The Ancient Egyptian Cartouche

The Ancient Egyptian Cartouche

by Jimmy Dunn

One of Tutankhamun's cartouches from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings

In ancient Egypt, kings, and sometimes others, encircled their name hieroglyphs with a design that we now call a cartouche. While we may find it rarely used to enclose the name of non-kings, for the most part, the cartouche's presence identifies the name it encloses as the king of Egypt. A cartouche is an oval ring that is a hieroglyph representation of a length of rope folded and tied at one end. It symbolized everything that the sun encircled and is thus an indication of the king's rule of the cosmos. Later, in the demotic script, the cartouche was reduced to a pair of parentheses and a vertical line.

The term, "cartouche" is a relatively modern one coined by the soldiers of Napoleon's expedition in Egypt, who saw in the sign the likeness of the cartridges, or "cartouche" used in their own guns. The cartouche, known in ancient Egypt as the shenu, is derived from the Egyptian verb, Sheni, which means to encircle. It is very similar to the shen sign, a more circular form, and in fact the earliest use of the cartouche in which the king's name was written were circular and identical with that sign. So in order to understand the cartouche we must know something of the shen sign.

This vulture from the tomb of Tutankhamun holds shen in each claw

The circular shen sign, or ring evokes the concept of eternity through its form, having no beginning or end, and its solar aspect is symbolized by the sun disk often depicted in the center of the circle. It was also a symbol of protection, and as a hieroglyphic symbol in Egyptian art, it can have the meanings of both "eternity" and "protection". As a sign of "eternity", the shen is frequently associated with representations of Heh, the god of eternity, and often forms the base of the notched palm-branches symbolizing "years," which is held by this deity. It is also mirrored in the shape of the ouroboros, the serpent which bites its own tail.

A Horus Falcon from the tumb of Tutankhamun, his head surmounted by a solar disk, his talons holding shen

However, the sign is perhaps most commonly associated with the avian forms of the falcon god Horus and the various vulture goddesses. These divine birds are frequently depicted holding the shen in their claws, hovering above the king and guarding him beneath their outstretched wings. The shen signs represented with these avian deities may be regarded as symbols of eternity, and therefore life, but it is possible that the signs also carry the connotation of protection, and this double significance would certainly seem to be present in many of the small decorative items and amulets, and indeed the larger royal objects, which are adorned with this sign.

While the earliest use of a cartouche seems to have been identical in form to the shen sign, early in Egyptian history, the form of the shen ring was lengthened in order to hold the increased number of hieroglyphs resulting from longer royal names and fuller orthography. In this way, the shen continued to be used as a sign with its own meaning while the cartouche, or shenu, became the standard holder of the royal name. Occasionally, one may find the name of a god or goddess in a cartouche. This was especially the case for Osiris-Onnophris and Isis in the temple inscriptions of the Greco-Roman Period.

In this double cartouche box, each part surmounted by the two feathers crown, is depicted King Tutankhamun himself, rather than his name

Though Huni, the last king of the 3rd Dynasty, was the first to enclose his throne name in a true cartouche, by the 5th Dynasty, both the king's prenomen, or throne name (Egyptian nesu-bit), and his nomen, or birth name (Egyptian sa-re), were written within cartouches. These two names were without doubt the most important titles in the development of royal titulary, and the two cartouche names frequently appear with emblematic use in works of art as well as in formal inscriptions. However, it should be noted that these were typically the only two of the the king's full five-part titulary written within cartouches. For example, the king's so called Horus name was always written within a serekh.

The cartouche-shaped royal sarcophagus lid of Merneptah, the son of Ramesses the Great

While one of the connotations of the cartouche seems to have related to solar symbolism, an apotropaic (a symbol to ward off evil or bad luck) function related to the protection of the king's name was also extremely important. This protective function may be alluded to in the design of cartouche-shaped royal sarcophagi from the 18th Dynasty onward. Certainly, it would seem fitting to place the deceased king within a chest signifying his name and person, but the sense that protective imagery is involved is heightened by the inscriptions an representations which were also added to many sarcophagi. Note also that in the tomb of Tuthmosis III, in the Valley of the Kings, the entire burial chamber, as well as the sarcophagus, was constructed in the form of a cartouche.

This decorative box bears the name of Tutankhamun

The cartouche hieroglyph also appears in many decorative contexts such as the finger rings and decorated cartouche-shaped boxes. Some of these rings and chests were based on the form of the twin cartouches which framed both the king's most important names, though in these examples the cartouches often encircle small representations of a solar-related deity or the king himself rather than his name. In many instances, solar disks with uraei and plumes surmounted cartouches, possibly alluding to the solar connotations of the device as well as the solar element in the names of kings, such as Tutankhamun (Nebkheperure) and Ramesses.

The cartouche face of this ring, from the Tomb of Tutankhamun, appears to depict Horus on his throne.

We may also find depicted various personified cartouches, such as the one at Medinet Habu in the temple of Ramesse III, which shows a cartouche with two arms, holding the hair of two enemies of Egypt. Surmounting the cartouche is the atef crown. A partially personified cartouche may represent the king's role as controller of Egypt's enemies, and rings in which the names of subject peoples and defeated cities were inscribed also appear in lists of captives placed on temple walls.

The cartouche proved invaluable to early scholars such as Jean-Francois Champollion, who were attempting to decipher the hieroglyphic script, in that it could be presumed to indicate which groups of signs were the royal names.






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