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The Obelisk Symbol – Origin, Meaning, and Modern Use

An Obelisk, the Greek word for spit, nail, or pointed pillar, is a tall, narrow, four-sided monument, with a pyramidion on top. In the past, obelisks used to be made of a single piece of stone and was originally carved in ancient Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.

Many ancient cultures honored the obelisk’s design as a tribute to the deities associated with the sun. Today, the obelisk continues to be popular with famous obelisks depicted in popular locations.

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The Obelisk – Origin and History

These tapered monolithic pillars were originally built in pairs and located at the entrances of ancient Egyptian temples. Originally, obelisks were called tekhenu. The first one appeared in the Old Kingdom of Egypt around 2,300 BCE.

The Egyptians would embellish all four sides of the obelisk’s shaft with hieroglyphs that included religious dedications, most commonly for the sun god Ra, as well as tributes to the rulers.

Obelisks were thought to be the representation of the Egyptian sun god, Ra, because they followed the movement of the sun’s journey. Ra (the sun) would appear in the morning, move across the sky, and disappear again in the darkness with the sunset.

Following the journey of Ra across the sky, obelisks would serve as a sundial, and the time of the day was indicated by the movement of the monuments’ shadows. So, obelisks had a practical purpose – they were essentially a way to tell the time by reading the shadow that it made.

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ancient obelisk

An inscription at the base of a 97-foot obelisk erected in Karnak, one of seven that were cut for the Karnak Great Temple of Amun, indicates that it took seven months to cut this monolith out of the quarry.

Besides ancient Egyptians, other civilizations, such as the Phoenicians and the Canaanites also produced obelisks, but generally, these weren’t carved out of a single block of stone.

Obelisk st peters basilica
Obelisk at St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican

During the Roman Empire, many obelisks were shipped from Egypt to what is today Italy. At least a dozen went to Rome, including the one in the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, originally created by around 1400 BCE by Thutmose III at Karnak. It weighs approximately 455 tons and is the largest ancient obelisk that exists to this day.

In the late 19th century, the government of Egypt gifted one obelisk to the United States, and one to Great Britain. One is located in Central Park, New York City, and the other on the Thames embankment in London. Although the latter is called Cleopatra’s Needle, it has nothing to do with the queen. They both bear inscriptions dedicated to Thutmose III and Ramses II.

Washington monument obelisk
Washington Monument

The best example of a modern obelisk is the well-known Washington Monument completed in 1884. It’s 555 feet tall and contains an observatory. It embodies the awe and respect of the nation for its most essential founding father, George Washington.

The Symbolism of Obelisk

Symbolism of obelisks

There are several interpretations of the symbolic meaning of obelisks, the majority of which is related to religion, because they come from Egyptian temples. Let’s break down some of these interpretations:

  • Creation and Life

The obelisks of ancient Egypt represented benben or the original mound upon which the god stood and created the world. For this reason, the obelisk was associated with the benu bird, the Egyptian predecessor of the Greek phoenix.

According to the Egyptian myths, benu bird’s cry would awake creation and set life in motion. The bird symbolized the renewal of each day, but at the same time, it was also a symbol of the world’s end. Just as its cry would signal the beginning of the creative cycle, the bird would sound again to signal its conclusion.

Later, the benu bird was linked to the sun god Ra, also known as Amun-Ra and Amun, symbolizing life and light. The sun god appeared as a ray of sunlight coming from the sky. The sunray shining down from a point in the sky resembled the shape of an obelisk.

  • Resurrection and Rebirth.

In the context of the Egyptian solar god, the obelisk also symbolizes resurrection. The point on the top of the pillar is there to break up the clouds allowing the sun to shine upon the earth. The sunlight is believed to bring rebirth to the deceased. This is why we can see so many obelisks in older cemeteries.

  • Unity and Harmony

Obelisks were always raised in pairs keeping the Egyptian value for harmony and balance.The idea of duality permeates Egyptian culture. Instead of focusing on the differences between the two parts of a pair, it would emphasize the essential unity of existence through the harmonization and alignment of the opposites.

  • Strength and Immortality

Obelisks were associated with pharaohs as well, representing the vitality and immortality of the living deity. As such, they were raised and carefully positioned so that the first and the last light of the day would touch their peaks honoring the solar deity.

  • Success and Effort

As it took immense effort and commitment to carve, polish, and craft an enormous piece of stone into a perfect tower, obelisks were also seen as a symbol ofvictory, success, and achievement.They represent the ability of every individual to dedicate their efforts to the advancement of humanity and leave a positive mark on society.

  • A Phallic Symbol

Phallic symbolism was quite common in ancient times and was often depicted in architecture. The obelisk is often considered to be such a phallic symbol, signifying the masculinity of the earth. In the 20th century, obelisks were associated with sex.

Obelisk in Crystal Healing

Obelisk in crystal healing

The straight, tower-like appearance of an obelisk is a prevalent shape found in jewelry, most commonly as crystal pendants and earrings. In feng shui, these crystals are widely used for their specific vibration and energy they bring to homes and offices.

The obelisk-shaped crystals are believed to purify the energy by amplifying it and focusing it through the pointed end of the crystal, or the apex. It’s thought that these crystals help acquire and maintain good mental, physical, and emotional balance, and dissipate negative energy. For this reason, people often put them in rooms where there may be some conflict or stress, at the workplace, for example.

The beautiful crystal jewelry in the shape of the obelisk is made of different semi-precious stones such as amethyst, selenite, rose quartz, opal, aventurine, topaz, moonstone, and many others. Each of these gemstones has specific healing properties.

To Sum It Up

From ancient Egyptian times to the modern era, obelisks have been admired as miraculous architectural craftsmanship, with a wide array of symbolic meanings. Its sleek and elegant pyramid-like shape is a fresh design that has a place in modern-day jewelry and other decorative objects.

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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.