Do you want to understand what is hidden behind the well-known "Egyptian cartouches"? Decipher their contents written in hieroglyphics? Understand the link between Egyptian cartouches and the solar god Ra of the ancient Egyptians' religion?
As enthusiasts 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 legitimized 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
This article 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 its lower edge. 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 was described as the representation of the "solar crown Uræus", the solar discs above various Egyptian gods (principally Ra, Horus and Isis) always encircled by the female divine cobra Uræus.
Thus, by this aspect of "symbol linked to the divine mysteries", this 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 pharaoh (or sometimes even of a god such as Osiris or Anubis) were placed in the tombs of rich Egyptians who could afford them.
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 (which represents the border of the country).
Through their names written in circles linked to the members of the Egyptian pantheon, Egyptian cartouches can be considered as symbols of power confirming the sovereignty of the pharaohs over the whole Egypt (by linking the pharaohs to 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 II".
- 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 Ramses II".
2) 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.
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 Egyptian cartouches are named like that?
Contrary to what one might think at first glance, the ancient Egyptians did not name "cartouches" in this way.
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". French soldiers found that the symbol they saw so often depicted in the pharaonic ruins looked a lot like some small objects they were familiar with: the powder cartridges ("cartouches de poudre" in French) of their rifles had precisely this oval shape.
The 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 "ankh", as the double unified crown "Pschent" (composed of the white Hedjet crown and the red Deshret crown) and as 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) Hieroglyphic letters
As in our modern alphabet, in ancient Egypt, 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).
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) Hieroglyphic numbers
But that's not all, because there is a problem: many pharaohs bear the names of their fathers or grandfathers 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!).
B) The other forms of hieroglyphs
You can now write the name of any pharaoh in a cartouche in the form of hieroglyphs.
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 hieroglyphs that do not represent a letter or a number:
- Hieroglyphs translating a whole word
- hieroglyphs translating a whole syllable
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 (1808) 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 hieroglyphs and ancient Greek, a language already well known at the time)!
An Egyptian symbol
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 these Egyptian symbols!
If you liked this article and if 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 jewelry wonderfully inspired by Egyptian culture and the myths that stem from it.