Egyptian Glossary

The Meanning of Ancient Terms




akh The form that the soul took to inhabit the underworld after the ba and ka were successfully united.

Akhmenu A temple built by Thutmose III within the temple complex at Karnak.

Amarna Period/Amarna Era A period during the late Eighteenth Dynasty centered around the reign of Amenhotep IV, also known as Akhenaten.

Amduat A text describing the sun's twelve-hour passage through the night into the netherworld.

annals Records from the reign of Thutmose III inscribed on the walls of Karnak Temple.

Apis bull A carefully chosen cult animal identified with the ba of the god Ptah. When the bull died, it was mummified and entombed at Sakkara.

atef crown A tall crown flanked by plumes at either side and worn by kings and Osiris.


ba The part of the soul that could move between the physical body and the area outside the tomb, including the underworld. It is often depicted as a bird with a human head and arms.

barque of the sun In Egyptian mythology the sun was believed to move through the sky by day and the underworld by night by means of a barque, or sacred boat.

benben stone An obelisk-like stone topped by a pyramidion that was symbolic of the primeval mound of creation in Heliopolis.

Book of Caverns A Nineteenth Dynasty text in which the netherworld is divided into six parts. On its journey through the netherworld the sun must pass over caves or pits in each section.

Book of the Celestial Cow A text from the late Eighteenth Dynasty describing an attempt of the sun god to destroy all of mankind.

Book of the Dead/Book of Going Forth by Day A collection of spells from the Second Intermediate Period and later, some of which are continuations of Coffin Text spells. These texts were placed within burials to aid passage to the next world after death.

Book of the Earth A royal text from the Twentieth Dynasty concerning the voyage of the sun through the netherworld.

Book of Gates A late Eighteenth Dynasty text referring to the necessary passage through various gates that divide each of the twelve hours of the night.


canopic chests Chests or boxes designed to contain the four canopic jars.

canopic jars Vessels specially designed to contain the mummified viscera including the lungs, stomach, intestines, and liver. The jars came in sets of four, and each of the Four Sons of Horus were assigned the duty of protecting the contents of one of the vessels.

cataract A dangerous area of rapids along the Nile River. There are six cataracts south of Aswan.

chthonic deities Deities deriving from the earth.

Coffin Texts A group of spells to assist the deceased's journey to the next world, some of which were derived from the Pyramid Texts. They were inscribed on coffins during the Middle Kingdom.

Colossi of Memnon A pair of colossal statues of Amenhotep III erected by that same pharaoh as part of his vast mortuary temple on the west bank at Thebes. One of the statues -- the true Colossus of Memnon--made a whistling sound when the wind passed through it and ancient Greek travelers equated it with the Homeric figure of Memnon.

crook and flail Both part of the royal regalia. The pharaoh was often depicted holding these items crossed over his chest. The crook was a curved scepter and the flail may represent a fly whisk. These symbols were also associated with the god Osiris.



Deir el-Bahari A site on the western bank of the Nile at Thebes where Mentuhotep, Hatshepsut, and Thutmosis III built terraced funerary temples in a large bay in the cliffs.

Deir el-Medina A walled village on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes that housed the workmen who built and decorated the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and some tombs of courtiers in the Theban necropolis.

Destruction of Mankind A myth in which the sun god, tired of people's evil doings, sends his daughter, an avenging goddess, to destroy all of humankind. In the end the sun god relents, and the goddess is tricked into stopping her rampage. See Book of the Celestial Cow.

devourer of the dead Known as Ammit, this composite creature has the head of a crocodile, the forelegs of a lion, and the back legs of a hippopotamus. She sits at the scales of the Judgment of Osiris, waiting to eat the heart of the deceased if it is found to be unjust.

djed pillar The symbol of stability depicting a pillar of woven plants. It came to be associated with the backbone of Osiris, god of the underworld.


Ennead A group of nine deities. The Heliopolitan creation myth revolves around the Ennead of Heliopolis, which includes Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys.

Eye of Re/Solar Eye The wandering eye of the god Re; often associated with the goddesses Hathor, Sakhmet, and Wadjet.


faience A material made of crushed quartz, lime, plant ash, or natron used to make a variety of objects including amulets and vessels. It is pressed into a mold, covered in glaze, and fired to form a vitreous-like material.

feather of Maat During the Judgment of Osiris the heart of the deceased was weighed on a scale against the feather of Maat, the symbol of truth and justice. If the heart was light the deceased was allowed to pass, but if it was heavy it was eaten by the devourer and the deceased ceased to exist.

Festival of the Valley/Beautiful Festival of the Valley A Theban festival in which the cult statues of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu were brought in procession from Karnak Temple to the funerary temples on the west bank. Deir el-Bahari was a favored destination.

Four Sons of Horus Four deities associated with the embalmed internal organs of the deceased. These gods include the human Imsety, the jackal Duamutef, the baboon Hapy, and the falcon Kebehsenuef.

funerary temple A structure built for the maintenance of the funerary cult of a deceased king. They functioned before and after the death of a ruler.



Giza A necropolis just outside modern Cairo. The site includes several cemeteries, the Great Pyramids, and the Great Sphinx.

God's Wife of Amun A priestess who played the consort of the god Amun in temple rituals. In the early Eighteenth Dynasty the position was associated with the royal house, and the holder of the title appointed her own successor.

Great Sphinx at Giza A colossal statue of a human-headed lion. The pharaoh represented may be Khafre of the Fourth Dynasty. During the New Kingdom the Great Sphinx was identified with the god Horemakhet.


hieroglyphic writing system Pictographs used to write the ancient Egyptian language. Three types of signs were used: phonograms, logograms, and determinatives.

Hyksos A group from Syria-Palestine who migrated into Egypt during the later Middle Kingdom. They settled in the Nile Delta and by the Second Intermediate Period controlled the northern half of Egypt. The Fifteenth Dynasty is often referred to as the Hyksos Dynasty.


inundation An annual event in which the Nile would flood its banks every June through September, starting at Aswan and moving northward to the area around Cairo. The layer of silt deposited by the flooding made the soil exceptionally fertile.

Intermediate Period A designation made by modern historians for periods of Egyptian history during which there was no strong, central, unified Egyptian government.



Judgment of Osiris/Tribunal of Osiris The heart of the deceased would be weighed upon a scale against the feather of the goddess Maat, the personification of truth and justice.


ka Part of the Egyptian concept of the soul. The ka came into being at the moment of birth and formed a type of double for a person. After death the ka continued to live on and needed to be sustained with offerings. The ka would eventually join with the ba to form the akh.

Karnak Temple A huge temple complex located in modern Luxor and dedicated to the Theban triad of deities: Amun, Mut, and Khonsu. The temple complex was modified and expanded from the Middle Kingdom onward into the Greco-Roman Period.

Kush Also known as Upper Nubia; including in modern geographical terms northern Sudan and the southern border of Egypt. At various points in their history the ancient Egyptians controlled this area and relied heavily upon it as a source of gold. During the twenty-fifth Dynasty, rulers from Kush took over the throne of Egypt.


lapis lazuli A dark blue stone with inclusions of gold or pyrite. It was prized by the Egyptians for use in amuletic jewelry and had to be imported over great distances from northern Afghanistan.

Litany of Re An Eighteenth Dynasty text found in royal tombs that describes the seventy-five names of the sun god Re. This text also elaborates on the role of the king and his connection to the deities.

Lower Egypt Ancient Egypt was divided into Upper and Lower Egypt. Located in the North, Lower Egypt extended from the Nile Delta to just south of Memphis. It was designated "Lower" because the Nile River flows northward.

Luxor Modern geographical name for the ancient city of Thebes.

Luxor Temple Founded in Thebes during the reign of Amenhotep III. It was dedicated to the cult of Amun and modified by successive pharaohs down to and including Alexander the Great. It was connected to Karnak Temple by a processional road.



mastaba A term derived from an Arabic word meaning bench. It denotes a type of tomb with a rectangular brick or stone superstructure with sloping walls surmounting a burial chamber and storage area. This type of tomb was used for royal and non-royal burials.

Medinet Habu A temple complex built on the western bank of the Nile at Thebes. It was founded during the Eighteenth Dynasty, but the mortuary temple of Ramesses III dominates the site.

mehen serpent A great serpent who protected the sun god Re.

Memphis The capital of the first Lower Egyptian nome. Memphis was an important administrative center during most of the pharaonic period.

Memphite Theology A creation myth centered around the god Ptah of Memphis. Ptah creates by conceiving an idea within his heart and then speaking it aloud. He first created the god Atum and the deities of the Ennead.

mummification A process developed in ancient Egypt to preserve the remains of the deceased. The body was chemically cleansed and desiccated. It was then packed, perfumed, and wrapped in linen. Often the viscera were removed and embalmed separately.


natron A naturally occurring desiccant composed of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate. It could be found on the banks of the Wadi Natrun and at a few other sites in Egypt. It was a principal ingredient in the mummification process and in some temple rituals of purification.

necropolis "City of the dead," a term for a burial ground.

negative confession Also known as the "declaration of innocence." The deceased would recite his negative confessions before Osiris and the forty-two gods of the judgment. It illustrated the innocence of the deceased and his right to pass through. For example: "I have not lied, I have not stolen, [etc.]."

nome One of the forty-two provinces or districts into which ancient Egypt was divided. There were twenty-two nomes in Upper Egypt and twenty in Lower Egypt. Forty-two was a sacred number.

Nun The primeval waters of chaos. The primeval mound of creation arose from the Nun. The depths of the netherworld were also associated with the Nun.obelisk A tall, tapering four-sided monument topped by a pyramidion.


ogdoad A group of eight deities. There were four frog gods and four snake goddesses who represent the pre-creation chaotic elements of water, hiddenness, infinity, and darkness.

Opening of the Mouth ritual Performed upon the mummy and the statues of the deceased before they were placed into the tomb. By a series of anointments, actions, and repetition of spells, the senses of the deceased were restored so that he could breathe, eat, and move through the netherworld.

Opet festival An annual festival in which the statue of the god Amun was carried in procession from Karnak Temple to Luxor Temple.



Punt An area in eastern Africa to which Egypt sent trading expeditions. The exact location of Punt is unknown. The famous expedition sent to Punt by Hatshepsut is illustrated on the walls of her temple at Deir el-Bahari.

Pyramid Texts A group of some eight hundred funerary spells inscribed on the walls of the burial chambers of the pyramids beginning at the end of the Fifth Dynasty. The texts were designed to protect the deceased king and aid his journey into the sky.


Qurn The pyramidal shaped mountain that rises up behind the royal and non-royal necropoli on the western bank of the Nile at Thebes.


Red Crown The crown of Lower Egypt. It was often combined with the White Crown to symbolize the power of the pharaoh over both Upper and Lower Egypt.

rishi coffin A type of coffin decorated with a feather pattern. The feathers were symbolic of the protective wings of several winged deities.



Saite Period c. 664-332 BCE. The Saite Period is a name for the Twenty-sixth Dynasty. The kings of this dynasty ruled from the site of Sais in the Nile Delta.

Sakkara Located near modern Cairo; the necropolis for the city of Memphis. The site was in use from the First Dynasty through the post-Roman Christian period.

sarcophagus An outer container for a coffin; used to give the physical remains of the deceased an additional layer of protection.

scarab beetle Symbolic of the god Khepri and the rising sun. The scarab beetle became a powerful symbol of resurrection.

Sea People A migratory population of groups from Asia Minor and the Mediterranean. Ramesses III illustrated his repulsion of the Sea Peoples from Egypt's border on the walls of his temple at Medinet Habu.

Sed festival A ceremony of the renewal of kingship. It was normally celebrated for the first time during a king's thirtieth regnal year, although some kings appear to have celebrated their festivals much earlier in their reigns.

Serapeum The burial place of the Apis bulls at Sakkara.

shabti/shawabti/ushebti Funerary statuette that was often mummiform. The shabti was intended to stand in for the deceased in the afterlife to perform any necessary manual tasks, such as planting Welds and clearing irrigation ditches.

sphinx Most often a combination of the body of a lion with the head of a human. Kings desired to combine their own images with that of the lion in order to absorb the power of the animal. The sphinx was also associated with the sun god.

stele A flat, round-topped monument.


Thebes Ancient name for the modern city of Luxor.

triad A group of three gods, generally a family grouping of a god, his consort, and their child. Each site in ancient Egypt had its own local triad.


Upper Egypt Ancient Egypt was divided into Upper and Lower Egypt. Located in the South, Upper Egypt extended from just south of Memphis to Aswan. It was designated "Upper" because the Nile River flows northward.

uraeus A symbol of kingship. It is the figure of a rearing cobra, representing the cobra goddess Wadjet. The uraeus was often added to the brow of the king as part of his headdress.

ushebti See shabti.



Valley of the Kings The necropolis of the New Kingdom kings located on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes. The necropolis is composed of an eastern and a western valley containing a total of sixty-two numbered tombs.


wedjat eye The eye of the god Horus. Horus lost his eye in a fight with Seth, but the goddess Hathor was able to restore it. The eye of Horus thus became a powerful symbol of healing and protection.

West Considered the realm of the dead.

White Crown The crown of Upper Egypt. It was often combined with the Red Crown to symbolize the power of the pharaoh over both Upper and Lower Egypt.


Reproduced from Erik Hornung and Betsy M. Bryan, eds. The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt [exh. cat., National Gallery of Art] (Washington, DC, 2002). Copyright ©2002 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, and United Exhibits Group

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