Beneath the raptor’s wings : the avian composition grasping the symbol for eternity in Egypt

Klop, Damian J.R. (2008-03)

Thesis (MPhil (Ancient Studies)--University of Stellenbosch, 2008.


A particular motif in Egyptian art is that of avians. This is frequently depicted in a significant number and variety of visual sources from the tomb of Tutankhamun (KV 62) (1336-1327 BC) and other find contexts throughout Egyptian history from c. 3000 BC, but is little understood. The motif mostly depicts an avian creature with wings outstretched, talons grasping the Egyptian hieroglyph symbol for eternity (shen). In some instances the avian’s falcon or vulture body or parts of the body is/are replaced with parts of another creature, namely that of a snake, cobra, ram, human, duck, or a hieroglyph sign. A study was undertaken to assess how and why this avian motif was composed and what the function in Egyptian culture was. A manual search of published material for relevant visual sources depicting specific versions of the avian motif was undertaken and selected sources were indexed into a representative graphical database including one hundred and ninety-one items. Textual sources (academic literature and literature from ancient Egypt) were then consulted to support and/or expand on the iconographic, symbolic, and functional aspects of the motif: - At the iconographic level, the historical development and ‘structural dynamics’ of the motif are investigated to deduce the artistic rules that applied to its creation. - At the symbolic level, the symbolic meaning of the artwork is ascertained by theorizing on the meaning of the motif and its parts in an Egyptian context. - At the functional level, the function of the artwork is ascertained by investigating how the motif’s symbolism was intended to be applied to benefit the individual. The results of this research is that the avian motif developed over time according to strict artistic rules; that it symbolized the king, eternity and protection; and that its function was to protect the king in all phases of his existence in a political and mythological context in order to ensure that the he would attain an eternal life in the afterlife. In the mind of the ancient Egyptian this was achieved through the transference of the avian motif’s magical qualities to the user. The intended outcome of this study is to highlight the avian motif’s importance in the context of the ancient Egyptian culture.

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