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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A Well Connected Man?

The Amarna Period and its immediate aftermath is a tantalising period of Egyptian history – it feels like we’ve got so much information that we must know what really happened, and yet we really don’t. On the one hand there is quite a lot of documentation for the upheaval of these years and the players who took part in the drama. We know that Akhenaten succeeded his father Amenthotep III on the throne of Egypt towards the end of the 18th Dynasty in the New Kingdom, and that he and his queen Nefertiti had 6 daughters. We know he changed the state religion of Egypt during his reign and moved the capital city of the country to a new virgin site in Middle Egypt (modern Amarna, hence the name of the period of history). After his death it gets very murky for a bit, but then we know Tutankhamun takes the throne as a child and his regime moves back to Thebes and begins restoration of the cult of Amun. Following him we have Ay, and then Horemheb, who complete the restoration of the old ways and set the stage for the 19th Dynasty including Ramesses II.

On the other hand there are still so many gaps in what we know for sure that you can construct several wildly different narratives that are all interpretations of the same pieces of evidence but are mutually incompatible. Take the Pharaoh Ay as an example. You can tell a story of a scheming courtier who possibly even murders his young king and usurps the throne from the rightful heir. Or you can tell a story of a loyal servant bound by blood to the young king who takes the throne in the aftermath of his unexpected death to avert a succession crisis. And really, we just don’t know.

Before I get into the personal side of Ay’s life we should start with the politics. In common with other important members of Akhenaten’s court he began construction of a tomb at Amarna and from this we know his titles during Akhenaten’s reign: Fan Bearer on the Right Hand of the King; Overseer of all the Horses of His Person; Real Royal Scribe, His Beloved; God’s Father. The Fan Bearer and Scribe titles indicate that he’s a close associate of the king, while the Horses one is taken to mean that he was the head of the chariotry wing of the Egyptian army. God’s Father is very unusual and there’s a lot of debate about what it actually means – but I’ll come back to that later as it ties in with speculations about Ay’s family relationships. Scenes in this tomb also show him and his wife receiving gifts of gold from the king personally (and then depict Ay going back to his own household to show off about it!). So clearly he was a mover & a shaker in the court of Akhenaten. And he doesn’t fall out of favour through the ensuing changes of leadership and religion – in Toby Wilkinson’s “Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” he subtitled his biography of Ay as “The Great Survivor” which seems apt. While the cult of Aten was riding high, Ay publicly showed his allegiance to it & to Akhenaten; but when the times changed he was there helping with (perhaps even instigating) the return to the old religion and the old capital. In the court of Tutankhamun Ay is one of the powers behind the throne. The other one, Horemheb, gets more titles but in reliefs from Tutankhamun’s time Ay is often shown standing behind the king and on the same scale as him – unusual prominence for a courtier. He may’ve been Vizier – there’s a piece of gold foil from a chariot that gives him this title but the books I read ranged from thinking this meant he was Vizier to thinking that it was an indication of his high status but he didn’t actually do the job of Vizier.

And then Tutankhamun dies. I was a bit disingenuous in my opening to this article – I don’t think anyone seriously believes Tutankhamun was murdered anymore, the “evidence” around which those theories were based has turned out to be misinterpretation of relatively poor quality X-rays of his mummy that were done in the 1960s. However he died, and there are many theories, it seems to’ve been unexpected. His tomb was unfinished, seemingly so much so that wasn’t possible to get it ready in time and so he was interred in a much smaller tomb (probably originally intended for Ay). And Ay becomes the next Pharaoh. It’s not clear how smooth the transition was, and certainly Ay goes out of the way to emphasise his legitimacy in a way he wouldn’t feel the need to do if it wasn’t questioned. It’s possible that Tutankhamun’s widow Ankhesenamun tried to arrange herself a marriage to a Hittite prince so that she didn’t have to marry a commoner – certainly there’s correspondence between a widowed Egyptian queen and the Hittites at this time organising such a marriage on this basis (but the prince is murdered before he reaches the Egyptian court) and many people believe the widowed queen to be Ankhesenamun (rather than, say, Nefertiti). Ay is sometimes cast as instigating the correspondence, sometimes as arranging the ambush & murder of the prince, and sometimes both in a Machiavellian scheme to weaken the Hittites. There is also the question of Horemheb – his titles suggest he was intended to be heir, but then Ay takes the throne. A lot of the speculation around this hinges on how power was transferred from king to king – the new king had to be the one to bury his predecessor, and there was a set time frame that this must happen in. And it’s quite possible that Horemheb was away from the court involved in the ongoing conflict with the Hittites. So sometimes this is seen as Ay scrambling to bury Tutankhamun quickly and make it a done deed before his rival returns to claim his inheritance, sometimes as a planned arrangement where the elderly Ay gets his brief time on the throne before inevitably handing it over to his younger colleague, sometimes as just necessitated by timing. Whatever happened Ay was keen to depict his participation in the proper rites for eternity – he’s shown on the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb performing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. This is unique – even when there are other examples of scenes of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony they don’t have a named person performing it, they’re more a general depiction of the ritual whereas this is a piece of propaganda.

Replica of a Relief from Tutankhamun’s Tomb showing Ay (far right) Performing the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony for Tutankhamun

Another part of ensuring he looked legitimate might’ve involved marrying Tutankhamun’s widow. The only piece of evidence for this is a ring which has the cartouches of both Ay and Ankhesenamun. As a piece of politics/propaganda it certainly makes sense, but you’d think that in that case she would also be prominent in the rest of Ay’s reign – and be his Great Wife. But instead she vanishes from the historical record after this, and Ay’s wife Tey is the one who is depicted in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings as his Great Wife. Perhaps Ankhesenamun died shortly after? Perhaps it wasn’t a marriage but instead indication of an alliance in some other sense?

Ay’s reign was not to last long. He was almost certainly elderly when he took the throne, based on how long he’d been an important courtier, and so it can’t’ve been a great surprise that he died only three years after Tutankhamun. There’s no speculation of foul play here, all the books seem pretty convinced it was a natural death. Ay had named a man called Nakhtmin (possibly his son) as his heir, but it’s not clear if he had predeceased Ay or if Horemheb just pushed him aside. During Horemheb’s reign he tried to erase all record of the Amarna period, and this includes Ay. His tomb was reopened and the contents removed, and his name removed from monuments and replaced with Horemheb’s.

And this glittering political career is one of the reasons that there is so much speculation around who Ay was related to: he’s a prominent official from the time of Akhenaten onward who eventually becomes Pharaoh and our understanding of Egyptian society is that this must mean that he was Somebody, rather than some lower class man who got an education and rose through the ranks.

Ay’s origins are unknown. He seems to’ve had a connection with the region of Akhmim, judging by later building work and inscriptions there. His name may also provide a clue to his origins – it looks a bit odd amongst other Egyptian names one sees, it’s short and doesn’t look like a phrase in Egyptian. There are other prominent people at this time from Akhmim who have similar looking names (which get even more similar when written in Egyptian) – these include Yuya and Tuya (the parents of Amenhotep III’s queen) and Tiye (that queen). It’s therefore suggested by several people that Ay was a part of this family, and given when he’s attested it would seem to make most sense that he was a son of Yuya & Tuya and thus brother-in-law to Amenhotep III. The problem with all this is that there’s nothing (surviving) that mentions him as a their child – and both Tiye and a brother of hers called Anen are named on objects in their parents’ tomb. Surely Ay would be too, if he was their son?

We do know for sure that Ay had a wife called Tey – she’s named as his wife in the tomb Ay started to build in Amarna and in his eventual resting place in the Valley of the Kings she is named as his Great Wife. So that’s a definite fact, and I think the only one we have for Ay’s family relationships. Possibly she’s a cousin of Ay’s, based once again on the similarity of names. They have no known children, although there is some speculation which I’ll come back to later in the article (as it’s on a higher level of the house of cards that we’re building here).

Did he have other wives and children by them? One chain of thought involves the man who was named as Ay’s heir: Nakhtmin. There is a statue of him that has a broken inscription where one of his titles is given as “King’s Son of…”, the broken bit could be filled in with “Kush” which would make him Viceroy of Kush but there are already known Viceroys of Kush covering the period in question so that seems implausible. And so it’s generally reconstructed as “King’s Son of His Body”, i.e. the literal son of the king. But which king? Nakhtmin gives shabtis to the burial of Tutankhamun, and these name him but do not use the King’s Son of His Body title – given its high status he would do if he had it. So that implies he didn’t get the title until Ay became King – hence he must be a son of Ay’s. Another inscription names Nakhtmin’s mother as a woman called Iuy. Given Nakhtmin is an adult in Tutankhamun’s reign Iuy must therefore be an earlier wife of Ay’s, who presumably dies before Tey marries Ay.

Another chain of thought revolves around Ay’s title of God’s Father. This is an unusual title which has meant at least three things over the millennia of Egyptian civilisation. In the Old Kingdom it seems to mean father-in-law of the king, but in the Middle Kingdom it’s given to non-royal fathers of kings (for instance the first Montuhotep who was never a king but his son Intef I was). By the 19th Dynasty neither of these interpretations seems possible as Merenptah (son and eventual successor to Ramesses II) holds this title during his father’s reign, so there must surely be a third meaning. In the 18th Dynasty there are few people who hold this title – Yuya and Ay are the most prominent. And Yuya was the father-in-law of Amenhotep III, so it’s possible that the title had returned to this meaning from the Old Kingdom. So from here we can speculate that Ay was also father-in-law of a king, with Akhenaten the obvious king, making Nefertiti Ay’s daughter. And that would certainly make him Somebody! And linked by blood to the royal line twice over if you believe Tutankhamun to be the child of Nefertiti and Akhenaten (which Aidan Dodson does), and if you believe Ay to be the brother of Tiye. So a justification for being next in line to the throne after Tutankhamun (even if all his linkages are on the female side of the family). There’s some other possible evidence to back up a relationship of this sort with Tutankhamun – an inscription where Ay (as Pharaoh) refers to Tutankhamun as his son. Now this could be rhetoric: the king is always supposed to be son of his predecessor even when he’s not, and inverting the relationship would seem to make sense in this case because the elderly Ay would be unbelievable even metaphorically as a teenager’s son. Or it could be read as referring to a grandfather/grandson relationship between the two.

There is other indirect evidence to link Ay to Nefertiti. Ay’s wife Tey has titles that tell us that she was Nefertiti’s nurse and brought her up. Notably she doesn’t have titles that indicate she was Nefertiti’s mother, and if we compare with Tuya (mother of Tiye) then that is significant. So from here you can go one of two ways – you can posit that Tey was Nefertiti’s wet-nurse or tutor (or both) and thus Ay would’ve been a significant figure in Nefertiti’s early life but not a relation. Or you can take this in combination with the speculation around the God’s Father title and suggest that Nefertiti was Ay’s daughter by an earlier marriage and Tey was her step-mother. Which would make Nakhtmin and Nefertiti brother & sister.

While there is no evidence corroborating a link between Nefertiti and Nakhtmin there is a known sibling of Nefertiti – a woman with the title “Sister of the King’s Great Wife”. She’s younger than Nefertiti, and thus Aidan Dodson suggests that she’s the daughter of Ay and Tey but I think there’s no evidence other than the presumed date of her birth. Her name is either Mutnodjmet or Mutbenret – the difference between the two when written in hieroglyphs is a single sign and it’s not clear which form was originally written. If she was Mutnodjmet then that was potentially very significant – Horemheb marries a woman with that name and if he was the son-in-law of Ay and the uncle (by marriage) of Tutankhamun that would go some way to explaining why he was a possible successor to Ay. We’re quite far up the house of cards here though, and that’s a very shaky assertion.

That’s quite a narrative we’ve constructed for Ay and his family relationships: he’s the brother-in-law of Amenhotep III who has a first marriage to a woman called Iuy which results in two children, Nakhtmin and Nefertiti. Iuy vanishes from the scene (quite likely dying in childbirth) and Ay marries a cousin of his called Tey who brings up the future queen of Egypt. They have a child, Mutnodjmet, who also goes on to be a queen after her marriage to her father’s successor, Horemheb. Very well connected, certainly Somebody, and it neatly explains his prominence in the various courts of the time. But very very very little actual concrete evidence for any of it – a house of cards that might only need a breath of new evidence to knock it over.

So what do I think? Well, first I think I’ve only read secondary literature mostly aimed at a general audience, and what I’ve read is biased towards Dodson-authored or Dodson-influenced works so I’m not sure I have enough of the opposing viewpoints in this summary. Also my educational/academic background is in protein biochemistry, and this is the sort of thing we’d rather dismissively have referred to as “telling Just So stories” – building up a convincing narrative without enough evidence to support it. Rather an unfair thought when Egyptology is a different field, you can’t exactly go out and repeat the experiment another half a dozen times to make sure it comes out the same every time, you have to work with what you have. Which is two long-winded ways of saying I don’t think I know enough to have a valid opinion. I did enjoy the logic puzzle-esque nature of the (re)construction of the family relationships, and it certainly seems plausible that Ay was a well connected member of the elite given that’s how their society worked. But it’s all rather neat & tidy (particularly once you get to tying Horemheb into the network) and I’m suspicious of neat & tidy.


Resources used:

“The Rage of Horemheb: Hurried End of Akhenaten, Aye and Atenism – Part I” Anand Balaji
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“Amarna Sunrise” Aidan Dodson
“Amarna Sunset” Aidan Dodson
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Royal Tombs of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson
“The Unknown Tutankhamun” Marianne Eaton-Krauss
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Commoner King Kheperkheperure: Divine Father Aye” Daniel C. Forbes in KMT Vol 30, No. 2, Summer 2019
“The Complete Tutankhamun” Nicholas Reeves
“The Complete Valley of the Kings” Nicholas Reeves and Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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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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