The ancient Egyptians depicted deities wearing headdresses, which often can be used to identify gods and goddesses. The headdress appears to have signified qualities or powers belonging to that specific deity. Vultures are among the most common symbols featured in Egyptian headdresses. A number of vulture species lived in ancient Egypt, so the bird was a recognizable image. In Egyptian mythology, vultures were not just scavenging birds, but symbols of femininity and maternal protection. When the goddess Nekhebet of Upper Egypt became associated with the vulture headdress, the bird evolved into a heraldic symbol for all of Upper Egypt.
The Egyptian goddess Nekhbet was portrayed either as a woman with the head of a vulture or wearing the crown of Upper Egypt, the vulture headdress. She was crowned with the vulture symbol because she was worshiped as the mother of the pharaoh. Over time, the vulture headdress became strongly linked not only to Nekhbet, but to all queens and royal women, and other goddesses. When worn by female royalty, the vulture headdress implied that a queen was a divine being, comparable to a goddess.
Mut, an Egyptian goddess whose name means ''mother,'' was often represented wearing the vulture headdress. Not surprisingly, she became linked with the vulture because of her name. Vultures, with their extensive wingspan, were viewed as all-embracing protectors; in other words, mothers who give sheltering protection to children. Vultures were also seen as fierce defenders of their young. These strong maternal characteristics inspired the ancient Egyptians and were attributed to Mut, the ultimate motherly goddess.
Isis, a beautiful goddess who inspired a cult in ancient Egypt, originally wore the hieroglyph of the Egyptian throne on her head. She was known as the "queen of the gods." When she later took on the traits of Hathor, another popular feminine deity, she began to appear in Hathor's headdress -- horns with the sun between them -- often merged with the vulture headdress of Mut. Being so well-loved, Isis usurped the positions of several other goddesses and also got their crowns; but the combination of hieroglyph, horns, solar sphere and vulture was the predominant type of Isis headdress.
Satet, the Egyptian goddess of the Nile, was commonly portrayed wearing the vulture crown of Upper Egypt adorned with antelope horns. Satet's headdress features the head and tail of a vulture, identifying her as one of the ancient Egyptian mother goddesses. Whereas the vulture is the emblem of motherly love and security, the antelope horns symbolize the power of spiritual love. The ancient Egyptians associated Satet with the antelope, uniting in Satet the qualities of delicate beauty, maternal protection, spiritual love and life-giving energy of the Nile.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Art of Ancient Egypt
- Canadian Museum of Civilization: Royal Symbols
- Tour Egypt: Headdresses of the Ancient Egyptian Deities
- Emory University: Carlos Museum: Relief of a Queen or Goddess
- Ancient Egypt Online: Isis
- Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt by Geraldine Pinch
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images