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The Djet pillar symbol, sometimes called the backbone of Osiris, is one of the oldest and most commonly used symbols of ancient Egypt. It’s shaped like a vertical pillar with several horizontal lines at its top.
Today, it isn’t as recognizable and well-known in pop-culture, likely because of its less appealing visual representation. Nevertheless, its historical significance is undeniable and its meaning – quite translatable and significant.
Djed – History and Origins
The Djed has been a part of Egyptian mythology and hieroglyphics for as far back in time as we can track – at least 5,000 years and more. It is believed to have originally been developed as a fertility cult. Because the pillar shape of the cult can also represent a tree, and because of the mythology surrounding the symbol, this hypothesis seems more than likely. In its physical representations, the symbol was likely made as a totem out of reeds and sheaves.
According to psychologist Erich Neumann, the totem was likely a tree fetish at first which is very understandable for a desert-dwelling culture like the ancient Egyptians. The Djet’s evolution into a symbol of stability is also logical from there, as high fertility in vegetation was vital precisely for the stability it brought to the region.
The Djed is also believed to have been associated with the human backbone, itself also a symbol of stability. This also connects the Djed to fertility as ancient Egyptians believed men’s seed came from the spine.
As an ancient symbol, the Djed also made its way into Egyptian myths. These are what archeologists and historians typically analyze to derive its origins. It was initially used as the symbol of god Ptah who was also called the “Noble Djed”.
- The Myth of Set and Osiris
In later Egyptian mythology, the Djed became tied to the Osiris myth. In it, Set killed Osiris by tricking him to lay in a coffin made to perfectly fit him. After Set trapped Osiris in the coffin and the latter died, Set flung the coffin into the Nile. From there, according to the myth, the coffin went into the Mediterranean Sea and washed up on the shores of Lebanon.
As the coffin with Osiris’ body went to ground, a powerful tree grew rapidly out of it, enclosing the coffin within its trunk. Lebanon’s king was intrigued by the tree, so he cut it down, turned it into a pillar, and installed it into his palace with Osiris’ body still inside the pillar.
Years later, as Isis was still searching for the lost Osiris with the help of Anubis, she found out about Osiris’ presence in Lebanon. She came into the Lebanon king’s favor and was granted a boon of her choosing. Naturally, she chose the pillar and her wish was granted. Back in Egypt, Isis extracted the coffin from the pillar, consecrated the tree’s remains, anointed it with myrrh, and wrapped it in linen. According to the myths, that pillar became the symbol Djed.
While this is just a religious myth, it neatly ties the symbol Djed both to its origins as a tree cult and to its frequent use as a “pillar of stability”.
Djed – Symbolism and Meaning
In hieroglyphics, the symbol is used both as a symbol of stability, prosperity, and a king’s rule, as well as a symbolic representation of the backbone of the god Osiris. It’s often used together with the symbol tyet which is known as “The Knot of Isis”, often translated as “life” or “welfare”.
As both a stability and a fertility symbol, Djed was also widely used in most ceremonial events. Even during later religious cults in subsequent Egyptian kingdoms, the Djed symbol remained in use due to its universal meaning and ancient origins.
The Djed in Art
Today, the Djed symbol isn’t as widely used in contemporary art or religious symbolism as its simple pillar shape doesn’t seem to spark most artists’ imagination. This is normal for such especially old and straightforward symbols – after all, pillar shapes have been used to symbolize stability in most ancient cultures and mythologies.
This doesn’t need to be held against the Djed symbol, however, and can easily be seen as its benefit – with such a universal meaning, the Djed is one of those symbols that can easily be translated from one culture to another. Plus, the horizontal linear ornaments at the top do give it a pretty distinguishable look compared to other pillar symbols.
As a result, the Djed can make for a fascinating jewelry piece such as an earring or a pendant, as well as a clothing ornament. It’s sometimes used in pendants, on charms, as earrings or as a decorative motif on various items.
Although not as popular today as it used to be, the djed is an important and respected symbol in Egypt. It’s meaning is universal and can be applied to any culture or faith.