The world knows ancient Egyptian culture for its great pyramids, its famous hieroglyphic written language and for its complex religious beliefs. In writings and decorative arts, the Egyptians used symbols to depict important concepts like birth, death, spiritual strength and the afterlife. Many of their most potent symbols remain widely recognizable today.

Breath of Life: The Ankh

Ankhs were carved into almost everything Egyptians used, including these mirror cases.
Ankhs were carved into almost everything Egyptians used, including these mirror cases.

The ankh is a cross with a loop at the top, and is one of the oldest and most pervasive symbols in Egyptian culture. Spiritually, it is associated with the life force, or simply life, and was thought to protect the wearer in this life and the next. Egyptologists disagree on what the ankh is meant to depict ideographically, but some theories include the balance between male and female (with the loop representing the female and the straight end representing the male), a scepter defending the House of Life (a phrase used in ancient Egyptian religion to denote society, culture, life and the afterlife), a sandal's loop, or a key.

Health: the Eye of Horus

On the upper left face of this amulet, two udjats face one another.
On the upper left face of this amulet, two udjats face one another.

The eye of Horus, known to the Egyptians as the udjat or wedjat, is an almond-shaped eye with a thick, stylized eyebrow and usually two lower appendages, one of which curls distinctively, which resemble the cheek markings on falcons. It signifies soundness or health. A familiar symbol used in jewelry, inscriptions and other decorative motifs, the eye was thought to ward off illness and danger and specifically to invoke the protection of the falcon god Horus, who according to Egyptian belief was incarnate in the pharaoh. In burials, the udjat also appeared as a symbol of rebirth, with the hope that when the deceased passed into the afterlife, he or she would remain intact and healthy.

Rebirth: the Scarab

Amulets in the shape of the scarab were often made to resemble its real-life blue-green color.
Amulets in the shape of the scarab were often made to resemble its real-life blue-green color.

The scarab beetle rolling a ball of dung (many times its own size) across the ground became symbolically linked with the journey of the sun god Amon Ra across the sky. The scarab's breeding habits, in which fully formed beetles spring from eggs in the ground, were likened by the Egyptians to the idea of emerging whole into the afterlife. As a symbol, the Egyptians regarded the scarab as mystical, and scarab amulets were used as protection both in life and during funerary preparations.

The Sacred Ring: the Cartouche

As well as offering symbolic protection, cartouches indicated status and power.
As well as offering symbolic protection, cartouches indicated status and power.

The cartouche (from the modern French for "cartridge") is an oval-shaped ring with a line drawn at the edge of one end, a symbolic interpretation of a tied rope with the excess bundled to the side. As a hieroglyphic symbol in its in own right, the cartouche signifies "name" in ancient Egyptian, but also typically would be used to enclose the name of a royal or other important person in inscriptions. It represents the wholeness of the universe. Just as the sun god encircled and ruled the universe, the cartouche protected the one whose name was inscribed within it. The enclosing nature of cartouches helped Egyptologists to decipher ancient Egyptian writing and associate artifacts with specific periods.