In the language of ancient Egypt, epithets are words or phrases, typically laudatory, which describe a deity or person. They occur alongside names and titles, from which they are frequently difficult to distinguish, and they serve similar purposes: to identify and vivify statues and images; to characterize the ideal attributes of individuals and their offices; to legitimize authority; and to perpetuate cult practices.

Epithets of Deities.

Divine epithets display great variation. As Erik Horning (1982) noted, they are not simply honorific phrases but rather define the nature and sphere of influence of the deities they describe—hence they make the gods tangible. Each additional epithet increased the scope and variety of a deity's power, so that major gods—such as Amun-Re, Ptah, and Osiris—acquired long lists of epithets. Individual epithets, however, were not restricted to particular deities. Partly due to the overlap in the nature and attributes of gods and goddesses, the same epithets were often applied to different deities.

The largest category of gods' epithets includes those that emphasize divine authority, such as nṯr ʿʒ (“The Great God”) or the less common nṯr wr, which is nearly identical, although more restricted, in meaning. Several epithets introduced by the word nb(t) (Lord/Mistress), also fall into this category, among the most common being “Lord/Mistress of Heaven” (nb(t) pt), “Lord of maat” (nb mʒʿt), and “Lord of Eternity” (nb nḥḥ).

Epithets also refer to more specific divine attributes. For example, as the state god of Egypt, Amun is called “Lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands” and “King of the gods”; Ptah, as a creator god, is “The One Who Bore the gods”; Thoth is “The Straight Plummet in the Scales”; and Anubis, Osiris, and other deities of the necropolis, are “Lord of the Sacred Land.” Epithets of this type are extremely numerous and varied.

Another large class of epithets refers to the topography of local cults. Ptah of Memphis, for example, is called “South of His Wall.” Many topographical epithets of this type were formed by combining such words as “lord” (nb), “foremost” (ḫnty), and “in” (ḥry-ib), with the toponym of a sanctuary; thus, Osiris is “Lord of Abydos” and Hathor is “Mistress of Dendera.”

Epithets may also reflect the physical attributes and iconography of deities, including their animal forms, characteristic attire, crowns, staffs, and poses. Thoth, for example, is the “Great Ibis,” Amun and Min are both “Tall of Feathers,” and Ptah is “Benevolent of Appearance.” Goddesses, especially when part of a local triad, may be said to be “beloved” (mrt) of their consorts or fathers; thus, Sekhmet is “Beloved of Ptah” and Mut is “Beloved of Amun.”

Royal Epithets.

Kings were designated by a variety of epithets, many referring to a pharaoh's divinity. When such epithets accompanied a representation of the king, they endowed it with a quasi-divine status, just as the epithets of deities empowered divine images. In some cases, the king is actually called a god, by direct association with a deity or with epithets such as “The Good God” (nṯr nfr). He may also be given divine attributes: “One Who Illuminates the Two Lands,” “One Who Lives on maat,” or “Lord of Eternity.” Other epithets associate him less directly with the deity, using metaphors such as “image” (tit) or “likeness” (mity) of a god or goddess, a practice less common in nonroyal epithets. Akhenaten stressed his exclusive relationship with the sun god by calling himself “The Unique One of Re.” Kings were also called “beloved” (mry) or “son” () of a deity. While “love” may be reciprocal, it very rarely proceeds from the lower ranking individual to the higher; therefore, the king is usually described as the recipient of divine love, rather than one who loves the god. Hence, both and mrr represent the king as subordinate, but directly related, to the gods.

Royal epithets also refer to the role of the king and the office of kingship. The king's immortality is emphasized by the ubiquitous royal epithet di ʿnḫ ḏt, “Given Eternal Life.” Many epithets, such as “Lord of All Foreign Lands,” “Lord of All that the Sun Disk Encircles,” and “Lord of All,” stress the scope of royal authority. Others refer to the pharaoh's responsibility for maintaining world order, portraying the king metaphorically as creator, priest, judge, military leader, and protector of his people. Closely related are epithets involving the individual king's personal success, such as “Enduring of Monuments,” “He Who Smote the Foreign Rulers,” and so on.

Epithets of Officials.

Among the most common nonroyal epithets are honorific phrases, such as “Vindicated” (mʒʿ-ḫrw), “Venerated” (ἰmʒḫ[w/y]), and “Possessor of a Venerated State” (nb ἰmʒḫ), which usually occur in the offering formulas in tombs and on stelae. Common as a nonroyal epithet from the First Intermediate Period onward, “vindicated” refers to the successful outcome of divine judgment, although it could refer to the living (including royalty) as well as to the dead. From as early as the Old Kingdom, “venerated” refers both to respected elder persons and to the honored dead. In many cases, people are described as “venerated by” (ḫr) deities, particularly those associated with the afterlife.

Unlike kings, private citizens are rarely associated directly with gods or goddesses, although from the Herakleopolitan period onward, the dead were identified with Osiris. Like royal epithets, however, nonroyal epithets could stress the skills and attributes of an individual by comparing them to a god, using phrases such as “Truly Precise, like Thoth.” Officials were also described as “beloved” (mry/t) of deities, especially those associated with local cults.

A great many epithets stressed royal favor. Officials often claimed to be “loved” (mry), “favored” (ἰmy-ἰb), or “praised” (ḥsy) by the king, or to be “The One Who Does Everything He Praises” (irr ḥsst.f nbt). More specific epithets concerning royal favor refer to the officials' actions on behalf of the king, such as on military or quarrying expeditions; to their obedience; or to their ability to satisfy (ḥtp-ἰb or mḥ-ἰb) the king.

A large and diverse class of epithets includes references to personal attributes, emphasizing interaction with peers, and drawing upon the subject matter of biographical and didactic literature. Such epithets describe officials as being wise, just, generous, accurate, eloquent, modest, fair toward subordinates, and efficient in carrying out their duties.

See also NAMES; and TITULARY.

Bibliography

  • Anthes, Rudolph. “The Original Meaning of mʒʿ-ḫrw.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 13 (1954), 21–51. Discusses the origins and meaning of this very common epithet, with a summary of earlier scholarship on the subject.
  • Barta, Winfried. Aufbau und Bedeutung der altägyptischen Opferformel. Glückstadt, 1968. Describes the development of the offering formula and associated epithets throughout Egyptian history, with numerous examples.
  • Barta, Winfried. “Königsbezeichnung.” Lexikon der Ägyptologie, edited by Wolfgang Helck and Wolfhard Westendorf, vol. 3, cols. 477–481. Wiesbaden, 1980. Summarizes titles, epithets, and designations of the king.
  • Breasted, James Henry. Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest. 5 vols. Chicago, 1906–1907; London, 1988. English translations and brief commentaries on Egyptian royal and nonroyal documents; the renderings are often outdated, but the series remains the most thorough treatment of Egyptian historical records in English, with many examples of royal epithets (nonroyal epithets were sometimes omitted).
  • Christophe, Louis A. “Les divinités de Papyrus Harris I et leurs epithètes.” Annales du Service des Antiquités de l'Égypte 54 (1956), 345–389. Listing of deities mentioned in the Papyrus Harris, with an inventory of all the epithets used to describe them; describes temple donations by Ramesses III and Ramesses IV and is one of the most comprehensive primary sources for divine epithets.
  • Doxey, Denise M. Egyptian Non-Royal Epithets in the Middle Kingdom: A social and Historical Analysis. Leiden, 1998. In-depth treatment of nonroyal epithets from the Middle Kingdom, with numerous references and examples.
  • Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated from German by John Baines, pp. 86–100. Ithaca, 1982. (Orig. pub. Der Einer und der Vielen. Darmstadt, 1971). This section of Hornung's larger work on the nature of Egyptian deities focuses on their epithets, notes the function of epithets, and the ways in which they were applied to various deities.
  • Janssen, Jozef M. A. De Traditioneele Egyptische Autobiographie vóór het Nieuwe Rijk. 2 vols. Leiden, 1946. Volume 1 lists epithets and other phrases that appear in nonroyal biographies from the Old and Middle Kingdoms; volume 2 provides commentary on their grammar, meaning, and development.
  • Kuhlman, Klaus. “Götterepitheta.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, edited by Wolfgang Helck and Wolfhart Westendorf, vol. 2, cols. 683–684. Wiesbaden, 1977. Concise, accurate, and well-documented summary of the categories of divine epithets.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. 3 vols. Berkeley, 1973–1980. English translations of selected Egyptian stories, religious texts, and monumental inscriptions; with introduction, commentary, and bibliography. Provides examples of selected divine, royal, and nonroyal epithets.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Autobiographies, Chiefly of the Middle Kingdom. Frieburg, 1988. Translation of and commentary on Old Kingdom, First Intermediate Period, and Middle Kingdom biographies, primarily from Abydene stelae.
  • Simpson, William Kelly. “Amor deii: nṯr mrr rmṯ m tʒ wʒ (Sh. Sai. 147–148) and the embrace.” In Fragen an die altägyptischen Literatur: Studien zum Gedenken an Eberhard Otto, edited by Jan Assman, et al., pp. 493–498. Wiesbaden, 1977. Analysis of epithets introduced by the phrase “beloved of…,” which notes that such epithets typically refer to love passing from a superior to a subordinate.

Denise M. Doxey