were emblems of status, derived from professional tools whose practical functions had become secondary to symbolic ones. They include thrones, scepters, staves, and standards. Class, office, and gender dictated which insignias a person possessed. In mortuary contexts, however, private and royal persons possessed divine insignias, since all aspired to divinity in the afterlife. Coffin Text Spell 75 invested the deceased with divine insignias. Middle Kingdom coffins depicted insignias in groups, called object friezes, which encircled the mummy, with crowns painted by the head, sandals by the feet, scepters by the hands, and staves along the body's length. Model insignias also accompanied mummies in their coffins.


Commoners had few possessions, and out of necessity they sat on the ground. Restricted to the upper classes, chairs were thus a status symbol. Thrones, which were ritual chairs, were restricted to gods, goddesses, and royalty. A deity (nṯr) sat on the block throne (Figure 1), a seat in the form of a cube with sides often decorated with the “enclosure” hieroglyph (ḥwt), and thus representing the term “temple” (ḥwt-ntr), which meant “enclosure of a god.” A throne decorated with the palace façade invested its occupant with a palace. A throne covered with plumage associated its occupant with the lofty falcon of Re-Horakhty, who was “variegated of plumage.”

Kings sat on block thrones decorated with motifs of universality. The knotted-plants motif (Figure 2), a hieroglyphic monogram for “unity of the Two Lands” (zmʒtʒwy), signified dominion over Upper and Lower Egypt. It depicted the sedge plant of Upper Egypt tied with the papyrus of Lower Egypt to a windpipe representing “unity” (zmʒ). Some thrones portrayed Seth, Thoth, Horus, or Nile gods tying these plants. Other royal thrones emphasize victory by displaying Nubian, Asiatic, Libyan, and Aegean prisoners bound by unification plants. Elsewhere these enemies were transformed into nine bows (Figure 3), which represented the sum of Egypt's enemies, since bows meant “enemies,” and nine, the tripling of three, represented “plurality of pluralities.” Nine bows figured on the king's footrest and sandals, so that he might trample his enemies. Lapwings, symbolizing subject people, were also figured under the king's feet. Sometimes kings sat on the lion throne (Figure 4), comprised of two lions supporting a seat. This iconography evoked the horizon, since Shu and Tefnut guarded the horizon in leonine form. The vignette to Spell 17 of the Book of Going Forth by Day depicted them as lions whose backs form a horizon where the sun rises and sets. By rising from or sitting on a lion throne, the king appeared to rise and set like the sun god, emphasizing his role as heir to the throne of Atum, the deity who created Shu and Tefnut as his resting place in the abyss.


Symbolic scepters derived from professional tools. Men used them more than did women, and kings more than officials and deities. The most typical male insignia was the aba-scepter (Figure 5), a flat paddle on a papyrus-umble handle, resembling a fly-swatter: Used like a wand, it served in the consecration of offerings and the supervision of ship-building. As a hieroglyph, it represented “govern” (ḫrp), and “control” (sḫm); therefore, it is also called the kherep- or sekhem-scepter. The sekhem-scepter was sacred to Anubis in the temple of Hu (known as the “Enclosure of the Sekhem” (ḥwt-sḫm), and to Osiris at Abydos. As a hieroglyph, it expressed “power” and any deity's stellar manifestation. When consecrating offerings, the king used two sekhem-scepters: one for Seth, and another for Horus. Elsewhere, Horus and Seth appear as “the Two Sekhems” (sḫmwy).


Insignias. Insignias discussed in the text of this article: (1) block throne; (2) knotted-plants motif; (3) nine bows; (4) lion throne; (5) aba-scepter; (6) sekhem-scepter (depicted as a sistrum); (7) ḥts-(or ʒmts-) scepter; (8) crook; (9) flail; (10) fly-whisk; (11) ostrich-plume fan; (12) scimitar; (13) piriform mace; (14) lentoid mace; (15) mks-scepter; (16) lotus scepter; (17) Ramessid baton; (18) wʒs-staff; (19) dʿm-staff; (20) papyrus staff; (21) sedge staff; (22) djed-pillar staff; (23) mks-staff; (24) ʒms-staff; (25) herald's staff; (26) aby-staff; (27) aʿwt-staff; (28) sunshade; (29) Horus standard; (30) Ophois standard; (31) šdšd-standard.

Sometimes the sekhem-scepter hieroglyph represented the sistrum (Figure 6), a musical rattle that was sacred to Hathor and was carried by her priestesses. It had a metal loop with jingles mounted on a cow-goddess-faced handle. Women also carried the ḥts- or ʒmts-scepter (Figure 7), whose hieroglyph means “finish” (ḥts). Its form was derived from the lettuce plant and may have related to the cult of Min, to whom that plant was sacred. It was used, like the aba-scepter, for consecrating offerings. Additional hieroglyphic values were “graciousness” (jʒmt), “ornament” (ẖkr), and “harem lady” (ẖkrt), which may derive from the scepter's similarity both to the tree hieroglyph (jʒm) and to the spear-point hieroglyph (ẖkr), which object decorated archaic palace gates.

As a pair, the crook and flail (Figures 8, 9) were insignias of kingship and might be carried only by kings, Osiris, and gods identified with them. Other deities could proffer them but did not keep them. Both insignias derived from the iconography of Andjety, who later became Osiris of Busiris. Sacred models of them were kept in Heliopolis. The crook was a cane with hooked handle, sometimes gold-plated and reinforced with blue copper bands. It probably derived from the shepherd's crosier. Its hieroglyphic value was “rule.” The flail was a rod with three attached beaded, strands. It possibly derived from a shepherd's whip, although it may have served for collecting incense gum. For unknown reasons, a flail is figured floating above the upraised hand of Min and other ithyphallic deities. Certain sacred animals carried the flail on their backs.

In silhouette, the flail resembles the fly-whisk (Figure 10), a stick with three pendant animal pelts. Despite their similar appearance, they are not interchangeable. Hieroglyphically, the fly-whisk designated “protect” (ḫwj). Ladies carried them, often reimagined, in the New Kingdom, as bent lilies or papyrus umbels. The ostrich-plume fan (Figure 11), with its papyrus-umbel handle, had the same phonetic value as the fly-whisk and could stand hieroglyphically for “protect,” and royal guards may have carried it for this reason. It could also represent the “breath of life” when held by Isis, Nephthys, or Horus, who waved it over the corpse of Osiris in order to revive him.

The forms of some scepters derived from weapons. Montu and Amun sometimes proffered the scimitar (Figure 12) to the king when he was depicted on temple pylons smiting enemies. The word “scimitar” (ḫpš) was etymologically connected to the “strong arm” (ḫpš) of Horus or Seth. Seth's strong arm was the foreleg of a bull, represented in the sky by the Big Dipper. Kings also carried maces associated with Ophois, the “Opener of Ways,” and the Eye of Horus. The piriform mace (Figure 13) served as a hieroglyph for “bright” and for “lightning.” The lentoid mace (Figure 14) had fallen out of all but ritual use by dynastic times. A wooden club called the mks-scepter (Figure 15), not to be confused with the mks-staff (see below under “Staves”), was employed in combat even after the old stone maces were obsolete. Other mace-like scepters included the lotus scepter (Figure 16), representing the fruit of a lotus, and its derivative form, the Ramessid baton (Figure 17), held by the king when directing festival processions.


Like scepters, staves are sticks, but they stand as tall as a person's chest from the ground. They derived from walking sticks, fighting canes, and tent poles. Gods carry the wʒs-staff (Figure 18), often erroneously called a “scepter;” its forked base may have been intended for controlling serpents, and its animal-headed apex may personify a desert creature like the Seth-animal or a gazelle. Seth possessed a sacred wʒs-staff emblem in his temple at Ombos, and Montu retained another one which acted as the emblem of Thebes. The wʒs-staff, in fact, is a hieroglyph for “Thebes” (wʒst) as well as for the word “dominion.” In Egyptian reliefs, wʒs-staffs served as vertical borders to scenes, supporting elongated “sky” hieroglyphs and standing on elongated “earth” hieroglyphs, which served as the horizontal parts of the frame. They seem therefore to represent the pillars of the sky, hence dominion over the entire universe. The dʿm-staff (Figure 19) is identical to the wʒs-staff except that its shaft undulates. Its hieroglyphic value is “electrum,” a precious natural alloy of gold and silver, and it is associated with Geb, god of the earth. Coffin Text Spell 469 also associated it with Orion, who used it to defeat the demons. Only goddesses personifying the eye of the sun god hold the wʒs-staff. These goddesses may also carry the papyrus staff (Figure 20), representing goddesses of Lower Egypt like Wadjet, Tefnut, Bastet, Sakhmis, and Neith, who protected the infant Horus in the marshes. Because it grows in water, the papyrus plant, symbolized the sun's first ascension from the abyss. The sedge staff (Figure 21) parallels the Papyrus staff, representing Upper Egyptian manifestations of the solar eye goddess, such as Nekhbet, Rat-tawy, Tjanenet, and Mut. The djed-pillar staff (Figure 22), a column with four cavetto-cornice capitals, hieroglyphically represented “stability.” Originally a focus of the cult of Ptah, who was called “August djed-Pillar,” it was soon transferred to Sokar and Osiris. On the last day of Khoiak, during the Sokar festival, the king ceremonially erected a djed-pillar and proclaimed the resurrection of Sokar-Osiris, whose shrine at Giza had four djed-pillars, one at each corner.

Staves carried by ordinary mortals included the mks-staff (Figure 23), having the form of a pole with a hand guard for cane battling. Old Kingdom officials are portrayed holding the mks-staff in the left hand and the ʿbʒ-scepter in the right. Its name meant “protect it.” Another object with a similar name, often conflated with the mks-staff, is the ʒms-staff (Figure 24), which resembles a tent pole wrapped with a strap and topped by a cap. Some Middle Kingdom coffins depict them in groups of four, one for each direction of the compass. Its name meant “grasp it.” The herald's staff (Figure 25) is a pole with a wider base than apex. Its hieroglyphic values were “word” and “speak,” as is appropriate, since heralds pounded such staffs when they made official speeches. Its butt end therefore had a cap on it, so that it might make a louder noise when pounded. Thoth, as the herald of the gods, had two of them, and four are sometimes represented on Middle Kingdom coffins, perhaps so that the deceased's arrival in the afterlife as a god might be announced in the four corners of the universe. The aby-staff (Figure 26) had a forked butt end designed for snake control and boat propulsion. These staves were carried in the desert and on boats but were also associated with the status of an eldest son, since the hieroglyph for that person shows a man walking with an aby-staff. The aʿwt-staff (Figure 27), a pole with a curved apex, also related to desert travel and animal husbandry. Its hieroglyphic value was “hoofed desert animals.” Several magical funerary statues of Tutankhamun, from his intact tomb, show him walking with this staff, perhaps indicating his journey across the Western Desert to the next life.


Standards (jʒwt) are staves with heraldic emblems mounted on their apices. Their earliest representations appear atop images of Naqada II boats. Rather than being carried by the person whose status they represented, they were carried in that person's vicinity by others of lower status. The origin of the heraldic standard was perhaps a sunshade (Figure 28). Most sunshades were plumed fans mounted on poles to protect one's eyes from solar glare; or they may have symbolically protected onlookers from the brilliance of the king or official around whom they were carried. Because of their height, they were highly visible, and this helped people to recognize one's rank from a distance.

A divine standard consisted of a vertical support staff with a horizontally oriented nṯr (god) sign atop it. The presence of such insignias behind royalty served to indicate their divine status. The Horus standard (Figure 29) normally represented Horus or the king in the function of Horus, but it could serve as a hieroglyphic sign referring to the king. The Ophois standard (Figure 30) had the jackal of Ophois, “Opener of Ways,” riding a sledge on its apex. Ophois standards appeared in pairs, one for Ophois of Upper Egypt and another for Ophois of Lower Egypt. The šdšd-standard (Figure 31) was topped by an enigmatic shape, which may have represented the king's placenta, the moon god, Khons, or a throne cushion, according to different Egyptologists. Two Ophois standards, a Horus standard, and the šdšd-standard preceded the king during his thirty-year heb-sed jubilee festival. Many divine standards were also carried in royal funerary processions, called the “Following of Horus.” Often carried behind the king in temple reliefs was his ka-standard, which bore the upraised arms of the “ka” hieroglyph, inside of which appeared the king's Horus name. Other divine standards served as nome standards, representing the various administrative districts of Egypt, and military standards, representing divisions of troops.



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  • Hayes, W. The Scepter of Egypt. 2 vols. New York, 1953, 1959. These volumes illustrate and discuss some of the many objects belonging to the Metropolitan Museum, including the Middle Kingdom staves and scepters of Senebtisi from Lisht, and various insignias from other periods.
  • Kaplony, P. “Zepter.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 6: 1373–1389. Wiesbaden, 1986. A brief but informative discussion of several Egyptian scepters and staves.
  • Kuhlman, K. “Thron.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 6: 523–529. Wiesbaden, 1986. A brief article describing the form and iconography of Egyptian thrones.
  • Lurker, M. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt. London, 1974. A layman's glossary of ancient Egyptian iconography, with interesting entries on various insignias.
  • Newberry, P. “The Shepherd's Crook and the So-called ‘Flail’ or ‘Scourge’ of Osiris.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 15 (1929), 84–94. This article challenges currently held views on the significance of the crook and flail. It has much useful information but is not entirely successful in proving its thesis, which is that the flail was a tool for collecting ladanum from the cistus plant.
  • Reeves, N. The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Treasure. London, 1990. This lavishly illustrated compilation contains numerous illustrations and commentaries on insignias found in the context of an intact royal burial.
  • Smith, W. The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt. Edited by W. Simpson. New Haven, 1998. A textbook that gives general background on Egyptian art and iconography.
  • Wilkinson, R. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. London, 1992. A manual for interpreting Egyptian art as a hieroglyphic mode of expression; several entries represent insignias.

Geoffrey Graham