Symbolism in the Ancient Egyptian Culture

Symbolism is synonymous with hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt.
... Images

In a world where hieroglyphs -- a pictorial form of writing -- told the story of an entire civilization, symbolism was fundamental to the culture of ancient Egypt. The Egyptians left behind some of the most intriguing art and architecture in human history. Much of what makes Egyptian art so fascinating is the symbolism used in its creation. Not only were Egyptian symbols aesthetically pleasing and decorative, but they also expressed religious and political ideas as well as beliefs about the natural world. Among the widely recognizable Egyptian symbols are the ankh, Eye of Horus, scarab, ka and cartouche.

1 The Ankh Symbol

The precise origin of the ankh (pronounced "onk") is a mystery; nevertheless, the ankh is one of the most familiar Egyptian symbols. Representing the concept of eternal life, it is often depicted both as a hieroglyph and as an object in the hands of gods. Egyptians also wore the ankh as an amulet or talisman. As a symbol of life, the ankh was considered a lucky charm for bodily protection.

2 The Eye of Horus Symbol

This human eye symbol, with its ornate markings, often appears in Egyptian hieroglyphs. In Egyptian mythology, Horus is both a sun god and a falcon god. Because ancient Egyptians thought it held powers of healing and protection against evil, the Eye of Horus, also known as the wedjat eye, was a key symbol in Egyptian culture. It is depicted as a human eye with the plumage pattern of a falcon’s cheek.

3 The Scarab Symbol

With its literal insect shape, this symbol represents the scarab beetle. In Egyptian culture, the scarab symbolized evolution or rebirth. Scarab beetles procreate by depositing their eggs on a ball of dung, which is rolled into a hole in the ground. Ancient Egyptians viewed the rolling ball of dung as a metaphor for the sun moving across the sky. Beetle larvae hatching from the dung were seen as a sign of rebirth. The scarab appears both in hieroglyphics and as an amulet. It is also the symbol for Khepri, an Egyptian sun god.

4 The Ka Symbol

This U-shaped symbol, featuring two upraised human arms, represents ka, or an individual's life-force. The image of the two arms reaching up to the heavens signifies the spiritual vitality of human beings. In ancient Egypt, ka was deemed a basic component of the human soul; for that reason, the ka symbol exemplified spiritual energy, or the essence that brought a person to life.

5 The Cartouche Symbol

An important Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol, signifying royalty, the cartouche represents a protective oval-shaped loop of rope. It was used to circumscribe or frame royal names, specifically the names of pharaohs. Ancient Egyptians were careful to record royal names for posterity; they wrote names of deceased pharaohs in hieroglyphics, hoping that they would be remembered in future civilizations. Consequently, the cartouche is a symbol used for royal identification by Egyptologists.

Shannon Leigh O'Neil, a New York City-based arts and culture writer, has been writing professionally since 2008. Her articles have appeared in "GO Magazine," "The New York Blade" and "HX Magazine," as well as online media. O'Neil holds a Master of Arts in modern art history from the City College of New York, where she also studied French and minored in classical languages.