Updated: Nov 17
Let’s look at what draws us to these highly personal and yet mass-produced miniature objects, so important for a charmed life - before and after death.
Far and wide
Amulets were used throughout the Ancient Egyptian region and time periods, from Pre-Dynastic to Roman. They were made in huge abundance and were inexpensive to most when crafted in faience, which made them available to nearly everyone, from poor farmers to royalty.
This Egyptian amuletic culture was also used outside Ancient Egypt.
Egyptian amulets could be exported, but also locally made amulets in Egyptian style were produced throughout the Mediterranean region. Whether the Egyptian meaning and function of these amulets were shared outside of Egypt can be debated, but clearly they were seen as potent magical objects in other cultures as well.
Egyptian amulets were often small; and are fascinating for their miniature depictions both weird and wonderful, quaint and sophisticated, charming and spooky! They automatically evoke a sense of magic and mystery, and although mass-produced, nevertheless can be imagined as full of personal meaning to their original owners, both in life and death. They were essentially ancient lucky charms.
An amulet is an object endowed with magical properties, which one wears on one’s person and although often small and personal, is usually representative of a more widely known symbol. Ancient Egyptian amulets protected the owner from disease or disaster in his/her lifetime, much as people today might use representations of the evil eye, carry lucky charms or icons, or perhaps wear a St Christopher necklace for safe travel.
The magical power of these little objects, worn close to the body, derived from their physical properties such as shape, colour, material and from their decoration and/or inscriptions. Amulets represented a variety of recognisable symbols, deities in different forms, animals or objects, and might be used ritualistically.
Amulets could have a variety of meanings. Deity amulets for example might have carried a single special significance, or they might have had several powers due to the multiple properties that Egyptian deities often represented.
A trouble-free Afterlife
Amulets worn in life were also used in death, and were placed on the mummy, or perhaps within its bandages, chosen according to wealth, status and individual preference.
There were also exclusively funerary amulets, which peaked in the Late Period, and were specifically made for the purpose of placement on the wrapped mummy on the day of burial to provide protection and assistance on the hazardous journey to the Other World and an easy time in the Afterlife. Some of these funerary amulets could be quite large, and often invoked a positive judgement after death. They included the two-finger amulet, and the heart scarab, which depicted a large scarab beetle, was inscribed underneath with the text of a spell and was widely used.
The heartscarab was placed over the dead person’s heart to protect it from being separated from the body in the underworld. The heart, which contained a record of all the person’s actions in life, was essential for the ‘Weighing of the Heart Ceremony’ as it was weighed against the feather of the goddess Ma’at. If the scales were balanced, the person passed and entered the afterlife. For those who were concerned about this test, they could recite the spell inscribed on their heartscarab to prevent their heart from ‘betraying’ them.
Amulets were mostly made from faience, although stones and some precious metals were also used. As well as the wonder of the techniques in mass producing such often intricate and dainty little objects, much of the beauty of amulets comes from the variety in their colours and glazes.
Faience was the most popular material for man-made amulets. It could be produced in green and blue colors, favored for their association with life and regeneration. Semiprecious stones were common as well, and their color often had a specific meaning. Red, for example, was associated with dangerous forces but was thus also considered to be protective. Expensive materials such as gold, silver, and electrum, appreciated for their durability, were employed for amulets by the higher classes of Egyptian society. Bronze, a material that was very popular for temple donations, was rarely used for amulets, though the reasons are unknown.
Other small objects found naturally such as shells were also used as amulets, along with written spells, folded and tied with string. These don’t survive so well for us to come across today.
We often find that smaller amulets were pierced or had a built-in loop for some kind of suspension; but they were also wrapped in fabric attached to string; and of course in funerary rites, they were placed on the mummy.
Let’s focus – on individual amulets
The subject of Egyptian amulets is quite vast and often complex and has been explored far more thoroughly than we can do here (see our reference section below), but here are some of the more common and/or interesting amulet types that we are likely to come across.
Anubis – the jackal
Anubis amulets with the head of a dog, probably a jackal, were reserved for the dead. This link with jackals may have been to protect the body from being eaten or disturbed by jackals, as the destruction of the body was a barrier to the Afterlife. Anubis was deemed the god of embalming, supposedly practising first on his father Osiris.
Bastet – from lioness to cat
Bastet was protector of women, goddess of fertility. She started off depicted as a lioness but became less fierce as a cat, after cats were domesticated in around 1500 BC. It is thought that her various cat, or cat with kittens, amulets were mainly worn in life by women to place them under the patronage of the goddess and perhaps endow them with her fecundity.
Bes – defender of the good
Although as a minor deity he had no temples, Bes the dwarf god enjoyed enormous popularity throughout Egypt in the later Dynastic period in particular, and beyond. His image decorated countless decorative art objects with which the body routinely came into contact, such as beds and head-rests.
He was commonly shown full-faced rather than in profile, naked, with lion’s mane and tail, wearing tall plumes, as in this example. The Bes amulet was very popular with women, worn for good luck to keep them safe in childbirth, and as general protection of households.
Djed pillar – the backbone of Ancient Egypt
The djed pillar is an amulet in the form of the hieroglyphic sign which means 'enduring, stable' and similar. It came to represent the backbone of the lord god Osiris, and the Djed amulet was placed with the deceased to help ensure rebirth.
A spell in the Book of the Dead activates such an amulet, saying 'Raise yourself up Osiris! You have your backbone once more, O weary-hearted One; you have your vertebrae!'
Eye of Horus – the healing gaze
Also known as the wedjat or ujat, ‘whole one’ and ‘all-seeing eye’, the Eye of Horus was one of the commonest amulets. Its restorative healing powers for the individual wearer derive from the tale of the god Horus, whose eye was stolen by the god Seth, then restored by the god Thoth. These beautiful and often intricate amulets, carved, moulded, glazed in a variety of ways, but with a consistent depiction that is sensual and intense, represent a combination of a falcon (Horus was associated with the falcon) and human eye.
Fly – courage and tenacity
The origin of the fly amulet goes back to the Pre-Dynastic period (pre 3100 BC). It is possible that the fly amulet symbol arose from a wish to emulate the fly's renowned fecundity. These amulets were made in a variety of materials, including lapis lazuli, carnelian, amethyst and gold. This example is made from jasper. The golden fly was used in the New Kingdom as an honorific award for military valour. Courage and persistence are perhaps unsurprising qualities associated with the fly! No fewer than thirty-three fly amulets came from the tomb of the wives of Tuthmosis III.
Horus – the falcon
Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris, and with Nephthys, was part of the holy Osirian triad family, itself a subject of amulets. He was a significant deity, who was widely and enduringly worshipped. He served many functions including god of the sky and kingship. As well as being associated with the Eye of Horus and most often depicted as the falcon or a man with a falcon’s head, he is depicted in other forms including as a child and as a baby with mother Isis, as in the next example.
Isis – the mother goddess
Isis was goddess of the Moon, healing and magic, one of the most important deities and worshipped as a mother goddess. As mother of Horus, Isis was part of the Osirian triad family, with Nephthys and the infant Horus. The triad is itself a subject of amulets characteristic of the 26th Dynasty or Saite Period. Isis had to give birth secretly and care for her son, Horus, in the marshes of the Nile Delta to protect him from his murderous uncle, Set.
This large, pale green, faience amulet typically depicts Isis in a tender moment, nursing the infant Horus, so that one day he may overthrow Set and become king of Egypt like his father, Osiris. The hieroglyphic sign for Isis is a throne; here she not only sits on a throne, but one is reproduced on her head.
Despite its size and deeply human subject, the work displays all the hallmarks of Egyptian sculpture in its monumental frontality and serene dignity. In later Christian times, the image of Isis and the infant Horus became the model for the Madonna and child.
Nephthys - protector of the mummy
Nephthys was the sister of Isis and protector of the mummy and of the god Osiris. She is usually depicted wearing a headdress in the form of the hieroglyph representing her name, and often as a member of the Osiris family - the Osirian triad. After the 26th Dynasty, she is found on every mummy, along with Isis.
Pataikos – the protective dwarf god
Pataikos was named by Greek Heroditus as reminiscent of Phoenician dwarf protective images, perhaps associated with the craftsman god Ptah. The naked dwarf Pataikos appears principally in amulets, usually bald-headed, and is depicted in a variety of ways sometimes just standing, sometimes standing on crocodiles, holding snakes or knives, a scarab on his head or with falcon imagery, being also associated with Horus. Recognisable amulets of Pataikos appear from the New Kingdom, but the finest examples are from the Third Intermediate Period and after.
Scarab - the power of the dung beetle
As well as depicted in the heart scarab, the scarab beetle was another commonly used amulet. It was symbolic of renewal and rebirth, and these wonderful little dung beetles, so well observed in the more naturalistic scarab amulets, were associated with the sun moving across the sky, with their constant shaping and rolling of large round dung balls. Scarab amulets usually carried inscriptions or symbols on the underside, which could sometimes be used as seals, as could other amulets known as seal-amulets, often taking the form of an animal such as the lion in this example.
Sekhmet – fiery war goddess
The representation in this large, bright blue, faience amulet of Sekhmet, the lion-headed Egyptian goddess of pestilence and war and daughter of the sun god Ra, speaks to the power of women in the Egyptian pantheon. Sekhmet was a fierce goddess worshipped mainly at Memphis. Linked with the sun, she was often seen to personify its burning, fiery and destructive heat whilst representing a powerful warrior and protector. She was goddess of war whilst her destructive force makes her goddess of disease, although she was not always a cruel god. If you appealed to her better nature Sekhmet would become the goddess of healing and prevention of wars.
Sekhmet’s representation here as a lion held significance for the Ancient Egyptians who believed lions to hold divine courage to be respected, whilst the papyrus sceptre represented youth and growth from the green marshes of the Nile.
Shu – a breath of fresh air
Shu was the son of the sun god and was the god of the air, and with Tefnut, goddess of moisture, he created the earth and sky, which he separated, making room for the sun-disc. As depicted in this pale green-white faience amulet from the Ptolemaic period 4th-1st century BC, he is often portrayed kneeling, arms raised holding up the sun-disc.
Tawaret – the fierce but protective hippo
Tawaret was the goddess of childbirth and fertility. She was a household deity with no temple dedicated to her, but some form of shrine was in almost every house. She is commonly depicted as a bipedal hippopotamus, and her name means ‘she who is great’, a common term of pacification for dangerous deities. The hippo is a suitable animal manifestation being highly dangerous, with females fiercely protective of their young. Many women would have carried an amulet like this to give them help and protection.
Thoth – wisdom personified
Thoth was one of the most important Egyptian gods who played a role in maintaining the universe; he was heavily associated with writing, and knowledge, and the Egyptians believed that Thoth gave them the gift of hieroglyphic writing. He was depicted with the head of either an ibis or a baboon, sometimes holding an ankh, the symbol of life.
References & further information
These are some of our favourite general and specific resources.
Carol Andrews. Ancient Egyptian Jewellery; British Museum Press; 1st edition (1 Oct. 1990)
ISBN-10: 0714109541 ISBN-13: 978-0714109541
Carol Andrews. Amulets of Ancient Egypt; University of Texas Press (1 Jan. 1994)
ISBN10: 029270464X ISBN13: 978-0292704640
Philippe Germond: The Symbolic World of Egyptian Amulets; Five Continents Editions; 1st edition (10 Oct. 2005)
ISBN10: 8874392443 ISBN13: 978-8874392445
Petrie, W.M.F. Amulets; London, 1914