The royal cobra in Kemet

The meaning of the royal cobra

More commonly known by its Hellenic name of uraeus, the iaret or rearing cobra is synonymous with the goddess of Lower Egypt- Wadjet. The symbol was adopted by the Kemite kings and from the Middle Kingdom the rulers always wore this image on their brows. The iaret served two purposes: first, it referenced the King’s rule over the northern part of Kemet; second, it protected the royal representations and so the king.

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The cobra and vulture on the brow of the king

On some royal representations from the New Kingdom, the cobra appears with the vulture, representing the goddess Nekhbet, who was the southern counterpart of Wadjet, together the goddesses were referred to as the Two Ladies (Nebet Tawy), which became the title for the Nebty name of rulers. Only one group of rulers wore the double cobra: those of Dynasty 25, who ruled Kemet and Kush simultaneously. It is thought that the dual iaret representing the two regions and that this is why it is only found on male rulers dating to this period.

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Granite sphinx with the head of King Taharqa from Temple ‘T’ at Kawa. British Museum (EA1770)

Royal Women of Dynasty 18

Queen Ahmose-Nefertari, circa 1560 BCE. Egyptian Museum, Berlin.
Painted relief showing Ahmose Nefertari, now in the Egyptian Museum, Berlin. Photo courtesy of Dr Runoko Rashidi

Royal women generally wear a single cobra on their brows; however, when elevated to a goddess, they were awarded the vulture for protection and to recognise their status. This can be seen on the wall painting above where Ahmose Nefertari wears both a vulture and a cobra, representing her royal and divine status.

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King’s Wife and King’s Mother Iset

The first royal female to wear two cobras was Iset, who was the wife of Thutmose (II) Aakheperkare (1492-1479 BCE) and mother of Thutmose (III) Menkheperre (179-1425 BCE). On the statue above the Iset takes the title Mother of the King, and it is possible that the dual cobras were intended to distinguish her in this role as opposed to royal wife; unfortunately not enough statues survive to know whether she consistently wore the dual version of the royal motif.

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Fragment of a statue of Tiye, wife of Amenhotep Nebmaatra

Royal Wife of Amenhotep Nebmaatra (1388-1351 BCE)- Tiye- wore two cobras and a vulture on her representations. As you can see from the statue above, the cobra and vulture wear their appropriate geographical crowns thus representing the unification of the Two Lands of Kemet. The central figure of a vulture appears because the royal wife wears a full vulture headdress- if you look carefully on the statues above and below you can just seen the feathers of the vulture’s wings sitting on top of her hair.

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Detail of a statuette of Tiye. Louvre, Paris.

Even the smallest of representations of this queen bore the same iconography, as illustrated by the small faience figure above. It is possible that Tiye adopted this iconography after the Thirty Year rule of her husband was celebrated- the Heb Sed festival. We know that she initially wore a single iaret and that the famous wooded statue of the royal wife (below) was adapted at some point and the single cobra replaced by two.

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Representation of royal wife Tiye

Possibly following on from Tiye, Nefertiti who was wife of Akhenaten Neferkheperure-waenre (1351-1334 BCE) in the early part of their reign also adopted the dual cobras, but not the vulture. And on the famous relief (below) the royal wife is shown with 3 cobras around her crown; and one of the royal children plays with one as if it were alive. This changed in the later years when the single cobra was used for her representations.

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Nefertiti

Royal Women of Dynasty 18

Nefertari, Principal Wife of Rameses Usermaatre-setpenre (1279-1213 BCE) in Dynasty 19 continued the tradition of wearing the double cobra, as seen on the colossal statue below and most of her other sculptures. During this period the double form seems to have been used to distinguish her as the Principal Wife.

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Representation of the royal wife Nefertari at Abu Simbel

Royal Women of Dynasty 25

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Relief from the Chapel of Amenirdis, Medinat Habu

As noted the Kings of Dynasty 25 wore two cobras on all of their representations, and were the first royal men to do so. The royal women during this period who were associated with the motif also had the elevated role of being the wife of the God Amun/Imen. On the tomb chapel of Amenirdis she and her successor Shepenwepet both wear the crown of the god (above). As goddesses on the relief the two women are shown with the divine vulture and headdress. However, on statuary they were shown with two cobras and a vulture. It seems likely during this later period that the double cobra and vulture were associated with title and role of God’s Wife of Amun/Imen.

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Statue of Amenirdis

Meaning of multiple representations of the iaret

For the male rulers of Dynasty 25 the dual iaret seems to be associated with the two kingdoms of Kemet and Kush, and this is certainly the conclusion that most Egyptologists draw, not least of all because it appears on sculptures in both kingdoms.

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Statues representing the Kushite kings, Kerma Museum Sudan

The dual iaret seems to have been reserved for royal women who fulfilled a particular role and is actually not at all commonly found. It can be associated with the roles of God’s Wife, Principal Wife of the King, and King’s Mother. Later in the Ptolemaic Period a triple form appeared. What this tradition shows is the careful consideration that went into representing members of the royal family and that this practice was ever-evolving, through until the last resident rulers, their wives and mothers.

 

Symbols of Kemet: the ankh

The ankh

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The ankh in the claws of a vulture

Along with the bust of Nefertiti the ankh has to be one of the most common symbols to be worn (or tattooed) by people of African heritage wishing to assert their connection to Kemet. But what exactly does the ankh represent? Like many Kemite symbols, the ankh remains somewhat enigmatic. In Gardiner’s book on Egyptian Grammar the ankh is categorised under the heading of ‘Crowns, dress, staves etc.’ and is described as a tie or strap. It is listed as sign S 34.

In 1925 Hastings suggested that the symbol was in fact a sandal strap. However, not all Egyptologists agree with this interpretation. In 1982 Schwabe, Adams and Hodge wrote a paper where they associated the ankh symbol with the thoracic vertebra of a large mammal. In their paper they argue that the ancient Kemite people believed that sperm was produced in the thoracic spine and thus the the ankh’s association with life, through fertility, was represented in this way.

Irrespective of what the actual symbol represents, it is possible to understand what the ankh meant symbolically to the ancient Kemites by exploring its imagery.

Symbol of Life

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Sacred water represented by the ankh symbol. Kalabsha.
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The use of the ankh symbol on two columns at Medinat Habu

Essentially, the ankh symbolised life. This can be seen by its use on temple and tomb reliefs from Kemet. The photograph at the top of this section and directly below (on the left-hand column) show gods pouring sacred, life-giving liquid over the king of Kemet. These two reliefs were carved over 1000 years apart, and show continuity in symbolism and the preservation of Kemite culture.

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The ankh between a mirror image of the Kemite word for king. Hyperstyle Hall at Karnak Temple.

The ankh was a divine, and by association royal, symbol. On the columns in the Hyperstyle Hall at Karnak temple the ankh appears between a mirror image of the Kemite word for ‘king’ and the cartouche of Rameses (II) Usermaatre-setpenre. Cartouche is in fact a modern French word that we use to describe royal names, which were typically written inside a shenu or shen ring, which protected the name.

Breath of life

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Isis and Nefertari

There are also numerous examples of another scene, in which a god or goddess touches a member of the royal family with an ankh, representing the giving of life. The scene above is from the tomb of Nefertari, who was the Principal Royal Wife of Rameses (II) Usermaatre-setpenre. Many of the scenes associated with the Afterlife in Kemet allude to life or rebirth because this was the process that the people believed their spirit would undertake. In this way the ankh was linked to fertility.

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Jackal-headed protectors hold the ankh symbol

In the tomb of the artist Pashedu at Deir el Medina, which dates to around 3300 year ago (above) protectors of the gateway between life and the Afterlife hold the ankh symbol. These two jackal-headed figures joined a line of such figures and appear at the top of the decorated walls of the tomb.

Solar symbolism

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The rays of the Aten hold the ankh symbol

On this detail of a relief showing Akhenaten and his family, two of the rays from the Aten (sun disk) hold an ankh and touch the Principle Wife Nefertiti. The same symbolism occurs in one of the, now damaged, tomb reliefs at Akhetaten (below). On some reliefs from this period the sun disk replaces the loop at the top of the ankh. In these instances the Aten and the ankh merge to show the power of the sun disk in giving life.

 

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A ray from the sun holds an ankh on this tomb at Akhetaten

Later symbolism

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The ankh on a Coptic textile

The ankh also appeared on oil lamps and textiles that date to the post-Roman period, and are linked to the form of Christianity that was developed in East Africa- the Coptic Church. There are many links between ancient Kemite religion and early African Christianity, and we know that many people in Egypt still made reference to the traditional animistic religion after converting to Christianity.

For many people of African heritage, especially amongst the Diaspora, the ankh remains an important symbol and is worn with pride. It connects people with their past and also shows a level of consciousness of claiming back an African cultural heritage.