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Symbolism in Ancient Egypt

In these lessons, Students will:

  • Deconstruct the symbols used by ancient Egyptians;
  • Uncover clues about ancient Egyptian culture and society;
  • Examine ancient Egyptian heiroglyphs as a visual language;
  • Analyze ancient Egyptian symbols;

Crack the Code: Hieroglyphs

Hieroglyphs are a formal writing system used by ancient Egyptians containing alphabetic elements and visual symbols representing words. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone was the key to unlocking ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs as Egyptologists could finally translate this visual language. Students will examine hieroglyphs and make meaning of their symbols.

Hieroglyphs as Alphabet

  • Introduce students to hieroglyphs as an alphabet system by writing a hieroglyphic message for students to decipher using the hieroglyphs chart provided by the Detroit Institute of Arts. Decipher the message as a class and demonstrate the fact that ancient Egyptians wrote phonetically. For example, Laura would be written as LORA.

Hieroglyphs as Visual Symbols

  • Introduce students to hieroglyphs as visual symbols by drawing a hieroglyphic symbol that cannot be deciphered using the hieroglyphs chart. Choose a hieroglyphic symbol to analyze as a class by discussing possible meanings and students' interpretations. The following symbols with their Egyptian pronunciations and meanings are effective examples to use with students:
    • Basket (nebet) - "All", "Lord"
    • Bow (iunet, pedjet) - "Enemies"
    • Ear (mesedjer) - "Hearing"
    • Mountain (djew) - "Mountain"
    • Pool (she) - "Water"
    • Sail (hetau) - "Breath"
  • Encourage students to share their initial ideas about the symbol. Ask students to describe what the symbol looks like and what the symbol reminds them of. Record their initial ideas for the whole class to consider. Students may provide answers based on their personal frame of reference. For example, a bow symbolizes "enemies".  Ask students what the bow symbol might represent. Share the explanation for the bow symbol with students.

Analyzing Visual Symbols

  • Discuss with students what they needed to know in order to make meaning of the hieroglyphic symbol the class analyzed. Discuss how symbols chosen by a specific culture reflects that culture's beliefs and way of life. For example, bows were the most effective weapon used to fight off enemies in ancient Egypt. Ask students to consider what symbols they would choose to represent enemies today and what their chosen symbols communicate about our contemporary society.
  • Divide students into small groups and assign each group a hieroglyphic symbol to analyze as you have modelled. Instruct groups to describe their symbol and brainstorm their initial ideas and interpretations before conducting online research to find the meaning of their symbol and how the symbol reflects ancient Egyptian culture and society. Have each group share their interpretations and research with the class.

Create Your Own Hieroglyph

  • Summarize for students that hieroglyphs are comprised of an alphabet system and visual symbols. Now that students have cracked the hieroglyph code, they can create personal, contemporary hieroglyphs to represent themselves. First have students write their own names phonetically and find the corresponding hieroglyphs. Then through brainstorming and sketching, have students design their own visual symbols that represent their interests, beliefs and values. Have students create a final work of art representing their personal identity - their hieroglyphic name and visual symbols within a cartouche. Royal names were enclosed in a round or oval-shape called a cartouche, which symbolized eternal life.

Symbols of Power

Pharaohs were both religious and political leaders central to ancient Egyptian society. To illustrate their immense power, specific symbols were used to highlight their status and importance. In this lesson, students will continue to deconstruct symbols to understand power in ancient Egypt and compare to symbols of power from various cultures.

Symbols of Power

  • Divide students into small groups and provide each group with artifact images of royalty in ancient Egypt. Instruct groups to examine and analyze the images for symbols used to convey royal power.  Some recommended sites are:
  • Guide students' observation and analysis with the following questions:
    • What types of materials have been used? What do the materials represent?
    • Describe the facial expressions and body language of figures. What feelings do they convey?
    • Describe the clothing, adornments and accessories. What messages do they communicate?
    • Are there other clues such as hieroglyphs or surrounding objects that symbolize power?
  • Have each group share their findings and as a class, generate a list of defining characteristics and symbols used to represent royal power.
  • Assign each small group 2-3 symbols to research further. First ask groups to brainstorm their interpretations of the symbols and then make inferences about how ancient Egyptians viewed power. For example, students may interpret the cobra often found on a pharaoh's headdress as a powerful animal with the ability to kill its enemies. Students may infer that the cobra was used a symbol of Pharaoh's immense power and ability to rule others. Students will conduct further research to confirm or inform their inferences using online resources listed in More Links to King Tut.
  • Organize students into jigsaw groups and have each student share their findings on their assigned symbols. Afterwards, revisit the initial list of defining characteristics and symbols used to represent royal power as a class to generate a written statement describing power and status according to ancient Egyptians.

Comparisons of Power

  • Extend students' thinking by comparing ancient Egyptian symbols of power with symbols from different cultures. Use the lesson structure in Symbols of Power to lead students through an analysis of artifact images from another culture. Choose cultures from within Canada as well as around the world, from both past and present, to expose and broaden students' understanding of various cultures. Have groups present the commonalities and difference found between cultures.
  • Connect to our contemporary Canadian society by providing students with print materials such as newspapers and magazines to search for contemporary images of power. Have students work in small groups to cut out images and organize them into categories they have defined themselves or as a class. For example, categories may include ideals of beauty, wealth, and status. What messages about power do the images convey? How do the images reflect the values of our contemporary Canadian society? Students can present their comparisons in the form of a collage with images and text.

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