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Diving Into History: 25 Egyptian Symbols and Their Meanings

egyptian symbols and their meanings

“The gift of the Nile,” as the father of history once described it, ancient Egypt was a world of its own. Even today, people are fascinated by the many rituals of ancient Egyptians. Their worshiping of gods, cats, and the afterlife continues to amaze history lovers.

But thanks to hieroglyphics, ancient Egypt is by far the most popular for its symbolism. For this reason, we have selected the most common Egyptian symbols and their meanings. Hopefully, these will help you better understand the nature of this ancient civilization.

1. The Eye of Ra

Ra

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Ancient Egyptians believed that the eyes of their gods had divine powers. It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that some of them became well-known symbols. The eye belonging to Amun-Ra is the most popular among them, usually depicted as the right eye.

Amun-Ra was the god of the sun, but the Eye of Ra became a separate deity — Ra’s female counterpart. She symbolized fertility, birth, and femininity. Ancient Egyptians also feared her power and worshipped her strength. They even painted her as a symbol of protection on amulets that pharaohs wore for good luck.

2. The Eye of Horus

Horus

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In most cases, you can see the Eye of Horus depicted as the left eye. Like the Eye of Ra, it became a symbol of protection for ancient Egyptians. Horus was the son of Osiris, the god of the underworld. But the story about this falcon-headed deity appears more positive than his looks.

As it goes, Horus lost his left eye trying to avenge his father’s death. The eye broke into six pieces, but the god of wisdom managed to restore it. Thus, it became a symbol of rebirth, regeneration, and wholeness. As a hieroglyph, it also served as a mathematical symbol.

3. The Scarab Beetle

Beetle

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Yet another ancient Egyptian symbol of protection is the Scarab Beetle. At the same time, it stood for death and rebirth, which is why they used it at funeral ceremonies. But how come this dung beetle carried such strong symbolism?

That’s because ancient Egyptians associated this beetle with Ra himself. The dung balls these beetles rolled reminded them of the sun’s path from east to west. So, the beetles became the symbols of transition and immortality.

4. The Canopic Jars

Jars

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Like the Scarab Beetle, the four Canopic Jars served as part of burial rituals. As you already know, ancient Egyptians believed that death wasn’t the end. Instead, it was the first step into the afterlife. That’s why they put so much effort into funeral ceremonies.

One of them — mummification — helped preserve the bodies of the departed. Ancient Egyptians took out all organs from the deceased body except for the heart. They kept the liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines in these jars because the deceased person needed them in the afterlife. Each jar had a lid in the shape of one of the four sons of Horus:

• baboon-headed Hapi (lungs)
• jackal-headed Duamutef (stomach)
• human-headed Imset (liver)
• falcon-headed Qebehsenuef (intestines)

5. The Ankh

Ankh

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Thanks to its simplicity and elegance, this symbol often ends up on tattoos. Shaped like a cross with a teardrop loop top, it was one of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. But what does the Ankh represent?

Also known as the Key of Life, it stands for life itself. Because ancient Egyptians believed in the immortality of the soul, the Ankh symbolized both mortal life and the afterlife. They often placed it under the shroud during mummification as a promise of eternal life.

6. The Tyet

Tyet

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Also known as the Knot of Isis, this symbol visually resembled the Ankh. So, it also looked like a cross with a loop top. But unlike the Key of Life, it had bent arms. Their meanings were similar, which is why you can translate the Tyet as life, too.

This symbol was also present during the ancient Egyptian burial rituals. The Book of the Dead advised that the red-stone Tyet should accompany the mummy. The magical words of Isis would protect the deceased person from harm in the afterlife.

7. The Tree of Life

Tree of Life

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It seems that ancient Egyptians couldn’t get enough of life symbolism. But unlike most other symbols, they shared this one with many civilizations. The tree with branches high up in the sky and roots deep underground is a powerful symbol among Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and in Celtic culture.

For ancient Egyptians, the Tree of Life stood for the opposing concepts of life and death. It also represented fertility, resurrection, and immortality. This symbol was located in Ra’s sun temple in Heliopolis and considered sacred — its fruit was available only for pharaohs.

8. The Lotus

Lotus

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You can see many instances of this flower portrayed in cave art and hieroglyphics. Apart from having a fruity scent, lotus also carried a strong meaning in ancient Egypt. Today, this flower is associated with purity, but what did it mean to ancient Egyptians?

Not surprisingly, they considered it a symbol of rebirth. That’s because ancient Egyptians saw this flower spread its petals above water in the morning, then close and sink again during the night. Also called the Sesen, it later became the symbol of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.

9. The Crescent Moon

Moon

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The symbol of the waning moon was also among the most beloved images in ancient Egypt. It was often part of the depictions of the Egyptian god Khonsu, whose name is an allegory to the moon traveling in the sky. Thus, the god of the moon carried the crescent around his neck or on his head.

The moon phases reminded ancient Egyptians of the circle of life. So, the crescent stood for the never-ending cycle of birth, death, and rebirth in the afterlife. In other words, it came to symbolize fertility and immortality. They also connected this symbol to Isis and her magical powers.

10. The Ka

Ka

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The Ka was native to this ancient civilization. In hieroglyphics, it was a drawing of uplifted arms reaching for the sky. This concept was one of the main aspects of their immortal soul.

It seems to have stood for the divine part inside people that can survive death. When the body dies, the Ka would leave its mortal shells. If the body is well preserved, the Ka would return to it and guide it to resurrection. Because of that, the mummification process was of utmost importance for the possibility of the afterlife.

11. Uraeus

Uraeus

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This symbol relates to the high classes of ancient Egypt — namely, those of gods and pharaohs. They represented it with an image of a cobra in an upright position. Uraeus often assumed a threatening pose, too. Thus, it came to be the symbol of authority, supremacy, and power.

It also stood for Wadjet, the ancient Egyptian cobra goddess. Later on, it came to be associated with the sun god Ra himself. Thus, the two cobras in the Eye of Ra are often considered to be two Uraeuses.

12. Ouroboros

Ouroboros

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Yet another serpent in the ancient Egyptian religion was Ouroboros. It represented a snake forming a circle with its body, eating its tail. This symbol was also well-known in other ancient civilizations such as Greece.

Ancient Egyptians saw this serpent as first eating and then giving birth to itself. Thus, Ouroboros came to symbolize the eternal circle of life, death, and resurrection. This tail-devouring snake was a visual representation of immortality and the afterlife.

13. Bennu

Bennu

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Another animal that ancient Egyptians linked to immortality was the Bennu bird. Much like Ouroboros, Bennu was well-known for creating itself. Thanks to its magical birth-giving powers, they worshipped it together with Ra and other gods of creation.

As you already know, ancient Egyptians believed that souls had immortal parts. One of them, the Ba, represented someone’s undying personality. So, they often portrayed the Bennu bird as the Ba of Ra. Its association with the sun god also made this bird a symbol of rebirth.

14. The Ajet

Ajet

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The Ajet was yet another symbol of creation and rebirth in ancient Egypt. It showed the sun between two mountain tops guarded by two lions. A simplified version without the lions was a well-known hieroglyph. It came to mean horizon or the place where the sun rises in the sky.

This symbol reminded ancient Egyptians that the sunrise always comes after the sunset. In the context of their religion, a person always gets reborn after their death.

15. The Feather of Maat

Maat

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Maat was the ancient Egyptian goddess of order, justice, and truth. She was also the daughter of Ra, the god of the sun and creation. So, when Ra created the world, Maat brought order to it. Ancient Egyptians used the feather of Maat that symbolized this goddess during the Judgement of Osiris.

In the Hall of Two Truths, they decided if the soul of the deceased deserved resurrection. They weighed the hearts of those who died against Maat’s feather. If the heart was lighter than or equal to the feather, the soul could join Osiris in the underworld. Otherwise, this person would get cursed and eaten by Ammit.

16. The Djed

Djed

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The Djed was an ancient Egyptian symbol that looked like a pillar with four horizontal lines on top. This symbol stood for stability and also became a hieroglyph with the same meaning. Thanks to its shape, the Djed also resembles a human backbone. And, much like your backbone, it provides your body with balance and stability.

In Egypt, this symbol got associated with Osiris and his resurrection. For this reason, the Djed was also called “the backbone of Osiris.” Today, people often wear it as an amulet or a tattoo.

17. The Menat

Menat

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The Menat was the necklace belonging to the goddess Hathor. It consisted of many tightly packed rows of beads shaped like a crescent. But its backside also had a heavy amulet that helped keep the Menat in place.

Ancient Egyptians considered this necklace a symbol of life and fertility. They also reserved it for the figures of authority and power. Supposedly, the people who got to wear it were fortunate and protected from evil. There are also many examples where people buried the Menat with the deceased.

18. The Crook and Flail

Flail

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Also known as the Hekha, the Crook was a tool that shepherds used to scare away the predators and keep their sheep safe. It looked like a stick with a hook on the top and often had gold and blue stripes. The Flail or the Nekhakha was a gold and blue rod with three strings of beads. Historians believe that ancient Egyptian shepherds also used it to control their herds.

Together, these two tools became symbols of the authority and power of the ruler over everyone else. For that reason, every pharaoh had their set of the crook and flail. The most well-known among them is probably the one belonging to King Tutankhamun.

19. The Nemes

Nemes

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Go ahead and picture a pharaoh — Tutankhamun, for example. Chances are you couldn’t imagine an Egyptian ruler without the Nemes. Even if you have no idea what that is, you’re probably aware that all pharaohs had some specific headdresses. So, the Nemes headdress was a blue and gold piece of cloth that the ancient Egyptian rulers were famous for.

Despite common belief, the Nemes wasn’t a crown. Still, it showcased its owner’s royalty and power. Thus, it came to stand for the authority of Egyptian pharaohs over the commoners. The Nemes also became a symbol of the royal Ka.

20. The Cartouche

Cartouche

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The Cartouche was another ancient Egyptian symbol designed for royalty. It consisted of an oval frame surrounding an inscription in the middle. The middle part contained a person’s name in hieroglyphs. This oval frame was often a rope, and ancient Egyptians believed it had magical powers.

They thought it protected the person whose name was in the middle. So, they often reserved these nameplates for pharaohs and royalty. Their circular shape also resembled the sun that drove away evil spirits. Besides, these plates helped the Ka and Ba return to their body after the resurrection.

21. The Sistrum

Sistrum

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The Sistrum was an ancient Egyptian musical instrument. This percussion device got its name from the Greek word for “shake.” As for its looks, it resembled the Key of Life without its arms. The Sistrum had a handle and a loop top with strings to which small jingling discs were attached.

Ancient Egyptians used it during religious ceremonies to attract the attention of their gods. Among the most well-known was a musical rattle connected to the goddess Hathor. Her head often got depicted on this instrument’s handle, followed by the anagram of her name.

22. The Seba

Seba

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The Seba was the ancient Egyptian symbol resembling a starfish. Its simplified version was a drawing of a star used as a hieroglyph. This sign in the Egyptian alphabet stood for discipline and learning. But why were stars so beloved by this civilization?

Like many other ancient societies, Egyptians paid a lot of attention to the different constellations in the sky. Astrology helped them make their calendars and organize their lives accordingly. But in their religion, the stars also stood for the souls of the dead. They were the followers of Osiris in the underworld.

23. The Amenta

Amenta

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Speaking of the underworld, the Amenta stood for this ancient Egyptian concept. This symbol resembled a crescent with a flat top and two uneven lines below it. So, it originally depicted the horizon with the setting sun. Thus, the people connected it to the sun and Ra’s powers of creation.

The sunset also reminded them of the death of the soul waiting for its rebirth. Thus, the Amenta came to represent the Nile’s west bank where ancient Egyptians buried their dead. For that reason, it symbolized the land of the deceased called Duat that Osiris, the god of the underworld, guarded.

24. The Was Scepter

Scepter

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This Egyptian symbol of power looked like a long stick with an animal head on top. Much like the crook and flail, ancient Egyptian shepherds used it to control their herds. But it also symbolized the ruler’s dominion over his people. For that reason, it belonged to pharaohs and gods.

Ancient Egyptians often wore the Was Scepter as a piece of jewelry like an amulet. They also combined this symbol with the Djed and the Ankh that god Ptah carried. Apart from the sculptor of the earth, this scepter commonly belonged in the hands of Hathor and Isis.

25. The Shen

Shen

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The name of this symbol stems from the word for encircling. And that is also what the Shen means in the ancient Egyptian alphabet. It looks like a circle with a line at the bottom supporting it. The Shen also resembled a rope forming a loop with its ends tied together.

Being in a circular shape, it also looked like the sun. Thus, this symbol stood for the ancient Egyptian idea of the never-ending cycle of life and immortality. But when gods or rulers carried it, it symbolized their protection from evil spirits. From the 26th Dynasty onwards, even commoners started to carry it for good luck.