Friday, July 26, 2013

Folklore Friday: Ancient Egyptian amulets

Collection of amulets, Senckenberg, Naturmuseum, Frankfurt, Germany.


From Merriam-Webster: : a charm (as an ornament) often inscribed with a magic incantation or symbol to aid the wearer or protect against evil (as disease or witchcraft)
And while that definition may sound a bit Medieval - I think the definition infers that a piece have meaning and believed power/symbolism to be seen as an amulet. And when I think amulets - I think Egypt. Since I decided to do this series of posts, I have been reading and researching - and having great fun... I look forward to sharing it with you. 

Warning: I have been fascinated with Ancient Egypt my whole life. Well, specifically since I was 8. When the monumental exhibit of Tutankhamen's tomb goods was in DC at the National Gallery. ( No, my parents did not take me, and yes, I begged. Scarred for life? maybe a little...) A secondary degree in Art History and supplemental study on my own... clearly this interest wasn't a passing fancy. So let me start with the more iconic symbols... 

In Ancient Egypt, amulets were worn by the living... and the dead. Worn as necklaces, placed in a mummy's wrappings, they were a unifying element across the levels of society - from the common folk to the nobles, to the divine royalty. Certain symbols were used by both living and dead; others had specific funerary purposes. Their recorded use dates back to app 3100 BCE, 1000 years prior to the first Egyptian Dynasty. Most frequently worn for protection, some were fertility amulets, others invoked certain deities and their attributes. ( More on that later)

Materials - 

 Clay, faience, shell, gemstone, gold, glass, bone, ivory to name a few. Cost was a factor in materials - of course - but so was symbolism. Colors help great symbolic meaning to the Ancient Egyptians. For example, lapis imported from Afghanistan was very precious, and expensive. The deep blue represented both the heavens ( the gods, life, rebirth) and also the primordial Nile flood (life, fertility, rebirth). Gold, plentiful in Egypt was seen as the sun;  un-tarnishing, unaffected by time it represented the immortal, the divine. 

Images from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Ankh  - life, immortality, rebirth, reincarnation

The Egyptians believed fundamentally in an Afterlife. Hence the tombs containing all the items needed to live on in the way to which you were accustomed. The ankh appears everywhere in Egyptian art. Worn as an amulet it would also confer health and strength to the wearer. 

The shape can be said to reference a sandal strap - top oval around your ankle, long tail down between your toes... It is also seen as a reference to the Nile. The top representing the Delta, the length being the Nile itself, and the 2 side arms representing the annual flooding of the river. This flood deposited rich silt, creating arable land on either side of the banks. This truly represented the life of the ancient people in that desert climate. 

Images from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Scarab  - sun, resurrection, transformation, protection

The dung beetle, common in the region and highly symbolic. The beetle lays its eggs in a ball of clay or dung and then rolls it off, burying it. This was a direct metaphor of the sun, rolled across the sky, to disappear, and magically reappear the following day. As the sun god Ra was chief among the Ancient Egyptian deities - the scarab was an important symbol. 

Worn as an amulet it brought health, strength. and virility. A scarab amulet was placed at the heart of a mummy; the heart being the seat of all thought, emotion, intellect... 

Photo credits: 1 & 4 - British Museum, 2 - Bader Ancient Art 3 - Williams College 

The wedjat or Eye of Horus - protection from evil, healing, restoration, protection, sacrifice

The wedjat eye is perhaps the best known of all Egyptian protective amulets. The drop and spiral below the eye imitate the markings on a lanner falcon, the bird associated with the god Horus. The name wedjat means 'the sound one', referring to the lunar left eye of Horus that was plucked out by his rival Seth during their conflict over the throne. The restoration of the eye is variously attributed to Thoth, Hathor or Isis. The injury to the eye and its subsequent healing were believed to be reflected in the waxing and waning of the moon.
The first use of the wedjat eye as an amulet was whenHorus offered it to Osiris. It was so powerful that it restored him to life. The regenerative and protective powers of the amulet meant that it was placed among the wrappings of mummies in great numbers. It could even replace food offerings in rituals. It first appeared in the late Old Kingdom and was used until mummification was no longer practised, in the Roman Period (30 BC - AD 395)
Amulets were made from many different materials, but blue or green faience was the most common, as these colours symbolized regeneration to the ancient Egyptian. The wedjat eye was also worn by the living. Faience factories have been found at Tell el-Amarna, where rings with wedjat eye bezels were very popular among the inhabitants.

(Who am I to paraphrase the British Museum?!  I normally write my own entries, but that was too succinct to pass up. The Isis and Osiris myth is a powerful one. Love, treachery, deceit, a quest, magic - and a great insight into Egyptian beliefs on life, resurrection, rebirth. Read it here if you are interested. 

Thank you for staying with me until the end! I hope there was something interesting there for you - I would love to hear your thoughts! 

Stay tuned in 2 weeks - a few more obscure symbols and how they translate into pieces I am making - making and making... as the Beadfest clock counts down! 



  1. What a fabulous post, Jenny! I, too, have loved the motifs of Egypt and other ancient civilizations since childhood. My first "grown-up" ie. pierced earrings were ankh symbols in 14k I purchased with my own meager funds. I could read about this stuff all day. Actually I will come back and reread. Have a great weekend!

  2. I love anything ancient Egyptian too. I look forward to seeing how this is inspiring your work!

  3. I love the information you get and I get to learn! I think I see a beaded something coming from this post!

  4. I love this post! I was also an art history / archaeology major, along with studio arts (painting) - actually a triple major which was a crazy thing for me to do - that was before I later got a degree in Industrial design but thats another story - so anyway I can appreciate the "bug" for this stuff Art history and archaeology are my first loves in academia. :) I look forward to more Folklore Fridays!

  5. Love this!! I love anything ancient jewelry or symbol related and your post is very educational and inspirational - lots of beady ideas for the Ankhs and other charms and symbols I have are now running through my head!


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