Ancient Egypt: Its History and Culture
Ancient Egyptian symbols: the shen

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Ancient Egyptian symbols: the shen

Shen-ring surrounding Harpocrates and two vulture goddesses, Louvre
© Guillaume Blanchard on Wikimedia, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license.
    The shen,Sn,[1] from the Egyptian word for encircle, go around,[2] referring to the course of the sun around the world, was a symbol in the form a ring, Sn,[3] dating to the Old Kingdom at least and stood for protection by encirclement.[4]
Concerning the shen-ring which is his (possibly referring to Geb) symbol of rank
Text from the library of the Sobek Temple at Tebtynis [10]
The ring was made of rope, the ends of which were knotted or tied together, forming a circle. Circular shapes, being endless, symbolized completeness and infinity in ancient Egypt. Thus at times the sun was depicted encircled by a shen, probably referring to the eternity of creation. By its association with the sun it was a source of life.[5]

Divine associations

    The shen is closely associated with the falcon god Horus, with the tutelary vulture goddess Nekhbet and with Isis, all three deities were closely involved with the special protection the kingship received from the gods. Since the Old Kingdom the pharaoh's name was surrounded by a cartouche, which was an elongated shen-symbol. Apart from enjoying the protection the shen afforded them, the kings, by writing their names on the symbol's inside, which stood for the universe, laid claim to the rule over the whole creation.[6] Another vulture goddess, Mut, is also shown holding a shen-ring in her talons at times. The frog goddess Heqat is sometimes depicted sitting on a shen. The primordial god Hah who personified infinity and eternity, was often shown with the symbol, thus on a New Kingdom clasp decorated with Hah carrying a shen on his head instead of a sun disk.[7]


    From the Middle Kingdom onward shen-shaped amulets were worn as jewellery: finger rings, as pendants, pectorals or earrings. They were used to decorate sarcophagi, where they were often held by a goddess kneeling on the sign for gold.[8] Cartouche amulets bearing the royal name were added to the king's funerary equipment, but they were also worn by officials. Mummies of commoners were often protected by uninscribed cartouche or shen amulets, which became quite common from the 26th dynasty onwards, though earlier instances are known, such as the gold shen with inlaid precious stones found in the tomb of Senebtisy from the Middle Kingdom. Shen amulets were often made of dark hard stone such as basalt or diorite, for cartouches lapis lazuli or blue glass were the materials of preference.[6]
    The shen-ring itself was often decorated with hieroglyphs of tadpoles, which were used as numerals signifying 100,000, referring to the number of years the king was hoped to live.[9]
[1] MdC transliteration Sn, Wb vol. 4, 488.11, Sn.w, FCD , 268
[2] Faulkner et al. 2008, p.168
[3] MdC transliteration Sn, Wb vol. 4, 488.9-10
[4] Other loop shapes, like the sa for instance, had similar protective qualities. Another example is the snake biting its own tail, the ouroboros which, like the shen, was considered to encompass the universe. It was a symbol for renewal and regeneration.(Shaw & Nicholson 1995, p.263)
[5] Teissier 1996, p.107
[6] Andrews 1994, p.77
[7] Ancient Egyptian Jewellery, Taylor & Francis 1971, SBN 416 12670 7, p.143
[8] Shaw & Nicholson 1995, p.268
[9] Shaw & Nicholson 1995, p.103
[10] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site: F. Feder (ed.), Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => späte Ritualbücher => Tempelbibliotheken => Bibliothek des Sobektempels von Tebtynis => pFlorenz PSI inv. I 72 => Mythologisches Handbuch für die oberägyptischen Gaue 7-16
Carol Andrews, Amulets of ancient Egypt, University of Texas Press, 1994
R.O. Faulkner, A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, Griffith Institute, 1962
Dr. Raymond Faulkner, Raymond O. Faulkner, Carol Andrews, James Wasserman, The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day, Chronicle Books, 2008
Shaw & Nicholson 1995
Beatrice Teissier Orbis biblicus et orientalis: Series Archaeologica, volume 11, Saint-Paul, 1996


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