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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;
  • Exmaine ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs as a visual language;
  • Analyze ancient Egyptian symbols and their uses;
  • Explore identity, status and power in ancient Egypt.

LESSON 1: What’s in a Symbol?

Hieroglyphs are a formal writing system used by the ancient Egyptians that contains both alphabetic elements as well as visual symbols to represent words. It was not until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, in 1799 dating from 196 BC, that Egyptologists could finally translate the messages from ancient Egypt and unlock the mysteries of their culture. Students will analyze this visual language in order to discover ideas and beliefs of ancient Egyptians.

  • Draw a yield sign (or other traffic sign) on the board and discuss its meaning with students. Repeat this with other symbols such as the symbol for male and female used on washroom doors, a heart, and/or religious symbol.
  • Discuss how we know what these symbols stand for in our society. Would they mean the same to a visitor from another culture? What do these symbols say about us as a society?
  • Repeat the above process with various hieroglyph symbols.  For example, the symbol of a bow means "enemies".
  • Encourage students to offer their initial ideas about this symbol. Ask students what this looks like, what it reminds them of. Record students' guesses on the board. You may have students providing answers such as "sunglasses" because that is their interpretation based on their frame of reference. Start providing clues to guide students thinking. For example, the symbol may need to be rotated, or give verbal hints such as "think weapon". Once students have answered "bow", ask them what this symbol might represent. Some answers may include: war, battle. Read students the explanation for this symbol.
  • Initiate a discussion about symbols by asking students what they needed to know in order to make meaning of the hieroglyphic symbol above. Explain how the symbols used by a specific culture depend greatly on their beliefs and way of life. For example: In ancient Egypt, the bow was the most effective weapon to fight one's enemies.
  • Repeat this process with other symbols to illustrate how we can make inferences about ancient Egypt by reading their visual language and looking deeper for clues about their beliefs. Students can analyze King Tut's name as represented on his cartouche to uncover his identity and how ancient Egyptians viewed their pharaoh.

LESSON 2: Symbols of Identity

Pharaohs had more than one name. In this lesson, students will analyze King Tut's birth name and throne name to understand how ancient Egyptians used symbols to communicate identity.

  • Examine the hieroglyph for King Tut’s throne name to understand notions of power.  The symbol is read from bottom to top. (The placement of hieroglyphs tells the reader which direction to read the images. For example, the beetle faces up, so the hieroglyph is read upwards.) The bottom symbol (neb) represents a woven basket which also stands for “Lord” or “Master”. The middle symbol (kheperu) represents a scarab beetle which means “he who has come into being” and the top symbol (re) represents the Egyptian God Re. Put together, this cartouche means “Lord of the manifestations of Re.”
  • Ask students to discuss the following questions in their groups and record their observations/responses to share with the class:

    • Initial Reaction
      • What puzzles you? What are your questions?
      • What does this work remind you of?
    • Visual Clues
      • What stands out for you?
      • What do you see when you examine the work closely?
      • What do these symbols resemble?
  • Before moving on to the next section, ask each group to share their observations/responses to their Initial Reaction and Visual Clue questions with the larger class.

Understanding the Symbols

  • Provide each group with a copy of the following information that explains the symbols found on the cartouche.

  • Ask students to read the explanation of each symbol as a group and discuss the meanings of the symbols using the following questions:

    • How are the symbols organized or arranged?
    • What do you think is the meaning of the cartouche?
    • How are these symbols connected to King Tut's identity?
    • What information does this cartouche tell us about ancient Egypt?
    • What can we learn about the role/power of pharaohs?
    • Compare this with today's ideas about power

Follow up Discussion with Class

  • Conclude the analysis with a follow up discussion with the class.

    • Why is this an important work to examine?
    • What new information do you now understand about ancient Egypt and/or King Tut?
    • Consider the way in which this cartouche represents the perspective of the ancient Egyptians.
    • What personal/cultural biases might we have as we examine artworks from ancient Egypt?
  • Additional resources for students to explore can be found in More Links to King Tut

Create Your Own Cartouche

  • Students can connect to this notion of visual communication by creating their own hieroglyph to stand in for their name. Reinforce the importance of using specific symbols and details that reveal their beliefs, self-image, and identity. Students can work individually or with a partner to create their cartouche.

    • This can be done through ink drawings, print making, clay reliefs, paintings, etc.
  • After each student has developed their own individual cartouche, divide students into groups of 4-5 to share their cartouche with the group.
  • Each group will select one cartouche from the group to share with the class. The class then must use the visual clues to identify which classmate the cartouche represents.

LESSON 3: Symbols of Power

Pharaohs were both the religious and political leaders, making them central to ancient Egyptian life. To illustrate this immense power, various symbols were used to highlight their status and importance. Some include the crook and flail, dual crown, cobra, and their throne name as depicted by hieroglyphs. In this learning activity, students will continue to deconstruct symbols to understand power and compare this to contemporary standards.

Symbols of Power

Symbolism and Colour 

  • Continue this discussion about symbols to include colours and objects. Write each colour on the board and have students share what it means in North American culture giving specific examples (or their culture), then share the meanings based on ancient Egyptian culture.

    • Red=danger, evil
      life-threatening desert was called the “red lands”
      Scribes wrote in red when they wanted to write the word “evil”
    • Blue=sky & water, birth & rebirth
      Heaven and waters (place where all life emerged in Egyptian mythology)
      The annual flooding of the Nile brought fertility to land
    • Yellow=sun, eternity, and being imperishable
    • Green=freshness & life, positive actions
      Colour associated with Osiris
    • White=cleanliness, purity, moon
      Used in religious rituals Also symbolized southern Egypt
    • Black=death & night, underworld
      Regeneration because of fertile black soil that rejuvenated the land after the Nile overflowed annually
  • Students can continue examining colour as a symbol, by comparing the above with the use of colour in contemporary advertisements from magazines. Working in pairs, have students choose an ad and deconstruct how the colour communicates specific ideas and emotions to sell a product. Students can record their findings in a multi-paragraph analysis of the ad including a connection to ancient Egyptian art.

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