The Symbolism of Ancient Egypt, an Introduction

Ancient Egyptian Symbolism, an Introduction

by John Watson

The great pyramids of Giza are not only tombs, but full of symbolism

When attempting to understand the ancient Egyptians and their culture, some understanding of symbolism and how it affected the ancient Egyptians is essential. One may only gawk at these great monuments without understand otherwise. In fact, as we stand before the Great Pyramids of Giza, we are seeing layer upon layer of symbolism. They are, to us, symbolic of man's ancient triumphs, but to the ancient Egyptians, they symbolized the very fabric of creation; the primordial mound from which life arose. All about us, as we visit the famous temples and tombs, are symbols that had great meaning to the ancient Egyptians.

Here, the king wheres the double crown of upper and lower Egypt

Symbols represent something other than what they actually are. Generally, they are based on conventionally agreed upon meanings, but unlike signs, which usually stand for something very concrete (as in the case of mathematical signs), symbols usually stand for something less visible or tangible than the symbol itself. As an example, we have many symbols today, such as the cross for Christianity, the half moon for Islam.

Symbols must frequently be differentiated from what Egyptologists call "attributes," which generally represent something by the display of one of its parts (as in the use of the crown for the king or the crook and flail of Osiris, and from emblems, which are distinctive badges that represent an individual, group, office or nation (as in the use of the serekh, representing the palace facade, to display the Egyptian kin's name). Of course, attributes and emblems often exhibit some of the characteristics of symbols, and in a different context, what might be considered an attribute, such as the king's crown, could also be symbolic. For example, there were crowns of upper and lower Egypt, which respectively did symbolize those regions.

Symbolic Expression in Egyptian Culture

An Ankh is one of the most famous symbols from ancient Egypt, symbolizing life

The civilization of ancient Egypt was symbolically oriented to a degree rarely equaled by other cultures. It was through symbols that the Egyptians represented and affirmed many of their ideas, beliefs and attitudes regarding the nature of life, death, the supernatural and reality. Symbols often depict aspects of reality or ideas that are difficult to represent through other modes of expression, and the ancient Egyptians used them constantly in this manner.

Symbolism, in fact, has been described as a primary form of ancient Egyptian thought, and it is necessary to understand the pervasive nature of this way of thinking in order to fully grasp the role of symbols in Egyptian society. Artists, architects and craftspeople utilized symbols in the design and construction of objects ranging from temples, tombs and other monuments to the smallest items of everyday life. Yet this constant incorporation of symbols was not merely a matter of decoration or playful visual punning. The use of symbolism allowed the ancient Egyptians to impose their view of life on the surface of perceived reality by incorporating or imagining symbols in the objects, forms and activities that surrounded them.

For example, a common depiction, from the beginning of the ancient Egyptian civilization until the end of the pharaonic period, was the vision of a king, arm raised in the act of smiting the enemies of Egypt with a mace, was symbolic of the king's role of protecting Egypt from chaos. However, many ancient kings who were so portrayed probably never went to battle. These depictions therefore symbolize more of a perceived reality than reality itself.

An Egyptian king smiting the enemiy of Egypt

This is not to say that symbols were employed only in the representational forms of art and architecture, for symbolism was manifested in many other areas of life, such as the practice of formal and informal magic, or religious ritual. Egyptian religion and magic both relied to a great extent on symbolism to accomplish their ends. As a result, the symbolism inherent in a given work is often an expression of underlying religious or magical beliefs that give the work life, meaning and power.

The Djed Pillar is another of Egypt's most recognizable symbolic fetishes, representing the abstract idea of stability and permanency

Because symbols are different from the things they represent, some kind of association must always be present to link the symbol to its referent, the aspect of reality or the idea that it represents. In Egyptian symbolism these associations are usually visual. In fact, the Egyptian language appears to have had no single word that exactly parallels our term "symbol". The closest and most common approximation is probably "twt", which means "image". Obviously, this underscores symbolism's largely visual basis. But symbols are not limited to the visual. Sounds and perhaps even scents and other sensory perceptions (such as incense) could hold symbolic content for the Egyptians. But it is largely the expression of visual symbolism that has survived, and this provides the bulk of the evidence considered here.

In any type of symbolism, symbol and reality (and ideas) were inextricably intertwined in ancient Egypt. Therefore, a person's name, both written and spoken, not only identified and represented that person as an individual but was also a veritable part of the individual's being, to the extent that to deface or destroy the name, and thus prevent its being spoken or seen, helped to destroy the existence of the person named. Once established, the symbolic aspect of an object became a part of its identity which was rarely ignored entirely, and frequently expressed to the full. Because light-reflecting mirrors shone like the sun, for example, to the ancient Egyptians it was perhaps preferable that mirrors be circular, and that any decoration applied to them related in some way to solar symbolism.

The Hippopotamus is another animal that was known to be very dangerous to the Egyptians, yet in the form of Taweret, was considered a protector of mothers and children

Not only were symbol and reality inextricably intertwined in Egyptian thought, symbols were also used to adjust perceived reality and to impose on it a meaningful and acceptable framework. This is seen especially in the fact that the Egyptian use of symbols represents a system in which the existence of conflicting facts was often successfully resolved by means of the ambivalent nature of the symbols themselves. Symbols frequently have several meanings and may openly contradict themselves in their expression, yet, in symbolic thought, the two opposing expressions may be viewed as complementary rather than contradictory.

For example, an animal such as the crocodile, for example could symbolize not only death and destruction but also solar oriented life and regeneration, because both appear to be true aspects of the creature's observed and mythical nature. Despite its fearsome and destructive aspect, the crocodile faces the morning sun as though in adoration, and it also hunts fish, the mythological enemies of the sun god. A similar polarity is seen in the Egyptian perception of many aspects of the natural world and in the character of many Egyptian gods. Osiris, for example, may be said to symbolize The back side of a rounded mirror case, symbolic of the sun, from ancient Egyptboth death and regenerated life. Either meaning, or both, may be implicit to the use of a given symbol, depending on context.

The manipulation of contradictory facts through the use of symbols was not always complete, however, and in some cases symbols compete or consciously stress contradictions in the same setting. For example, the king wished to be seen as all powerful and in relationship to the common people he was indeed an individual of great power. Yet, the king is at the same time seen as dependent on the gods, receiving their protection. Both of these factors received independent symbolic representation, though usually in different contexts.

A Cosmetic spoon the form of a Knot of Isis (tiet),

To a certain extent, the function of symbols in Egyptian art, life and thought was also contradictory. The symbols may be esoteric or exoteric. They may be utilized both to reveal and to conceal. They reveal by evoking important aspects of reality, while they conceal through limiting the audience that understands their message. Both aspects are integral parts of Egyptian symbolic expression and were employed according to context and need.

See also:






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