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The symbols of ancient Egypt are some of the most recognizable and iconic visual images in the world.
Egyptian symbols are much more than just an old hieroglyphic language. Many symbols were visual representations of the Egyptian gods, goddesses, their famous pharaohs and queens, or even mythical and real desert creatures alike. As such, these symbols were both used in the Egyptians’ writings, side by side with their hieroglyphs.
With all this in mind, it’s no wonder Egyptian symbols and hieroglyphs are such a popular choice for everything from jewelry designs, tattoos, and street art to even brand logos and Hollywood movie concepts.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular Egyptian symbols and hieroglyphics.
The Eye of Horus
The Eye of Horus was seen as a protective symbol that warded of evil and brought in good fortune. As such, it was carried and kept close as an amulet. It’s one of the most popular of the ancient Egyptian symbols and is still commonly used on emblems, flags and logos in Egypt.
The symbol comes from the myth of a battle between Horus, the falcon-headed god, and his uncle Seth. Horus defeated his uncle but lost his eye in the process, as Seth had shattered it into six pieces. The eye was later reconstructed and healed by either the goddess Hathor or the god Thoth, depending on the myth, and became a precious hieroglyph for the ancient Egyptians.
As the eye in the myth was shattered into six pieces, the hieroglyph was also comprised of six components. Each was given a metaphorical meaning for one of the human senses and each was assigned a numerical fraction value ranging from 1/2 to 1/64. Overall, the Eye of Horus symbolizes health and unity which has helped it remain a relevant and easily recognizable symbol even to this day.
The Eye of Ra
Like the Eye of Horus, the Eye of Ra belongs to a different god – the ancient Egyptian god of the sun. although belonging to a different deity, the two symbolic eyes represent similar concepts. However, the Eye of Ra is associated with feminine divinity in the form of goddesses such as Hathor, Mut, Bastet and Sekhmet.
The Eye of Ra symbolizes both the destructive power and the benign nature of the sun. It was a protective symbol, representing the repelling of evil and negativity. It was sometimes seen as a symbol of good luck.
A falcon-like symbol with the head of a human, the Ba represents the spirit or personality of the deceased. It is believed that the Ba watches over the dead during the night and then flies off in the morning to influence the living world before returning after sunset. It’s a highly specific symbol with a specific meaning.
The Ba isn’t the “full” spirit or soul of a person, but rather just an aspect of it. There’s also the Ka which is the living spirit people receive when they’re born and the Akh which is the spirit that is their consciousness in the afterlife. In essence, the Ba can be viewed as a remnant of the deceased’s personality that remains in the world of the living.
The Ba’s bird-shape is likely derived from the belief that it flies around during the day, enacting the deceased’s will upon the world. The Ba may also be the reason why Egyptians started mummifying their dead, building tombs for them, and even sculpting statues of them when their bodies couldn’t be recovered – all to help the Bau (plural for Ba) find their way back every evening.
In modern-day art, the Ba can be a very meaningful symbol, be it as a tattoo, jewelry, a painting, or a sculpture as it symbolizes a person’s soul.
This symbol is associated with divinity, royalty, power and authority in Ancient Egypt, and other cultures near the region such as Persia and Mesopotamia. It’s one of the oldest and most iconic of Egyptian symbols. The winged sun has several variations, but the most common symbol features a disk, flanked on either side with a large wing, as well as a uraeus.
The winged sun is connected with the sun god, Ra. While most commonly associated with Egypt, it appears that the symbol originated in antiquity and was used even in prehistoric times. It’s thought that the symbol eventually morphed into the Zoroastrian symbol known as the Farvahar, which also features two large wings and a disk, but instead of the uraeus or the sun, features an aged man in the center.
The Djed is one of the oldest and most meaningful hieroglyphs and symbols in ancient Egypt and it definitely deserves more recognition today. Portrayed as a tall column with horizontal lines crossing its upper half, the Djed is both an ancient tree fetish and a symbol of stability, fertility, and a person’s backbone.
Djed’s origins can be found in the myth of Osiris’ death as a powerful tree grew out of the god’s coffin and was later turned into a strong pillar. The symbol acts both as a symbol of stability and as a fertility fetish because trees were understandably treasured in the desert.
Curiously enough, this fertility symbolism also is a representation of a person’s (or kingdom’s) backbone as the ancient Egyptians believed the man’s fertility came from his spine.
Knot of Isis (Tyet)
The Knot of Isis, typically called the tyet, is an ancient Egyptian symbol associated with the goddess Isis. It’s similar in appearance to an Ankh, but the difference is that the tyet’s arms face downwards.
The tyet symbolizes welfare or life. It was also believed to represent the menstrual blood of Isis, which was viewed as having magical powers. This is also why the tyet was sometimes called the Blood of Isis. Some scholars suggest that the tyet appears to be in the shape of a sanitary napkin used in ancient Egypt to absorb menstrual blood.
Amulets depicting the tyet were buried with the deceased to protect the dead person’s body and drive away anyone who wished to disturb the dead.
One of the most famous Egyptians hieroglyphs, the Ankh is portrayed as a cross with slightly widening arms and a loop instead of an upper arm. The Ankh is often called “The Key of Life” as it symbolizes life, health, and wellbeing.
The origins of the Ankh are widely disputed, and there exists several competing theories about it. Some believe that the Ankh was originally a knot which is why it’s looped and has slightly widening arms. This is a strong possibility given that hoops and loops often symbolize infinity and never-ending life in many cultures. Another hypothesis is that the Ankh actually represents the union of the male and female sexual organs which can be easily connected to its meaning of a life symbol.
It’s also believed that the Ankh portrays the water and the sky as those are two of the essential life-giving elements. The Ankh has also been said to represent a mirror as it’s often used to represent the hieroglyphic word for mirror as well as flower bouquet. Whatever the case may be, the Ankh was extremely popular in ancient Egyptians’ hieroglyphics and is still famous to this day.
Crook and Flail
The crook and flail (called heka and nehkhakha) were symbols of ancient Egyptian society that signified authority, power, divinity, fertility and royalty. Put specifically, the shepherd’s crook signified kingship while the flail stood for fertility of the kingdom.
Originally used as symbols of the important god Osiris, the objects were later associated with the rule of the kings and queens. Many ancient Egyptian artwork depict the crook and flail in the hands of the pharaoh, typically cross at the chest. Together the pair of symbols signify the pharaoh’s authority and protection over his people.
The Egyptian sphinx is one of the most famous mythological creatures in the world. Portrayed with the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the head of either a man, a sheep, an ox, or a bird, the Egyptian sphinxes were powerful guardian creatures that protected temples, tombs, and royal palaces.
The sphinxes were most often represented in statues as big as the famous Sphinx of Giza or figurines as small as a paperweight. They were frequently represented in hieroglyphic form as well, either in writing or as art. To this day, the sphinx is a powerful and recognizable image that grabs attention and inspires awe.
The Egyptian sphinx is not to be mistaken with the one from Greek myths. The two are similarly portrayed with the main visual difference being that the Egyptian Sphinx has a male head while the Greek Sphinx is typically a woman. Also, while the Egyptian Sphinx was a benevolent guardian creature that brought protection and security, the Greek Sphinx was considered malevolent and treacherous.
Known as the White Crown, the Hedjet was a royal headdress associated with Upper Egypt and the Goddess Wadjet. It typically featured a uraeus. Later on, when Lower and Upper Egypt became unified, the Hedjet was combined with the headgear of Lower Egypt, known as the Deshret. The two would come to be known as the Pschent.
The Hedjet signified the power, authority and sovereignty of the ruler. This symbol was not a hieroglyph and wasn’t typically used to express anything in writing. Today, only artistic depictions of the Hedjet remain, with no physical remains of a Hedjet. This indicates that the Hedjet may have been made of perishable materials.
Like the Hedjet, the Deshret was the name given to the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. It represented power, divine authority to rule and sovereignty. It is one part of the Pschent, which was the combination of both the Hedjet and the Deshret together with their animal symbols – vulture and rearing cobra.
The Egyptian pyramids are some of the oldest and most famous structures in the world. These enormous tombs housed the bodies of deceased pharaohs and their consorts as well as many of their earthly possessions and treasures. There are over a hundred located and uncovered pyramids in ancient Egypt and we can only speculate how many were built in total throughout the millennia.
Even by today’s standards, the Egyptian pyramids are architectural marvels, from their near-perfect geometrical parameters to their internal construction. Most pyramids were built to point to specific sections of the night sky, believed to help the deceased persons souls find their way to the afterlife.
Both in ancient Egypt and today, the pyramid is also a powerful symbol. They were often shown in a hieroglyphic form and carried the meaning of death, the afterlife, and finding one’s way to it.
Today, there are even more myths surrounding the Egyptian pyramids. They are at the center of man conspiracy theories, many people believing that they were constructed as alien spaceship landing pads. The more spiritually minded believe the pyramids weren’t used to send the soul to the afterlife but instead to funnel the universe’s energy into the pyramid. Whichever hypothesis you subscribe to, it’s undeniable that the pyramids are one of the most powerful and well-known symbols in the world.
The scarab symbol is fascinating as it’s based on neither a powerful mythological creature nor on an intimidating and strong animal. Instead, the symbol is based on the insect, also called “dung beetles”.
While today most people are repulsed by insects, the ancient Egyptians were fascinated but these creatures. What caught their attention was the scarabs’ practice of rolling animal excrement into balls. Once there, the scarabs would lay their eggs in the balls, essentially giving their eggs warmth, protection, and a food source.
The Egyptians didn’t realize that the scarabs were laying their eggs in the balls and thought that they were “spontaneously created” inside. Because of both this seemingly spontaneous generation and the practice of rolling dung balls in the sand, the Egyptians quickly incorporated the scarabs into their mythology. They portrayed the god Khepri as a man with a scarab head, a god that helped the sun “roll” into the sky every morning. Because of that, the scarabs were believed to represent life and its never-ending nature.
This broad and abstract symbolism made scarabs exceptionally popular throughout Egypt. They were used as hieroglyphs, portrayed on drawings, statues, figurines, jewelry, clothing, accessories, and even on seals.
Tree of Life
The Tree of Life was an important symbol to the ancient Egyptians, as it was associated with water, abundance, and fertility. The tree at the center of the symbol represented the universe, with the roots signifying the underworld and the branches symbolizing the heavens. The symbol also represented eternal life. It was also believed that eating the fruit of the sacred tree would give eternal life.
The lotus is Egypt’s national flower and its symbolism dates back thousands of years in the region. Much of the artwork of the time depict blue, white and pink lotuses.
The lotus symbolized the lifecycle – rebirth, death and regeneration. These associations were made because of how the flower behaved – blooming during the day, then closing up and vanishing at night only to re-emerge the following day.
Also, as the lotus only blooms during the daytime, it was seen as paying respect to the sun. The was a sacred object to the Egyptians and the association of the lotus with the sun enhanced its meaning and importance.
Egyptian Hieroglyphs vs. Symbols
Hieroglyphs were the symbols used in the formal writing system of Ancient Egypt. The hieroglyphic language of the ancient Egyptians is easily recognizable, compared to other old hieroglyphic languages, because of their distinct style and beauty. There are many variations to symbols. They can range from simple line images to complex drawings of animals, people, and objects.
In total, there are several hundred Egyptian hieroglyphs, with the number often placed at around 1000 characters. That’s fewer than most other the hieroglyphic languages but is still a rather sizable number. Even though the Egyptian hieroglyphs are essentially a dead language, their unmistakable symbols, style, fascinating meanings, and deep mythological origins make them a captivating subject to explore.
The line between hieroglyph and symbol can sometimes be blurred and difficult to discern. Symbols refer to images that held symbolic meaning but were not used in the formal writing system. Many hieroglyphs started as symbolic pictures but were later incorporated into the collection of characters used in writing. In some cases, certain hieroglyphs were so meaningful and treasured that they were often used not just for writing but as protective symbols, engravings, and even as statues and figurines.
Although the Egyptian civilization has long ceased to exist, the symbols, artwork, monuments and architecture of the period continue to captivate human imagination. These symbols continue to be valued, worn and used across the globe, for their symbolism, history and their beauty.