All Hail the Pharaoh

A series on Ancient Egyptian Religion (Part 4)

The name “pharaoh” sits with “caesar” and its variations (tsar, kaiser) as the only non-English titles that the general U.S.-populace recognizes as words for “king”. Fun fact, though – the word pharaoh doesn’t mean king, it means “great house.”

Yes, you heard that right. Loosely translated, I guess we could call the pharaoh “homeboy.”

All joking aside, eventually (by the time of the New Kingdom) “great house” became a reference to the man himself, and the word came to be used as we use it.

 Now, if I were to just firehose you with all the information we have on the pharaoh and his duties (or rarely, her) and position we would be here all week. So, my plan is to just fill you in on some of the important iconography related to the pharaoh, as well as his role in Egypt, both religious and secular. I think you’ll find, surprisingly, that even the most secular of duties was colored by the veneer of religion.


Image courtesy of thegreatcoursesdaily

Wearer of hats

So, you may have noticed in movies that rich Egyptian men will wear a headdress with blue and gold stripes. This was made especially famous by the death mask of King Tut, seen here.

This is called the nemes. And, surprise, surprise, they’re using it wrong in movies. It was only worn by the pharaoh – not every rich guy in Egypt. You can also see the snake and vulture figures on the nemes. The snake is also known as the uraeus – and we’ll get back to what they represent in a second.

If you stretch your mind waaay back to my first posts on Ancient Egyptian History, you may remember that there are such things as Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Upper Egypt is inland towards the headwaters of the Nile, and Lower Egypt surrounds the Nile River Delta, where the river flows into the Mediterranean Sea.

Image courtesy of The British Museum

Historians consider the unification of these two previously-separate areas by the Pharaoh Narmer in 3150 BC as the beginning of Ancient Egypt. To represent these two areas of the kingdom, the pharaoh wore the vulture and uraeus (that we just talked about), as well as the famous double crown, called the pschent, seen here.

Lower Egypt was represented by the red portion of the crown and the snake (uraeus), and Upper Egypt was represented by the white portion of the crown and the vulture. The snake was the representation of Wedjet, the patron goddess of Lower Egypt, and the vulture was the representation of Nekhbet, the patron goddess of Upper Egypt.

Image courtesy of touregypt

See? The more you know.

Holder of things

Pharaohs are also strongly associated with the familiar iconography of the pharaoh holding the crook and flail. These were images associated with Osiris (Remember him? King of the gods before his brother Set took him down and made him “only mostly dead.”) The crook represented kingship and the flail represented the fertility of the land.

Kind of a god

If you remember more of the story of Osiris and Set, you’ll remember that Horus, the son of Osiris and Isis, eventually defeats Set (in most retellings) and becomes king of Egypt.

This posed a bit of a problem, since (obviously), there was also a pharaoh ruling over Egypt, and last anyone looked he hadn’t taken down any Set. He also had a predecessor, who had a predecessor, who had a predecessor … so, he definitely wasn’t Horus, the supposed king of Egypt.

You see the problem.

To solve this, the Egyptians saw the pharaoh as a momentary aspect of Horus. The next pharaoh would be the next momentary aspect, and so on.

Maintainer of Ma’at and ruler of stuff

Last week, we talked about Ma’at, the universal balance and harmony Egyptians celebrated. As ruler, it was seen as the pharaoh’s job to do everything in his power to maintain justice, order, and balance in the kingdom. He was seen as the high priest of each temple in Egypt and an intermediary between the people and the gods. To celebrate his achievements, he would be expected to build many temples and monuments in his lifetime while also overseeing religious ceremonies, waging war, making laws, levying taxes, and, during the Middle Kingdom, setting his chosen son as coregent (in the pharaoh’s later years) to ensure an easy succession. Often the son was the firstborn son of the pharaoh’s Great Royal Wife, but at times the pharaoh would choose a different son.


I hope it’s clear here that the pharaoh’s position as king was intrinsically linked to the Ancient Egyptian religion, as so many aspects of life in Egypt were.

We’ll be taking a break from mythology for the next two weeks, and I’ll be posting some fun stuff I have waiting in the wings. It’s the end of the semester, and for us teachers, this equals crazy time. We’ll pick up on mythology again in February, and, for next week – prepare for lots of pictures of Ancient Egyptian bling!

 (Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .)

Published by headdeskliz

Elizabeth Jacobson is the author of Not by Sight: The Story of Joseph. She lives and teaches in sunny California and loves fantasy, science fiction, and historically-based Christian fiction. She has multiple other titles in the works.

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