Behind the Name: Ancient Egyptian Names Revealed

Ancient Egyptian Names

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Jefferson Monet

The names of Semerkhet and Qa'a, the last two kings of Egypt's 1st Dynasty

Anyone who has studied the ancient pharaohs knows that their names were important from the earliest times through the end of ancient Egyptian history, frequently offering clues to their personality, the period in which they lived and particularly, the gods that they most worshipped. But it was not only the kings who placed great store in names. All Egyptian's names were carefully chosen, apparently for commoners and royalty alike, though one major difference is that the names of common Egyptians were not preserved in cartouches, as were those of royalty..

At times, some of the naming techniques of the ancient Egyptians could also lead to considerable confusion. This is obvious among some kings, who had a number of different names, but at times also changed their names, particularly when they inherited or otherwise ascended to the throne of Egypt. Furthermore, some individuals seem to possibly have had different names in different parts of Egypt. It has been suggested, for example, that the first born son of Ramesses II, Amunhikhopshef, may have been called Sethikhopshjef in the north of Egypt. Hence, the god Amun of the south was used in Upper Egypt while the favored deity, Seth, was used in Lower Egypt. The possibility that people could be called one name in one location, and a different one elsewhere, has some justification in the names of gods. For example, chapter 142 of the Book of the Dead carries the heading "Knowing the names of Osiris in his every seat where he wishes to be", and is an extensive list of geographically local versions of Osiris.

However, it should be noted that this may have been a complete name change, or possibly even another son of Ramesses II. Such is the confusion with ancient Egyptian names.

The most simple names in ancient Egypt were nouns or adjectives, such as Neferet, meaning "beautiful woman". Others took the form of statements such as Rahotep, meaning "Ra is satisfied", or Khasekhemwy, meaning "the two powers appear".

Many ancient Egyptian names contained the name of a god. At times, the god may be assumed, so we have names that contain the phrase "god is gracious", or "whom god loves", but here the term god undoubtedly refers not to an abstract deity but rather to a specific, assumed deity which might be a local god, or the god to whom the parents prayed. Much of the time, the god was named.

Nefertiti, a painting by Winifred Brunton, considered to be one of the most beautiful queens of ancient Egypt

Common words or phrases were often used in names. These included ankh (life), mery (beloved), hotep (peace), nefer (beautiful) and khenemet (one who is joined with)

Many names could be used by both males and females, and in these instances, an identifier, such as a hieroglyphic man or woman, was appended to the name in order to make it masculine or feminine. However, "et" on the end of a name, or sometimes in the middle of it, appears to have been a feminine identifier, and "pa-sheri" (masculine) or "ta-sherit" (feminine) was somewhat similar to the equivalent of "Junior" today. We also find Si, meaning son, or Sit, meaning daughter.

Ancient Egyptians believed in keeping honored names alive within the family. Hence, it was necessary for identification to sometimes provide a "ren nefer", or beautiful name. Hence, the first name would be the formal name and the second name would be the known by name. It should also be noted that Egyptian probably used nicknames not unlike we do today, either to shorten longer names or to describe a characteristic of the individual.

In Egypt the name of a thing or person did more than express identity, it incorporated identity, writes Stephen Quirke (Who Were the Pharaohs? 1990). The essence of the individual was encapsulated in the name given to the child at birth.

In fact, the ancient Egyptians thought that names were an essential element of the human individual, just as necessary for survival as the Ka (sustenance, life force, or double), Ba (soul) or Akh (effectiveness). Names for non-royal individuals often followed those of the rulers of the time, and often incorporated the name of a deity chosen either because they were pre-eminent at that period or were locally important in the place where the individual was born. Hence, the name of an individual is frequently a clue as to the date or geographical region in which he was born.

The Shabaka Stone

The importance of names, not merely as abstract symbols but as physical manifestations of the named phenomena themselves, is re-emphasized by the so-called Memphite Theology, inscribed on the Shabaqo (Shabaka) Stone, in which the god Ptah creates everything in the universe by pronouncing each of the names.

In the same way, the Egyptian reference works known as onomastica simply consisted of lists of names for such things as people, professions and places, without any description or definition, because it was presumed that the name or word was itself a perfect expression of the phenomenon concerned. To the ancient Egyptians, knowing the name of a thing made it familiar, gave it a place in one's mind, reduced it to something that was manageable and could be fitted into one's mental universe.

Like the shadow, the name was thought of as a living part of each individual, which had to be assigned immediately at birth, for otherwise it was felt that the individual would not properly come into existence. In the case of the King Lists inscribed on the walls of temples and tombs, the cult of the royal ancestor was celebrated by writing out the cartouches of past rulers, and in a sense, it was the list of names on which the cultic rituals focused rather than the individual rulers themselves.

Names were so important that their removal from monuments or statuary was considered to be equivalent to the destruction of the very memory and existence of that person. So long as one's name was remembered, the deceased was believed to be immortal so the greatest horror was to have one's name destroyed. Conversely, the addition of a new name to a relief or statue, known as usurping by Egyptologists, was considered to imbue it with the essence and personality of the new owner, regardless of its actual physical appearance.

The Egyptians attached very great importance to the knowledge of names, and the knowledge of how to use and to make mention of names which possessed magical powers was a necessity both for the living and the dead. It was believed that if a man knew the name of a god or a demon, and addressed him by it, he was bound to answer him and to do whatever he wished; and the possession of the knowledge of the name of a man enabled his neighbor to do him good or evil. The name that was the object of a curse brought down evil upon its owner, and similarly the name that was the object of a blessing or prayer was thought to bring him many good things.

Though this text is primarily concerned with the names of individuals, we must also point out that Egyptians literally seem to have named everything of any importance. Not only was every temple given a name, but so too were individual parts of temples, as well as other buildings, such as gateways, pylons, etc.

See also:






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Last Updated: August 28th, 2011