed”‘, which was the part of the pharaoh’s jubilee celebrations, point towards the importance of the “Djed pillar”. The pharaoh, with the help of his priests, used to practically erect the wooden pillar using ropes.
“Ba” is an interesting ancient Egyptian concept that symbolizes soul or one’s personality.
However, it does not resemble the western notion of ‘soul’, which is intangible in nature.
The Egyptians seemed to have believed that Ba would live even after the person had physically died and that it would join the spirit in the afterlife.
“Ba” is depicted as a bird bearing a human head that is departing from the tomb of the deceased. There was also another angle to the concept of “Ba”. It was believed that when Gods intervened in earthly matters, their “Ba” was at work. This belief also relates to their notion of the divine rights of the king where he acted as a mediator between God and his subjects. In this sense, the king or the pharaoh was termed as the “Ba” of God. It has been opined that it was because of “Ba” that the ancient Egyptians created mummies so that the soul finds a way to re-enter its respective physical body.
Eye of Horus
The “Eye of Horus” stands for physical security, royalty, and well-being.
“Horus” was an ancient Egyptian God of the skies, the son of “Osiris”, and was depicted as a falcon.
His right eye was associated with “Ra”, the solar deity and is said to have severed in a fierce battle between him and his brother “Set”.
Post recovery, he offered his eye to Osiris with a hope to resurrect his father. Therefore, the “Eye of Horus” also represents sacrificial and curative qualities.
The left eye of “Horus”, sometimes, is used as a symbol of moon. This symbol was represented in seven different ways using seven different hieroglyphs and there are numerous instances where the “Eye of Horus” makes an appearance. The classic example in which, this symbol makes an repetitive appearance is the ancient Egyptian funerary text called ‘”The Litany of the Eye of Horus”‘, a fragment of which has been preserved in the British Museum, London.
This symbol signifies one of the forms of God “Horus Behdety”, that was taken up by him in a battle.
It is a sun disc that has wings and is a common symbol, which can be found in many cultures across the world.
According to the Egyptian mythology, God “Thoth” used his magic to transform God “Horus” into a winged disc and then goddesses “Uazet” and “Nekhbet” joined him in the form of snakes. This is a symbol of protection and prowess and is found painted on the doorways of many of the ancient Egyptian tombs as well as on numerous papyrus scrolls.
Feather of Maat
“Maat” is a popular ancient Egyptian goddess, who set the world in order at the time of its creation and further prevents the universe from returning to chaos.
Thus, as a concept, Maat, symbolizes order, balance, well-being and justice. It also symbolizes moral and ethical values.
The “Feather of Maat” became a symbolic representation of the goddess herself, as it was this feather that adorned her headdress and became her distinct attribute.
Ancient paintings indicate that the pharaohs also wore the feather in the form of an amulet or a pendant. This is symbolic of their responsibilities of law and order and social justice. If a pharaoh died an untimely death, it was imperative to choose his successor immediately due to the common belief that in the absence of a pharaoh to bear the feather, it would get lost and the world would be thrown into a state of pandemonium. It was also believed that if the feather weighed more than a dead man’s heart, it meant that his heart was filled with sins and was thus entitled to a punishment by “Ammit”, the devourer of the dead. On the contrary, if the heart was lighter than the feather, it meant that it was free of sins and so the person had access to the world of Osiris. Hence, the feather was placed near the heart of the dead man.
“Scarab” was an important symbol in the form of a dung beetle represented in the ancient Egyptian religion.
The dung beetle lays its eggs in dung balls by rolling them across the ground, and this practice was equated with the sun rolling across the sky.
This went on to symbolize the phenomenon of spontaneous creation as the young ones of the dung beetles seemed to have come to life from nowhere when the eggs hatched.
The scarab stood for the ideas of manifestation, growth and effectiveness. In the ancient hieroglyphs, this symbol is found in conjunction with the name of the early morning sun “Khepri”, hence it also stood for existence and creation. Scarabs made of materials such as steatite and clay were used in the form of amulets and seals. They were also placed within the bandages of the mummies near the hearts of the deceased. Interestingly, the scarab seals were carried by means of trade and commerce to the distant lands of Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, where they have been found in large numbers. At the same time various Greek imitations have also been found.
“Ka” is an element that makes a living person different from the dead one; it represents the breath of a person which ceases to exist on his death.
The ancient Egyptians believed that “Ka” could be sustained and restored by means of food and drink. Hence, they even made offerings of food and drink to their deceased so that they could live their afterlives with ease.
The ancient Egyptians gave a lot of importance to the concepts of life and death and they were staunch believers of the notion of life after death. They therefore had numerous concepts with respect to the things relating to the cycle of life and death and an entire series of symbolism that emerged from the same. “Ka” is represented by two hands bent upwards from the elbows. The “Ka”, as a symbol, makes its appearance in Egyptian hieroglyphs as well as on tombs and inner surfaces of the pyramids.
The “Primordial Mound” is an important symbol of ancient Egypt and is related to their creation myth.
The ancient Egyptians believed that there was only one hill/mound that emerged from the sea of chaos at the beginning of time which represented dry land. It was from this mound that all life sprang up on earth, thus making it a primordial entity responsible for the evolution of life. It has also been opined that the idea of the pyramids, as well as their ancient temples, has been derived from this very concept.
Symbols as Modes of Expression in Ancient Egypt
- The thought process of the ancient Egyptians was primarily based on their symbolism.
- It is by means of a vast array of symbols that we come across through their hieroglyphs and other artistic representations that we can interpret their religion, culture and notions of life and death.
- Sometimes, the idea that a symbol is intended to put across may go hand in hand with the symbol itself, for instance, two arms bent upwards representing human breath (Ka), but they necessarily held prominence for the ancients, who might have used them in their daily lives.
- The study of Egyptian symbols is extremely essential to know how this symbolism affected their understanding of life.
These symbols that are found scattered everywhere when one goes to Egypt are in fact keys that may help unlock the ancient mysteries not only about their political and economic structures but also about their daily lives and culture in general.
Whenever, we look at Egyptian pyramids, or any other ancient Egyptian structure for that matter, the fact that we are actually looking at a plethora of ancient symbols placed one above the other, the meaning of which may change from context to context, must be kept in mind. Egyptian symbolism, is thus, a vast subject of study and an interesting way to understand Egyptian culture.