Rich in Gold, Rich in Meaning

With the centenary coming up in a couple of years, and the exhibition of his burial goods touring (for the last time! or so they tell us), Tutankhamun’s tomb is a rather topical subject. It’s easy when you think about it, and when you visit the exhibition, to concentrate on the bling – everywhere the glint of gold, after all. But these objects aren’t just pieces of treasure, they also tell us about the rich symbolic culture of Ancient Egypt and how the people of that place lived out their lives. So today I’m going to talk about one of my favourite items from his tomb – the fan handle decorated with scenes of Tutankhamun out hunting ostriches – and talk not just about the beauty of the object, but how it fits into the culture it came from.

The Return of the Ostrich Hunt

Tutankhamun was buried within several coffins and shrines that practically filled the room they were in – a veritable Russian doll of an assemblage. There were three nested coffins around the body, which sat within a granite sarcophagus. Surrounding that were four gilded wooden shrines – giant bottomless boxes. Objects had been laid between the layers of this assemblage, and between the third and fourth shrines (counting from the outermost in) there were ceremonial bows and arrows as well as two spectacular fans. The one I’m talking about today (Carter Object 242, Cairo Museum JE62001, or GEM 284) is made of gilded wood, and was found with a mass of insect eaten ostrich feathers which had clearly once been attached to the business end of the fan. Enough remained to see that they had been alternating white & brown feathers, which must’ve been quite a striking look. It was found at the western end of the shrine – the same end as Tutankhamun’s head beneath its many layers. It was in pretty good nick when it was found, other than the feathers – Carter talks on the object card for it about having to clean it with warm water and ammonia, and re-attach some of the sheet gold which was loose but it doesn’t sound like there was any full-on restoration work going on.

This fan has some rather fine decoration on it. At the head end of it, where the feathers were attached are two scenes that, as I mentioned, show Tutankhamun going ostrich hunting. On the front side you see the king in his chariot aiming an arrow at two ostriches running in front of the chariot, with a hunting dog running alongside him and all of them surrounded by desert plants. Behind the king is an ankh carrying a fan just like this one that we are looking at. The inscription over the top of the scene says “the good god, Nebkheperure, given life like Re forever” (Nebkheperure is one of Tutankhamun’s names) and in front of the king’s face is “Lord of Might”.

On the reverse side (pictured) is my favourite of the two scenes, and why I picked out this object to talk about – it’s the aftermath of the hunt. Tutankhamun is returning triumphant, with servants preceding him carrying his defeated quarry and the fantastic detail of the ostrich wing feathers which will be used to make this very fan carried under the king’s arms. I can’t quite articulate why I like it so much – I think it’s the proud teenager returning home to say “Look, I did this!” aspect of it. It has a much longer inscription which tells us all about how wonderful a hunter the king is.

Down the staff there is an inscription as well – it tells us that this is a real event that is being pictured. This commemorates a hunt that Tutankhamun went on in the Eastern Desert at Heliopolis, where he killed the ostriches that provided the feathers that were an integral part of this fan.

Ostriches provided resources for the Ancient Egyptians, so there were eminently practical reasons to hunt them – not just feathers for fans (or other purposes) as seen on this fan handle either. Ostriches are, of course, made of meat and also a single ostrich egg could apparently feed eight people! And after eating the egg the shell could be used to make beads or other decorative pieces. For most of Egyptian history they are probably all wild, as they only appear in art in hunting scenes or as tribute. But they had been domesticated by the Ptolemaic Period.

As well as being useful for practical purposes, ostrich feathers had symbolic resonance. The symbol of maat was a single ostrich feather and this was also the headdress that the god Shu wore (the hieroglyph shaped like a feather was part of spelling his name). And the atef crown that Osiris wears is the white crown of Upper Egypt flanked by ostrich plumes. A very kingly collection of associations for these feathers that Tutankhamun was so proudly bringing home for his fan.

The activity of hunting has two very distinct connotations in modern Western culture – on the one hand there is hunting for food, this is the image conjured up by the term “hunter-gatherers”. By the Pharaonic period this wasn’t a particularly important aspect of Egyptian life and it doesn’t seem to me that this is what Tutankhamun was engaged in! And on the other hand it is “the sport of kings” (one of the uses of that term anyway), this is perhaps the first interpretation to spring to the mind of a modern Brit like me – an image of posh people wearing fancy clothes riding to hunt an animal for fun (probably a fox, with dogs). And this seems much more the sort of activity we are thinking about here – particularly once you add hunting lodges into your mental picture (like a building on the Giza plateau which may be where Tutankhamun stayed when he was hunting near Memphis). Now it’s very much an image of the young aristocrat at play.

Yet as is my theme today – there’s more to this and the other depictions of hunting on Tutankhamun’s burial goods than that. It may be practical (to at least some extent) and a literal depiction of the king at his leisure, but it’s also symbolic – Egyptian art is very rarely, if at all, a straightforward depiction of something from the real world. The first of these symbolic layers is that showing the king engaging in a pursuit like hunting shows him to be a physically strong and capable man – important attributes for a king. And there is a second more fundamental layer of symbolism. These hunting scenes are often mirrored with scenes of warfare – not in the case of this ostrich hunt fan, but for instance on the hunting box (Carter Object 21) one side of the box has the king on his horse trampling wild beasts and on the opposite side the king is on his horse trampling Nubians. And in both warfare and hunting scenes the quarry or enemies are there as avatars of chaos – this is not just a physically strong king being shown at war and at play, this is the king upholding maat and playing his essential part in keeping the universe the way it ought to be.

Moving on now to think about the object itself, the word “fan” has quite probably got all the wrong connotations for you – certainly it does for me. It conjures up simpering 18th Century CE ladies fluttering little hand held fans and hiding behind them or sending messages with how they held them. Whereas this fan is of a quite different type and when Carter found it he had a quite different image conjured up by the object. In the Catholic Church (until Vatican II) and the Orthodox Church even now there are large fans called “flabella” (singular “flabellum”) which are carried in procession behind the Pope or other senior priest of the church in question, or held beside the altar during the Eucharist. These are of a similar type to this fan I’m talking about in this article, and seem to’ve been used in a similar way.

This is not just extrapolation from a similar style – the fans are seen in Egyptian art throughout Ancient Egyptian history (from at least the time of the Scorpion Macehead in the Predynastic Period) being used in just this fashion. Given the climate of Egypt they had a practical use – for shading the king and for generating a cooling breeze, so that he was never troubled by the heat of the sun. and carrying a fan for the king wasn’t necessarily a low status job – the title “Fan Bearer on the Right Side of the King” (tjay-khu her imenty-nisut) was a high status one held by important members of the Egyptian court. Perhaps a bit like “Groom of the Stool” in medieval and early modern England – a rather menial job, but one that gives you unparalleled access to the king, so a prestigious title.

Of course as with hunting scenes the fan seen depicted on the front side of this fan handle is not just literal but is also there for more than one symbolic reason. It is being carried by an ankh hieroglyph and so it symbolises the breath of life being wafted over the king as he hunts the ostriches. Fans were also linked to the idea of “blowing forth” the waters of the Nile in the inundation, so are linked to fertility and fecundity. The fan’s role in providing shade was also symbolic – a fan might represent one of the parts of a person, the shadow, which I find suggestive given where this fan was found, within the shrines surrounding Tutankhamun’s body. And also the concepts of shade and of protection are linked in the Egyptian mind (and both are connotations of the Egyptian word for shadow, shwt) so depicting the king in the shade of a fan means that the king is under protection. So in that one symbol (and indeed in this one object) are bound up notions of protecting the king and giving him life and fertility, as well as symbolising an integral part of his person.

Hopefully this has been a convincing demonstration that the items in Tutankhamun’s tomb are not just pretty faces – bling and toys for the wealthiest man of his time. They were also deeply symbolic for the people of the time, and help us to understand the culture he lived in. And I’m pretty sure I’ve only scratched the surface! This object is also a demonstration of how one should, I think, always approach Egyptian culture looking for the “and” – what else could this mean or be?


Resources used:

Carter, Howard. 1972. The Tomb of Tutankamen. Book Club Associates.
Dodson, Aidan. 2010. “The Monarchy.” In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge.
Friedman, Renée. 2011. “Hierakonpolis.” In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press.
Hawass, Zahi. 2018. Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, the Centennial Celebration. IMG Exhibitions.
Hawass, Zahi A. 2005. Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. National Geographic Books.
Hawass, Zahi A. 2007. King Tutankhamun: The Treasures of the Tomb. Thames & Hudson.
Hoffman, Michael A. 1991. Egypt Before the Pharaohs: The Prehistoric Foundations of Egyptian Civilization. O’Mara.
Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow.
Patch, Diana Craig. 2011. “From Land to Landscape.” In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press.
Reeves, Nicholas. 1995. The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure. Thames and Hudson.
Romer, John. 2013. From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid. A History of Ancient Egypt 1. Penguin.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. 2007. British Museum.
“Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation.”
Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2001. Early Dynastic Egypt. Routledge.

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Two Legs Good, Four Legs Bad

Hippopotami lived in the Nile at least until the time of the New Kingdom. At some point after that they vanish, but by then they are an integral part of Egyptian culture. They are integrated into the writing system – hieroglyph E25 in Gardiner’s list looks like a hippo, and has the sound “deb”. They feature in the tales of later Egyptians about their predecessors too – the Egyptian historian Manetho (who lived around the 3rd Century BCE) wrote that Narmer (the first king of a unified Egypt) was “carried off by a hippo and perished”! Of course this is almost certainly fiction – Joann Fletcher, in whose book I found this quote, says it might be true but I’m reminded far too much of the purported death of Romulus the founder of Rome. He’s supposed to’ve been swept up by a whirlwind and perished, body never to be found. So this feels like a death story that gets attached to semi-mythical kings to make them seem more mysterious.

The reality of the hippopotamus is that it was dangerous and destructive – in particular male hippos were regarded this way and thus associated with the god Seth. In fact the two most dangerous animals that the Egyptians faced in their environment were the crocodile and the hippopotamus, due to their size and strength. Both these animals could move (and attack) both in water and on land, so nowhere was safe from them. In the case of the hippopotamus they also trampled and ate the Egyptian’s crops (and some authors like Richard Wilkinson think that they were feared more for this than any aggression towards humans).

The Egyptians didn’t just let this dangerous beast roam about and destroy their food – there’s evidence for the hunting of hippos dating back to Prehistoric times. Early farmers who lived by the banks of the Faiyum around 5000-4000 BCE butchered hippos for food – a single hippo has as much meat as 5 cows or 50 sheep, so there’s quite a lot of good eating there, you could have a spectacular feast or feed a community for a while after a single hunt. Hippo bones also show up as a structural material in the north of the country at Merimda in the Delta, where hippo shin bones were used as door sills around 4800 BCE, as well as other bones being used as pillars to hold up house roofs. Hippo teeth were also used to make ivory objects from at least Predynastic times. (Technically the word “ivory” only refers to the material of elephant tusks, but in practice its use is broader and includes dentine from other large mammals such as the hippo.) It’s hard to tell which ivory objects were made from elephant tusks and which from hippo teeth, but the shape of the finished object can give some indications. For instance the shape of wands and clappers reflects the shape of the lower canines of hippopotami, whereas circular boxes are the shape of the hollow ends of elephant tusks.

As you’d expect for a creature that was so visible in the Ancient Egyptian landscape hippopotami are a common feature in art. Hippos feature on pots from at least the Predynastic Period onward often as herds or being hunted. Even in the earliest examples known of hippo hunting scenes one of the hippos will usually be shown being harpooned – Diana Craig Patch suggests that this may be intended as protective: invoking success in decorative art in order to ensure success in life. This art is not confined to pottery, even in the Predynastic Period – there is a painted cloth which was found in a grave at Gebelein that has a fragmentary hippo hunting scene on it. And there are figurines found from the Predynastic Period as well as later in the Early Dynastic Period where figurines are found in temple deposits including the well known Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis. There are also two known examples of larger limestone statues of hippos dating to the Early Dynastic Period, which may’ve been cult statues placed in shrines to be propitiated with offerings to ward off danger from hippopotami in daily life.

So far I’ve mostly talked about practical attitudes towards hippos until that last paragraph, but much of this art and much of Ancient Egyptian thinking about hippopotami would’ve had religious significance. Even tho in the modern world we think of religion as a separate domain to the rest of life we shouldn’t forget that in other cultures religion and the everyday are deeply intertwined. But I do want to first say that we need to be rather cautious about back-porting any meanings from a period where we have written texts to earlier art. Cultures in the past are no more a monolith than our own, and over time the meanings and symbolism of art motifs will inevitably change. Nonetheless even with that caveat we can see that there might be themes that begin during Predynastic times and last into later Egyptian times.

One of the themes that runs through Egyptian art involving hippos is that of control – for instance a bowl with a motif of hippos swimming in a circle can be seen as keeping the hippos under control and not allowing them to escape the bowl (or by extension their own natural place in the world). And the common scene in Old Kingdom nobles tombs of a hippo hunt is not just (or perhaps not at all) showing what might’ve happened in life, instead it’s about keeping control in the afterlife. Even the rather jolly-looking (to our eyes) blue faience figures of hippos from the Middle Kingdom like the one in my photo might be a manifestation of this theme. Richard Wilkinson suggests that the floral decorative motifs on these pieces are a magical method of keeping the hippo in its proper environment (other authors disagree, which I’ll come back to later).

Standing Faience Hippopotamus

And in Pharaonic Egypt hippo hunting scenes in a royal context had another extra layer of symbolism – not just general themes of imposing order on the chaos of a hippo but also the defeat of Seth by Horus and thus an important part of the religious iconography of kingship. There are hints that this may have its roots in a much earlier time – like a piece of Naqada I-II period art where the hippo hunter wears a bull’s tail. Now in Pharaonic Egypt a bull’s tail was only worn by the king, so one could interpret this as a king killing a hippo and thus an early precursor of the Horus defeating Seth symbolism … but there’s not enough evidence to be at all sure of that, we don’t even know the bull’s tail is an indication that this man is a king let alone the religious underpinnings of the image.

Indeed there’s still no evidence of a link between Seth and the hippo in the 1st Dynasty, even though there are pieces of evidence of royal hippo hunts having some greater significance than the purely practical. But later, the god and the animal are definitely linked. In the Contendings of Horus and Seth, which as a full story survives in a single copy from the 20th Dynasty (although the motifs and episodes from the story show up much earlier as well as later albeit not in a single coherent story), there are two episodes where Seth becomes a hippo – in both he is harpooned, once by Isis who lets him free when he pleads for his life (much to Horus’s disgust) and once by Horus, in an act which brings the contendings to their final conclusion with Horus gaining (at last!) his rightful throne & inheritance. This second episode is also illustrated on the walls of Edfu temple – a Ptolemaic structure – and there was a festival celebrated at this temple that re-enacted the killing (not, I think, with a real hippo – it’s a donkey that’s sacrificed).

So hippos in ancient Egypt were mad, bad and dangerous to know? Not exactly – as so often in Egyptian culture there were two sides to the idea of the hippo. Male hippos might be associated with Seth, but female hippos had a more benign symbolism and were associated with the goddess Taweret (amongst others). Taweret was a household deity who was a protector of women in childbirth. She was a composite creature – she has the body of a female hippo, with the breasts and full belly of a pregnant human, the legs & arms of a lion and the tail of a crocodile (or sometimes a whole crocodile sitting on her back). She stands on her hind legs, and often has one of her forepaws resting on a sa sign (which means protection) or an ankh (for life). She may also carry a knife, or fire, to fight off evil and those who mean the mother-to-be harm. Female hippos had this association with motherhood as they were thought of as being especially protective of their young. Just to be clear – this beneficial and more benign aspect to female hippos wasn’t because they were thought of as any less destructive than male hippos, it’s just that the destructive power was seen as being turned on those who meant one harm. Which is an interesting contrast to modern Western notions of motherhood which emphasise the nurturing rather more than the protective aspects … and the contrast between our culture’s patron saint of childbirth Saint Margaret (who escapes the belly of a dragon because of a miracle she doesn’t really play a part in) and the rather more proactive Taweret is quite striking!

The hippo may also be a more general fertility and regenerative symbol. This is the more common interpretation of the blue faience hippos like the one in my illustration – rather than a control motif. In this interpretation the vegetative decoration is about verdant new life and so in a funerary context (which it’s assumed these are from) it would be a symbol of rebirth into the afterlife. There’s also a hippo-headed bed, which was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which may fall into this category of symbolising rebirth. Much earlier from the Predynastic Period there are some small hippo figurines which may be amulets – they have a small knob where they might be strung on a thong to wear on one’s person. If they are amulets then that implies a positive interpretation. And these figurines all have distended pregnant looking bellies (unlike other hippo representations of the time), which implies an association with fertility (perhaps even a proto-Taweret, but that’s a stretch).

Hippos therefore played a variety of roles in the symbolism and thinking of ancient Egyptians and you might think this would get confusing when interpreting any given instance. However in “Reading Egyptian Art” Richard Wilkinson suggests an easy way to tell them apart: in the majority of cases a hippo standing like a human is positive, one standing on all fours like a hippo is malevolent (most of the exceptions to this are in my last paragraph). Or, to re-work Orwell’s phrase: Two legs good, four legs bad!


Resources used:

Fletcher, Joann. The Story of Egypt. Hodder, 2016.
Patch, Diana Craig. ‘Early Dynastic Art’. In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. New York : New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2011.
———. ‘From Land to Landscape’. In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. New York : New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2011.
Romer, John. From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid. A History of Ancient Egypt 1. London: Penguin, 2013.
———. From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom. A History of Ancient Egypt 2. Penguin, 2016.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and Expanded ed. London: British Museum, 2008.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2007.
Tyldesley, Joyce. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. London, England: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2010.
Wilkinson, Richard H. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. 1. paperback ed. 1994. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.
———. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Early Dynastic Egypt. London: Routledge, 2001.

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She of Nekheb

My bonus article for November is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Khery-Hebet tier and is about Nekhbet: She of Nekheb.

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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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