Ancient Egyptian Royal Regalia
By Marie Parsons
During the Early Dynastic period, the king of ancient Egypt already had much of the trappings of royal regalia familiar from later times, including the double crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt and various scepters.
The crowns, scepters and other elements offered and represented power and protection. They also set the king apart from everyone else and conveyed his authority, both secular and religious.
A scepter or staff is one of the most ancient symbols of authority. The hieroglyph for "nobleman" or "official" shows a man carrying a long staff of office in front of him. A grave found at the Predynastic site of el-Omari in Lower Egypt contained the skeleton of a man buried with a wooden staff, and a fragmentary wooden staff, carved to resemble a bundle of reeds, was found in an early First Dynasty mastaba at Saqqara.
An actual example of a royal scepter, purely ceremonial in purpose, was discovered by Flinders Petrie in one of the chambers of Khasekhemwys tomb at Abydos. The scepter was fashioned from polished sard and thick gold bands, all held together by a copper rod.
A variant of this long staff was the mks staff, as shown on the relief panel from beneath the Step Pyramid. Netjerikhet Djoser is shown holding a mks-staff. Originally a defensive weapon, this staff eventually took on a ceremonial, perhaps even a priestly, purpose.
The Heqa scepter, or crook, is often seen held by the king. The crook symbolized the very concept of rule and was even employed as the hieroglyph for the word "rule" or "ruler." The crook was a cane with a hooked handle, sometimes gold-plated and reinforced with blue copper bands. The earliest example of a crook or heqa scepter comes from Abydos and the tomb listed as U-547, dated to the late Naqada II period. This scepter, made of limestone, was found fragmented, but a complete scepter made of ivory was found in another Abydos grave, the one listed as tomb U-j. This is the largest tomb of Abydos found to date. The earliest representation of a king carrying the crook is a small statue of Ninetjer from the 2nd Dynasty. Later on, the king held the crook across his chest together with the flail.
The was-scepter is another early part of the royal regalia, symbolizing dominion, more in the divine sphere than in the earthly realm. This scepter consisted of a straight shaft with its handle in the shape of a canine head, and the base ending in two prongs. A was-scepter was also excavated at Abydos, so its origins may date to the Predynastic period. Its earliest representation again dates to the First Dynasty, where an ivory comb of King Djet shows two such scepters supporting the vault of heaven, symbolized by the outspread wings of the celestial falcon. As a symbol of power, the scepter was held by deities as well as by the king, as shown in the example of Seti I offering to Osiris, where Osiris and Horus are shown carrying the scepter.
The flail became the companion to the crook later on in the royal regalia, most familiar from the funerary representation of Tutankhamun or the celluloid versions of Cleopatra, but the two were not always connected. The flail appears alone on some of the earliest representations of royal ceremonial, as shown in the example from a label of King Den in the First Dynasty, sitting under a canopy or in some ritual structure, waiting to run the Sed-festival.
The bulls tail appears worn by the king on the Narmer palette and on the Scorpion macehead, so its origins as a symbol of royal power, the king imbued with the powers of nature, began in the Predynastic period. Later on, the bulls tail was done away with, but the king retained the concept of the strength and force of the bull itself by taking on titles such as "Strong Bull," or "Mighty Bull."
The uraeus remained a symbol of the king throughout Dynastic history. It was the rearing cobra worn on the kings brow, and probably dates to the reign of King Den, where he is depicted striking an enemy. The uraeus also appears on the funerary likeness of King Tut and on later kings as well. The cobra represented the "Eye of Ra," placed upon the brow of the king to protect him against his enemies.
The king wore many different crowns and headdresses during Dynastic history. The most familiar are the red crown, the white crown, and the double crown made up of both red and white crowns.
The red crown, or deshret, may very well have originated in Upper Egypt, although it eventually became associated as the symbol of Lower Egypt. A sherd from a large vessel dated to late Naqada I, near the town of Nubt, the city of Set, has a representation in relief of the red crown, and on both the Narmer palette (one side) and macehead the kings figure is shown wearing the red crown.
The white crown, or hedjet, was always associated with Upper Egypt. On the opposite side of the Narmer Palette, the king now wears the white crown.
The double crown, or pschent, symbolized the kings rule of both Upper and Lower Egypt, that is, he ruled the Two Lands as one. One early example is on a relief of King Sneferu in the 4th Dynasty. The king did not always wear the double crown. Often he is depicted wearing just the white crown, especially at this early date. The triads of King Menkaure are early examples of the solitary wearing of the white crown.
The atef crown was worn for certain religious rituals. It was basically the white crown with a plume on either side and a small disc at the top.
The blue crown became known as the war crown, primarily because Ramesses II the Great was always shown wearing it in the reliefs of his battle scenes. It was made of cloth adorned with golden discs.
The most familiar headdress of the king other than a crown was the nemes headdress. The Sphinx wears this headdress, though the earliest example is a seated statue of Netjerikhet Djoser from his serdab in the Step Pyramid complex.
- Early Dynastic Egypt by Toby Wilkinson
- Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
- Complete Tutankhamun by Nicholas Reeves
- Dictionary of Ancient Egypt by Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
- In the Shadow of the Pyramids by Jaromir Malek
Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.