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In Ancient Egypt, hieroglyphs, symbols, and amulets played a central role. The Shen, also known as the Shen Ring, was a powerful symbol that had connections with a variety of gods. Here’s a closer look.
What Was the Shen Ring?
The Shen Ring was a symbol of protection and eternity in ancient Egypt. At first sight, it looks like circle with a tangent line at one end. However, what it actually represents is a stylized loop of rope with closed ends, which creates a knot and a closed ring.
The Shen Ring was present in Egyptian culture as early as the Third Dynasty, and it remained a potent symbol for millennia to come. Its name derives from the Egyptian word shenu or shen, which stands for ‘to encircle‘.
Purpose of the Shen Ring
The Shen Ring symbolized eternity, and the ancient Egyptians believed it could give them eternal protection. From the Middle Kingdom onwards, this symbol began to be widely used as an amulet, and people carried it with them to ward off evil and give them protection. It was also often worn in various types of jewelry, such as depicted on rings, pendants, and necklaces.
Depictions of the Shen Ring in the tombs of Old Kingdom kings have been found, signifying its use as a symbol of eternity and protection. In later times, the symbol appeared in the tombs of regular citizens as well. These had the purpose of protecting the burial places and the dead in their journey into the afterlife.
The Shen Ring and the Gods
According to scholars, this symbol had associations with bird deities such as Horus the falcon, and Mut and Nekhbet, the vultures. Some portrayals of these bird deities show them holding the Shen Ring in their flight above the pharaohs to give them their protection. There are depictions of Horus as a falcon, carrying the Shen Ring with his claws.
In some depictions of the goddess Isis, she appears kneeling with her hands on a Shen Ring. There are also depictions of Nekhbet in anthropomorphic form in the same pose. The frog goddess Heqet frequently appeared associated to the Shen sign.
The circular shape of the Shen Ring resembled the sun; for that, it also had associations with the solar disks and the solar deities such as Ra. In later times, the Egyptians associated the Shen Ring with Huh (or Heh), the god of eternity and infinity. In this sense, the symbol appeared as a sun disk crown on the head of Huh.
Symbolism of the Shen Ring
The circle was a highly symbolic shape for ancient Egyptians, with associations of eternity, power and might. These meanings later spread from Egypt to other countries, where it continues to hold some of these associations.
In Egyptian culture, the Shen Ring represents the eternity of creation. Its associations with power like that of the sun make it a mighty symbol. The very idea of encircling something gives a sense of infinite protection – whoever is inside the circle is protected. In this sense, people wore the Shen ring in order to have its protection.
- Side note: Since the circle has no end, it represents eternity in many cultures. In Western culture, the marriage ring comes from this idea of the eternal connection with the circle. We could also refer to the Yin-Yang in Chinese culture, which uses this form to represent the eternal complementing elements of the universe. The representation of the Ouroboros comes to mind since the serpent biting its tail represents the infinity and eternity of the world. In the same way, the Shen ring represents infinity and eternity.
The Shen Ring vs. The Cartouche
The Shen ring is similar to the Cartouche in its use and symbolism. The Cartouche was a symbol used exclusively for the writing of royal names. It featured an oval with a line at one end and was essentially an elongated Shen Ring. Both had similar associations, but their main difference was in their shape. The Shen Ring was circular, and the cartouche was an oval.
Among the different symbols of Ancient Egypt, the Shen Ring had great importance. Its associations with mighty gods and the sun link it with the concepts of power and dominance. The symbolism and significance of the Shen Ring transcended Egyptian culture and matched similar representations of different times and cultures.