When you think of Ancient Egyptian Artefacts your first thought is likely to be Tutankhamun’s death mask or great Sarcophagus. However, some of the most common pieces are small amulets that were placed in burials or carried around in everyday life. In this article we run you through the study of these amulets and the different types to look out for.
What are Amulets?
Amulets were a very commonplace part of Ancient Egyptian life. They were an important part of everyday magical and religious practice. People believed that they held magical powers, mainly those of protection. They would have varied in size and price, but it’s likely many of them were inexpensive and that they could have been owned by a large proportion of the population. Some were worn and carried in everyday life and others were made specifically as funerary amulets. The use of amulets in burial practices is frequently cited in the Book of the Dead. For example, spell 163 dictates that it should be said over the placing of two Eye of Horus amulets and other pieces during a stage of wrapping an embalmed mummy.
How were Egyptian Amulets made?
Egyptian Amulets could be made of a range of materials, this was all dependent on their worth and purpose. One of the most common materials for these amulets is that of Faience. Often blue in colour, it’s a ceramic made of quartz sand that’s bonded together with glass. It’s then coated with an alkali lime-glaze that includes copper to give it the tell-tale blue colouring. This blue colouring was championed due to its similarity to Lapis Lazuli but during certain periods a wide range of coloured glazes were applied to faience amulets.
Glazes could also be applied to those amulets that were made out of soft stone like steatite. These would have been carved rather than moulded into individual shapes. The most expensive amulets were carved directly from gem stones like Amethyst. The individual gem stones could be seen to have their own powers that enhanced those of the amulet. Some were also made of precious metals like gold or silver; however, it was very rare that they were made of bronze like you see in other ancient cultures.
Different Types of Egyptian Amulets
The Scarab is perhaps one of the most common ancient Egyptian amulets. This is because the scarab beetle was related to the Sun God Re. This association came about as people saw the young of scarab beetles emerging from dung balls, unaware the eggs were laid in there, and believed it to be a magical coming to life. They come in a range of sizes, from smaller than a finger nail to the size of the palm of a hand. These were amulets that were often carried in daily life as they could also act as seals. On the flat under belly of the scarab there are often hieroglyphics engraved. These are sometimes prayers or endorsements to gods or rulers. However, they could also be personal identifiers that were pressed in wax to sign and seal transactions or documents.
Eye of Horus
If the Scarab was one of the most common amulets, the Eye of Horus will be the most recognisable. This amulet was primarily worn for protection from a large variety of evil forces. It’s easily identified from the swooping strong eyebrow and elongated outline around the eye. The origin story behind this amulet is one that’s particularly interesting.
The Eye of Horus came from a battle that came to represent the fight between good and evil in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon. In the search for parts of Osiris body after his untimely murder by the evil Set. Horus ended up reuniting the parts of Osiris’ body and killing Set, however it was in this battle that his eye was removed and ripped out. The eye being part of the good Horus means that it was seen as having protective qualities. It was thought to not only keep evil forces at bay but also bring prosperity to the wearer.
Also given other names such as the ‘wedjat’, the Eye of Horus was commonly found in funerary practices. Not only is it found in the Book of the Dead, as mentioned above, but physical examples have been found in many burials. Most famously, would be the large, decorated Eye of Horus breast plate found with Tutankhamun.
The hieroglyphic ‘Ankh’ is a unique shape that for Egyptians meant ‘life.’ Not only do we see its form engraved into other amulets, like on a scarab, but we also find amulets that are in the shape of the Ankh. These were sometimes placed with mummies as funerary amulets as they were thought to help the safe passage from this life into the next. We find them as early as the Old Kingdom, but individual amulets of the symbol are less numerous than one might think.
Another very popular amulet for Ancient Egyptian individuals was Bes. He was generally shown as a dwarf with an ‘ugly’ face and could more accurately described as a demon than a god. There were not temples erected to Bes so he was mainly worshipped in the home. His likeness was reproduced on everyday home utensils as well as amulets. These amulets were especially worn by children or expecting mothers. This was because it was believed Bes would deter any evil forces from harming them.
An amulet that has a similar purpose to that of Bes is Taweret. The Hippopotamus like deity of fertility and childbirth, Taweret was worn by pregnant or very new mothers. She was known as being fiercely defensives and, like Bes, her fearsome features were thought to scare off evil and disease.
The God of Ptaichos is another dwarf God similar to that of Bes. However, he had a very different purpose. Often depicted naked, he was often made into small amulets that could be suspended and worn in daily life. This is because Ptaichos was thought to protect the wearer from wild animals. Therefore, they might have been worn by individuals when they were out hunting or farming out in rural areas.
Many amulets were made into the shapes of animals, and a common shape was that of a Baboon. Firstly, Baboons were sacred animals of the God of knowledge and wisdom Thoth. Indeed, Baboons relationship to Thoth is seen most clearly in the fact that his followers dedicated mummified Baboons to him. Amulets that invoked Thoth were normally worn by those who were scribes or studied. This was because Thoth was seen as the creator of writing and by wearing these amulets it would strengthen their craft. These amulets could also be linked to the sun, as Baboons were known for howling at the sun when it rose.
This type of amulet is slightly rarer and found commonly in the Armarna Period. A narrow thin column it is based off the hieroglyph for wadj meaning ‘green’ or ‘fresh.’ This is meant to invoke the cyclical revival of vegetation for the afterlife of the tomb owner. It was placed with mummies to allow them to flourish and be reborn in the next life like plants after winter.
These are just a fraction of the many Egyptian amulets that were used in daily life and in burial practices. The popularity of amulets and their materials changed throughout the long history of Ancient Egypt, but many of the symbols still hold importance today in Egypt for a variety of reasons.
Further Reading and Bibliography