Egyptian Symbols: Djed

The Djed is a pillar-like structure in ancient Egyptian symbolism that signifies stability. It looks like a column with a wide base whose capital is made-up of four parallel bars. It started as a symbol of praise and worship, dating as far back as the pre-dynastic period even lending its name to the city of Djedu in the ninth nome. As a hieroglyph, it is synonymous to stability, strength and durability despite starting out as a fertility symbol.

The meaning and function of the djed has been subject for debate and speculations. Some believe it is a Syrian cedar tree whose branches have been removed. Others say it is a stylized sheaf of corn or a pole used in tying the sheaves of grain after harvest. In the pyramid text of Sneferu, the djed pillars are assumed to be supporting the sky much like that of the pillars that assist Shu is bearing the sky on his shoulders. More popularly, it is supposed as the backbone of a man especially of the gods Sokar (an assimilated form of Osiris) and Osiris.

The Djed was largely associated with Memphis creator god Ptah in the Old Kingdom. In fact, he was given the epithet, “The Noble Djed”, because of this. However, the association was passed on to Osiris especially in his aspect as Benebdjed. In the story of Osiris and Isis, the pillar is Osiris’ backbone (that was thrown by Set in his fit rage of jealousy) that Isis found buried in the city of Djedu. This prompted the renaming of the city into Pr-Asir or “the House of Osiris” later translated to Busiris by the Greeks. In another version of the story, the djed pillar is from the tree that grew around the corpse of Osiris. The King of Byblos raised and used the tree to build and support his castle. When Isis traveled to Byblos to search for fragments of Osiris body, she had to cure the king’s son inflicted by a serious disease before she could retrieve the pillar.

In the month of Koiak, the last day of the celebration of Osiris’ murder by Set is known as the raising of the djed. It is performed by the pharaoh to zero in on the stability of his rule and symbolized the rebirth of Osiris. Another cultic celebration is known as the Djed Pillar Festival where the djed is raised by the priests on the first day of shemu or season of harvest. People often played a reenactment of the battle of the good and evil during these days. Oxen were often seen parading the walls of Memphis at this time of the year.

In amulets used for the protection, the djed is often seen in conjunction with other symbols like the ankh, was and tjet. It may also be seen painted on the back of the coffins where the backbones lie. In line with this, the djed symbolized transformation – the human form transcends to its spiritual form for afterlife and eternity.