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Ancient Egyptian Symbology Explained
Ancient Egypt has long held a fascination for us, and there is a lot that has transferred into the modern world. Visual symbolism is huge, and that means that all ages and cultures can share the enjoyment of ancient Egypt today. There are lots of elements that are important, which can make it complicated, so here is a brief explanation of ancient Egyptian symbology.
At a basic level, objects depicted in ancient Egyptian art were representative of the things they showed. The djed pillar is a great example of that; a pillar does actually support, and Egyptians used the image of a pillar to represent support of other things.
On another level, there are indirect representations. Amulets with clenched hands are often said to represent a sexual union. The objects used might be very different from those they were said to represent, meaning interpretation was required and there was often a theme. Even a small change to the form could mean a big change to the intended meaning.
Perhaps the most famous form of ancient Egyptian symbolism is hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphs are expressed in several ways and are some of the most frequently encountered symbology. Sometimes the hieroglyphs represent individuals, and sometimes they are representations of gods themselves.
Rebus representation combines hieroglyphs to spell out names or titles and was often used to represent kings or other important figures. Sometimes, the hieroglyphs would be made in the shape of the object they would represent. The sign of the ankh, as represented in our Ankh T-Shirt, is said to represent a mirror. Very few Egyptians could read or write - a skill reserved for only the very elite in society - so hieroglyphs were widely used and so their symbolism became instantly recognizable.
In many societies throughout history, bigger is better. Ancient Egypt is no exception, and in order to represent their kings and gods being of greater importance than others, they were depicted much larger in scenes showing life. King would be much bigger than human, god much bigger than human. It was often shown on temple walls, so the hierarchical effect of size dominating the perceived weaker one put the King in a good position compared to his enemy.
Size was often used to depict relative equality, or otherwise. Isocephaly took to showing equality by putting heads on the same level and by making sure that someone with a more important social standing was not shown having to look up to someone of lesser social importance.
The ancient Egyptians did not have the same media for creating as we do today, but nevertheless, some materials had more significance than others. Precious metals are a good example of a material that has translated well, and gold is still highly regarded by most societies. Often used to depict divinity because of its brightness and color, the ancient Egyptians also used gold to symbolize the sun and eternal life.
Silver had godly associations as well, with the bones of the gods believed to have been made of silver. While gold was representative of the sun, silver was symbolic of the moon and lunar figures. We have adopted many material associations today, such as water symbolizing purification.
Color is another form of representation that has been adopted. We still use blue to symbolize the oceans and water in general, and yellow for the sun. Red remains the color of fire and the passion we associate with that, and green is still associated with life and mortality given the abundance of green in nature. Many western women choose white for their wedding dress as it still symbolizes purity, although in ancient Egyptian times, it would also have stepped in for the sun in place of yellow sometimes.
We still understand the importance today of gestures, those unwritten movements that say so much. How ancient Egyptians positioned the limbs, body and heads of the beings they depicted speaks volumes. However, understanding what the gestures meant in those times can be quite complex. Context gives us some clues but not always all the answers. Arms folded today might be interpreted as a barrier, but in Egyptian times, it was believed to signify independence, which is different.
The key thing to remember when interpreting ancient Egyptian symbols today is that we cannot know for sure. There are some accepted interpretations of some things today, but there is also a good chance that there were inconsistencies and even artistic license. It is, therefore, a good idea to keep a flexible approach.