Thursday, 20 May 2010

Was Egypt ever ruled by pharaohs?

When we refer to the rulers of ancient Egypt we often do so by calling them pharaoh but is this correct? Let’s see what the word pharaoh exactly means shall we?
The word pharaoh is actually a Greek word based on an Egyptian word that meant “Great House” and it originally referred to the king’s palace and its greatness and not to the king himself. But around the reign of Thutmose III in the New Kingdom it became a custom to use the word pharaoh as a form to refer to the person of the king.
These days it is also common to call the ancient rulers pharaohs but in fact we would be more correct to call them king or queen and refer to them using their throne names, certainly when we are talking about the rulers before the 18th dynasty.
So how did they refer to the kings and queens that ruled before the New Kingdom?
The names of the rulers changed when the ruler assumed the throne. The classic sequence of names and titles (royal titulary) held by each of the rulers consisted of five names and is called “the fivefold titulary”. This titulary was not fully established until the Middle Kingdom and consisted of the Horus name, the Golden Horus name, the Two Ladies name (Nebty), the birth name (nomen; sa-Ra) and the throne name (prenomen; nesu-bit). (The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt – Ian Shaw p.477)

The Horus name.
The Horus name was usually written in the serekh, which represented a palace façade. The name of the king was written in hieroglyphs inside this representation. Usually there was also an image of the falcon god Horus placed on top of it. The Horus name being the oldest form of the Kings name has been used since the early Predynastic period (prior to 3100BC). Many of the early Egyptian kings are just known by their Horus name. One Egyptian ruler, Seth-Peribsen King of the Second Dynasty, used an image of the god Set instead one of Horus. Some think this could be because of a possible internal religious division of the country. His successor Khasekhemwy (Khasekhemui) placed both symbols above his name but after that the image of Horus was always place next to the name of the king.

The Two Ladies name (Nebty)
The Nebty name was associated with the patron goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt.
The first, Nekhbet , was the patron deity of Upper Egypt and was represented as an Egyptian vulture and the second, Wadjet, the patron deity of Lower Egypt who was represented by an Egyptian cobra.
The first time the Nebty name was used was by Semerkhet a king of the First Dynasty (around 2950BC) but it did not become a official independent title until the 12th dynasty which started somewhere around 1991BC.

Golden Horus name.
This name also known as the Horus of Gold, is part of the kings name typically featured the image of a Horus falcon perched above or beside the hieroglyph for gold.
The real meaning of this title is not entirely sure. Some say it represents the victory of Horus over his uncle Seth because the symbol for gold could mean that Horus was “superior to his foes”.
In ancient Egypt gold was also often associated with eternity, so this title could also have been intended to convey the kings eternal Horus name.

The throne name (prenomen; nesu-bit).
The throne name (added to the titular during the 3rd dynasty), enclosed in a cartouche and accompanied by the title nesu-bit, indicates that the ruler is king of Upper and Lower Egypt where the plant is a symbol for Upper Egypt and the bee a symbol for Lower Egypt. More generally, it indicates the king is a king of dualities, Upper and Lower Egypt, desert and cultivated lands, the human and the divine and so on. The prenomen was usually a reference to some religious belief and often invoked a god or gods in the name.
In some literature it is stated that the nesu-bit literally means “He or She of the Sedge and Bee” while others think the two words are related to other Afro/Asiatic words meaning something like “strong man” or “ruler”.

Personal name or birth name (nomen)
Like the name suggest, this name was given to the king at birth. The title was added to the titulary during the 4th dynasty to indicate the divine nature of the King and was preceded by the title “son of Ra”. The birth name is the name which is used by today’s Egyptologists although often roman numerals have to be added to the name to distinguish between kings sharing the same nomen. (Amenhotep III, Ramses II, Cleopatra V etc.)


  1. It is very thoughtful, Rene.
    But to be honest, what kind of terminology is right today? We all have been categorized and named with terms and names that we have nothing to do with. The terminology usually reflects the fascism that the term was made in. After all, Egypt's name is Greek though the country has been there before God created Greece and saw that Greece was beautiful on the 8th day of creation.
    Thank you again for your post, it is really thoughtful.

  2. The most simple, as said at the beginning, remains to call the rulers either "king" or "queen". :)

    Also, Egypt's name is an hellenization of one of the ancient egyptian name of Memphis: Hut-ka-Ptah (transliteration: Hw.t-kA-ptH), meaning the "temple of Ptah's ka".


  3. I had to use Wikipedia to get the numbers of the dynasties... it seems that at least your favorite pharaoh was, well, indeed a pharaoh. I am talking about Akhenaten. By the way, the sheer number of Egyptian dynasties is for sure about as complex as the lineage of that of the English royal house. But I guess the Chinese top them all.

  4. Thanks all for your replies, that's what makes it worth these blogs. I know I have not been very active but knowing people read my posts sure motivates me to write more :)