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The Tyet Symbol (Isis knot, Blood of Isis)


The Tyet Symbol

by Jimmy Dunn

A spoon for cosmetics in the form of a Tyet, or Isis Knot, dating from the Late 4th Millennium BC, discovered in Helwan


We do not know the exactly the origin of the Isis knot, which seems to illustrate a knotted piece of cloth, though initially its hieroglyphic sign was perhaps a variant of the ankh. This rather enigmatic symbol closely resembles the ankh, except that its transverse arms are curved downward. Even in written sources the meaning and symbolism of this object, known as the tyet (tiet, thet) by the the ancient Egyptians, seems to be similar to those of the ankh, and the sign is often translated as "life" or "welfare." In representational contexts, the tyet is found as a decorative symbol as early as the 3rd Dynasty, when it appears with both the ankh and the djed signs, and later with the was scepter. However, the symbol itself is much, much older, appearing at least as early as the Predynastic Period.

By the New Kingdom, the symbol was clearly associated with Isis, perhaps due to its frequent association with the djed pillar. The two symbols were therefore used to allude to Osiris and Isis and to the binary nature of life itself. The association of the sign with Isis leads to it being given the names, "the knot of Isis" (as it resembles the knot which secures the garments of the gods in many representations), "the girdle of Isis" and "the blood of Isis."

A tyet amulet dating to the early 18th Dynasty, discovered at Abydos

There are complex mythologies associated with these names, but it is impossible to know at this time whether the stories preserve the original significance of the tyet object, or if they were merely developed to explain and expand upon the established names. Scholars have suggested that it might depict the cloth a woman used during menstruation, but like much else about this symbol, this is by no means certain. Knots were widely used as amulets because the Egyptians believed they bound and released magic. And according to E. A. Wallis Budge, the shape of the amulet may result from the identification of Isis as the universal mother, and may be a stylized representation of her female organs. However, one must note that most of these "suggestions" are little more than that.

Because of the latter name, "blood of Isis," the sign was often used as a funerary amulet made of a red semi-precious stone such as carnelian or jasper or from red glass. The Book of the Dead, spell 156, states, "The blood of Isis, the spells of Isis, the magical words of Isis shall keep this great (or shining) one strong, and shall protect him from whosoever would harm him do to him such things as the abominateth."The Book of the Dead also specifies that that the symbol be made of blood-red stone, and be placed at the deceased's neck.

A Tyet Knot from the Tomb of Tutankhamun. Some amulets were clearly not red, as this beautiful one of faience indicates

Due to its symbolic significance, the tyet sign is frequently found with the djed in decorative bands carved on the walls and columns of temples, and in the decoration of shrines, and on other objects such as sarcophagi and beds. Sometimes the image is personified as a goddess, where the knot is used as the form of a dress, with center part and side-pieces forming the garment's stylized belt. A number of variants of this treatment of the tyet sign are found in works of the Late Period, with the sign being associated with the goddesses Nut, Hathor and Nephthys as well as with Isis. All of these variants, however, appear in contexts relating to the idea of resurrection and eternal life.

From the Old Kingdom Period, the tyet knot was also fused with the bovine faces of the goddesses Bat or Hathor as an emblematic motif related to their cults and as a badge of office for the kherep-ah (the palace manager). Combined with the cow-eared face of the goddess Hathor, the tyet is commonly depicted as an amuletic pendant slung low from the belt in statues dating from the Third Intermediate Period on. Block statues including this detail of the suspended amulet often show it dangling rather conspicuously just over the knees of the seated figure. In late examples such as this, however, the emblem usually seems to be present as a protective amulet rather than a badge of office.

From a shrine of Tutankhamun, a frieze of Isis knots combined with djet pillars

From a shrine of Tutankhamun, a frieze of Isis knots combined with djet pillars

In the final analysis, it seems likely that the tyet's symbolism and meaning may have changed considerably over time.

Resources:

Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir

1980

Les Livres De France

None Stated

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul

1995

Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Tiradritti, Francesco, Editor

1999

Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

ISBN 0-8109-3276-8

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The

Redford, Donald B. (Editor)

2001

American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 581 4

Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture

Wilkinson, Richard H.

1992

Thames & Hudson LTD

ISBN 0-300-27751-6

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