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Cartouche – Ancient Egypt

A cartouche was an oval-shaped object or outline within which ancient Egyptians wrote royal names. Hieroglyphs and symbols were a central part of the ancient Egyptian culture, and in this sense, the cartouche delivered a leading role. Although all writing was valuable, the words inside the cartouche had unparalleled importance. Here’s a closer look.

What Was the Cartouche?

cartouche meaning

The cartouche was a device for the Egyptians used to write the hieroglyph names of kings inside. It is an elongated oval, placed either horizontally or vertically, with a horizontal line at one end.

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The device symbolized that anything that was written inside it was sacred as it came from Egyptian royalty. The cartouche was an extended version of the Shen Ring, a circled hieroglyph.

What Does the Word Cartouche Mean?

In ancient Egyptian language, there was a very important symbol was called Shen or Shenu, which stands for ‘ to encircle‘. The development of this sign, which was enlarged to house royal names and titles, became what we now call the royal cartouche.

When the French emperor, Napoleon, invaded Egypt at the end of the 18th century, his troops were immediately entranced by the sight of these (at this point, still undeciphered) hieroglyphs. When the soldiers saw the form of this particular hieroglyph, they were struck by its appearance which reminded them of a specific gun cartridge. They decided to call it cartouche, the French word for cartridge

The Purpose of the Cartouche

  • The principal use of the cartouche was to distinguish the name of the pharaohs from other, less important writings and hieroglyphs. In rare cases, the names of other important people appeared inside a cartouche. This ensured that the Pharaohs’ names were elevated and distinct from regular hieroglyphs and allowed them to be easily identified. It can be thought of as a form of showing respect to the god-king, but also to symbolically separate it from mere words. He was, after all, a god on earth and consequently was depicted in iconography as having a larger size than the rest of men. His name and image needed to show his importance.
  • In addition to this, the cartouche was also viewed as having the ability to protect the Pharaohs from the evils of the world. The oval enclosing the hieroglyphs became a symbol of protection for the pharaohs.
  • There is also evidence that the Egyptians used the cartouche in their amulets for protection in later years. After millennia of being used only by Pharaohs, the cartouche became a symbol of good luck and protection for the masses.
  • Since the names of the pharaohs appeared inside the cartouche, all cartouches were different. Each pharaoh had his cartouche carved in his belongings and tombs. The Egyptians believed this helped the deceased pharaohs in their travel to the afterlife. 

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Last update was on: July 16, 2024 11:26 am

Symbolism of the Cartouche

What is a cartouche ancient Egypt

The cartouche was not only a practical object, but also a highly symbolic one. It symbolized the powers of the sun, with its oval form representing the shape of the sun. It gave the pharaoh all the power and protection of Ra, the sun god. In some cases, the cartouche even had solar disks or other sun-related symbols surrounding it. In this sense, this symbol carried great power and significance in ancient Egypt.

The excavations of the tombs of pharaohs, such as Tutankhamun, showed cartouches among the belongings of the king. For the Pharaoh Thutmose III, his whole tomb, chamber, and sarcophagus had the form of a cartouche. 

The Cartouche Helped Decipher Hieroglyphs

The Cartouche was intriguing not only for Napoleon’s soldiers, but also for archeologists and scientists who first studied the ruins of Ancient Egypt. The famous Rosetta Stone, found by French soldiers but later seized by the British, had not one but two cartouches with hieroglyphs written inside. A young Jean-Francois Champollion (he was 32 when his first works were published) figured out that these signs were meant to name Pharaoh Ptolemy and Queen Cleopatra, and this was the spark of genius that prompted the later decipherment of hieroglyphic writing.

Cartouche FAQs

  1. What is a cartouche used for? The cartouche was an oval tablet used to write royal names, thereby distinguishing them from other hieroglyphs. It was a name plate for royals and some important non-royal figures.
  2. What does a cartouche look like? A cartouche is oval in shape, with a horizontal bar at the base. They could be vertical or horizontal.
  3. What does a cartouche symbolize? Cartouches held solar symbolism, and were later seen as symbols of good luck and protection.

In Brief

The cartouche was a useful symbol for early scholars who delved into the texts of Ancient Egypt, as it allowed them to distinguish between names and figures that emerged from the pages. Its importance for the Egyptians continued, as it detached from royalty and became a symbol of good luck and protection.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.