Egypt: Ancient Egyptian Symbolism, The Forms and Functions

Ancient Egyptian Symbolism, The Forms and Functions

by John Watson

A single sculpture such as this Anibus may have various levels of symbolism, including color, pose and much more

In Egyptian culture the more important and frequently encountered aspects of visual symbolism are form, hieroglyphs, relative size, location, material, color number, action and gesture. However, symbolism in ancient Egypt is a very complex topic that, from one Egyptologist to the next, can have different connotations. Certainly, we have some obvious examples of symbolism, but as we delve deeper into the intricacies of symbolism, there is less clarity. On the other hand, any investigation of this topic is an expedition into the ancient Egyptian mind, and the study of symbolism adds much to our understanding of ancient Egypt.

Form Egyptian art utilizes form symbolism at two levels, which may be said to be primary and secondary, or direct and indirect types of association. At the first level, objects are shown in the forms they are meant to represent and gain symbolic significance through association and context. An example of this is the djed pillar as a symbol of support.

Hathor as a cow

At the secondary level, symbolic associations occurs when significant forms are represented indirectly, as in the case of the clenched-hand amulets which represent sexual union. In many cases, images that are widely disparate in form may actually relate to the same underlying symbolic theme. Conversely, even small modifications of form may result in significant changes in the symbolic meaning. The former can be seen in the wide array of symbols associated with the goddess Hathor, ranging from the papyrus plant to the cow. A good example of the latter is frequently seen in representations of the human figure, where different posses such as kneeling, seated, standing or striding may imply very different meanings. In formal architectural decoration, programmatic modification of the form such as in the location and color of solar disks in tombs, or the transition from plant bud to fully open capital forms of columns in temples, is frequently employed to symbolize spatial and temporal aspects of the cosmos.


In the cartouches of Horemheb, a number of figures can be seen as ideographic representations of a figure or object in the form of a hieroglphic sign, such as the hawk and the scarab, among others

A specialized subset of form symbolism, hieroglyphic symbolism is one of the most frequent sources of symbols encountered in Egyptian art and may be expressed in several ways. In ideographic representation (the depiction of a figure or object in the form of a hieroglyphic sign) hieroglyphic forms may function as representations of individuals and as manifestations of the gods themselves. Rebus representation (the spelling out of personal names or titles by combining hieroglyphic signs with syllabic values in the composition) was also commonly employed for two and three dimensional representations of kings, and frequently others. While visual metaphor (the use of a sign to suggest something else with which it is somehow associated) is relatively infrequent, visual analogy (the use of hieroglyphic signs for things that they resemble) is especially common in Egyptian art.

The offering Table of Khety, now in the Cairo Museum, is a form of projection. It takes the general form (the shape) of the Hetep Hieroglyphic sign, which means

In the latter type of representation, objects are made in the form of hieroglyphic signs they resemble. For example, a mirror case or a vase in the shape of an ankh sign, or a headrest in the form of the horizon hieroglyph. This type of mimicking of forms is usually tied in some way to the meaning or significance of the object. The forms of hieroglyphs were also "projected" by the Egyptians onto actual objects in two ways. On the one hand, hieroglyphic forms were used in the design and production of various objects. On the other hand, natural objects were viewed and represented in the form of hieroglyphic signs which they resembled. Only the educated elite of Egyptian society could properly write and read, and it was for them that most artworks were produced. Nevertheless, it is thought that many people probably recognized at least some of the more common hieroglyphs and could understand common examples of hieroglyphic symbolism.


Ramesses II prepares to smite his enemies, who are much smaller only due to their limited status

The stratified sizes of god and human, king and subject, tomb owner and servant, parent and child or husband and wife are usually symbolic of relative status and power within Egyptian compositions. This is particularly clear in scenes recorded on temple walls and in other settings which show the Egyptian king at a much larger scale than his enemies, heightening the hierarchical effect of the representation by emphasizing the helplessness of the enemy and the king's superhuman stature. In two and three dimensional colossal representations of kings and gods, the stratification is actually based on the relative scale of the colossus and the viewer. In a similar manner, even fully adult children are frequently depicted standing beside their parents as tiny figures, even though their figures, hair and clothing leave no doubt as to their actual maturity. While Egyptian artists also used reduction of scale for purely artistic, compositional reasons, such instances are usually clearly discernible from symbolic ones.

Note the equality created in this depiction of Inherkhau and his ba, by placing the ba bird's head on a similar level as that of Inherkhau himself

The principle of sizing figures equally, in order to suggest equality or near-equality of status, may be achieved through both isocephaly and equality of scale. Isocephaly may indicate equality between subjects by placing heads of figures at the same level, or it may maintain a hierarchical difference by ensuring that an individual of lesser importance does not look down on a more important figure. Although isocephaly typically results from the use of the same drafting grid for both figures in Egyptian representations, many examples exist that indicate conscious same-sizing. Equality of scale does not always in every case imply equality of status (though this is unusual). For example, in New Kingdom battle scenes a single enemy figure may be depicted at the same scale as the Egyptian king in order to represent the enemy as a whole.

The queens of Ramesses II were often depicted extremely small in relationship to Ramesses II, as can be seen here.

The adjusted size of individual body parts or areas for symbolic reasons must also be considered under this heading. Bodily proportions may be adjusted or emphasized as a means of suggesting maturity or status, as in the purposefully corpulent rendering of temple statues and tomb representations of private officials, and in some cases in royal representations. Many so-called fertility figurines clearly exaggerate male or female sexual characteristics for symbolic and magical purposes. Relative sizing can tell us much about various and specific individuals in ancient Egypt. It tells us, for example, how a king viewed his own status in relationship to gods, or how he viewed the status of women.


One aspect of ancient Egypt that is not understood by many is that location, and for that matter orientation, could be absolute or relative, referring on the one hand to the specific location of a representation, object, building or place (such as a sacred site), and on the other to the positioning or alignment of something in relation to some other representation, object, building or place. From very early times, funerary scenes depicting pilgrimages to sacred sites are clear indicators of the importance of locational aspects in ancient Egyptian religion. Even when the sites were not actually visited, they maintained a symbolic role that involved the spiritual continuity of the veneration of the sacred place. While location symbolism thus frequently applies to actual specific sites, absolute locational symbols are often paired or juxtaposed as representative of a more abstract geographic or cosmic dichotomy (separation into two parts), such as Upper and Lower Egypt, east and west or heaven and earth. This type of oppositional or symmetrical pairing is often expressed, in turn, through relative locational symbolism, which may range from careful arrangement and alignment of elements within individual compositions or funerary (tomb goods) and religious (temple furniture) assemblages, to the architectural and decorative programs of whole buildings such as temples and tombs, and even the planning of groups of buildings an cities. Sometimes the orientation is according to a simple right/left, east/west, or north/south dichotomy. In other cases, it reflects subtler divisions within the structure of the individual composition or building.

A very famous statue of Khara being protected by Horus

For example, frequently in Temples, columns with capitals representing Upper Egypt (southern Egypt) were arranged in the southern part of the temple, while those with capitals representing Lower or northern Egypt were arranged in the northern part. Small-scale manifestations of this kind of relative placement may be seen, for example, in the "prepositional" placement of representations of kings before the figures of protective deities such as the overshadowing Horus falcon, the Hathor cow and the sphinx in its various forms. This orientation implies the idea of protection for the king and is reflected in the hieroglyphic formula "protection behind him," commonly written behind the king. Similarly, to be "beneath" another figure might connote inferiority or subjugation, as many be seen in the carefully controlled relative placement of figures in scenes of victory over fallen enemies, and in the depiction of captives on the bases of royal thrones and footstools.


Statues of gods or goddesses, such as this one protecting Tutankhamun, were frequently made of gold, or gold gilded.

Various materials held very symbolic significance for the ancient Egyptians, and not least of these were the precious metals. Gold was regarded as divine on account of its color and brightness (symbolic of the sun (and its untarnished nature (symbolic of eternal life). In fact, the flesh of the gods descended from the sun god Re was said to be made of gold, and therefore many images of deities were formed either completely from this precious metal, or gilded to look as though made of gold. Silver also had divine associations. The bones of the gods were said to be made of silver, and it was used extensively as a symbol of the moon in mirrors and in figures of lunar gods such as Khonsu and Thoth. Many other more common materials were also symbolically important. Among stones, for example, the black coloration of basalt gave it a natural association with the underworld, while lapis lazuli was symbolic of the heavens because of its blue ground color and star-like golden specks. Similarly, materials as diverse as wood, wax and water could suggest one or more symbolic associations. Water, for example, functioned as a symbol of purification and acceptance,

This ring, with a gold sun disk on the sun Barque and with two baboons, symbolic of the sun god to either side, sits on a blue faience (another type of important material)  background, obviously symbolizing the sky

as well as life, renewal and fertility. The symbolic importance of a substance was often based on its natural color, but a substance might also be important because of some unusual characteristic or through mythological associations.

Color Color

was one of the most important aspects of Egyptian symbolism and is the underlying reason for the symbolic association of many materials. Individual colors could suggest different things according to context and use. Red, the color of fire, the sun and blood, could symbolize any of these things, or more abstract concepts of life and destruction associated with them. Blue was naturally associated with the heavens and water, and in the latter association could represent the concept of fertility. Yellow, a primary solar color, was used extensively for solar related objects such as the scarab and the golden bodies of the gods. Black, though a color associated with the netherworld and its specific deities, could also be used in non-funerary contexts and was symbolic of fertility through its association with the rich black earth of the Nile Valley. Green was the color of luxuriant vegetation and therefore of life itself. It could also signify health and vitality, and the sound or undamaged eye of Horus is often depicted in this color.

In this pendant, the scarab, symbolic of the morning sun and rejuvenation, is green, while the gods are of gold.

White was sometimes used as a symbol of purity, but as a solar color, white could also be used as an alternative to yellow in some contests. The interchange of colors that existed in Egyptian art is partly a result of the somewhat different classification of colors used by the Egyptians, and partly of the principle of equivalence. Hence, different colors could be used for the same purpose, such as white, yellow and red for the appearance of the sun. Colors could also be interchanged because of abstract, symbolic connections

between them, such as black and green as colors of regeneration.


Another grouping of three gods, known as the Theban Triad, consisted of Amun, Mut and and Khonsu, here head by the First Priest of Amun, Ramessunakht

Several numbers held symbolic significance for the Egyptians, particularly the integers 2, 3, 5, 7 and their multiples, all of which are usually, in some way, expressions of unity in plurality. It is thus unity rather than diversity that is stressed in many of the dualities seen in Egyptian art. The phenomenon of duality pervades Egyptian culture and is at the heart of the Egyptian concept of the universe, which views the many evident dichotomies of light and dark, sun and moon, east and west, stability and chaos and so on, as expressions of the essential unity of existence. Similarly, while three was the number associated with the concept of plurality, three was also a number of unity inherent in plurality, as may be seen in the many divine families which Egyptian theology constructed of a god, his wife and their child, or in the characterization of Amun, Re and Ptah as the soul, face and body of the god. Of course, a classic example of god, wife and child was Osiris, Isis and Horus. To a great extent although they may often connote simple plurality, symbolic use of he numbers four, six, seven, nine and twelve also follows this pattern of unity in plurality. Larger numbers, such as one thousand (as in the offering formula "a thousand loaves of bread") and greater, usually symbolize plurality alone.


Actions depicted in Egyptian art may be performed by gods, humans or animals. They may be real, mythical or iconographic and may also be classed as ritual or non-ritual. Any of these types of action may have symbolic significance.

Opening of the Mouth ritual from the tomb Inherkha at Deir el-Medina. Note the ritualistic Anubis mask of the priest

A depiction of the Sed-Festival and the pharaoh's race with the bull

Real actions are simply actions that take place in the real world. Many representations of the Egyptian king engaged in some kind of ritual activity depict real events in which the king actually participated. By contrast, images showing the king involved in mythically related activities may represent something that was acted out (as in certain temple rituals where costumed priests may have represented various deities), but these actions also appear to have been depicted largely for symbolic purposes. The theme of ritually slaying enemies may well have been a real action at times, but it is frequently depicted in an exaggerated or unrealistic manner for symbolic or propagandistic purposes. Here, they are described as iconographic actions. The majority of formal actions depicted in Egyptian art are of a ritual nature. Most aspects of the activity such as time, place and manner, were are fully prescribed and conducted according to an established formula or protocol. Each detail of such ritual actions may have specific symbolic significance. Non-ritual actions, however, are the actions of everyday life, though these may sometimes have symbolic significance. Therefore, representations of pouring and throwing in some contexts may relate covertly to physical sexuality and hence to birth and the rebirth of the afterlife.


One particular aspect of symbolism of actions is gesture symbolism, or using the positioning or movement of the body, head, arms or hands. Of all the visual symbolisms, this is the most difficult as well as the most complex for us today to understand, usually because Egyptian artists worked within established formulae for the depiction of the human body. Thus, these conventional depictions serves both to obscure certain types of gestures and to summarize others, with gestures usually being "frozen" in the representations at a single characteristic point. Many, if not most, gestures depicted in Egyptian art functioned as nonverbal communications, however, and connoted general or specific meanings related to themes such

Another form of adoration from the funerary papyrus of Kha

From the Third Intermediate Period, a figure in the pose of prayer or adoration

as greeting, asking praising, offering, speaking rejoicing and so forth. As a result, despite the frequent difficulty of analysis, many of these gestures may be observed in specific contexts and interpreted with some certainty. Overall, two types of gestures can be differentiated, consisting of independent and sequential. Gestures such as that exhibited by mummiform representations of Osiris with the arms folded across the chest exist in isolation and have complete meaning in and of themselves without reference to any other gesture, action or context, and may thus be termed "independent." More complex gesture patterns also exist, where a certain pose or gesture seen in representations actually occurred within a sequence of continuous actions. these sequential gestures are found in contexts such as ritual funerary activities and formalized expressions of praise and offering and are understandably more difficult to reconstruct and interpret. It should also be remembered that a number of similar gestures actually represent different poses with different meanings. On the other hand, truly different gestures may sometimes function within the same range of meanings.

A part of the funerary ritual found in the tomb of Mehu, clearly showing a sequence of dancing

The Interpretation of Symbols

Jewelry, partiuclarly royal,  often used a number of different types of symbolism. This Pectorial of Mereret includes color, size, action and other symbolism

In a given representation, artifact or monument, one or several of the above symbolic dimensions may be present. In fact, it is rare that an Egyptian work has none of these elements. The presence of symbolic aspects must be addressed in any thorough analysis of Egyptian artistic and architectural work. Although different symbolic aspects may be emphasized in different settings or types of work, certain basic principles may be widely applied. Generally speaking, while a single, salient symbolic aspect is evident in a given representation or object, other aspects may reinforce this association or provide additional levels of meaning. Once a symbolic association has been established between an object and its symbolic referent, anything with the same characteristic may be said to be symbolic of that referent. Once an object or characteristic has become symbolic of a given referent, then its other characteristics may also be interpreted in terms of the same symbolic association. Thus, the heron is associated with the Nile primarily because of its aquatic habits, but its blue coloration also ties into the same association. The swallow is associated with the sun primarily because it flies out from its nest in the ground at dawn and returns at dusk, but this association is reinforced by its red coloring. Interpreting the various types of symbols and discovering what they meant for the ancient Egyptians themselves is not always a simple matter. However, such an investigation can be approached from a number of physical and psychological viewpoints. Even at a purely Egyptological level, the interpretation and understanding of symbols requires a careful approach. Primarily, we must beware of assuming that a given aspect of a two or three dimensional representational work or architectural structure had some symbolic significance for the Egyptians without reasonable indication that this was the case. Because it developed in an open system of thought that allowed and encouraged the free association of ideas, Egyptian symbolism is easily misunderstood. This was as true for the ancient and medieval observers as it is for us today, as we see, for example, in many of the "interpretations" of Egyptian symbols recorded by Plutarch. For example, he tells us that the cat was regarded by the Egyptians as a symbol of the moon on account of its activity in the night and the "fact" that it produces increasing numbers of young (corresponding to the daily increase in the moon's light), and especially because its pupils expand and contact like the full and crescent moon. Indeed, the cat was associated with the moon, but how much if any of this reasoning was true for the ancient Egyptians' original association of the cat with the moon is difficult to ascertain. Even when care is taken in this regard, it must also be remembered that symbols can be fluid. Their meanings may certainly change over time, and it does not always follow that the symbolic significance of a given element in one composition will be identical in another work of earlier or later date. The symbols utilized in Egyptian art may also exhibit different meanings in different contexts

Feather pattern on the coffin found in KV 55 in the Valley of the Kings

Sometimes the symbolism, particularly on older artifacts, can be very overwhelming, and various Egyptologists can come up with considerably different interpretations

in the same period. In funerary contexts, feather patterning (rishi) may be symbolic of the wings of certain protective goddesses, or of the avian aspect of the ba of the deceased. Textual evidence suggests even more possibilities, associating or identifying the deceased with a hawk, a swallow or some other bird, so that in certain cases where context does not render a clear choice, it is difficult to decide on the specific significance of such a symbolic element, or if there could be some kind of generic symbolism meant to embrace many or all of these possible ideas. At the same time, many different symbols may be used for the same symbolic referent, but in many cases relatively little study has been devoted to the reasons for the choices of given symbols in different settings. The Egyptians themselves were conscious of the ambiguity in their own symbolism and even seem to have encouraged it. Enigmatic statements in religious texts are not infrequently glossed with several divergent explanations, and the principle doubtless applies to representations as well as literary use of symbols. There is often a field or range of possible meanings for a given symbol, and while we may select a specific interpretation that seems most likely according to context we must remember that other symbolic associations may also be involved. This is not to say that ancient Egyptian symbolism is inchoate, inconsistent or imprecise, but that a flexible approach must be maintained in attempting to understand its workings Successful analysis must avoid unfounded speculation, yet at the same time it must attempt to incorporate the intellectual flexibility that the Egyptians themselves display.

See also:

Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Ancient Gods Speak, The: A Guide to Egyptian Religion Redford, Donald B. 2002 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-515401-0
Art of Ancient Egypt, The Robins, Gay 1997 Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-00376-4
Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2003 Thames & Hudson, LTD ISBN 0-500-05120-8
Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000 Thames and Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05100-3
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, A Hart, George 1986 Routledge ISBN 0-415-05909-7
Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo Tiradritti, Francesco, Editor 1999 Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0-8109-3276-8
Life of the Ancient Egyptians Strouhal, Eugen 1992 University of Oklahoma Press ISBN 0-8061-2475-x
Mummies Myth and Magic El Mahdy, Christine 1989 Thames and Hudson Ltd ISBN 0-500-27579-3
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4