Egyptian Symbols: Cartouche

The cartouche is another significant symbol in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and cosmogony. It is otherwise known as the shenu from the Egyptian word sheni that means to encircle. It is the elongated version of the shen ring composed primarily of a loop of rope that has no beginning or ending. The loop usually encloses a name and symbolizes eternity (making it associated with eternity god, Huh) and protection to the name or the place where it was placed. Its modern name is derived from the time when Napoleonic soldiers conquered Egypt because the sign reminded them of cartridges (cartouches in French) they see used in their guns.

The existence of the shenu dates as far back as Mesopotamia where it symbolized divinity. Once adapted in Egypt, it became a symbol of protection often seen in deities, pharaohs, queens and persons of high standing in Egyptian culture.

The earliest versions of the cartouche resembled the shen ring proof to its existence as a descendant of the ring. Soon thereafter, the ring was lengthened in order to accommodate several other hieroglyphs of the pharaoh’s name. In fact, Huni, a third dynasty ruler, was the first to enclose his name in a true cartouche. In fourth dynasty, under the rule of Snerfu, it became ingrained in Egyptian society. However, by the fifth dynasty, the cartouche contained two of the most important names from the usual five of the pharaoh. It encloses the nomen or the birth name and the prenomen or the throne name.

The cartouche has an obvious link and symbolism to the sun. In fact, several cartouches were surmounted with uraeus and the solar disc plumes. It represented everything that surrounds the sun that translates into the king’s realm. However, the more important role of the cartouche is its protective functions to the king. During the Eighteenth Dynasty, the king’s sarcophagus is modeled after its shape. In fact, the burial chamber of Thutmose III is shaped like the cartouche because his followers believed that it is fitting that the burial ground be symbolic of the pharaoh’s name and person.

The decorative aspect of the cartouche is also undeniable. In fact, it was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun upon excavations. The symbols of the lid of the shenu were his name. They were also able to excavate finger rings that were made in the shape of the cartouche. Palace walls were also littered with partially personalized cartouches. In this aspect, the shenu is used to enclose the name of the city or the subjects under the reign of the king.

The shenu is also closely linked in appearance to the ouroborus, a serpent biting its own tail.

The cartouche is believed to be closely associated with the avian deities like Horus and the vulture goddesses such as Mut usually found in their talons. In fact, the goddess Heket is seen wearing it often in her depictions. Isis and Nekhbet may also be seen kneeling with their hands resting on a Shenu.

The most important discovery associated with a cartouche is the Rosetta stone that contained a shenu dedicated to Ptolemy V.