Do you want to understand what is behind the well-known "Egyptian cartouches"? Understand the link between Egyptian cartouches and the solar god of the religion of the ancient Egyptians? Decipher their contents written in hieroglyphics?

As enthusiasts and connoisseurs of ancient Egypt, we will enlighten you on these subjects in this article.

The Egyptian cartouches contained the names of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. The cartouches legitimised the power of the king of Egypt by their resemblance to the solar crowns worn by certain Egyptian gods. Later, because of their religious connotations, Egyptian cartouches became symbols of protection against evil.

We will discover together in the course of this article:

  • The meaning and history of the Egyptian cartouches
  • The astonishing origin of the term "Egyptian cartouche"
  • The meaning of the hieroglyphs that the cartouches contain

When this article is finished, you will know all about one of the most emblematic symbols of ancient Egypt!

Let's discover the mystery of the Egyptian Cartouches right away.

1) Description and meaning

Known as "shenou" in the ancient Egyptian language, Egyptian cartouches are symbols designed to accommodate the inscription of a pharaoh's name.

The basic shape of the Cartouches is a vertical oval with a line drawn perpendicular to the oval at one end. This line represents a pedestal on which the pharaoh's name is supported and exists to confirm that the attached text is indeed a pharaonic name.

This oval is seen as a representation of the "solar corona Uræus", the solar discs above the various Egyptian gods always encircled by the female divine cobra Uræus. Thus by this aspect of "symbol linked to the divine mysteries", the cartouche gradually became a symbol reputed to grant its bearers good fortune and effective protection against evil.

It is for this reason that amulets in the form of a cartouche bearing the name of a king (or sometimes even of a god such as Osiris or Anubis) were placed in the tombs of rich Egyptians who could afford them.

divine sun disk

In some periods of ancient Egypt, the oval wall constituting the cartouche was more akin to a "rope tied with a knot" than a "divine solar disc". This rope closed at its ends has a figurative meaning: the name of the pharaoh reigns over everything inside the rope, i.e. the Egyptian world.

Through their names written in circles linked to the attributes of the members of the Egyptian pantheon, Egyptian cartouches can be considered as symbols of power confirming the sovereignty of the pharaohs over the whole of Egypt (by bringing together the pharaohs and the gods of ancient Egypt).

Egyptian cartouches contained the last two of the five first names of a pharaoh, namely:

- The penultimate first name: the one beginning with the honorary title "King of Upper and Lower Egypt" such as "The King of Upper and Lower Egypt Ramses I".

- The last name: the one beginning with the honorary title "son of Ra" (or "son of Ra" according to the period) such as for example "The son of Ra Thutmes III".

Eye of Ra, the jackal god

2) Stories of the first cartouches

The first cartouches appeared in the time of the pharaohs at the end of the 3rd dynasty. These symbols can be found in particular in the Djoser pyramid built in 2691 BC. (and being the first pyramid in history).

Then, cartouches appear in all the great temples and tombs of ancient Egypt: inside the great pyramids of Giza, in the Valley of the Kings, in the temple of Abu Simbel and in the multiple temples of Luxor.

Cartridge of the wife of Ramses II

The example of the cartouche of Nefertari, the wife of Ramses II (13th century BC) shows that the use of names in cartouches became more democratic: from that time on, pharaohs were no longer the only ones who had the right to have their names contained inside oval cartouches.

3) Why are they so named?

Contrary to what one might think at first glance, the ancient Egyptians did not name cartouches at all.

Thus, counter-intuitively, the term cartouche actually comes from the French soldiers who were present in large numbers in Egypt during Napoleon Bonaparte's famous "Campaign of Egypt". The latter found that the symbol they saw so often depicted in the pharaonic ruins looked a lot like the small objects they were familiar with: the powder cartouches of their rifles had precisely this oval shape.

Egyptian symbol cartridgeThe cartouches have become great symbols of Egyptian culture through their rather new forms and their hieroglyphics which may seem rather incomprehensible at first sight. The latter have become as famous as the Egyptian cross of life "ânkh", the double unified crown "Pschent" (composed of the white Hedjet crown and the red Deshret crown) and the "Egyptian beetle".

4) The contents of the cartouche: hieroglyphics

Let us now discover how the names of the different pharaohs were written inside the cartouches.

A) Letters enabling to write the name of a pharaoh

As in our modern alphabet, there was a set of vowels and consonants which formed a writing base consisting of 24 letters each represented by a hieroglyph (as shown in the table below).

24-letter hieroglyphic alphabet

Furthermore, if you pay attention, you will notice that in this alphabet, doubling a symbol can create a different letter (the letter "Y" is obtained by associating the symbol "I").

On the other hand, the letter "A" can be represented by two different hieroglyphs: the hieroglyphic symbol "arm" or by the hieroglyphic symbol "eagle".

B) Hieroglyphy-numbers as a complement

But that's not all, as many pharaohs bear the names of their fathers or forefathers to pay tribute to them. Thus, basically the cartouches also contained the "number" measuring the number of times a pharaoh had used a name (like I, II, III for the pharaohs Ramses I, Ramses II, Ramses III).

One finds at the end of the cartouches this number written in the form of hieroglyphs according to the table below (indicating us the hieroglyphs necessary for the creation of numbers going up to 2 000 000!).

Wedge-shaped hieroglyphic number

B) The other forms of hieroglyphs totally absent from the cartouches

You can now write the name of any pharaoh in a cartouche in the form of hieroglyphics.

However, it is important for you to understand that the Egyptian alphabet is not the only meaning of hieroglyphics. There are also inscriptions in Egyptian temples and tombs with hieroglyphics that do not represent a letter or a number:

  • Hieroglyphs translating a whole word
  • Hieroglyphics translating a whole one syllable set

Due to these different kinds of hieroglyphs, the deciphering of the hieroglyphs on the cartouches and other Egyptian inscriptions was extremely difficult. It was not until the Frenchman Champollion that the mystery of the hieroglyphs was solved.

Indeed, Jean-François Champollion was the first to succeed in deciphering the hieroglyphs by cleverly basing himself on the famous "Rosetta Stone" (on which appeared a text written both in hieroglyphics and ancient Greek, a language already well known at the time)!

A well-known symbol, but few people know its true meaning

That's it, you know all about Egyptian cartouches! You understand the link between the shape of the cartouches and Egyptian mythology (a solar disc resting on a pedestal). You also now know the hieroglyphic meaning of their contents: names of pharaohs or gods.

This will make for a great story to tell because despite the simplicity of the explanation of the meaning of the Egyptian cartouches, few people know the secrets of this famous Egyptian symbol!

If you liked this article, and the history of ancient Egypt is something that intrigues you, feel free to take a look at our collection of Egyptian necklaces, bracelets and rings: we offer you pendants wonderfully inspired by Egyptian culture and the myths that stem from it.

Our Egyptian necklaces

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