When I visited the sanctuary of the Temple of Isis from Philae, I was struck by the maze of cramped corridors with walls covered with hieroglyphics. While I have photographs, they would be difficult if not impossible to understand. In this post I thought I would explore some of the sacred ancient Egyptian symbols that appear in this sanctuary. To do this, I am going to interpret the symbols surrounding Ptolemy II (the Egyptian Pharoah from 283-246 BC) depicted above. I have decided to take this approach as an introduction to the symbols of ancient Egypt instead of making a list with descriptions because the symbols themselves were rarely used in isolation in actual practice. I hope this approach will be more informative and less confusing but you will have to let me know.
One of the most important ways to tell who is being depicted is to look at the head, headress, and clothing. In these figures we can see that a human man is represented with a Shendyt (skirt) and a long “tail”. From about 2130 BC during the Old Kingdom, garments were simple. The men wore wraparound linen skirts known as the Shendyt, which were belted at the waist, sometimes pleated or gathered in the front. The pharaohs would wear leopard skins over their shoulders and added a lion’s tail that would hang from their belt. In this symbolic depiction however it is a bull’s tail. The pharaoh was often depicted with a bull’s tail hanging from the back of his skirt. It is likely that this emphasized the strength and procreative power of the ruler. The pharaoh was usually the “King of Upper and Lower Egypt.” This double kingship was expressed in the Pschent, the double crown combining the Red Crown of Lower Egypt (Deshret) and the White Crown of Upper Egypt (Hedjet). The blue Khepresh was worn when the Pharaoh went to war. So Ptolemy II is shown with the crown of Lower Egypt (on the left) and with a war crown (on the right) in the two figures above. I will return to this depiction a little later in the post and explain why the Pharaoh is only represented as king of Lower Egypt. The little scroll coming from the Deshret could represent a reed or a bee tongue. In ancient Egypt, the bee was an insignia of kingship associated particularly with Lower Egypt, where there may even have been a Bee King in pre-dynastic times. After the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, this symbol was incorporated in the title usually preceding the throne name of pharaoh and expressing the unity of the two realms, “He of the Sedge and of the Bee”.
Sedge & Bee and Sa-Ra
In the upper left of each of these reliefs are the names of the Pharaoh although they can be anywhere near his head. Each pharaoh had five names (Horus, Two Ladies, Golden Horus, Throne Name or prenomen, and nomen) but the two most important names were drawn within a cartouche, the prenomen (Throne Name) and nomen (family name). It was the practice to write the name of the pharaoh inside a coil of rope, a cartouche (from the French soldiers who thought it resembled a bullet, the Egyptians termed it shenu). It represents the circle of life and resembles the “Shen” (representing eternal circling protection). The pharaoh’s throne name (prenomen) was the first of the two names written inside a cartouche and is usually labled, above the cartouche as seen above, with the title “nsw-bity”. This ancient term literally means “He (or She) of the Sedge and Bee”, but is often translated for convenience as “King of Upper and of Lower Egypt”. The sedge is the symbol for Lower Egypt and bee is the symbol for Northern Egypt. The second cartouche (nomen) is usually labled with the Sa-Ra symbol, again usually above the second cartouche. Sa-Ra, a goose with sun disk, means the Pharaoh is the “Son of the Sun (Ra god)”.
Sedges are grass-like plants which generally grow in wet ground, have triangular stems and inconspicuous flowers. The sedge was the symbol for Lower Egypt, while the bee stood for Upper Egypt. Cyperus papyrus (papyrus sedge, paper reed, Nile grass) is a plant of the sedge family native to Africa and the plant used to make papyrus paper. The famous papyrus plant has disappeared from Egypt, but has survived in Nubia, modern day Sudan. Cyperus esculentus (also called chufa sedge and tiger nut sedge) is also a species of aquatic flowering plant belonging to the sedge family Cyperaceae. It is widespread across much of the world including Egypt where it has been cultivated since at least the eighth millenium BC. Cyperus esculentus ranks among the oldest cultivated plants in ancient Egypt and evidence of use dates from 9000 BC in North America. It was apparently cultivated for its tuber which has a sweet, nutty flavour and is rich in oils and minerals. Aside from papyrus and tiger nut, several other members of the genus Cyperus may actually have been involved in the multiple uses Egyptians found for the plant.
In the second example, the area above the cartouche is obscured by the wing of the vulture goddess Nekhbet. The titles of the prenomen (Throne Name) and nomen (family name) are still there, just displaced to the left. However, in this case instead of the Sa-Ra sign, we see a rearing cobra (Uraeous) with the Deshret crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. To fully understand the meaning it is time to meet the “Two Ladies of Egypt”.
Two Ladies of Egypt, Wadjet and Nekhbet
In Ancient Egyptian texts, the “Two Ladies” was a religious euphemism for Wadjet and Nekhbet, the deities who were the patrons of the Ancient Egyptians and worshipped by all after the unification of its two parts, Lower and Upper Egypt. Wadjet (Uraeous, the rearing cobra) represented Lower Egypt and Nekhbet (the vulture) represented Nubia/Kush or Upper Egypt. In New Kingdom times, the vulture appeared alongside the uraeus on the headdresses with which kings were buried. The uraeus and vulture are traditionally interpreted as Wadjet and Nekhbet, but Edna R. Russmann has suggested that in this context they represent Isis and Nephthys, the two major funerary goddesses instead. At the Temple of Horus at Edfu, Ptolemy is shown being crowned with the Peshent (crown of Upper and Lower Egypt) by actual women wearing the Deshret (crown of Lower Egypt) and the Hedjet (crown of Nubia/Kush or Upper Egypt). This is hilarious because Ptolemy, as a Greek, either thought the two ladies were actual women or decided to make them so. Or perhaps he let his licentious imagination get the best of him, since both women are nude (women/goddesses, though often topless, usually wore some clothes).
The earliest evidence we have of the use of the Uraeus, a rearing cobra, is from the reign of Den from the first dynasty (3100-2886 BC). The cobra supposedly protected the pharaoh by spitting fire at its enemies. The pharaohs were seen as a manifestation of the sun god Ra, and so it also was believed that the Uraeus protected them by spitting fire on their enemies from the fiery eye of the goddess. In some mythological works, the eyes of Ra are said to be Uraei. Horus Ra. According to the later mythology of Re, the first Uraeus was said to have been created by the goddess Isis, who formed it from the dust of the earth and the spittle of the then-current sun deity. In this version of the mythology, the Uraeus was the instrument with which Isis gained the throne of Egypt for Osiris. Isis is associated with and may be considered an aspect of Wadjet. The symbol of the sun with two rearing Cobras or Uraneas is usually depicted with wings and the winged sun disk is a common symbol across the Middle East (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Persia) and even today. Perhaps the scribe did not have room to include the wings.
Nekhbet was the patron of Upper Egypt, appearing as one of the “Two ladies” in the Nebty name of the pharaoh (with her counterpart Wadjet). She was often called “Hedjet” (White Crown) in reference to the crown of Upper Egypt and regularly appears as a heraldic device representing Upper Egypt. She was also a protector of royal children and, in later periods, of all young children and expectant mothers. She was associated with the “Eye of Ra” along with a great number of goddesses and was often depicted hovering above the pharaoh in battle offering him protection and threatening his enemies. Nekhbet usually was depicted hovering, with her wings spread above the royal image, clutching a Shen symbol (representing eternal encircling protection), frequently in her claws (although in our example she is clutching an Ankh). In one of the myths regarding the conflict between Set and Horus, Nekhbet and Wadjet (in the form of winged snakes) flank Horus (in the form of a winged sun disc) as he pursues Set and his fleeing followers. This association with the “Eye of Ra” clearly gives her a strong solar connection, but she was also described as the “healthy eye of Horus” (the moon) and named as the “Mistress of the Heavens”. As patron of the pharaoh, she was sometimes seen to be the mother of the divine aspect of the pharaoh, and it was in this capacity that she was Mother of Mothers, and the Great White Cow of Nekheb.
On beginning to study hieroglyphs, a good starting point is the pharaohic names. It is the natural initial location when attempting to decipher an inscription. Only about 1% of ancient Egyptians could read or write; in fact none of the Ptolemaic Pharaohs could read hieroglyphs. Ptolemy II took the Egyptian name Meryamun Setepenre (Beloved of Amun, Chosen of Re). However the name Ptolemy provides a little insight into ancient Egyptian spelling. It is not that the scribes misspelled words, rather there are so many ways to spell a word as seen above. To the left in the figure are the nomen and prenomen for Ptolemy II as seen in the two examples from Philae and to the right is the name given by Wikipedia and an online hieroglyphics typewriter program (discoveringegypt). You can see that the ancient scribes made different choices for the letter “m” from the modern spelling in English. In fact, the scribes were transcribing the Greek name Ptolemies (which surprisingly yields the same result since the unicode for “ie and y are the same) and they did not usually include vowels although they were sometimes included to make the name more readable. You can still read the name albeit with a fair amount of effort but for now you will need to take my assurances that the two cartouches represent Ptolemy II Philadelphia. Just for fun here are the full five names of Ptolemy II, which I will explore in the next post.
The Egyptian Lotus
The pedestal in the lower left portion of both reliefs is an altar topped with Egyptian sacred lotus flowers (actually water lilies), a gift to the gods. To the ancient Egyptians, the image of a pool with lotus flowers was symbolic of rebirth and new life. The Egyptians saw that the blue water lily opened up each morning, seeing the intense golden center set against the blue petals, seemingly an imitation of the sky that would greet the sun, releasing sweet perfume. Each afternoon, they would close again only to open again each day. The flower was therefore firmly linked with the rising and the setting of the sun, and thus to the sun god and the story of creation. The religious significance of the flower inspired the many columns of the Egyptian temples with water lily capitals crowning them. Homes were frequently graced with arrangements of flowers, including the favored lotus. Flower bowls were often shaped to accommodate the floating of cut lotus flowers as seen above. The sacred Egyptian blue lily (Nymphaea caerulea) has been used to produce perfumes since ancient times and is used in aromatherapy even today.
Ptolemy and Alexander the Great
So how did a Greek family, that really could not even read the Egyptian hieroglyphs, come to rule Egypt as pharoahs for over 300 years? The story begins with the young Macedonian King, Alexander the Great, who conquered Egypt in later 332 BC, where he was regarded as a liberator. He went on to conquer the Persians and seeking to reach the “ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea”, he invaded India in 326 BC, but was eventually forced to turn back at the demand of his troops. Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC without an heir. His generals divided the known world and Ptolemy Sotor, being a shrewd politician, ended up with Egypt. He became ruler of Egypt (323–283 BC) and founder of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and dynasty. Ptolemy I Soter died in 283 BC at the age of 84 in Alexandria. Shrewd and cautious, he had a compact and well-ordered realm to show at the end of forty years of war, consisting of Lower Egypt and most of the eastern Mediterranean. Greeks first entered Nubia, when Ptolemy II campaigned there in the 270s BC and occupied a small section of lower Nubia mostly for the gold mines. Precise dates for the beginnings of complex historical processes are rarely what they seem and unfortunately, that is true in the case. Independent Nubia distrusted the Ptolemies and there appeared to be constant friction which may have led to the building of the Temple of Isis in Philae as a goodwill gesture. So in reality, Ptolemy II Philadelphus was really only Pharoah of Lower Egypt, and the crowns reflect this although he did sometimes wear the full Deshret crown.
As always I hope you enjoyed the post and I really would appreciate constructive comments.
Ottar Vendel: http://www.nemo.nu/ibisportal/0egyptintro/1egypt/
Clothing of Ancient Egypt: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clothing_in_ancient_Egypt
Isis and the Lotus: http://mirrorofisis.freeyellow.com/id206.html
Land of Pyramids: http://www.landofpyramids.org/symbols-for-egypt.htm
Egyptian Symbols: http://www.egyptartsite.com/symlst.html
Egyptian Myths: http://www.egyptianmyths.net/section-symbols.htm
Ancient Egypt: http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/royalemblems.html
Hieroglyphs by Alphabetization: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Egyptian_hieroglyphs_by_alphabetization
Egyptian Hieroglyphs: http://www.psifer.com/hier.htm
Horus Ra: http://www.whale.to/b/horus.html