Visualizing Ideology: The message of the crowned-falcon amulets

By Steven R. W. Gregory

The studied collection1 contains more than 130 objects which may be described as amulets, ornaments or small pieces of jewellery, of which the present study will focus on three examples (fig.1) each depicting a falcon wearing the dual-crown headdress of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt.2 Little can be said of the provenance of these objects other than that they were collected by Myers during his time in Egypt between 1883 and 1896, possibly from the region of Tuna el-Gebel.3 Therefore the message conveyed by such portable objects must be sought within the context of the amuletic form, and of the cultural background informing their manufacture and use.

 1-ECM6401,1530 and 726

Amulets in context4

Amulets were used from the earliest periods of pharaonic Egypt in contexts relating to both the living and the dead. Those wrapped in the mummification bandages of the deceased may take the form of parts of the human body intended to act as replacements for parts damaged or lost during life. Others clearly had apotropaic properties thought to afford the wearer, in this life or the next, some protection against evil or danger and as such may today be thought of as a lucky charm or talisman; and references to such objects in the surviving ancient Egyptian literature confirm this purpose for amuletic forms such as the wedjat-eye.5 Other literary sources refer to amulets as meket, nehet, or sa, all words derived from verbs expressing protection.6 Some objects of this class take the form of hieroglyphs which themselves express abstract qualities beneficial to the wearer; here examples include the ankh and djed pillar: indicative of the concepts of ‘life’ and ‘stability’ respectively. It may be assumed that the falcon amulets subject of the present discussion endowed similar benefits, however, the exact nature of their purpose is not immediately apparent from their form. The falcon, in ancient Egyptian thought, was representative of ideas relating to both kingship and to deities, particularly those linked with the sky and solar power,7 and, as more than half of the Myers amulets depict similar theomorphic subjects, it is largely within this context that the symbolism of the crowned falcon will be considered further.

Theomorphic amulets

Amulets portraying deities are thought to have empowered the wearer with attributes of the particular god depicted.8 Similarly, amulets specifically associated with kingship – such as those portraying crowns normally worn only by kings and certain gods – when bound into mummy wrappings of a commoner were thought to give the deceased royal and divine powers in the afterlife;9 but this hardly seems possible for the living. That many of the amulets in the collection were intended for this life, including the crowned falcon amulets subject of the present discussion, is apparent from the inclusion of suspension holes to facilitate their use as a pendant.10 In the absence of any definitive explanation as to the past purpose of such objects comparison with items of personal display from more recent times may be productive.

In most present day societies an icon may be worn with some degree of compulsion, as in the case of a regimental crest worn by a serving member of the armed forces, or from choice, as might be indicated by a golf club member wearing the club’s insignia; but in either case the wearer is identified with a set of specific ideas, beliefs, or values. Such ideas are thereby reinforced for the wearer and transmitted, in a form of non-verbal communication, to other observers as a statement of belonging, of inclusion within the specific group iconographically represented; and there seems no reason to suppose that this was not the case in the ancient Egyptian cultural milieu. And, while it may be argued that an icon may be worn, or otherwise displayed, in partial or complete ignorance of its significance – perhaps exemplified by the purchase of a club scarf from a second hand shop by an unwitting customer who merely wishes to keep warm – this could hardly be said of the original purchaser, nor the designer or manufacturer of the item concerned. Both, it may be assumed, would be fully aware of any symbolism attached to the object, and this would seem to be true in all cases, both in present day societies and in those of the ancient past. In addition to the apotropaic properties of amulets in general the deity amulets may, therefore, signify personal allegiance to an individual deity; but there are alternative explanations. 

It is clear from extant literary sources that the deities were believed to be influential in human affairs, for good or ill, and therefore needed to be controlled or appeased; and the wearing of amulets may have been thought to be efficacious in this respect. The wearing of a theomorphic amulet may also suggest relationship with a particular place or activity, for example: Thoth is associated with Hermopolis; Min and Seth with deserts; and Ptah may identify the wearer as a craftsman or artisan, yet equally with Memphis. Other deities, associated with specific temples or distinct locations within a temple complex, may similarly associate the amulet wearer with that place or institution. It may also be germane that theophorous names were commonplace –Amunemwia, Minmose, Gemiamun, and Hori being some of the many used during the New Kingdom11 – suggesting amulets may have been worn to reinforce and convey aspects of personal identity.

2-ECM727Thus the range of information regarding the self which may be conveyed by a theomorphic amulet seems quite wide, and there seems no reason to preclude the possibility that all such types of information were pertinent to the overall layered symbolism of a particular object. However, while such considerations may be pertinent for all theomorphic amulets, including falcon amulets such as the example in the collection shown at fig. 2, it seems that there may be a further dimension to the examples depicting the crowned falcon. This combination of symbols has specific meaning as a motif used in the decoration of state monuments where the artistic repertoire was informed by the ideological principles of pharaonic culture itself. Therefore the message communicated by the crowned-falcon amulets may be investigated further with reference to the texts and images of the ritual landscape, particularly those expressing the mythological origins of kingship and the cosmos.

Ideological considerations

The ancient myths expressed the belief that the cosmos was created from the nun, a primordial fluid chaos which contained only the potential for a structured universe; a potential which was realized by a demiurge who brought into being all the forces of nature.12 Many of the non-human aspects of creation, both those easily recognizable, such as light and moisture, and other perhaps more abstract qualities, such as infinity and hiddenness, came to be recognized in ancient Egyptian ideological discourse as netjeru, a term usually translated as ‘gods.’ The netjeru were initially responsible for maintaining ma‘at, the balanced and ordered perfection existing in the universe at the moment of creation which, as confirmed in texts such as Spell 175 of the Book of the Dead, was not thought to be permanent.13 At any time created order could revert to the chaos of the nun.

Responsibility for the maintenance of ma‘at subsequently passed to a mortal, the king; one chosen by the netjeru to become the embodiment of Horus, the regenerative aspect of the creator. Horus was the divine constant which passed from each mortal ruler to their successor. It was as the current embodiment of Horus that each living king acquired the legitimate authority to rule with absolute power in all matters relating to economic, military and civil administration. By proper exercise of his duties the king fulfilled the task of universal husbandry, the maintenance of ma‘at,14 and thereby ensured the continuance of the created universe; circumstances rendering his role indispensable. In return for his divinely sanctioned authority the king was also required to build monuments for himself and the gods.15

Decorated with motifs alluding to the principles of ma‘at and kingship, monumental architecture was the principal medium for the expression of state ideology and formed the stage upon which rituals affirming that ideology were performed.16 Within this schema, the netjeru were given form and identity that they may be represented in pictorial and textual inscriptions; Horus appeared in a variety of forms but, when depicted as the divine element of the mortal king, almost always as a falcon, and often the falcon is shown wearing the dual crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.That Horus was understood to be the divine aspect of the king, his ka,17 is clear from motifs such as that shown in fig. 3 which portrays the ka of Thutmose III. Here, the outstretched arms of the ka hieroglyph support a serekh, the rectangular frame used to enclose the king’s Horus name from the early dynastic period onwards, surmounted by the motif of the crowned falcon. That the king’s full titulary begins with his Horus name (fig. 4) confirming that it is as the earthly manifestation of the god that his regal power is established. Thus the icon of the crowned falcon was appropriate to the king alone, and denotes his position as the sole intercessor between humankind and the netjeru; however, there were exceptions.




















A passage in Papyrus Brooklyn informs that in the New Year ritual for confirming royal power a falcon of tjehenet (faience) should be placed at the neck of the king or his substitute.18 That the king’s role in rituals could be assigned to a deputy is also apparent from a scene in the temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu in which an official accompanies the barque of Amun (fig. 5), a role otherwise undertaken by the king as evident in a similar scene at Karnak (fig. 6).19 The crowned-falcon amulet may, therefore, have been used to identify an official as the king’s deputy; and the fine quality of ECM1530 (fig. 1) suggests that it may have served this purpose. Amulets ECM726 and ECM1604 could have had a similar function, although their poorer quality suggests that they belonged to lower ranking members of society; in which case it is unlikely that they express the exercise of kingly power, rather convey allegiance to the crown; a tacit acceptance of beliefs enshrined in state philosophy. 











Manufacture and technology

The use of the Horus amulet as a portable medium for dissemination of state propaganda to the wider populace is further indicated when considering the likely source of production.Faience is a non-clay ceramic material, similar to glass, composed of a compound of silica, alkali, lime, and copper oxide (or similar colourant); the sourcing of materials, technological processes of manufacture,20 and artistry involved in its production indicate a degree of organization.21 Little is known regarding the management of this industry,22 although the proximity of faience workshops to centres associated with royal cult activity gives some indication that the production was controlled by the state.23


In summary, the number of examples of the crowned-falcon amulet in a relatively small collection suggests that they were quite commonplace objects. Their variance in size and quality allows that they served both to identify senior officials as acting for the king in the ritual environment, and as a relatively low cost and highly portable means by which a fundamental aspect of state ideology could be presented. This ideology, which found its most prominent expression in the somewhat esoteric environment of monumental architecture, could thus be easily disseminated to the wider population at a time when opportunities for communication were limited. In this respect, perhaps the source of manufacture or reasons why any individual would wear or carry such an amulet become less significant than the message it conveyed as, whether the wearer of such an icon exercised the power of the king or felt protected by that power, the motif declares a tacit recognition of the tenet that the continuance of the created universe was reliant upon the power of the Horus king. A message that sustained the order of the pharaonic state for more than three millennia.  


1.     The collection in question consists of objects on loan to the University of Birmingham from the Eton College Myers Collection.

2.     ECM 1530, fashioned from deep blue faience, measures approximately 6.5cm in height and may be dated by the appearance of similar objects on a number of sculptures to the period from the 26th Dynasty onwards (Spurr et al. 1999: 52 and fig. 79). The detailed execution and matt finish of this piece are also indicative of its origins in the Twenty-fifth to Twenty-sixth Dynasty period (Nicholson and Peltenburg 2000: 184). ECM 726 and ECM 6401, also of blue faience, are slightly smaller pieces probably from the same period.

3.     It is known, from a reference in his diaries, that on 3rd March 1897 Myers visited Tuna el Gebel (personal communication: Carl Graves). Other faience objects collected by Myers, and by his contemporaries, Wallis and MacGregor, have been attributed to Tuna el-Gebel by Ricketts (1918: 145).

4.     For further references to the ancient contexts of amulets from the collection of items on loan from Eton College see the articles of N. Adderley and E. Millward, in this volume.

5.     Wilkinson 1992: 43.

6.     Andrews 1994: 6; Shaw and Nicholson 1995: 30-31.

7.     Wilkinson 2003: 200.

8.     Theomorphic amulets appear early in the dynastic period, initially in forms related to childbirth which depict Thoeris and Bes. The major deities are hardly represented except for some examples depicting the Horus falcon, Isis, and Hathor. The wide range of deities, as found in the amulets of the Eton Myers collection, appears only from the late New Kingdom onwards (Andrews 1994: 11-12; Shaw and Nicholson 1995: 30).

9.     Andrews 1994: 75.

10.    Suspension loops are sometimes apparent in amulets found in a funerary context and it seems likely that these were worn by the deceased during life before being bound into the mummy wrappings so that the efficacy of the amulet would be available to the owner in the afterlife.

11. Many examples of theophorous names may be found in the Ramesside Letters (Wente 1990: 112-13).

12. Gregory S.R.W. 2012: 13.  

13. In this text the demiurge, Atum, states: ‘Further, I shall destroy all that I have made, and this land will return into nun, into the floodwaters, as (in) its first state’. (Pritchard 1969: 9). For further translations of this text see Allen 1974: 184; and Assmann 2005: 136.

14. Bleeker (1967: 6-7), explains ma‘at as a concept, central to ancient Egyptian philosophy, which demonstrates the unity of all aspects of nature and culture; a further and more recent discussion of ma‘at as the embodiment of universal order is given by Karenga (2004: 177-184).

15. For further commentary upon the nature of ancient Egyptian king in relation to ma‘at see Lloyd 2000: 376, and also Richards 2010: 56-9. For further discussion regarding the development of such concepts and their relationship with the iconography and symbolism forming the ‘civilizational template’ of ancient Egypt, see Wegner 2010: 119.

16. O'Connor 1995: 276-9; Assmann 2001: 194.

17. The ka was a metaphysical aspect of the self which may equate to the Roman genius (Scheid 1996: 630), a part of the self, an inner double or an aspect of the self which might also be equated to the daimon of Greek conception which Plato described as the transcendental part of the mind received from god (Versnel 1996: 426; Goodman 1997: 129).

18. Papyrus Brooklyn 47.218.50, column xvi, lines 11-12 (Spurr et al. 1999: 52, fig. 79). For further explanation of this passage see J-Cl. Goyon (2003: 263 at 2. Les documents 4 et 7, l’épisode royal du ritual).

19. The Onomasticon of Amenope, a catalogue of groups of things compiled ‘for learning all things that exist’ –  believed to have been written in the late New Kingdom (Kemp 1989: 29) – provides further textual evidence for the idea that an official may act on behalf of the king with reference to the ‘royal scribe and lector-priest [who functions] as Horus’ (Gardiner 1938: 164).

20. Nicholson and Peltenburg 2000: 177: 186. See also Kaczmarczyk (1983) for analysis of faience composition and production.

21. The finds of clay moulds used in the fashioning of faience amulets allows for mass production of such objects (Nicholson and Peltenburg 2000: 189). ECM1015, 1816, and 1818, all used in the production of papyrus bud amulets, are examples of such moulds which occur in the Eton Myers Collection (personal communication: Carl Graves).

22. The only tomb scene which may be identified with faience production is from the Twenty-sixth Dynasty Theban tomb of Ibi, TT36, but the activity portrayed is not confirmed by any textual reference (Nicholson and Peltenburg 2000: 178).

23. The earliest physical evidence of a faience workshop comes from a late Old Kingdom to Early Middle Kingdom context at Abydos and, at Lisht, a site was discovered in close proximity to the pyramid of Amenemhat I where, nearby, a tomb belonging to Debeni, ‘overseer of faience workers’, was also discovered. Later ‘faience factories’ have been discovered at Malkata, Piramesses, Memphis, and Buto (Nicholson and Peltenburg 2000: 180-186).



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