Egyptian Symbol Gallery

The Meanings of Egyptian Symbols

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph on the wall
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Sophia Johler / EyeEm / Getty Images

From Ankhs and the Eye of Ra to modern Coptic crosses, symbols commonly associated with Egypt have a variety of potent meanings. Because Egyptian culture has survived for such an immensely long time, it contains many contradictory myths as well as vastly different meanings for various symbols. These symbols evolve over time as old ideas become incorporated into new myths or gods. As these new myths or gods ascend in popularity they start taking over aspects of other deities.

Ankh

Egyptian Ankh
Catherine Beyer

The ankh is the most well-known symbol to come out of ancient Egypt. In its hieroglyphic system of writing the ankh represents the concept of eternal life—the general meaning of the symbol.

'Was' Symbol

Was Symbol Ancient Egyptian
Acient Egyptian Symbols. Catherine Beyer

The was symbol represented a ceremonial staff and was often displayed in connection with the ankh. The was staff is often seen in the hands of various gods, particularly Anubis and Set. The crooked top of the staff mirrors the strange animal shape of Set's own head. A physical ​​was bears the carved head of this animal. The was staff was a symbol of power and rulership, as is common with ceremonial staffs and scepters.

Eye of Horus

Eye of Horus
Ancient Egyptian Symbols. Jeff Dahl

After the ankh symbol, the icon commonly called the Eye of Horus is the next most well known. It consists of a stylized eye and eyebrow. Two lines extend from the bottom of the eye, possibly to mimic the facial markings on a falcon local to Egypt, as Horus' symbol was a falcon.

In fact, three different names are applied to this symbol: the eye of Horus, the eye of Ra, and the Wadjet. These names are based on the meaning behind the symbol, not specifically its construction. Without any context, it is impossible to definitively determine which symbol is meant.

Djed Column

Djed Symbol - Ancient Egyptian
Ancient Egyptian Symbols. Catherine Beyer

The djed column as an Egyptian hieroglyph represented stability. It was often displayed artistically in combination with the was staff and the ankh, which created a combined meaning of strength, success, and long life.

Ankhs, 'Was' Staves, and Coptic Cross Image

Coptic Cross on Ancient Monument with Ankhs and Was Symbols
Remih

The ankh, was staff, and djed column were often used in combination with each other in ancient Egypt. Here a pattern of alternating was staves and ankhs is obvious on a pillar at the Philae temple. With the coming of Christianity, Coptic Christians carved a version of their cross into the column as the temple was repurposed as a church.

Eye of Horus Within a Triangle

Eye of Horus Triangle
Modern Egyptian Symbol. Jeff Dahl, modified by Catherine Beyer

Twentieth-century occultism and, later yet, new age beliefs adopted the ancient Eye of Horus symbol, often placing it within an equilateral triangle. While the eye is ancient, this depiction within a triangle is not.

Those who use the symbol often see it as representing knowledge, enlightenment, and insight, particularly into spiritual and esoteric matters, although there are certainly other interpretations as well. The eye might face left or right. Perhaps the most famous depiction of the symbol is in an image of Aleister Crowley, where it is emblazoned on his hat.

Some connect this symbol with the Eye of Providence, which exists within Christian and deist contexts: the watchful eye of a superior power surveying humanity. This connection is particularly emphasized by conspiracy theorists who believe in an overbearing new world order that inserts its own pagan or Satanic images into otherwise innocuous contexts.

Confessions of Aleister Crowley's Eye of Horus

Confessions of Aleister Crowley
From the Confessions of Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawn used an Eye of Horus within a triangle within a sunburst. This version comes from Crowley's autobiography, "The Confessions of Aleister Crowley."

Old Coptic Cross

Old Coptic Cross
Catherine Beyer

The old-style Coptic cross is an example of transhistorical ​and intracultural syncretism, or blending of cultures: an old-style Coptic Christian cross bearing clear influence from the Egyptian ankh.

Modern Coptic Cross

Modern Coptic Cross
David A se

While old-style Coptic crosses bear a clear influence from the Egyptian ankh, modern Coptic crosses have largely lost that influence. Rather, they are equal-armed crosses that may or may not have a circle within or behind the center point of the symbol.

American Coptic Logo

American Coptic Logo

Coptic Christianity has its own set of symbols. Although modern Coptic organizations may still employ older symbols, sometimes returning to the ankh itself, both the Christian cross and the ankh are strong symbols of eternal life and resurrection, so the connection can be easy to make.​

One image from the American Coptic website bears an equal-armed cross set within what is clearly an ankh. A sunrise is set behind the symbol, another reference to resurrection.

United Copt of Great Britain Logo with Ankh

United Copts of UK Logo
United Copts of the UK

The United Copts of Great Britain website shows its ankh-bearing symbol. Lacking any sort of a Christian cross, it displays only an ankh and a pair of lotus blooms, both references to their ancient culture.

Eye of Ra

Eye of Ra
Asavaa

The term "Eye of Ra" is used in a couple different contexts. Sometimes it is a symbol similar to the Eye of Horus. However, the Eye of Ra is more than simply a reference to a part of a god. The Eye of Ra is its own distinct element in Egyptian mythology, a feminine power that works Ra's will, often in the hands of a variety of different goddesses such as Hathor and Sekhmet. The Eye of Ra is most often represented by a sun disk with a cobra surrounding it. Ankhs emerging from the cobras' necks are not uncommon.

Wadjet Eye

Wadjet Eye
Public Domain

The distinguishing feature of a Wadjet Eye is the cobra to the right of the eye, which represents the goddess Wadjet. Wadjet is the patron goddess of Lower Egypt, and the cobra here wears the crown of Lower Egypt. The vulture to the left is Nekhbet, the patron goddess of Upper Egypt.