The ancient Egyptian civilization was marked with remarkable technological advances and discoveries. Their governing system, complex religious beliefs, advanced education and incredible engineering skill has captured the imagination of the world for centuries. These technological advancements were accompanied by deep religious and superstitious beliefs.
In ancient Egypt, religion was at the center of all political and societal realms. They expressed their devotion to the gods through music, art, sacrificial practices and literature. There were many sacred symbols and motifs used to connect with the deities. Sacred motifs were incorporated into all aspects of society—from clothing to jewelry to monuments to decorative home decor. Each of these signs and symbols held its own religious or spiritual connotations. Some symbols were closely associated with deities while others represented elements or were for protection.
The cartouche is one of the most iconic and significant symbols to emerge from ancient Egypt. When reading hieroglyphics, the symbols enclosed in oval shapes are referred to as cartouches. Enclosed in these simple ovals are the names of Egyptian pharaohs. This critical discovery helped archaeologists decipher the hieroglyphic writing system.
Its shape is quite elegant. It is a simple oval with a line running tangent to it. The cartouche’s Egyptian name is shenu. Shenu refers to what is encircles. It takes the appearance of a loop of rope, which represents a shen ring or a circle representing eternity. A shen ring is also considered a protective symbol. The cartouche is believed to protect the king’s name—his throne name and personal name. The oval was meant to protect them from evil spirits both in life and in the afterlife. Eventually the cartouche came to be a symbol of good luck and protection from evil.
The first king to enclose his throne name in a true cartouche was in the 5th century. This was the first instance of both the king’s throne name (nesu-bit) and his birth name (sa-re) was written in cartouches. These were inarguably the most significant titles in the development of the royal titulary or protocol. The two cartouche names appeared often with emblematic and symbolic use in art work and formal documents. The king’s full titulary is five parts but only two parts are written in cartouches. The King’s Horus name for instance has always traditionally with a serekh.
However, before this tradition began in the 4th century of the Egyptian empire, kings engraved their Horus name, a name chosen by them to project the image they desire—in a square serekh or rectangular enclosure.
Cartouches were not just used for royalty. There were also used to write the name of the gods as well. The emergence of the cartouche is brought on by the pharaohs at end of the 3rd dynasty. However, it was Pharaoh Sneferu that put in place this royal practice officially. Typically the cartouche is vertical and fashioned with a horizontal line. However logistically the name fits better horizontally.
There were times in ancient Egyptian history where the names were not included on the cartouche because of the superstitious belief that if someone got a hold of a cartouche engraved with their name, that person would be able to control the named person. This is reminiscent of black magic and the use of voodoo dolls. Cartouches were first used in ancient Egypt in 2800-2700 B.C. They became established as a traditional practice in 2600-2500 B.C.
Eventually with the popularity of the cartouche, amulets or good luck charms were made in the same oval shape, displaying the king’s name and placed in holy burial sites or tombs. These items found in tombs are vital for archaeologists studying and dating the tomb. At first, only pharaohs wore cartouches
The word cartouche is actually French. The term was coined by French soldiers who admired the cartouche symbols they saw over and over on various pharaonic ruins. The cartouche resembles the paper powder cartridge of a firearm.
From antiquity to modernity, cartouches have played an essential role in Egyptian jewelry-making. Cartouches were used as a royal decorative motif. The ancient Egyptians loved to adorn themselves with fine jewelry. The cartouche became a popular and widespread symbol, associated with royalty, good luck and protection. Cartouche symbols were etched or engraved into jewelry so that people could carry these protective symbols with ease.
Archaeologist have found evidence of cartouche-inspired jewelry and other treaties in royal tombs of Egyptian pharaohs. Much like the scarab beetle, lotus flower and key of life, the cartouche became one of the most revered and celebrated in ancient Egypt. It represents power, order and luck.
The evolution of the cartouche over the millenniums is quite interesting. One of the primary functions of the cartouche is protecting the king’s name from evil or bad luck. This key protective function is demonstrated in the design of cartouche-shaped sarcophagi for the king beginning from the 18th dynasty. These sarcophagi were often decorated with protective imagery and inscriptions. Take for example the burial chamber of Tuthmosis III in the Valley of the Kings was built in the shape of a cartouche.
In modern times, cartouches are still widely used as symbols in Egyptian media, art and especially, jewelry. The use of cartouche as a symbol in modernity is not typically associated with spirituality. Cartouches today are typically worn as pendants on necklaces. They are often made of solid gold to give them that royal touch.
Their unique design, rich history and symbolic significance makes the highly-desirable pieces of jewelry for lovers of ancient Egyptian history and mythology. Cartouche jewelry is made best here in Egypt by talented artists. Personalized gold cartouches are popular pendants today. You can get your very own royal gold cartouche today, customized with your own name in real Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The cartouche is perhaps one of the most iconic and enduring symbols from ancient Egypt. It acted both as an emblem and a protective symbol. The cartouche is a beautiful expression of the rich history of ancient Egypt’s royal past. It continues to be a prominent symbol in Egyptian art today.