Semiotic Analysis of Ancient Egyptian Art

Introduction

Ancient Egyptian art is notably characterized by its prominent use of symbol, often seen in the form of hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs, although typically recognizable icons, do not always represent the image they appear to depict, and many are instead interpreted as phonetic sounds or alphabetic elements; others, however, are logographic, meaning they do actually represent the object they appear to be. Commonly found on/in ancient Egyptian tombs, reliefs, paintings, books, statues, jewelry, and more, hieroglyphs serve as a language, providing context to the objects they occupy (“Egyptian Art”).

Most of what we consider to be ancient Egyptian art was created with a specific function in mind, largely in the context of religion. Egyptian culture was supported by a strong belief in immortality, which led to the creation of sculptures and reliefs intended to honor both divine beings and those deceased. For instance, statues were usually made to act as a “conduit” for the spirit, or “ka,” of the being they represented, and royal and elite statues similarly acted as “intermediaries between the people and the gods.” These statues can dually act as symbols for the entities they intend to represent, and these symbols are often repeated throughout ancient Egyptian art (“Egyptian Art”).

The Scarab

One example of a common symbol used in Egyptian art, as displayed in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), is the scarab. A scarab, which embodies the appearance of a dung beetle, is a valued symbol in ancient Egyptian culture representing the god of the morning sun, Khepri, whose name is written with the scarab hieroglyph, “Kheper.” This association emerged from the belief that Khepri would “roll the disk of the morning sun over the eastern horizon at daybreak,” similar to how a dung beetle rolls balls of dung to lay its eggs in (“Scarab”). “Kheper,” in turn, means “the one who rolls over again and again” (“Amulet”). The symbol can also be used to refer to concepts of existence, manifestation, development, growth, and effectiveness, making it a popular icon for Egyptian amulets (“Scarab”).

An amulet is “an object that is created for a specific purpose and can be carried on the body or worn in special places on the body like the neck or the arms.” In Egyptian culture, amulets were worn by the living and buried with the dead and seen as a form of protection from evil. The term “amulet” itself stems from Arabic linguistic roots and can be interpreted to mean  “to bear” or “to carry,” but the more commonly used word for “amulet” in the dynastic period was “mk-t,” meaning “protector.” These amulets, which took the form of Egyptian gods/goddesses, symbols, plants/animals, and objects, were also believed to hold certain powers, as dictated by their different shapes and materials (“Ancient Egyptian Amulets”). The scarab amulet in particular was considered to be one of the most powerful amulets, securing “maximum safety” for the souls of the dead as they traveled to the underworld (“Amulet”), which explains its immense cultural value.

The following images are examples of scarab sculptures that are currently on display in the VMFA.

image displaying a small scarab beetle sculpture
(1070-712 BCE), medium: faience, dimensions: 5/8 × 7/16 × 3/8 in.
image displaying a small scarab beetle sculpture
(525-343 BCE), medium: faience, dimensions: 11/16 × 1/2 × 3/8 in.
image of a blue-colored scarab sculpture with attached wings
(664-525 BCE), medium: faience, dimensions: 2 7/8 × 1 3/4 × 11/16 in. (beetle), 1 3/8 × 2 7/8 × 3/16 in. (each wing)

The Eye of Horus (Wadjet)

Another symbol commonly found on amulets and in other ancient Egyptian art is the Eye of Horus, also referred to as the Eye of Ra, the Eye of God, Udjat, Wedjet, and Wadjet. This is considered to be the “most trusted symbol of protection and great royal power,” and directly represents the ancient Egyptian sky god, Horus. The symbol is distinctly marked by its depiction of Horus’ right eye, which is that of a peregrine falcon, with an outline around it and a “teardrop marking” below. (Not to be confused, the mirrored version of this symbol, depicting an identically marked left eye, contrarily represents the moon and god Thoth, the god of wisdom, knowledge, and learning). Additionally, this symbol was closely linked to Ra (or Re), the sun god and great great grandfather of Horus, according to Egyptian mythology (“Eye”).

The Eye of Horus was seen to be indestructible, and it symbolized rebirth, wisdom, energy, health, vitality, and endurance. In fact, the Eye of Horus was perceived to be so powerful that it could only be used by the pharaoh; it was most notably found on pharaoh Tutankhamen’s mummy underneath twelve layers of bandages. Primarily used for protection and security, rulers wore this symbol as a means of deflecting evil spirits and potential enemies both in the living world and in the afterlife (“Eye”).

The following are images of amulets that employ the Eye of Horus in the Egyptian collection at the VMFA.

image of an amber-colored, translucent carnelian stone, carved into the shape of the Eye of Horus, on a golden ring band
(1353-1336 BCE), gold & carnelian, dimensions: 1/2 × 7/8 × 13/16 in.
image showing a rectangular amulet sculpture carved into the shape of the Eye of Horus
(1069 – 945 BCE), medium: faience, dimensions: 1 × 1 1/4 × 3/16 in.

Some historians believe that the scale and context of the Eye of Horus can alter its meaning in relation to other hieroglyphic images. The symbol itself can be broken down into six different senses: smell, sight, thought, hearing, taste, and touch. Depending on the context of the hieroglyphs surrounding the eye, it can be read in different ways, usually corresponding to one of these six senses (“Eye”).

Each piece of the eye that represents one of the senses also correlates with a specific fraction value measurement (see diagram above). The ancient Egyptian measurement system measures volume in heqat, which is equivalent to 4.8 liters; when the fractions of all pieces of the Wadjet symbol are added up, the total is equal to 63/64, or approximately one heqat. Following this system, the Wadjet symbol was additionally used as a method of measurement throughout Egyptian records (“Eye”).

The Djed

The last icon I will discuss is the djed, another prominent symbol found in ancient Egyptian art which first appeared in the Predynastic Era (6000-3150 BCE) and lasted through the Ptolemaic Period (323-30 BCE). This symbol appears to form the shape of a column with a wide base and four parallel lines crossing horizontally at its top. This symbol most commonly represents stability, but it can also be connected to Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld and “judge of the dead.” Because of this correlation, the icon can additionally refer to ideas of resurrection and immortality, or “eternal life.”  The djed was believed to symbolize the god’s backbone and for this reason, is often seen on the bottom of sarcophagi to “help the newly arrived soul stand up and walk into the afterlife” (“Ancient Egyptian Symbols”).

Other interpretations of this symbol consider it to depict four columns stacked one behind the other, as opposed to one singular column, or have completely different theories, viewing it as a tamarisk tree (based off of a popular mythological tale in which Osiris is entrapped by a tamarisk tree), or a fertility pole. In the first interpretation, this logic speaks to the repetitive use of the number four in Egyptian culture, as seen through its art, architecture, and even the basic shape of the pyramids, and has an implied symbolization of “completeness.” The second theory would add a dual element of rebirth and resurrection to this symbol, as according to the tamarisk tree myth in which Osiris is brought back to life by the goddess Isis. Lastly, the third theory is supported by the fertility pole’s pre-established association with Osiris, “who caused the waters of the Nile river to rise, fertilize the land, and flow again.” Ultimately, any of these interpretations speak to the importance and value of the djed, as well as its association with stability and the god Osiris (“Ancient Egyptian Symbols”).

The following image displays a necklace from the VMFA ancient Egyptian collection that has both djed and wadj amulets on it. The wadj amulet is supposed to represent a papyrus stalk, and it is interpreted to mean “green” or “fresh,” symbolizing rebirth and regeneration (“Wadj”).

an image displaying a necklace of small, alternating djed and wadj amulets, separated by long, cylindrical beads
(664-332 BC), medium: faience

References:

“Amulet of the Scarab (Kheper).” Egyptian Witchcraft. www.egyptian-witchcraft.com/amulet-of-the-scarab-kheper. Accessed 17 Nov. 2019.

“Ancient Egyptian Amulets and Their Meanings.” Egyptian Witchcraft. www.egyptian-witchcraft.com/ancient-egyptian-amulets. Accessed 17 Nov. 2019.

“Ancient Egyptian Symbols” Ancient History Encyclopedia. www.ancient.eu/article/1011/ancient-egyptian-symbols. Accessed 17 Nov. 2019.

“Egyptian Art.” Khan Academy. www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/ancient-mediterranean-ap/ancient-egypt-ap/a/egyptian-art. Accessed 17 Nov. 2019.

“Scarab.” Encyclopedia Brittanica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/scarab. Accessed 17 Nov. 2019.

“The Eye of Horus – Wadjet.” Egyptian Witchcraft. www.egyptian-witchcraft.com/eye-horus-wadjet/#eyeofhorus. Accessed 17 Nov. 2019.

VMFA: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. www.vmfa.museum. Accessed 17 Nov. 2019.

“Wadj (Papyrus Stalk) from String of Amulets.” The Met. www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/694161. Accessed 17 Nov. 2019.

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