Religion in ancient Egypt was fully integrated into the people’s daily lives. The gods were present at one’s birth, throughout one’s life, in the transition from earthly life to the eternal, and continued their care for the soul in the afterlife of the Field of Reeds. The spiritual world was ever present in the physical world and this understanding was symbolized through images in art, architecture, in amulets, statuary, and the objects used by nobility and clergy in the performance of their duties.
Some of the most important symbols were:
- Was Scepter
- Crook & Flail
- Udjat Eye
Symbols in a largely illiterate society serve the vital purpose of relaying the most important values of the culture to the people generation after generation, and so it was in ancient Egypt. The peasant farmer would not have been able to read the literature, poetry, or hymns which told the stories of his gods, kings, and history but could look at an obelisk or a relief on a temple wall and read them there through the symbols used.
The three most important symbols, often appearing in all manner of Egyptian artwork from amulets to architecture, were the ankh, the djed, and the was scepter. These were frequently combined in inscriptions and often appear on sarcophagi together in a group or separately. In the case of each of these, the form represents the eternal value of the concept: the ankh represented life; the djed stability; the was power. Scholar Richard H. Wilkinson, noting the importance of form-as-function, relates the following:“A little known but fascinating inscription made at the command of the pharaoh Thutmose IV records the discovery by the king of a stone. The significance of this celebrated stone lay not in its being of rare material or appearance, the inscription tells us, but because “his majesty found this stone in the shape of a divine hawk”. That an Egyptian king should place so much importance on a mere rock simply because of its shape is instructive, for it shows how alert the ancient Egyptian was to the shapes of objects and to the symbolic importance which the dimension of form could hold.”