An ancient Egyptian cartouche is an oval frame containing the hieroglyphs comprising the name of a God, a member of the aristocracy or a senior court official.
Stylistically, a cartouche is designed to represent a loop of rope, which has been infused with the magical power to protect the name written inside it. The oval was anchored with a flat line incorporated three rope links, denoting it belonged to a royal person, be it the birth name of a pharaoh, a queen or other high standing individual.
Cartouches first came into widespread use in ancient Egyptian around c. 2500 BC. Early surviving examples indicate they were originally circular in shape but evolved gradually into a flat sided oval format. The changed shape was more space efficient for arranging the sequence of hieroglyphs within its boundary.
Names Had Power In Ancient Egypt
Egyptian pharaohs usually had five names. The first name was conferred on them at birth while a further four names were not adopted until they were on the throne. These last four names were conferred upon a king to formally observe his metamorphosis from a man to a god.
A pharaoh’s birth name appears to have stayed in continual use throughout the pharaoh’s lifetime. The birth name was the predominant name used on a cartouche and the most common name a pharaoh was known by.
Upon assuming the throne, a Pharaoh would adopt a royal name. This royal name was known as the ‘prenomen’. It was typically illustrated together with the Pharaoh’s birth name or ‘nomen’ in a double cartouche.
The Emergence of Cartouche Hieroglyphics
King Snefru introduced cartouche hieroglyphics into Egyptian culture around the time of the Fourth Dynasty. The word cartouche was not an ancient Egyptian word but a label introduced by Napoleon’s soldiers during his invasion of Egypt in 1798. The ancient Egyptians referred to the oblong panel as a ‘shenu.’
Before the royal cartouche was introduced into widespread use, a serekh was the most common means of identifying a member of Egyptian royalty. The serekh dates back to the earliest times of the Egyptian kingdom. Pictorially, it almost always used the ancient Egyptian sign for the falcon-headed god Horus. Horus was believed to be a protective entity for the king, his royal palace compound and all who dwelt within its walls.
Role Of Hieroglyphics And The Cartouche
Ancient Egyptians believed the cartouche nameplate would lend protection to the individual or location where it was embedded. Archaeologists have found placing cartouche hieroglyphics on the burial chambers of members of the Egyptian royal family was a customary practice. This practice greatly simplified the process of identifying tombs and individual mummies.
Perhaps the most world-famous discovery of an Egyptian antiquity displaying cartouche hieroglyphics is the iconic Rosetta Stone. French soldiers found the stone in 1799. Engraved on it is a dedication to Ptolemy V together with a cartouche bearing the king’s name. This historically critical discovery contained the key to translating Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Thanks to the belief that cartouche hieroglyphics invoked some kind of protective ability, jewellry was frequently engraved with Egyptian hieroglyphics. Even today jewelry engraved with a cartouche and other hieroglyphics are in high demand.
Reflecting On The Past
The widespread importance ascribed to cartouche hieroglyphics by the ancient Egyptians shows how they blended religious doctrine with belief in the supernatural.