Widely utilized to accompany, supplement, or replace verbal communication in many cultures, gesture in both ritual and nonritual contexts was particularly important in ancient Egypt. The depiction of gestures (including poses of the whole body as well as gestures of the fingers, hands, and arms) in all types of figural representation and in all periods indicates that gesture symbolism represented an important nonverbal vocabulary for many aspects of ancient Egyptian life and culture. Certainly no other aspect of iconographic symbolism is as widespread in Egyptian art as the use of gestures to connote specific contextual meaning and significance. The detailed pictographic nature of the Egyptian hieroglyphic script also meant that special attention was paid to gestures in many determinative signs that dealt with human activities. This widespread representation of gestures in art and writing may well have perpetuated the form and function of many gestures in life.

Chronology and Evidence.

The representation of gestures was an important part of Egyptian art from the beginnings of formalized representation. Gestures of dominance and submission appear in early dynastic works along with other formalizing aspects, such as a defined ground line and temporal register division; the Narmer Palette provides a clear example. Although an established protocol of gesture symbolism is clearly present and probably continues unbroken from this early time, our knowledge of the situation is less extensive for some periods than for others, owing to the nature of extant representational material. Evidence for the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom comes primarily from private tombs and consists mainly of parietal painting and relief, which show a wide repertoire of gestures in use by servants, workmen, farmhands, boatmen, herders, and others in the course of everyday activities—as well as gestures depicted in representations of the tomb-owner. Sculpture of these periods, however, utilizes relatively static poses with few explicit gestures.

Conversely, two-dimensional mortuary depictions of the New Kingdom and later periods provide fewer examples of everyday gesture, the body of evidence enriched by temple representations showing formalized gestures of gods, kings, and priests in various genre scenes and involved in the ritual activities of the cult. New Kingdom and later statuary also shows a wider range of gestural expression that considerably expands the corpus of evidence.

Analysis and Interpretation.

Successful analysis and interpretation of the evidence for Egyptian gesture symbolism and meaning is complicated by a number of factors. As in life, gestures may or may not be accompanied by spoken words: the representations may or may not have associated texts that help to explain their context and meaning. Sometimes analysis is complicated by the conventions of Egyptian figural representation, in that it is not always entirely clear whether an actual gesture is being performed or whether figures are simply represented in a manner consistent with artistic conventions of the time or with individual artistic idiosyncrasies.

Even when it seems clear that actual gestures are involved, it must be remembered that in order to facilitate recognition in representations, gestural movement was usually “frozen” at its most characteristic point (usually the midpoint of an action—the raised arm about to strike, etc.). Thus, it is not always clear if what appear to be depictions of different gestures with potentially different meanings are the result of variations in representational styles, or if they represent different parts of the same gesture, or yet again, if they are discrete gestures with the same range of meaning.

Sometimes the same gestures are used with widely different meanings, and only text or context can differentiate them, as in the case of poses such as those with the arms held high above shoulder level in scenes of rejoicing and sorrow alike. Even slight differences in the expression of the gesture itself may indicate totally different meanings. While arms slightly outstretched before the body with palms facing down represent a gesture of respect or submission, the same gesture with palms upward represents giving, as when deities proffer the hieroglyphic water sign in scenes of the purification and welcoming of the deceased into the afterlife. Both the orientation of the hand (for example, with palm facing outward toward the recipient of the gesture, or palm facing inward toward the gesturer) and the angle of the hand (in its alignment relative to both the horizontal and the vertical) may affect gestural meaning specifically.

The most common difficulty associated with interpretation, however, is simply the level of uncertainty involved in gestures that neither text nor context clearly define and that are susceptible to two or more equally plausible interpretations. An example is seen in Old Kingdom tomb paintings in which boatmen stretch out an arm with extended forefinger toward the far riverbank or toward a crocodile lurking in the river's depths, and scenes in which handlers point dogs to game, children point to animals or birds, or supervisors point to cattle at birth. In the absence of textual indicators, it is sometimes unclear whether these gestures are simply indicative or directive, or whether a protective meaning is involved—as often seems to be the case.

Areas of Gesture Usage.

Despite the difficulties inherent in the analysis of certain representations, various categories are commonly used which subsume the majority of the gestures and poses depicted in Egyptian art. Most of these categories are based on classification according to the role played by a given gesture—that is, the area of usage in which it is found—and these areas usually cut across ritual and nonritual, formal and informal contexts, though some categories contain gestures found mainly in the representation of the human sphere and others are utilized mainly in the divine sphere. The most frequently cited of these categories (and of the Egyptian words commonly associated with representations of the gestures found in each) include the following:

  • 1. Greeting: salutation, welcome (nyny, nḏwt-r, nḏḥrt)
  • 2. Status: dominance, submission, respect (ḥrḥr, ksi, iʒw)
  • 3. Asking: requesting, pleading, praying (dbḥ, snm)
  • 4. Praising: reverence, worship (dwʒ, ḥknw, hnw)
  • 5. Offering: giving of offering, libations, gifts (drp, ḥnk)
  • 6. Speaking: address, oration, recitation (nis, šdi)
  • 7. Indicating: pointing, drawing attention to (mʒʿ, ḏbʿ)
  • 8. Commanding: directing, signaling (wḏ, wḏ-mdw)
  • 9. Counting: indicating numbers on the hands (ḥsb, ip)
  • 10. Music: guidance of musicians (ḥsi, šmʿ)
  • 11. Dance: ritual dance, mime (rwi, ḫbi)
  • 12. Rejoicing: celebration, victory (ḥʿi, rnn)
  • 13. Sorrow: sadness, bereavement, mourning (ḥʒi, ḳmʒ)
  • 14. Magic: apotropaic protection, defense, offense (ḥkʒw)
  • 15. Support: sustaining, strengthening, bestowing of power (twʒ, fʒi).

It will be seen that a good deal of overlapping exists among these categories. For example, gestures of greeting (1) may also be gestures expressing dominance or submission (2); signaling may be a function of indicating a fact (6) or conveying a command (7); and the gestures used in musical performance (9) are clearly directive (7). In a general way, these categories represent areas of actual gesture usage and are useful for descriptive and comparative purposes. Yet, such categories usually tell us little more than the context in which a given gesture appears, and it is often more profitable to consider gestures and poses from various analytical perspectives—in terms of aspects of their usage.

Aspects of Gesture Usage.

Some of the more important types of gestures, in terms of aspects of usage, include categories defined by gestural origin, mechanics, extent, interaction, specificity, and decorum.

Origin.

Natural gestures are developed in the normal course of life without instruction or conscious attempts at learning or employment. The category includes gestures such as pointing and shielding oneself from threat, as well as a number of gestural expressions of emotion in mourning (“[to place] the head on the knees”), rejoicing (“to raise the arms”), and so on.

Formalized gestures are often quite complex and include gestures and poses that must be consciously learned as part of ritual behavior. Formal gestures of offering presentation and the complex hnw sequence of praise and jubilation are examples of this type.

Mimetic gestures, although similar to formal gestures in being consciously learned and employed, mimic natural behavior in some way. Examples include the mimetic gestures of mourners that depict the crossing of the arms on the chest of the mummified deceased, or the mythic enfolding of the deceased in the arms of protective goddesses. Many gestures of this type are natural gestures formally utilized, such as the childlike holding of the finger to the mouth sometimes shown in adult figures depicted as children.

Mechanics.

Hand gestures normally involve the use of only the fingers and hands, or the arms inasmuch as the latter are necessary to position the hands. While some hand gestures are performed only in conjunction with related bodily gestures, others (such as counting on the hands) may be performed independently in any position.

Bodily gestures or poses involve the positioning of the upper, lower, or whole body, or the head. They may add to or strengthen the implication of associated hand gestures (as in certain gestures of respect) or may exist as gestures with independent meaning, as in the prostration of the body in the performance of proskenysis.

Extent.

Independent or simple gestures are individual, static gestures or poses affected briefly and in isolation; they have complete meaning in and of themselves, without reference to any other gesture, action, or context. Most natural and mimetic gestures are of this type.

Sequential or complex gestures are gestures or poses that exist in sequences of continuous action or as part of a dynamic behavioral pattern such as a dance or religious ritual. Many formalized gestures of offering, praise, and so on, are of this type.

Interaction.

Noninteractive gestures, such as many gestures of praise before deities, are often made by individuals without any response or reciprocal gesture being involved, although such gestures may be performed individually or collectively. Noninteractive gestures often imply a difference in status between the performer of the gesture and its recipient.

Interactive gestures, which involve gestural reciprocation between two or more individuals (such as some gestures of greeting), tend to be formulaic and dictated by status. However, the protocol of interactive gestures between Egyptian deities and kings (see “Decorum” below) is especially interesting in that a wide range of expression is evident in certain time periods and even in monuments of the same reign. Depending on context, representations of the same monarch may include scenes where the king and deity are spatially separated with little if any interaction (as in many temple scenes), and others (such as mortuary scenes) showing gestures of close physical contact and demonstrating divine acceptance and affection for the king.

Gesture

Gesture. Examples of types of gesture, classified acording to origin: (top) a natural gesture—pointing; (middle) a formalized gesture—the complex hnw sequence of praise and jubilation; (bottom) a mimetic gesture—the childlike holding of the finger to the mouth. (Courtesy Richard W. Wilkinson)

Specificity.

Nondirective gestures express inner attitudes or emotions but have no specific content signaling commands or directions. Such gestures are found across a broad range of gesture categories, from rejoicing to mourning.

Directive gestures may be general or very specific, as in the case of gestures used in the navigation of river craft or in the performance of music. It is believed that the Egyptians invented chironomy, the use of hand gestures to guide musicians; and a number of representational works show vocalists or others leading instrumentalists with such gestures, which must have had specific meaning content.

Decorum.

Divine/royal usage of gestures is normally found only in representations of deities and kings (and sometimes queens), because decorum necessitated that certain gestures be held the prerogatives of divine or royal subjects. Gestures of embrace between gods and kings provide obvious examples of this type.

Human/nonroyal usage of gestures, conversely, is usually found only in scenes depicting nonroyal humans, or those of kings which include servants, subjects, or prisoners. However, gestures of worship, respect, and praise form an interesting interface between these two categories. Not only do commoners make the same gestures of worship and praise before kings and gods as kings use before the gods, but certain gestures in use by commoners are also occasionally utilized by royalty.

Gestural Variants.

Although a number of very similar or even identical gestures may be found to have different meanings dependent upon context, it is more common to find a variety of different gestures within a given category of expression. We might thus speak of a gesture “range” or a “complex” of meaning-related gestures as opposed to the different parts of a single sequential gesture. There are, for example, literally dozens of discrete gestures conveying respect. These gestures of respect include a large number of variations of placing one or both hands—flat or clenched—on the knees, arms, or shoulders, or on or across the chest. A number of other variants exist in this complex, and most of the gestures shown could be performed in reverse by utilizing the opposite hands in each case. Therefore, the effective number of possible variations for this one gesture group could be more than double the number depicted. Although the number of variants in this one gestural complex is thus quite large, they are all subsumed in the two basic forms of displaying the hands pressed either on the knees or on some part of the upper torso. From the perspective of gestural mechanics, it should be noted that the gesturer's hands are also placed palm toward the body in all these examples. Although most gestural categories utilize such complexes, a greater range of variants is often found for independent gestures than for sequential gestures, which are usually more formally controlled in expression and usage.

Combination of Gestures.

It is also important to realize that two or more different gestures might be performed by the same subject at the same time. Not only do bodily gestures frequently supplement hand gestures, but most gestures utilizing two hands could also be effected with one hand, as may be seen in many representations of individuals engaged in offering, rejoicing, praising, mourning, or jubilation. Worshipers before a deity, for example, are commonly depicted presenting offerings with one arm while lifting the other arm in praise, or some other gesture such as protection, as shown by the offering text, “I give you Maat with my left hand, my right hand protecting her.” In mourning, too, mourners may be depicted placing one hand on the face or hair while utilizing the other hand to make one of the gestures of respect.

In many representations from the New Kingdom on of the deities Isis, Nephthys, Horus, or Anubis standing behind the figure of the god Osiris, whether the deity actually touches Osiris or simply raises an arm behind him, both gestures are often described as a gesture of support. It is more probable, however, that two separate gestures are actually involved. In scenes that clearly indicate support, as is occasionally explained in descriptive labels, both hands are placed on Osiris—usually one on the shoulder and the other on the lower torso or arm. In other scenes, where one hand rests on the god and the other hand is raised behind him, a combination of support and praise is probably intended.

Diffusion of Gestures through Space and Time.

A basic comparative approach to the corpus of gestures found in Egyptian art indicates that while most gestures may be culture-specific, a number of these gestures and poses can also be found in the art of other cultures of the ancient Near East. It seems fair to conclude that at least a limited number of gestures were “shared” in the sense that, having been spread through trade, diplomacy, or warfare, they were understandable to people of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. For example, the appearance of the raised-arm gesture—in which one hand is held above shoulder height as if about to smite or protect—in many ancient Near Eastern magical figurines shows that this was a widely understood apotropaic gesture. While some natural gestures of this type could have developed independently, other shared gestures are clearly formal in nature and quite specific in meaning, like the turned bow.

Many representations from Egypt and other ancient Near Eastern cultures show the bow being held backward by gods and kings in a symbolic gesture in which the bowstring is held toward subjects of lesser status. This appears to represent a formal gesture of dominance: a god might hold a bow in this way before a king, a king before subjects or prisoners, or occasionally even a nondivine or nonroyal superior before subordinates. But the reverse is never true, and the “turned bow” is never directed toward a god by a king, a king by a subject, or an Egyptian by an enemy. In Egypt the gesture is commonly represented, as might be expected, in New Kingdom scenes of the king confronting enemies on the battlefield or in the symbolic slaying of captives. An interesting variant of this widespread gesture is also found in New Kingdom battle reliefs, where enemy soldiers hold the turned bow above themselves in the presence of the Egyptian king as a gesture of abject surrender. The “turned bow” appears in similar representations in the art of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Iran; it was not only clearly understood as a gesture of dominance in all of these cultures, but it also appears even in the derivative art of later cultures of the Hellenistic period.

Gestures of many other types were used throughout long periods of Egyptian history and continue in the gesture protocols of other cultures and areas influenced by the Egyptians, in some cases surviving even to the present day. In the Islamic performance of salat (the ritual of prayer), for example, the gestural forms of ruku (the position in which the believer stands with body bent forward at the waist and hands on knees) and sujud (the position in which the believer prostrates himself with hands, knees, feet, and face touching the ground) can both be exactly paralleled in representations of ancient Egyptian worship and doubtless continue ancient gestural forms.

See also SYMBOLS.

Bibliography

  • Brunner-Traut, Emma. “Gesten.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 2:573–585. Wiesbaden, 1977. Thematic overview of gesture, with many examples drawn from a number of categories.
  • Dominicus, Brigitte. Gesten und Gebärden in Darstellungen des Alten und Mittleren Reiches. Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altägyptens, 10. Heidelberg, 1993. Detailed discussion of mainly nonroyal evidence of the Old and Middle Kingdoms.
  • Grapow, Herman. “Wie die Alten Ägypter sich anredeten, wie sie sich grüssten und wie sie miteinander sprachen.” Abhandlungen der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Berlin, 1939–1942. Early analysis of gesture communication in Egyptian society and art.
  • Gruber, Mayer I. Aspects of Nonverbal Communication in the Ancient Near East. Rome, 1980. Examines gesture symbolism in the broader context of nonverbal communication.
  • Muller, H. “Darstellungen von Gebärden auf Denkmalern des Alten Reiches.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 7 (1937), 57–118. Early study of gestures and poses depicted in Old Kingdom monuments.
  • Ogdon, Jorge R. “Observations on a Ritual Gesture, after Some Old Kingdom Reliefs.” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 10.1 (1979), 71–76. Discussion of the hnw ritual provides a clear example of a sequential gesture complex.
  • Sourdive, Claude. La main dans l'Égypte pharaonique: Recherches de morphologie structurale sur les objets égyptiens comportant une main. Bern and New York, 1984. Study of the hand in ancient Egyptian culture, showing its symbolic importance and use.
  • Teeter, Emily. The Presentation of Maat: Ritual and Legitimacy in Ancient Egypt. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilizations, 57. Chicago, 1997. Contains detailed analyses of offering gestures.
  • Wilkinson, Richard H. “The Turned Bow in Egyptian Iconography.” Varia Aegyptiaca 4.2 (1988), 181–187. Analyzes a specific gesture of dominance.
  • Wilkinson, Richard H. “The Turned Bow as a Gesture of Surrender in Egyptian Art.” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 17.3 (1991), 128–133. The inverse of a gesture of dominance providing a gesture of submission.
  • Wilkinson, Richard H. “Ancient Near Eastern Raised-Arm Figures and the Iconography of the Egyptian God Min.” Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar 11 (1991/1992), 109–118. Study of a shared gesture found in a number of ancient Near Eastern cultures.
  • Wilkinson, Richard H. Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art. London, 1994. Overview of symbolism in Egyptian art, with a number of illustrated examples of gesture types in chapter 9, “The Language of the Body.”

Richard H. Wilkinson