Iconography: Egyptian Iconography

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The principal iconographic sources for ancient Egyptian religion are the representations of scenes, both ritual and mythological, carved in relief or painted on the walls of Egyptian temples and tombs, as well as the numerous images and statues of gods and pharaohs. Additionally, there are many objects of ritual or practical function decorated with carved or painted religious motifs, and finally, numerous hieroglyphic signs belonging to the Egyptian writing system are representations of gods, religious symbols, and ritual objects. These types of sources remain constant throughout the more than three thousand years of ancient Egyptian history from the Old Kingdom to the Roman period (c. 3000 bce395 ce).

Egyptian gods were depicted both as human beings and as animals; a composite form combining a zoomorphic head with a human body enjoyed special popularity in relief and statuary alike. Anthropomorphic representations of Egyptian gods relate to their mythological functions and reveal narrative aspects of their relationships, whereas other forms may be defined as their "metamorphoses" or symbols, emphasizing one particular feature or event. In this symbolic realm one divinity could be represented by various animals or objectsfor example, the cow, the lioness, the snake, and the sistrum (a musical instrument) are all manifestations of the goddess Hathor. Conversely, one animal could embody various gods; thus, the protective cobra that appears on the forehead of each pharaoh could be identified with almost all goddesses. The divine identity of an animal may differ in various local pantheons. Particularly numerous were iconographic variations of the sun god, which illustrate various phases of the sun's perpetuum mobile. Some male gods associated with generative powers (Min, Amun-Re, Kamutef) are depicted ithyphallically. A particular shape, that of a mummified human body, was attributed to Osiris, the god of the dead. This form also occurs in some representations of other gods, especially when they appear in the realm of the dead. Diads and triads of gods, frequent in Egyptian statuary, as well as larger groups of divine beings represented in reliefs and paintings, are visual expressions of various relationships among numerous divinities. Syncretistic tendencies in Egyptian religion, popular after the Amarna period, take concrete form in the composite features that combine the iconographic features of different gods.

Scenes carved on the walls of tombs and temples as well as on furniture and ritual objects most frequently show the gods in the company of a king making offerings or performing other ritual acts (such as censing, purifying with water, or embracing the god). All representations of the king facing a divinity illustrate the ongoing relationship of reciprocity between them. In return for the precious object that he presents to the god, the pharaoh receives symbols of life, strength, stability, many years of kingship, and the like.


Numerous Egyptian statues made of all possible materials, such as stone, wood, gold, bronze, and faience, represent one, two, or three gods often accompanied by a king. Both gods and king wear crowns and hold characteristic insignia, among which the most frequent are the sign of life (ankh ) and various types of scepters. Many elements of the king's dress are identical with those of the gods, thus visualizing the divine aspects of the monarch's nature. The shape of their artificial beards is distinctive, however: the beard of the god is bent forward at the end, while that of the king is cut straight in its lower part.

The size of the statues varies according to their function. Small bronze statuettes of votive character were common, especially in the first millennium bce. Many represent animals sacred to Egyptian gods; sometimes these figures are set on boxes containing mummies of the animals represented. The mummified bodies of larger animals, such as bulls, ibis, crocodiles, and cats, have been found buried within special necropolises near places connected with the cults of various gods.

Large stone statues served as cult objects in Egyptian temples. Pairs of colossal effigies of the seated king usually stood in front of the temple pylons. The sphinx, with its body of a lion and head of the king, was often placed in the front of the temple to symbolize the monarch's identity as solar god. Rows of sphinxes lined both sides of processional ways leading to the principal temple entrances.

Funerary Art

Another important part of our knowledge about ancient Egyptian iconography comes from the decoration of Egyptian tombs and coffins that comprises the great Egyptian religious "books"literary compositions that combine spells of magical, mythological, and ritual character with pictures illustrating Egyptian visions of the netherworld. The most ancient of these "books" are the Pyramid Texts carved on the walls of some of the rooms inside the royal pyramids (Old Kingdom, c. 30002200 bce). The illustrations accompanying this sort of text appear for the first time in the Book of Two Ways, which is part of the Coffin Texts (Middle Kingdom, 21341600 bce) painted on the sides of wooden coffins.

Subsequent literary compositions of religious character are generally accompanied by elaborate tableaux, often in the form of vignettes drawn above a column of text written on papyrus. From the New Kingdom (15691085 bce) on, the most popular of these "books" was the Book of Going Forth by Day (the so-called Book of the Dead), a copy of which was a necessary element of the funerary offerings of every noble. The visual aspects of royal eschatology are best known from a composition called Amduat (That Which Is in the Netherworld), which was painted or carved on the walls of royal tombs. Illustrations show the nightly wandering of the sun god through the netherworld. Beginning with the New Kingdom and continuing into the Roman period, fragments of these "books" also decorate many tombs, coffins, and ritual objects belonging to the nobles.


As the abode of the gods, Egyptian temples were accessible only to the kings and priests. The king, considered the mediator between the gods and the people, is usually shown in front of the gods in the ritual scenes that decorate the temple walls, although in reality it must have been the priests who performed the rituals in the king's name.

The sanctuary, usually situated at the far end of the temple along its axis, contained the sacred image of the god to whom the temple was dedicated. The statue of Amun-Re, the chief divinity of Thebes and the state divinity since the time of the New Kingdom, stood inside a shrine on a portable bark placed upon a sled. In Theban temples this effigy is often represented in connection with the Opet Feast or the Beautiful Feast of the Valley, during which it was transported along or across the Nile on a huge ceremonial boat adorned with reliefs and statues.

Narrative cycles

Many temple scenes form standardized sequences of pictures showing summarily, sometimes almost symbolically, successive episodes of mythicized rituals that often refer to important historical events, such as the miraculous birth of the king, his coronation, his victories over enemies, his jubilee, and the founding of the temple. These representations appear in the inner parts of the temple, together with tableaux depicting the daily ritual performed before the statue of the temple's principal deity and scenes showing various offerings being made. Often the iconographic repertory of the decoration of the pillared hallthe central part of many templesconstitutes something of a "showcase," reviewing in abbreviated form all the important elements of the temple's relief decoration.

The interior of the walls enclosing the courts are often decorated with episodes of the most important feasts, while the grandiose tableaux found on the exterior of the walls and on the gates (frequently in the form of pylons) commonly illustrate the king's military achievements. Standard scenes on the pylon faces show the king smiting foreign captives, presenting them to a god, and images of the king offering a figure of the goddess Maatthe personification of truth, justice, and orderto the main divinity of the temple. Another iconographic pattern frequently occurring on the pylons and on the socle of royal thrones is the symbolic representation of subjugated peoples, the so-called ring-names, showing legless human figures, with hands bound, behind an oval ring containing the name of the foreign province. The facial features of these figures were meant to characterize the physiognomy of each particular people.

Symbolic motifs

In addition to these scenes referring to particular events, the temple walls are also decorated with numerous motifs of a more symbolic nature, which give visual form to religious, political, or geographical ideas. The so-called geographical processions, for instance, symbolize the provinces of Egypt in the form of hefty divinities personifying the Nile, each bearing offerings in their hands.

Various iconographic patterns invented by the Egyptians give shape to the idea of the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt. The central motif of a great number of them is the heraldic symbol called sma-tawy, which is composed of two plants, papyrus (for Lower Egypt) and a kind of bulrush (for Upper Egypt), bound together around the spinal cord and the lungs of an animal. Two divine personifications of the Nilethe motive power of this unificationare often shown holding and binding together the two plants

Geographical and religious at the same time, the concepts of the country's division into two partseither north and south or east and westbelong to the most important principles prevailing in Egyptian iconography. They find expression in symmetrical or antithetical compositions of scenes placed in the axial rooms of temples and tombs, as in the disposition of the various gods representing north and south or east and west, especially on the decoration of lintels, doorposts, and rear walls.

The netherworld

The Egyptian realm of the dead lay in the west. The best illustration of ancient Egyptian visual concepts of the netherworld appears in the decoration of New Kingdom royal and noble tombs situated in west Thebes; these iconographic patterns remained a favorite and repeated subject right up to the Roman period. Of the two principal groups of scenes depicted there, the first, usually found in the first room of the tomb, refers to various episodes in the earthly life of the deceased, including such religious ceremonies or feasts as the Beautiful Feast of the Valley, the royal jubilee, the New Year festival, or the harvest feast. Included in all these scenes are processions, offerings (including burnt offerings), incense burning, and performances with playing, singing, and dancing. Of special importance among Egyptian musicians was the harpist, who came to be represented by the squatting figure of a blind man shown in profile.

The other group of scenes, found in the inner room, illustrates various episodes of the funeral rites, such as the embalming ritual, the symbolic "pilgrimage to Abydos" by boat, and various processions with the mummy being dragged on sledges. The ritual of "opening the mouth" was one of the most important ceremonies of the long funeral cycle. Performed on the statue of the deceased or on his mummy, it was composed of episodes including censing, pouring libations, purifying, and "opening the mouth" with special instruments, all of which were intended to revive the spirit of the deceased.

Cult of the dead

Of particular importance in every tomb were the places intended for the cult of the deceased. These featured niches with statues of the dead person (and sometimes of members of his family), stelae often depicting the deceased adoring and making offerings to various gods or royal personages, and lastly, false-door stelae constituting a symbolic passage between the realm of the dead and the world of the living.

Enabling the deceased to enjoy the sight of the shining sun is another idea that predominates in the eschatological visions depicted and described on the walls of royal tombs. Such great religious compositions as the Amduat, the Book of Gates, and the Book of Caverns depict, among other things, the nightly journey of the sun god, who is often identified with the king. The monarch is thus endowed with the ability to reappear in the morning as a form of the solar divinity.

Most important in each tomb, however, was the burial chamber, commonly situated underneath the accessible rooms at the bottom of a deep vertical shaft. Here were contained the sarcophagus with the mummy of the deceased and all the funerary offerings, including the four Canopic jars for the viscera of the deceased, the mummiform figures known as shawabti s (ushabti s), a copy of the Book of Going Forth by Day written on papyrus, and various ritual objects. The sarcophagi and coffins, made of wood or stone, took the form of cubical or body-shaped cases decorated with painted or carved religious motifs. The four Canopic jars were associated with the four sons of the royal deity Horus, with the four cardinal directions, and with the four protective goddesses; they each had distinctive stoppers, often representing the heads of the four sons of Horus or simply anthropomorphic heads. Numerous shawabti s holding various objects, such as hoes, baskets, or religious symbols, and most frequently made of faience or stone, accompanied the deceased in his tomb in order to help him in the netherworld. In some tombs the number of these figures were considerable: more than one thousand were recovered in the tomb of King Taharqa (r. 689664 bce). Particularly rich were the grave goods of the royal tombs; the most complete version of such a funeral outfit has been found in the tomb of Tutankhamen (r. 13611352 bce) located in the Valley of the Kings, the New Kingdom necropolis in west Thebes.

The evolution of iconographic patterns in the three-thousand-year course of ancient Egyptian history parallels general changes in religious concepts, which are themselves a function of political and social changes. A "democratization" of religious beliefs during the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate period resulted, on the one hand, in the depiction of direct relations between gods and human beings and, on the other hand, in identifying the dead with the god Osiris. Religious conflicts during the eighteenth dynasty, probably reflecting political struggles and culminating in the "heresy" of Amenhotep IV-Akhenaton, led first to a disproportionate emphasis on solar cults and then to a development of religious concepts concerning the realm of the dead, with a dual focus on Osiris and the solar god. The union of these two once-competing deities occurs frequently after the Amarna period and contributes to a development of theological concepts as well as their iconographic renderings. This syncretism increases during the Third Intermediate period and generates an unparalleled variety of forms during the Ptolemaic period.

See Also

Pyramids, article on Egyptian Pyramids; Temple, article on Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean Temples.


The most complete and up-to-date compendium of information concerning the iconography of ancient Egyptian religion is Egypt, volume 16 in the series "Iconography of Religions," edited by the Institute of Religious Iconography, Groningen. Each of the thirteen fascicles of this volume, arranged in chronological sequence, contains rich photographic materials and a detailed bibliography. Encyclopedic information on particular subjects can be found in Hans Bonnet's Reallexikon der ägyptischen Religionsgeschichte, 2d ed. (Munich, 1971), and in Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 6 vols., edited by Hans Wolfgang Helck, Eberhard Otto, and Wolfhart Westendorf (Wiesbaden, 1972). Bonnet's Ägyptische Religion (Leipzig, 1924) may be consulted as a valuable complement to these publications. There is an amazing scarcity of scientific literature in English, but see Manfred Lurker's The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt, revised by Peter A. Clayton (London, 1980).

Karol Mysliwiec (1987)