With similarly unusual shapes and multifaceted meanings, the protective amulets worn by the ancient Egyptians are not so different from those seen across Egypt today.
Your modern, intellectual self probably perceives many ancient Egyptian religious and cultural practices as primitive and naïve, including the ancient Egyptian obsession with ensuring the wholeness and safety of one’s body, both in this life and beyond. After all, who in their right mind would believe that a piece of stone or glass in the shape of an eye would be imbued with regenerative and protective powers? What could possibly lead an intelligent human being to wear a pendant in the shape of a sandal-strap, believing that it would grant them eternal life?
The truth is that the ancient Egyptians were a peculiar people who almost never produced art for art’s sake; everything for them revolved around religion. Their exquisite jewellery, which fills the galleries of the most famous museums, was not merely worn for aesthetic purposes, but served as amulets, with the design and choice of material carefully thought out. Each colour and material carried symbolic meaning; the colour green, for instance, symbolized vegetation and regeneration; blue was associated with the sky, the Nile and the primeval waters, and was therefore symbolic of fertility, rebirth and the power of creation; yellow was associated with the sun and gold, representing that which was eternal and indestructible. Red represented anger, danger, blood and sexuality, while black symbolized fertility and resurrection. A semi-precious stone was chosen for an amulet mainly because of the symbolism associated with its colour. These stones could easily be replaced with faience (a ceramic material made up of crushed quartz or sand, combined with small amounts of lime and natron or plant ash) as long as it had the same colour as the stone. Amulets were also made of precious metals, such as gold and silver; indeed, the ancient Egyptian gods were believed to have bones of silver and flesh of gold. Here are some of the most popular amulets in ancient Egypt:
This is probably the most recognizable of all ancient Egyptian symbols. In modern Egypt, it is inaccurately designated ‘the key of life’, but the symbol actually has nothing to do with a key. It is also very often mistaken for a Christian cross, but this is because it was later reused in Coptic art as a cross known as the crux ansata. In fact, rather than seeing it as a key or cross, scholars have usually interpreted the ankh‘s shape as a sandal strap – don’t ask why a sandal strap would be adopted as a symbol for life, because nobody really knows!
To symbolize the gods’ gift of eternal life to the king, deities are often shown offering ankhs to him in temple scenes. Even under Akhenaten, the king who worshiped the disk of the sun and is credited with being the first monotheist in history, the aten was commonly represented in royal art with its rays ending in human hands, offering the ankh to the royal family.
This infamous symbol is associated with Horus, the sky god who is represented either as a falcon or as a falcon-headed man. Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris, who set out to avenge his father after he had been murdered by his uncle, Seth.
While fighting Horus for the throne of Egypt, Seth injured Horus’s left eye. Fortunately, Isis was a great magician, who used her magic to restore her son’s eye to full health. The eye of Horus thus came to symbolize the process of making whole or healing.
Horus’s left eye also became associated with the lunar cycle and the waxing and waning of the moon, symbolizing the loss and recovery of his sight. As an amulet, the wedjat eye ensured the protection and wholeness of the wearer; indeed, Horus was the first to use the wedjat eye as an amulet when he brought his father back to life. This is also why wedjat eyes were placed in great numbers within mummy wrappings – they were believed to have the power to bring the dead back to life.
Originally, this amulet’s shape represented a tree with its branches cut off, but later it became the backbone of Osiris, the god of death and resurrection (interesting, we know!). It symbolized stability and endurance, and was very commonly found on mummies.
A spell in the Book of the Dead emphasizes the regenerative power of this amulet. It says, ‘Raise yourself up Osiris! You have your backbone once more, O weary-hearted One; you have your vertebrae!’
Tyet (Isis Knot)
This sign looks a lot like an ankh with its arms curved down. In fact, its function seems to have been very similar to the ankh, since it represented life and welfare.
By the New Kingdom, it became known as ‘the Isis knot’ because it is shaped like the knots Egyptian deities used to secure their garments. It is also associated with the blood of Isis, and Spell 156 of the Book of the Dead dictates that it should be made of red jasper. The spell also states, ‘You possess your blood, Isis, you possess your power, Isis, you possess your magic, Isis. The amulet is a protection for this Great One, which will drive off anyone who would perform a criminal act against him.’ Some tyet amulets were also made of carnelian, red faience or glass.
Symbolizing the sun god Re, the scarab, or dung beetle, was another very popular ancient Egyptian amulet. This association was the product of how the ancient Egyptians perceived the dung beetle. They observed that the adult beetle laid its eggs in a ball of dung, from which young, fully developed beetles miraculously emerged. This led to its being adopted as a hieroglyph for a word meaning ‘to come into being’. The ancients also observed scarab beetles rolling balls of dung – which they used as a food source – and associated this image with the sun’s daily journey across the sky (pretty poetic, don’t you think?), visualizing a large beetle pushing its glowing orb from the eastern horizon towards the west every day. The scarab, therefore, became an important amulet that ensured the rebirth of the wearer or bearer.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the brain was a useless organ, and usually discarded it during mummification; rather, it was the heart that was the seat of intelligence, emotion and memory. It was therefore regarded as the most important organ in the human body – how very romantic!
On judgement day, after the negative confessions, during which the deceased listed all the horrible deeds they did not commit, their heart was weighed against an ostrich feather, representing the goddess of truth and justice, Maat. If the heart was found to be as light as the feather, the deceased was granted eternal life in the realm of the dead, but if the heart was found to weigh more than the feather, the deceased’s heart was eaten by a demon, and they ceased to exist.
The heart amulet was, therefore, only used on the mummy, to protect the deceased’s heart, without which resurrection was impossible. Many amulets were also made in the shape of various deities, enabling the wearer or bearer to call upon the powers of these divine beings for protection. It seems absurd that the ancient Egyptians adopted dung beetles and sandal straps as sacred, protective symbols, right? But what about the little old shoes dangling from the back of cars in the busy streets of modern Cairo? Did you ever stop to ask yourself what they meant? They don’t look very attractive! How many blue eye-shaped pendants do you see many educated, modern Egyptians wearing? What about hand-shaped pendants, and key chains? OK, so you are not superstitious. You are too educated to actually believe in the power of these symbols. What about pendants and decorative elements with verses from the Koran, crosses and other religious symbols? The truth is – whether you realize this or not – these are all protective amulets. So, the next time you judge a cultural practice that seems alien to you, try to understand it. It might not be so alien after all!
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Yasmin El Shazly holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins University. Her thesis entitled Royal Ancestor Worship in Deir el-Medina during the New Kingdom is currently being prepared for publication. She has published several academic papers and has appeared in documentaries on National Geographic and the BBC. She is currently Head of International Relations at the Ministry of Antiquities and is former head of Documentation at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.