'Actions speak louder than words': Gestures of Communication in Ancient Egypt

By Emily Millward

‘Egyptian artists can be seen to have incorporated gestures of symbolism into their compositions in a conscious manner from very early times’ 1

It has been said that an action tells a thousand words - this is certainly the case for the many gestures present in ancient Egyptian artwork. It is clear that gestures can be substituted for words and just as ‘words may express anything’ however subtle or intense, gestures can do the same.2 Therefore, in terms of communication, a plethora of feelings, beliefs and ideas can be conveyed in a gesture. Several objects from a selection of the Eton Myers Collection currently on loan to the University of Birmingham illustrate the communicative aspect of gestures and show the ways in which the ancient Egyptians conveyed emotions and ideologies via this form of non-verbal interaction. As such, these objects are useful for students and researchers to study and interpret as it encourages them not to rely on textual or evidential detail, but to delve deeper to ‘think like an Egyptian’ and understand what these gestures conveyed in antiquity. The objects studied here consist of a range of amulets which were known throughout ancient Egypt for their ‘magical’ properties.3 Each of these amulets display one or more actions which help us to better understand the ways in which the ancient Egyptians transferred emotions, and beliefs of divine intervention and protection.

Gestures Communicating Emotion

Emotion is a difficult form of communication to interpret, especially when the sources available to analyse are of an artistic nature. However, some conclusions can be reached with one particular emotion: mourning. The common gestures of mourning have previously been established by many scholars,4 most notably by Werbrouck (1938). These actions include the baring of the chest and the raising of the hands to the head, which are seen in contexts including tomb wall scenes,5 vignettes from the Book of the Dead,6 vessels,7 and amulets. One such amulet from the Eton Myers Collection displays these gestures and provides an insight into how this particular emotion was communicated amongst the ancient Egyptian people.

‘Mourning Amulets’

1-ECM148ECM148, a faience amulet dating approximately to the Late Period, shows the goddess Isis - instantly recognisable from the hieroglyphic ‘throne’ on her head - bending on one knee with one hand to her head (fig. 1). Two small perforations on the goddess’ head and ankle show how the amulet would have been attached. The reverse of the amulet displays distinctive linen imprints, a lasting impression that alludes to the process of making faience.8 The raising of one (or more commonly two) hands is seen consistently throughout Egyptian artwork as a gesture of mourning. Several other amulets are comparable to ECM148, particularly UC52570 from the Petrie Museum and 11468 and 60859 from the British Museum. In each case a goddess - either Isis or Nephthys as it is likely that one amulet was part of a pair9 - bends to the ground on one knee with one of her hands placed to her head. Although this gesture may be unfamiliar to our Twenty-first Century eyes, to the ancient Egyptians it sent a clear message that the two goddesses, who were the mourners par-excellence, were grieving for Osiris, the mythical antecedent for all deceased Egyptians. For the emotion to be conveyed via mourning amulets the ancient Egyptians must have relied on the gestures for communication, as the facial expressions of the goddesses’ are very unclear. This is not due to damage over time, but rather the purposeful action of the artist to ensure that the gesture would be the communicator in this case.10

The amulets from the Eton Myers Collection selected in this study represent a range of particular objects that whether worn during life or made specifically to be placed on an embalmed individual in death,11 communicated ideologies of divine intervention and protection. Some scholars have placed amulets into specific groups,12 whilst others state that the arrangement of amulets into such groups is not something the ancient Egyptians had any notion of.13 What can be grouped together however, are the types of ideas and feelings particular gestures conveyed between the ancient Egyptian people.

Gestures Communicating Divine Intervention and Protection

2-ECM117One of the more light-hearted pieces of the Eton Myers collection at the University of Birmingham is ECM117, a faience amulet depicting the head of Bes, showing the dwarf sticking out his tongue, a gesture unusual for most deities to adopt (fig. 2). Bes was a deity known for being ‘playfully aggressive’14 and he did indeed have a more menacing side. From the Third Intermediate Period (the approximate date for ECM117) onwards amulets, such as British Museum 61314, show Bes with his tongue poking out and also with sharp teeth bared in a menacing grimace.15 His dwarfish nature is combined with these gestures to create a more threatening persona to ward away any evils from the wearer.16

3-ECM2124Two other amulets from the collection also show actions of particular interest. ECM767 and ECM2124 depict the serpent deity, Nehebkau. Although ECM767 shows Nehebkau with a human body and ECM2124 depicts him entirely as a serpent, the gestures on each amulet are exactly the same (fig. 3). In each case Nehebkau reaches his hands towards his mouth, a gesture also seen on similar amulets, such as 24761 from the British Museum. Although Nehebkau’s mythology is not as well known today as his divine counterparts’, the ancient Egyptians would certainly have been aware of his divine powers.17 It could be that Nehebkau’s gesture shows him raising some kind of fruit to his mouth, a detail which is slightly clearer from a similar amulet, 208 in the Jacques-Édouard Berger Collection.18 This interpretation is certainly possible due to Nehebkau’s links with prosperity and the fact that in some mythological traditions his mother is said to be Renenutet, the goddess of the harvest,19 with whom images of Nehebkau are sometimes confused.20 In this sense, Nehebkau’s gesture could have communicated his mythological background whilst the amulet itself conveyed the fruitful and strengthening aspect of this deity.21

One item that more distinctly shows the bringing of fruit to the mouth is ECM758, another faience amulet this time in the form of a monkey (fig. 4 © IAA University of Birmingham). Shown sitting on the ground with two hands towards his face, the amulet has a small loop on the back of the monkey’s head for attachment. A similar amulet, 71029 in the British Museum, depicts the same gesture although in this case the monkey is shown standing and also has its young between its legs. It seems likely that the action of raising fruit to the mouth communicated powers of fecundity22 and would have acted as a fertility aid for the wearer of the amulet, thus providing divine intervention.23

5-ECM2067ECM2067 is a small faience amulet depicting the god Shu, shown kneeling to the ground with both arms raised either side of a solar disk which sits on top of his head (fig. 5). Similar amulets to ECM2067, such as ECM1538, also show the god in the same stance, for example 60439 in the British Museum and 636 and 339 in the Jacques-Édouard Berger Collection.24 As the mythological god of air, it was Shu’s job to separate his  two children, Geb, god of the earth, and Nut, goddess of the sky.25 Therefore, the gesture of raising his arms, which is markedly different from the way in which Isis as a mourner adopts a similar action,26 could communicate Shu’s mythological origins and in doing so the divine power of Shu is conveyed. As a result Egyptians would wear amulets like this knowing that the powerful god who was mythologically holding up the heavens, was protecting them. Therefore it is unlikely that Shu’s gesture is directly related to protection itself, however another object from the collection clearly displays an action that would have communicated this to the ancient Egyptians.


7-Philae-TemplenewECM1478 is an amuletic pectoral made of faience, separated into three pieces which, when placed side-by-side, show a goddess kneeling to the ground with her wings outstretched (fig. 6). The amulet is listed as representing Isis, who was often depicted with the cow horns and solar disk during the later periods of ancient Egyptian history. The body of the goddess has fifteen piercings and two suspension loops on the reverse, whilst there are twelve and thirteen piercings on her wings. The goddess’ outstretched wings communicate protection offered by the image of the goddess to the wearer of the amulet and can also be seen on other amuletic examples, such as UC52591 and UC52592 from the Petrie Museum at University College London. This particular gesture of protection does not only appear to have been communicated in an amuletic form, but can be seen in many other instances. For example on coffin decoration27 and temple carvings, such as the image on the wall of the inner temple of Isis’ sanctuary at Philae which depicts the goddess actually wrapping her wings around the god Osiris (fig. 7). This suggests that actions of communication were not reserved for one medium only, but rather that these gestures and their communicative meaning were common to other forms of ancient Egyptian art.

Gestures Communicating Ideologies

Ancient Egyptian culture consisted of many beliefs and ideas that had been passed down through the generations over hundreds of years. Certain texts and objects of material culture communicated these aspects between the Egyptian people. Two particular amulets from the Eton Myers Collection at the University of Birmingham provide an idea of how actions were used to convey these beliefs.

Isis Lactans

8-ECM785ECM785 and ECM787 are both pale green faience amulets showing the goddess Isis in one of the most enduring images of ancient Egyptian culture; suckling her infant son Horus (fig. 8). Shown seated on a block throne, Isis supports Horus on her lap as she nurses him. This image does not only appear in an amuletic form, but many statuettes also display it, such as X722 housed in the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity Museum at the University of Birmingham and UC42553 in the Petrie Museum.28 Isis’ action communicates the important mythological links between herself and the king, as the simple action of feeding her infant son relates to the goddess’ role of protector and aide to the king. The story of ‘Horus and Seth’,29 which details the conflict between the two deities upon the death of Osiris, consistently represents Isis as a protector and supporter to the rightful king, her son Horus. The text also refers to Isis as ‘the divine mother’30 which is a direct reference to her pivotal role as the mother of Horus and therefore of each king of Egypt who is always associated with Horus, hence, the ‘Horus Name’ and the ‘Golden Horus Name’ as part of the royal titulary.31 This seemingly simple gesture is one of the more complex discussed here and it communicates not only an emotion or direct action of protection, but it links with ideologies innate to the Egyptian people. They may have felt the need to communicate this belief through gesticular art forms not only to each other, but to ensure that the gods, who were believed to be ever watchful, were aware of the Egyptian’s knowledge of their divine power and presence within everyday life.

The study of these objects from the Eton Myers Collection at the University of Birmingham has shown that even the smallest of details can provide an insight into how the ancient Egyptians communicated with each other. The non-verbal interaction of gestures represent a range of feelings, cultural ideas and beliefs that cannot always be as easily gleaned from textual sources. Therefore, this selection of objects is highly valuable for researchers to gain a sense of how the Egyptians communicated their human emotions and cultural ideologies.


1. Wilkinson 1994:192.

2. Feyereisen and Lannoy 1991:49.

3. Andrews 1994:6 states that amulets served as a ‘talisman or charm’ and was believed to ‘endow the wearer by magical means with certain powers or capabilities’.

4. For brief details about the gestures of mourning in ancient Egypt see McDermott 2006:113-114; Meskell 2002:189-193; Szpakowska 2008:184; Taylor 2001:188-189, Wilkinson 1994:199.

5. Particularly TT55, the tomb of Neferhotep, see Davies 1973:pl.IV-V, and TT181, the tomb of Nebamun and Ipuky, see Davies 1925:pl.XXII-XXV.

6. See British Museum 9901, fragments of the Book of the Dead of Hunefer.

7. See Petrie Museum UC16126.

8. During manufacture 'trays served for drying faience objects after they had been removed from their ceramic moulds. Numerous faience objects, notably tiles and inlays bear the impression of textiles on their flat surface, and it may be that this was the result of being placed in such trays', see Friedman 1998:254.

9. Andrews 1994:4. Isis and Nephthys are often referred to as ‘wailing’ or ‘mourning’ women in ancient Egyptian texts, particularly in the ‘Songs of Isis and Nephthys’ and in ‘The Lamentations’, see Bleeker 1958:1-17 and Lichtheim 1980:116-121.

10. Feyereisen and Lannoy 1991:49 state that it is gestures that tell us about how intense an emotion is, whilst facial expression merely communicate the nature of the gesture. It may be that the Egyptian not only used gestures to communicate an emotion, but that they also made some attempt to convey how intense this emotion was.

11. Andrews 1994:6-7 explains the use of different amulets. However, it is plausible that if an amulet was worn by an individual in life, it could have then been placed on their body after death.

12. Andrews 1995:12-13 cites Petrie 1972:4-5 in doing so.

13. Germond 2005:24.

14. Hart 1985:58.

15. Andrews 1994:39-40.

16. See contribution by C. Graves in this project for more information about Bes and his origins.

17. In some mythological traditions Nehebkau was known as a ‘guide to the soul’ Petrie 1972:49.

18. Germond 2005:70-71.

19. Hart 1986:131.

20. Germond 2005:71 notes that 208 in the Jacques-Édouard Berger Collection is entered, presumably in the collections catalogue, ‘as Renenutet, goddess of harvests’.

21. Hart 1986:131.

22. It is common knowledge that a cornucopia of food, particularly fruit, is a symbol of abundance, prosperity, and the fertility of nature.  

23. Andrews 1994:66-67 suggests that the fecundity associated with baboons often lead to images of them been used as ‘sexual aids’.

24. Germond 2005:113-115.

25. Hart 1986:200-201.

26. Wilkinson 1994:195-196 explains how some gestures are often very similar, or even exactly the same, but to the ancient Egyptians their meanings were very different.

27. See the decoration on the X2000 from University of Birmingham Archaeology Collection, a coffin lid dated to approximately 550BCE which shows Isis adopting the same gesture as displayed on ECM1478.

28. See also Petrie 1972: pl.LIII.

29. Translated by Lichtheim 1976:214-223.

30. Lichtheim 1976:216.

31. Gardiner 1927:72-73.



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