To the ancient Egyptians, names were considered ritually and magically potent, a vital part of the individual. A person could therefore have multiple names expressing different aspects of his or her personality. Kings had at least five names, corresponding to the five-part titulary, and are known to have changed their names to suit changes in their religious or administrative policies. Gods frequently had many names designating their different manifestations, and major gods and goddesses had secret names that were unknown even to other deities. Chapter 142 of the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), “the spell for knowing the names of Osiris,” lists more than one hundred names of Osiris. Likewise, a well-known New Kingdom story describes a successful attempt by Isis to learn the secret name of Re.

Survival after death depended in part on having one's name remembered and repeated, and funerary texts ask visitors to speak the name of the deceased. When inscribing funerary monuments for relatives, people credit themselves with “causing his/her name to live.” Enemies, on the other hand, were designated primarily through derogatory epithets, causing their names to remain unspoken. The destruction of a name could deprive its holder of both power and eternal existence. Unpopular or controversial rulers could therefore suffer the deliberate defacement of their monuments or the omission of their names from king lists. The names of enemies, dangerous animals, and foreigners were written on figurines and other symbolic objects that were ritually destroyed in order to render the named entities powerless.

Composition of Names.

Egyptian names could be composed of single words, phrases, or complete sentences, all of which had meanings independent of their use as names. The largest category of names, called theophoric names, includes those describing attributes or characteristics of deities (e.g., Amenhotpe, “Amun is content,” or Djehutynakht, “Thoth is powerful”), or establishing the relationship between a deity and the holder of the name (e.g., Sobekemsaf, “Sobek is his protection”; Meryre, “Beloved of Re”; or Ankhesenpaaten, “she lives for the Aten”). A second popular category, basilophoric names, describes attributes of the king, often in the form of a complete sentence. While private people were rarely named directly after gods, it was not unusual for them to be named after kings, especially in periods of strong central authority. Prophetic names could relate to the circumstances of the bearer's birth or express wishes for health and well-being. Other names mention characteristics of the child, the deity responsible for facilitating the birth, or the time of year in which it occurred. Names could describe ideal personal attributes, such as Meru, “beloved,” Nakht, “strong,” and Nofret, “beautiful.” In some cases, such as when a blind man is named “the seer,” names appear to have been chosen deliberately to contradict a physical abnormality. Often, children were named after family members, so that the same names remained in families for generations.

History of Names.

Because their composition varied over time, names show distinct forms in each major period of Egyptian history. Herman Ranke traces this development in Die ägyptischen Personennamen (Glückstadt, 1935–1977). Evidence for the Early Dynastic period suggests that theophoric names in the form of sentences and phrases (such as Iri-netjer, “one whom the god created,” or Ankh-netjer, “may the god live”) were particularly common. Early Dynastic names repeatedly include the generic designation “the god” (nṯr), along with a variety of local gods, as well as the ka. Neith is especially popular. Re first appears in royal names of the second dynasty, after which he enters the repertory of private names.

Theophoric names remain popular in the Old Kingdom, a period in which many preserved names invoke Ptah of Memphis. Other regional gods and goddesses also appear, as well as the ka, although funerary deities are largely absent. Personal names describe the gods with such adjectives as “great” (ʿʒ, wr) and “powerful” (wr), or express the relationship between the individual and the gods. Basilophoric names are also numerous, incorporating many of the same phrases used in theophoric names. In contrast to the Early Dynastic period, the Old Kingdom witnesses an increase in purely secular names referring to attributes of the child, such as hair color, birth order, and personality traits. Old Kingdom names, reflecting the grammar of the period, tend to omit the first-person pronoun, as in Mereruka, “[my] ka is beloved.”

From the early Old Kingdom, private individuals are often designated by a pair of names: the major name (the rn ʿʒ), which is typically theophoric or basilophoric, and a shorter name (the rn nḏs), often an abbreviation of the longer one. Later, the rn nḏs is replaced by what was known as the “good name” (rn nfr), which seems originally to have been acquired some time after birth; it expresses the characteristics and status of the name-holder. It appears to have lost this meaning by the end of the Old Kingdom, however, and largely drops out of use altogether in the Middle Kingdom.

The Middle Kingdom is characterized by a great number and variety of names, many newly introduced. While theophoric names remain extremely common, significant changes in their composition occur, and Amun begins to play a dominant role. Previously, only kings could be named “son of” a deity, but private citizens begin adopting such names during the First Intermediate Period. Meanwhile, the Old Kingdom designation “belonging to” a god or goddess becomes rare. Private people are named “son” or “daughter” of kings and nomarchs as well. Names of the form “beloved of” a god, introduced in the sixth dynasty, increase in frequency dramatically. Basilophoric names are popular, especially during the period of strong royal authority in the twelfth dynasty, when private citizens are named after deceased and ruling kings; the names Montuhotep, Antef, Amenemhet, and Senwosret occur repeatedly. Names of purely secular content reach their peak in the Middle Kingdom. New categories of names refer to birthplace, lineage, and ancestry. Particularly common are those in which parents and other relatives are said to be revived in the newborn. For the first time, names such as “the Near Eastern” (ʿʒm) designate their holders as foreign.

No dramatic break in the composition of names occurs at the beginning of the New Kingdom—changes are not clearly discernible until the late eighteenth dynasty. With the appearance of nonliterary Late Egyptian in official inscriptions after the Amarna period, the definite articles occur regularly within names such as Paenamun, “The one belonging to Amun.” Personal piety is very apparent, especially during the Ramessid period, and a wealth of new theophoric names is found, often incorporating the name of the state god Amun. While children continue to be named “son” or “daughter” of a deity—now šri(t), “child,” as opposed to the earlier sʒ(t)—they are also more likely to be called the god's bʒk(t), “servant.” Various theophoric names describe the gods themselves, while others invoke their beneficence toward the newborn. Particularly popular are variations of “born of” a deity, such as Thutmose (“born of Thoth”) and Ramose (“born of Re”). Similar names refer to the king, and now the queen as well. With Egypt's military expansion, new forms of names focus on the king's strength (nḫt) and other warlike attributes. Secular names fade from popularity after the eighteenth dynasty but never disappear altogether. Several new types are created, including names referring to the attractive appearance of the child (e.g., Nefertiti, “the beautiful one has come”) and even the profession of the father (e.g., Satepehu, “son of the overseer of oxen”).

In the Third Intermediate and Late periods, many familiar names disappear. The majority of names are theophoric, designating the child as “given by” or “belonging to” a deity (e.g., Padiamun, “the one whom Amun has given,” or Paenamun, “the one belonging to Amun”). Names referring to the individual as the “son,” “daughter,” or “servant” of a god or goddess continue into the Greco-Roman period. Complex new names in the form of sentences also occur, referring to both personal piety and mythological subjects, and often attributing the birth of a child to divine oracles (e.g., Djedamuniwefankh, “Amun decrees that he shall live”). Basilophoric names often refer to earlier kings such as Amenemhet III and Ramesses II. Such names, which may praise the king or state that the child belongs to the king, are particularly popular during the twenty-sixth dynasty. Several new secular names also appear.

Relatively few new name types appear during the Greco-Roman period. Theophoric names continue to follow established patterns, referring most often to Horus, although many of the most common names (such as Petosiris) invoke Osiris. As in the Late period, children are often named directly after deities. The names of foreign rulers are not used in personal names, but kings from the powerful twenty-sixth dynasty and even earlier are sometimes mentioned. Some new forms of secular names appear, referring to personal characteristics, but there is less variety than in earlier periods.

See also TITULARY.


  • Baines, John. “Society, Morality, and Religious Practice.” In Ancient Egyptian Religion: Gods, Myths and Personal Practice, edited by Byron E. Shafer, pp. 176–178. Ithaca, 1991. Discusses theophoric names, their meaning, and their relationship to personal religion and piety.
  • Beckerath, Jürgen von. Handbuch der ägyptischen Königsnamen. Berlin, 1984. Handbook of royal names and titles from Early Dynastic through Roman times.
  • Beckerath, Jürgen von. “Königsnamen und -titel.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 3: 540–556. Wiesbaden, 1980. Analysis and list of royal names associated with the five-part titulary.
  • Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Ithaca, 1982. Analyzes theophoric names of the Early Dynastic period and their meaning.
  • Lüddeckens, Erich, et al. Demotisches Namenbuch. Wiesbaden, 1980. Major collection and analysis of Demotic names.
  • Posener, Georges. “Sur l'attribution d'un nom à un enfant.” Revue d'Égyptologie 22 (1977), 204–205. Discusses the theory that the child's name was uttered by the parents at the time of his or her birth.
  • Ranke, Herman. Die ägyptischen Personennamen. 3 vols. Glückstadt, 1935–1977. The major work on ancient Egyptian names, including a comprehensive list of names, thematic groups of names, and analysis.
  • Silverman, David. P., ed. Ancient Egypt. New York, 1997.
  • Vernus, Pascal. “Name,” “Namengebung,” “Namensbildung,” and “Namenstilgung.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 4: 320–341. Wiesbaden, 1982. Thorough encyclopedic treatment of Egyptian names, with relevant bibliography.

Denise M. Doxey