Glossary of ancient Egyptian terms

Terms relevant to ancient Egyptian art, beliefs and technology.

Ancient Egyptian plaque

 © Australian Museum

Alabaster: Translucent, usually white, form of gypsum carved into ornaments and pots.

Amphora: Two-handled vessel for storing oil or wine.

Amulet: A small token that is believed to provide protection against evil or injury, worn by the living or wrapped with mummies to guard them on their journey through the underworld and protect them in the afterlife.

Ankh: A hieroglyphic sign for life similar to a cross but with a loop in place of the upper arm. It was often produced in solid form and worn as jewellery.

Ba: The personality or spiritual part of a deceased person that has the ability to leave the tomb and move about. In art, the ba of a deceased person appears as a human-headed bird.

Book of the Dead: The modern name for a collection of spells (about 200) that enabled the dead to travel through the underworld and enter the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians knew it as the ‘spells for going forth by day’.

Canopic jars: Funerary jars containing organs removed from the mummy. These were made in sets of four to contain the lungs, stomach, liver and intestines.

Cartonnage: A material made of layers of gummed linen or papyrus or plaster used to make mummy masks and coffins.

Cartouche: Oval band, symbolising continuity, which enclosed a god or pharaoh’s name.

Egyptian faience: A blue-green powdered quartz paste which is modeled or molded and fired.

Ka: Life force or spirit of a person which continues to exist after death. It requires the mummified body for its survival. The symbol for the ka is a pair of extended arms.

Kohl: Black powder made from galena mixed with oil and used to darken eyelids.

Linen: Cloth woven from flax.

Opening of the Mouth Ceremony: Ceremony where the mouth of the mummy was symbolically opened so the dead could use all their senses in the afterlife.

Papyrus: The writing surface for Egyptian scribes. It is made from the pith of the stalks from papyrus plants.

Shabti: Small funerary statuette placed in tombs to perform labour for the dead person in the afterlife.

Stela (plural stelae): An upright slab of stone carved and inscribed with religious or historical texts and representations.

Shadoof (or shaduf): Pole with bucket and counterpoise used to raise water from the River Nile for drinking and irrigation.

Udjat eye (or wedjat eye): An eye with stylised falcon markings meaning ‘that which is made whole’. It is the symbol of the left eye of Horus, torn out by Seth in their battle over who should rule Egypt. It is the symbol of revitalisation after death.
 


Ms Helen Wheeler , Education Project Officer
Last Updated: