Ancient Egyptian Symbols for Tattoo Designsby Caroline Seawright
November 20, 2012
Looking for some ideas for an Egyptian-themed tattoo? As a lot of people have asked me for advice on tattoo design, I have produced a list of important ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols and their meaning. It is not a complete list of hieroglyphs by any means, but hopefully it can point you in the right direction in your search for your future tattoo!
If you are just looking for your own name in hieroglyphs, the Hieroglyphic Typewriter is a great little tool.
I have also written up some information (with pictures) of the headdresses of the gods and their meanings.
If you can't find the symbol you are looking for, please let me know on the comments section below, and I will attempt to add the hieroglyph, image and meaning for you.
Ancient Egyptian Symbols
The Horizon - This is the symbol of the sun rising between two mountains, and the hieroglyph is used in words such as 'horizon' - the place in the sky where the sun rises. It can also be related to the shrine in an ancient Egyptian temple - the shrine in which the god was placed could be called 'the horizon' of the temple. Horemakhet, one of the names of Horus, meant 'Horus of the Horizon'. Akhetaten, meaning 'Horizon of the Aten', was the name of Akhenaten's capital city.
Land of the West - The standard of the west is usually a half circle sitting on top of two poles of uneven length, and often a hawk or an ostrich feather is seen sitting on top of the standard. This hieroglyph was used in words such as 'west', 'western', 'right' and 'right hand' [side]. The word was applied to the west bank of the Nile - Egyptian cemeteries and funerary places tended to be to the west of the Nile. It was thus also one of the names of the underworld, and of the goddess Amentet.
Life - A depiction of a tie or strap, especially related to an Egyptian sandal-strap. This was used in words such as 'sandal-strap', 'mirror', and 'live' or 'life'. The connection between the sandal-strap and the word for life was probably due to the fact that they both sounded the same when spoken. The Egyptian never confused the words - for example, although Tutankhamen could mean either 'Living Image of Amen' or 'Mirror Image of Amen', his name never meant 'Sandal-strap Image of Amen'!
Bes - A depiction of the dwarf god Bes, a god of protection. Other dwarf gods existed throughout Egyptian history, and most of them had violence-related names, but they were conflated into the god Bes by the Late Period. His name contains the hieroglyph of a cow skin, which is used in words such as 'leather', 'hide' and 'skin'. During the New Kingdom, the protective image of Bes was tattooed on the thighs of female dancers and musicians.
Djed Column - A representation of a column with the hieroglyph for vertebrae on the top. It was in words like 'be stable', 'enduring'. (The vertebrae glyph on its own was used in the word for 'back' and 'blood-lust'.) It was linked to the tale of Osiris' coffin being found in a wooden pillar of a palace in Byblos. Once the coffin was removed, Isis annointed the pillar with oils and wrapped it with fine linens as if it were a mummy. It is also known as the 'Backbone of Osiris'.
Nub - The hieroglyph for gold is depicted as a large collar with beads handing from it. This is used in words such as 'gold', 'fine gold', 'white gold', 'silver', 'electrum', 'precious metals', 'collar', and 'to gild'. Gold was often called the 'flesh of the gods' in ancient Egypt, as it never tarnished or rusted - gold was a representation of eternity and thus also represented eternal life. Being the colour of the sun, it was also linked to the solar deities such as Ra.
Land of the East - The standard of the east isusually a decorated spearhead on a pole. This hieroglyph was used in words such as 'east', 'eastern', 'left' and 'left hand' [side]. Iabet was applied to the east bank of the Nile, and was thus linked to the great Eastern Desert. It may be that the spear-head also represented metal, and the Eastern Desert was a source of copper and other metals for the ancient Egyptians. It was also the name of the goddess of the east, Iabet.
Heart - The heart was depicted as what seems to be a vase with handles, however it a section of the heart of a sheep. This hieroglyph was used for words such as 'heart' and 'wish', 'patient', 'stout-hearted', 'affection', 'desire', 'to be anxious about', 'determine', and 'pay attention to'. The god Anubis was thought to weigh the heart of the deceased againt the ostrich feather of Ma'at - if the heart and the feather balanced, the dead soul could live on in the afterlife as a justified being.
Spirit Double - This was depicted as two joined arms, outstretched. This hieroglph meant 'soul', 'spirit', 'mood', 'attribute', 'fortune', 'person(ality)', and was used in the word 'bull' or 'ox', 'work', 'magic', 'chapel', 'to be pregnant', 'turquoise' and 'food'. (The word 'ka' may also be a pun on the particle for the verb of the word 'you'.) The ka was a spirit double of a person that could quite independently move, eat and drink at will. It lingered on in the tomb and inhabited the body (or statues) of the deceased after death.
Ma'at - Depicted as the goddess Ma'at with an ostrich feather on her head, or as the ostrich feather itself, this was concept of order. The hieroglyphs were used in words such as 'truth', 'right', 'righteous', 'real', 'just', 'justified', 'deceased', and 'make triumphant'. The god Anubis was thought to weigh the heart of the deceased againt the ostrich feather of Ma'at - if the heart and the feather balanced, the dead soul could live on in the afterlife as a justified being.
Menat - A necklace with a counterpoise. This hieroglyph was used in words like 'bead-necklace' or 'necklace counterpoise'. It was a necklace with a special counterweight, however, it was not actually jewelry. Instead, it was thought to be a musical instrument sacred to the goddess Hathor. The counterpoise is similar in shape to paddle dolls found in predynastic tombs, and the beaded necklace may represent the womb. It was held in the hand and rattled to convey the goddess' blessings.
God - This is depicting a cloth wound on a pole as a flag, and was an emblem of divinity. The hieroglyph was used in 'god', 'gods', 'divine', 'priest', 'priestess', 'temple', 'divine offerings', 'incense', and 'necropolis'. This was a symbol for anything related to the gods or to holiness. These were representations of the flags used by the ancient Egyptians outside of temples - in classic Egyptian temple design, two flag poles topped with such flags were installed on either side of the entry pylons facing each other.
The Knot of Isis - This hieroglyphs is representative of the knot Isis wore to tie her dress. It is used in the title 'Knot of Isis'. It is also found as a decorative symbol with the ankh and the djed column where it is representative of the concepts like 'life' and 'welfare'. It was a symbol of protection, and was thus often used as a funerary item where it was made from red carnelian, jasper or glass, and in this role it was known as the Blood of Isis. As a magical item, it was thought to bind or release magic.
The Eye of Horus - A human eye decorated with the markings of a falcon. It means 'whole' or 'sound', and is used in words such as 'view'. This hieroglyph is used for the title 'Eye of Horus', indicating his uninjured eye (the othre being torn out by Set). In the myth his injured eye was ripped it to pieces. Thoth completed the eye by joining the parts together, and gave it the name 'the sound eye'. The ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs of parts of the eye to indicate specific fractions.
The ancient Egyptians themselves had tattoos, with the earliest physical evidence appearing on female mummies dated 2,000 BC. Depictions of women with tattoos first appears in tomb scenes dated 1,200 BC. Evidence in the form of figurines pushes this date back to 4,000-3,500 BC.
Also small bronze implements identified as tattooing tools were discovered at the town site of Gurob in northern Egypt and dated to c. 1450 B.C. And then, of course, there are the mummies with tattoos, from the three women already mentioned and dated to c. 2000 B.C. to several later examples of female mummies with these forms of permanent marks found in Greco-Roman burials at Akhmim.
Because this seemed to be an exclusively female practice in ancient Egypt, mummies found with tattoos were usually dismissed by the (male) excavators who seemed to assume the women were of "dubious status," described in some cases as "dancing girls." The female mummies had nevertheless been buried at Deir el-Bahari (opposite modern Luxor) in an area associated with royal and elite burials, and we know that at least one of the women described as "probably a royal concubine" was actually a high-status priestess named Amunet, as revealed by her funerary inscriptions.
Most examples on mummies are largely dotted patterns of lines and diamond patterns, while figurines sometimes feature more naturalistic images. The tattoos occasionally found in tomb scenes and on small female figurines which form part of cosmetic items also have small figures of the dwarf god Bes on the thigh area.
-- Cate Lineberry (2007), Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History
The only evidence of males being tattooed comes from a 12th Dynasty stele at Abydos. The figure on the stele seems to be male, and it has markings coming down over the chest. However the stele itself is very worn, so it is hard to determine whether the markings are depicting tattoos or not.
Amunet, a Priestess of Hathor who also bore the title of 'King's Favourite Ornament' ... The mummy of Amunet is now in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo and the two Hathoric dancers in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ... The mummy was well preserved, with bead necklaces and a menat collar still in place around her neck, with rings on her fingers and bracelets on her arms beneath her bandages. On her left shoulder and breast is a tattoo consisting of a row of dots encased in two lines. On her right arm below the elbow there are many rows (approximately nine) of dotted tattoo marks. There may be corresponding marks on the left arm, but these are not visible as the mummy is lying on her left side. The tattoos on her stomach are in two groups making an elliptical pattern of dots and dashes, just above the navel and below the chest. Those just above the navel region consist of seven to nine rows of nine strokes in a rectangular pattern. Another tattoo on the medial line, at the top of the epigastric basin, consists of six lines made up of three dashes each. There is also a large rectangular tattoo made up of rows of little lines virtually covering the whole of the abdominal wall in the suprapubic region. Another tattoo is located in the middle of the right thigh in the design of multiple diamond shapes; again this design is composed of dots. All of the tattoos appear dark blue in colour (Keimer 1948: 9-13). In the area of the groin there is also evidence of scarification in the form of three horizontal parallel lines.
-- Geoffrey J. Tassie (2003), Identifying the Practice of Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia, p. 90
Other than such geometric patterns, images of Bes were tattooed on women's thighs. One theory is that this tattoo was a sign of a 'prostitute', however this Victorian era theory cannot be proven. All evidence for women with such tattoos point to them being female musicians or dancers. These tattoos were popular from the 18th Dynasty until the end of the New Kingdom.
Tattoos were marked using specific tattooing needles made of bronze and would have been used the puncture the skin by tapping the needle and then introducing the pigment into the wound. While it may have been a custom for musicians and dancers to have been marked with the image of Bes, it is important to note that he was a god of protection and linked to both fertility, childbirth and the goddess Hathor, the goddess of love and sexuality. The geometric designs are more difficult to place, but their location on the body seems to relate these designs to reproduction rather than for beautification. It is most likely that ancient Egyptian women bore this painful practice in response to issues about their fertility and the need for supernatural protection in relation to childbirth.
References for Translations
- Wikimedia Commons
- Dictionary - Hieroglyphs.Net
- A.H. Gardiner (1988), Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs: Third Edition, Revised
© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2000 - present
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