Egyptian Symbols: Shen Ring

At first glance, the shen resembles a circle with a perpendicular line tangent to its bottom part. However, when looked at closely, it is a stylized loop of rope with both ends tied together yet still visible. It often has a sun disc at the center of the ring signifying the eternity of creation (as the sun is the believed to be the source of life). Its name is from the Egyptian word shenu that literally means to encircle. Like its elongated form, the cartouche, the shen or shen ring symbolizes infinity and eternity. Similarly, it also functions as a protective device when it is clutched by humans, deities and royalties.

The shen is often associated with deities, especially in bird forms, who are seen clutching it. It seen held by Horus in his falcon form and Nekhbet in her vulture form while hovering about the pharaoh protecting him. It may also be seen with Isis as extension of her protective functions on the king. Mut, another vulture goddess, may also be seen grasping the shen in her talons. Hequet may also be seen sitting on the shen. However, the most prominent deity associated with it is the primordial god Huh, who represented and personified infinity and eternity. It is often seen in his sun disc crown popular even until the New Kingdom. It may also be found on the base of the notch palm branches Huh usually holds.

The shen is often seen in jewelries like pendants, earrings, rings and even necklaces as a decorative aspect especially in the Middle Kingdom. It is also fairly common in amulets. The shen may also be found in coffins as sarcophagi often seen held by a goddess kneeling on the glyph for gold. During the 26th dynasty and onwards, even mummies of commoners were protected with uninscribed cartouches or shens. The most common materials used for these shens are dark hard stones like diorites and basalt, lapis lazuli. Some had tadpole hieroglyphs that were often used as numerals signifying the number of years the ruling king hoped his life and reign would extend.

The symbolism of shen is evident even in other beliefs and religions as well. It is somewhat similar and related to the Gnostic ouroborus, the wedding rings of Western culture, and the yin-yang of Chinese culture.