All the Common People Adore the Pharaoh

When you visit an Egyptian temple and look around at the decoration one motif you’ll often see repeated on columns and near the bases of walls is of a bird with its wings twisted behind its back. It also has human arms, raised up towards a star (and often beyond that a cartouche of a Pharaoh) and it sits on what looks like a bowl or nest. This is what the Egyptians called a rekhyt bird, easily recognisable by the distinctive crest on its head – we call it a lapwing, it’s a species of plover called Vanellus vanellus.

Rekhyt Bird Motif

One of the first surviving representations of the rekhyt bird is from around the time of the unification of Egypt into a single country. The Scorpion macehead is a large ceremonial macehead decorated on the surviving part with a scene of a man wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt performing some sort of agricultural ceremony. This is King Scorpion, hence the name of the macehead. The part of the decorative scheme we’re interested in today is the top frame of the scene which consists of a row of poles and from each pole swings a rekhyt bird on a rope, hung by the neck. It’s actually a pretty brutal image for a decorative motif, particularly once you know that these birds are generally thought to represent the peoples of Northern Egypt who were being conquered during the unification of the country. Even John Romer, who tends towards a peaceful interpretation whenever he can, sees this as indicating that “the relationship between the court and the people of the Lower Nile may have been somewhat fraught.”!

The next depiction we have of rekhyt birds is less overtly brutal, but nonetheless indicative of oppression. They show up on the base of a large standing statue of the 3rd Dynasty king Djoser (the builder of the Step Pyramid). As his statue strides forth it is walking directly on a depiction of nine bows, a motif found throughout Pharaonic Egyptian art representing the enemies of Egypt. Once Djoser takes his next step onward from crushing his enemies he will stand on a row of 3 bound rekhyt birds, crushing them in their turn. Here the birds are juxtaposed with the enemies of Egypt, rather than being one of them and it’s generally assumed that they now (or always did?) represent the whole of the common people of Egypt – the king’s subjects, who also needed to be kept in their place under the sandal of the king.

It’s not all oppression and death when it comes to rekhyt birds in the Old Kingdom, though. They are also found depicted as part of the scenes of idealised wildlife that were part of the decorative scheme for the mastaba tombs of the elite. Here the birds are alive, and shown flying or sitting in nests. There’s even a case where a child (or perhaps woman) is shown carrying one by its wings – perhaps a pet bird? In the Middle Kingdom there are very few depictions of rekhyt birds, whether as symbolic people or as representations of living things. But when we get to the New Kingdom and on into the Ptolemaic Period & beyond there is a great renewal of enthusiasm for representations of the bird, as seen on the temple walls that still survive. Most of the books I looked at said that the rekhyt bird was used as a way of indicating to the common people where they could stand in a temple when they were let into the outer areas during festivals – a useful visual cue for the illiterate. Kenneth Griffin disagrees because the motif also appears deep inside the temple where only priests could enter, he thinks it’s more plausible that it’s part of making the temple into a model of the cosmos – if you’re symbolising the whole of the world then you need to represent the common people as well even in areas that they were too profane to actually enter in person.

But that’s not the only way the rekhyt bird was used during these periods of Egyptian history. The motif I described at the beginning of this article is a rebus – a collection of symbols that has a meaning as well as being decorative. The bowl shape that the bird sits on is the neb hieroglyph and it means “all”. The 5-pointed star is the dwa hieroglyph which represents the verb “to adore”, which is backed up by the (human) arms of the bird that are raised in the traditional gesture of worship. In this context the bird itself is most likely to represent the common people of Egypt and so the motif reads “All the common people adore…”. In a temple context there’s often a pair of these motifs facing each other with a cartouche in the middle – so the common people are adoring the Pharaoh named in the cartouche. In a palace it’s thought that the tiles with rekhyt birds on them would face towards doors or thrones, directing their adoration at the actual king.

There is still a strong flavour of subjugation to the relationship between king and the rekhyt-people in this motif. They might adore him, but they still get shown on his footstool (there’s an example from Tutankhamun’s tomb) alongside the enemies he’s placing his feet on. And they’re definitely not shown as free. The pose of the bird, sort of lying down on its legs with its wings crossed over behind its back, doesn’t look terribly comfortable – in fact it’s rather reminiscent of the imagery of a bound captive also found in Egyptian art & writing. You can apparently still find ducks in Egyptian markets in the modern day trussed up like this – it not only stops them flying away but it also stops them from standing up properly so they sit there in the same pose as the rekhyt birds waiting for the cook pot.

A salutary reminder that the Egyptian monarch brought order out of chaos by imposing it from the top down and at the business end of a mace. All the common people adore the king, if they know what’s good for them.


Resources used:

“Images of the Rekhyt from Ancient Egypt” Kenneth Griffin (Ancient Egypt Magazine 7: 2)
“A Reinterpretation of the Use and Function of the Rekhyt Rebus in New Kingdom Temples” Kenneth Griffin, Current Research in Egyptology 2006, 2007
“A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

The Naming of Kings

The naming of Kings is a difficult matter, it isn’t just one of your holiday games … No, wait, that’s cats (and my apologies to T. S. Eliot) – but the naming and titling of an Egyptian king was also a rather complicated thing. Have a look at this one:

Horus ka nakht tut mesut. Nebty nefer hepu segereh tawy sehetep netjeru nebu. Bik nebu wetjes khau sehetep netjeru. Nesu bity Nebkheprure. Sa ra Tutankhamun heqa Iunu shema.

Or in English:

The divine power of kingship is incarnated in Strong Bull, Fitting of Created Forms who resides in the palace. He of the Two Ladies: Dynamic of Laws, Who Calms the Two Lands, Who Propitiates All the Gods. The Golden Horus: Who Displays the Regalia, Who Propitiates the Gods. The Dual King: The Lordly Manifestation of Re. The Son of Re: Living Image of Amun, Ruler of Upper Egyptian Heliopolis.

(Before I go on I should note I have followed Nicholas Reeves for the transcription & translation of the names, and James P. Allen for the translation of the Horus name title, the rest of the titles were fairly consistent across the books I looked at although the transcription varied in details. Hopefully in picking my variants I haven’t made too much of a mess of it!)

The English doesn’t help one recognise which king this is, but if you know even the least little bit about Ancient Egypt and you scan through the Egyptian you will have the sudden realisation near the end that “oh, it’s King Tut!”. And when I started to learn about Ancient Egypt I had no idea that Tutankhamun had quite so many more names than just that.

An alabaster vase decorated with hieroglyphs, including the Son of Re and Dual King names of Tutankhamun.
Alabaster vase with the Son of Re and Dual King names of Tutankhamun

There are five parts to the name, each of which has a title and a name that is unique to the king in question. The titulary develops over time, but by the Fifth Dynasty all five are in use even if sometimes we don’t know all the names for a given king. Taken all together the five names give some insight into the Egyptian ideology of kingship. Three of the names stress the king’s divinity (Horus, Golden Horus and Son of Re names) and two stress duality (the Two Ladies and Dual King names). Once the complete kit is developed we know that the king chose four of them (the first four) on his accession to the throne and the last one was his birth name (although that can change too, for instance Tutankhamun began life as Tutankhaten). It’s not clear who actually chose the names – the king himself? priests? courtiers? – and it probably varied depending on time period and the personal circumstances of the king. The names chosen can be mottos or statements of intent for how the king intended to rule, and they might change after significant events that the king wanted to emphasise – for instance once he’s established control over a re-unified Egypt Montuhotep II changes his Horus name to Sematawy which means “the one who unites the two lands”.

The first & oldest is the Horus name – for the early kings like Narmer this is the only name we have for them. It is written in a serekh with a falcon perched on top. The serekh is a schematic of a palace. The lower part of it is a depiction of the niched facade of an early palace building and the box that the name is written in is the ground plan of the palace. The falcon on top represents the god Horus, son of Osiris and the last divine king of Egypt in Ancient Egyptian mythology. This therefore links the king directly with his divine predecessor and with his seat of power, and Allen’s translation of it conveys those nuances (which is why I used it rather than just saying “The Horus:”). Tutankhamun’s Horus name is “Ka nakht tut mesut“. The first part of it (Ka nakht) is an epithet that New Kingdom kings use in their Horus names, and means Strong Bull or Victorious Bull. “Tut mesut” can be translated in a variety of ways (depending on how the grammatical forms of the two Egyptian words are interpreted), Reeves goes for “Fitting of Created Forms” and other interpretations are things like “Fair of Births” or “Perfect of Birth”. So there is a flavour of perfection, creation and birth to it, but it’s hard to know (even for the experts) what it conveyed to the people of his time.

The second part of the name is the Two Ladies name, the Nebty name. The two ladies in question are the protective goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt – the vulture Nekhbet and the snake Wadjet, respectively – and references the king’s descent from and protection by these deities. This name begins to be seen from the second half of the First Dynasty. It’s one of the less commonly found names and shows more variation for each king as well. Reeves gives three variants for Tutankhamun, none of which are found associated with the king when he was still using the name Tutankhaten. The main variant “Nefer hepu segereh tawy sehetep netjeru nebu” is translated as “Dynamic of Laws, Who Calms the Two Lands, Who Propitiates All the Gods” which can be seen as a reference to his returning the country to the old ways of religion after his predecessor Akhenaten’s reforms.

The other less commonly seen name is the third name, the Golden Horus name. It’s also the latest to appear, it’s not seen before the reign of Khafre in the Fourth Dynasty (the builder of the second largest of the pyramids at Giza). And it’s the least understood by Egyptologists – the books I looked at were reluctant to get more specific than suggesting that it has something to do with divinity and/or eternity as the flesh of the gods was said to be made of gold. As with the Nebty name Tutankhamun has multiple forms of this, the primary variant is “Wetjes khau sehetep netjeru” which means “(He) Who Displays the Regalia, Who Propitiates the Gods”. A similar theme to his Two Ladies name, so you won’t be surprised to learn that the Golden Horus name is also only seen after he’s changed his name to Tutankhamun.

The fourth name, the Dual King name, is the one which kings were most likely to be referred to with from the Middle Kingdom onwards. If there was any ambiguity the Son of Re name would also be used. These two are the ones that you find written inside a cartouche, which looks like an elongated version of the hieroglyph for eternity. It once represented the king’s dominion over the whole world, but in the Middle Kingdom it shifts to just being an indicator that this is a royal name and important royal women begin to rate cartouches. The title “nesu bity” is literally translated “He of the Sedge and Bee”, and in the earlier days of Egyptology it was translated as “King of Upper and Lower Egypt”. There is some correctness to this idea, as even for the Egyptians there was a sense that this title referred to the two major regions of the country. But it is more nuanced than that – for instance the two words (nesu and bity) can also refer to abstract/divine kingship and the mortal man who is this particular king, respectively. So more recently there has been a shift to translating it as “Dual King” which is vague enough in English to give less of a false impression. Tutankhamun’s Dual King name is “Nebkheprure” which can be translated as “The Lordly Manifestation of Re” – most Dual King names reference Re (even that of Akhenaten!).

And finally we come to the name that we recognise for any given king. The Son of Re name is the king’s birth name, and first begins to be written with the title Son of Re in the Fourth Dynasty which was a time when the cult of Re was in the ascendancy. As with other families the kings of Egypt tended to name their sons after recent respected ancestors – hence a string of Amenhoteps and Thutmoses in the 18th Dynasty, and the line of Pharaohs called Ramesses after the great Ramesses II. As I said above the Egyptians solved this ambiguity by mostly using the Dual King name, or both the Dual King and Son of Re names. Egyptologists have generally taken a different tack – they add a Roman numeral on the end of the Son of Re name, like we do for European monarchs’ names. And of course it’s now “stuck” like that because it has been the convention for so long. Which is a shame because I think it gives the impression that the Ancient Egyptian ideology of kingship is closer to our own Western cultural ideology than it necessarily is. “Tutankhamun” can be translated as “Living Image of Amun” but before year 4 of his reign he was known as “Tutankhaten“, i.e. “Living Image of Aten” – this name change shows very clearly how he stepped the country back from Akhenaten’s changes. Once he’s changed his name he also almost always adds the epithet “heqa Iunu shema” following Tutankhamun inside the cartouche. This translates as “Ruler of Upper Egyptian Heliopolis” which is a reference to Thebes & the cult centre of Amun.

So the naming of an Egyptian king is indeed a complicated thing, and so is translation (particularly from a dead language) so Egyptologists haven’t quite managed to reverse engineer it in all possible detail yet. But there does seem to be a consensus on what the flavour of the titles & names are even if the precise meanings aren’t always clear. The example of Tutankhamun also shows how the names chosen can provide a thematic statement for the reign – you can see that the king (or whoever chose the names he adopted around year 4 of his reign) was keen to stress his proper worship of the gods, and to align him with Amun and Amun’s cult centre. Which illuminates the history around him, and provides Egyptologists with an idea of just how quickly Akhenaten’s attempt to reform his nation’s belief system fell to pieces.


Resources used:

“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of the Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Unknown Tutankhamun” Marianne Eaton-Krauss
“The Complete Tutankhamun” Nicholas Reeves
“The Pharaoh: Life at Court and On Campaign” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson

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