Are you looking to understand the meaning of the Egyptian uraeus? Do you want to understand the link between the uraeus and the regions of Upper and Lower Egypt?
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In ancient Egypt, the symbol uraeus represented the cobra deity Wadjet in the form of a cobra ready to pounce on its prey. The uraeus represents the power given to pharaohs by the god Ra. Thus, this symbol appears on the pharaoh's various crowns: the Nemes, the Pschent, and the Khepresh.
In this article, you will discover:
- The meaning and history of the cobra uraeus
- The myth of Wadjet, the cobra represented by the symbol uraeus
- The difference between the cobra Wadjet and the serpent god Apep
After reading this article, you will know all about one of the most famous symbols of ancient Egypt!
Let's start by discovering the meaning of the Egyptian uraeus!
1) What does the uraeus symbolize?
A) The goddess Wadjet
The uraeus is the representation of a cobra standing ready to pounce. This cobra is not just any cobra: it is Wadjet, the protective female cobra goddess of Lower Egypt (the northern half of Egypt). Wadjet is one of the forms that the right eye of Ra (the creator god of humanity) can take. Because of this link between this symbol and this region of Egypt, the symbol uraeus is worn by the pharaoh to show that he controls Lower Egypt.
The uraeus is often depicted alongside Nekhbet, the protective goddess of Upper Egypt (the southern half of Egypt). With the "two protectors" or "two ladies" on his royal crowns, a pharaoh proves that he is the ruler of both Upper and Lower Egypt (i.e., the ruler of unified ancient Egypt).
On this Nemes (the main ceremonial crown of the pharaohs), one can clearly see the cobra goddess Wadjet (in the form of an uraeus) alongside the vulture goddess Nekhbet.
Counter-intuitively, it should be pointed out that Upper Egypt is located above Lower Egypt on a world map (see map below).
This inversion between "high" and "low" is because Egyptians referred to the half of their country which was at the heart of the lands of ancient Egypt as "Upper Egypt". In contrast, "Lower Egypt" is so called because it is very close to the Mediterranean Sea (Lower Egypt is therefore far from the heart of the land of Egypt as you can see on the map below).
B) The uraeus of pharaoh
The uraeus is particularly known for its use on the various crowns of the pharaohs.
On these pharaonic headdresses, the use of the uraeus was intended to show that the pharaoh was quite different from the other inhabitants of Egypt. Because the goddess Wadjet was the right eye of the god Ra, her presence above the eyes of a pharaoh served as an animal third eye and indicated that Ra was always at the pharaoh's side.
Thus, let's discover right away the 3 crowns on which the uraeus was most often represented!
I) The Nemes crown
We mainly find the uraeus on the headdresses in the shape of "lion's manes" of the pharaohs: the Nemes. The Nemes is the crown worn only for ceremonies in homage to the gods or for the most important funeral rites of the country. It is thus the Nemes that is represented on the sarcophagi of the deceased pharaohs.
Today, if we know well the uraeus symbol, it is due to Tutankhamun's famous alternating blue and gold Nemes (because it is composed of bands of blue lapis lazuli and of solid gold) which has popularized the Egyptian uraeus.
II) The Khepresh crown
The second crown with the symbol uraeus is the war crown called Khepresh. This crown has a much more military use than the Nemes: it allows Egyptian troops to distinguish the pharaoh to better protect him and coordinate with him during battles (because of its blue color, not common on ancient battlefields). On this wreath, Wadjet is arranged in a knot in front of the crown.
III) The Pschent crown
Finally, we find the symbol uraeus on the Pschent, the crown of the daily life of Egyptian rulers. The Pschent is a double crown made up of two other crowns that symbolize the unification of Egypt when nested one inside the other:
- The white "Hedjet" crown of Upper Egypt with a representation of the goddess Nekhbet in front of its structure.
- The red crown "Decheret" of Lower Egypt with a representation of the goddess Wadjet in front of its structure.
2) The origin of the confusion between Apep and Wadjet (in her uraeus form)
To distinguish Apep and Wadjet, it is necessary to understand the myth of the snake Apep.
The giant snake Apep is often confused with the goddess Wadjet represented by the symbol uraeus.
This confusion comes from the fact that Apep is sometimes represented as a cobra in our modern culture. These modern representations are inaccurate because Apep is a serpent god who unlike Wadjet is not a cobra (and therefore does not have the enlarged headdress of a cobra).
The serpent Apep in Egyptian mythology
B) The Egyptian snake god
Apep is a snake that has always existed and will always exist. This giant snake is the embodiment of the forces of Darkness threatening the world of the living with eternal night. Indeed, since the creation of the world and the Sun by the Sun falcon god Ra, Apep constantly wants to swallow the Sun on Ra's head.
During the day, Ra illuminates the world by travelling the sky on his solar boat. Thus, according to the ancient Egyptians, he carries on his head the Sun that rises in the east in the morning and sets in the west in the evening. At night, Ra must travel across the world below the Earth to return to his original position (for the world was perceived as flat in Egypt 4,000 years ago!).
It is at this time that Apep and his henchmen (evil spirits and creatures for the most part) attack Ra in an attempt to devour him and the Sun he carries above his head.
To protect the world from an era of perpetual darkness, Ra is accompanied by four gods:
- Set, the Egyptian god of chaos
- Thoth, the ibis god of knowledge
- Bastet, the cat goddess
- Isis, the goddess of secrets and magic
These four gods help Ra to defend himself against the giant snake and his evil subordinates. It is this protection that allows Ra to return each night to the east of the world to illuminate the Earth one more day.
More rarely, Apep also attacks Ra in the middle of the day. Surprised, Ra is often swallowed by Apep: this is the explanation for eclipses according to the ancient Egyptians.
But such eclipses never last very long: the other gods who usually protect Ra quickly rush to the rescue of the Sun falcon god and pierce Apep's stomach quickly enough that Ra is not digested. Once Ra is recovered, light can return to the world.
A modern graphic drawing of Apep, here represented with some fantasy, in the form of a giant cobra.
You now know absolutely everything about the uraeus and the goddess Wadjet that this symbol represents. In this article, we have seen:
- The legend of the uraeus
- The different headdresses of the pharaohs, on which we find the symbol uraeus
- The difference between the cobra uraeus and the serpent god Apep
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