With origins in the close relationship between the king and the gods as well as in the unification of the two chiefdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt in the late Predynastic period, ancient Egyptian royal titulary was one of the rulers' most enduring symbols of power. The full five-part titulary consists of four names which the king assumed on the day of his accession, along with the name given to him at birth.

The Five Names of the King

The first name in the titulary is the so-called Horus name. It is always written within a serekh, a rectangle that contains the royal name. The serekh is bordered at the bottom by the kind of recessed paneling found on the façades of early mud-brick tombs and palaces and is often crowned with the figure of the falcon god Horus. At work here was the belief that the king was the physical embodiment of Horus on earth. Since the god Osiris, who was believed once to have been a king on earth, was considered by that time to be the king of the underworld, his son Horus was said to have inherited his father's place on earth and become the king of the living.

The Two Ladies name—literally. “He who belongs to the two ladies (actually the word “lord” in its feminine form)”—placed the king under the protection of the two goddesses Nekhbet and Wadjet. Nekhbet, in the form of a vulture, was the tutelary goddess of the city of Elkab in Upper Egypt, while Wadjet, represented as a cobra, came from the city of Buto in Lower Egypt. Because these two sites represented two of the most prominent cities from the Predynastic southern and northern chiefdoms respectively, the Two Ladies name symbolized the king's close association with both regions of Egypt. The name also underlined the ancient Egyptians' dualistic view of the world.

The third name, which should perhaps be referred to as the gold name, is more difficult to interpret. Because it was simply written with the hieroglyph for gold when it was introduced in the Early Dynastic period, it has been postulated that the name symbolized both the king's divinity—since gold is everlasting in its appearance—and the golden appearance of the rising sun. It is also possible that an association with the god Seth was understood, since Seth was the tutelary god of “Gold-town” (Egyptian Nubet, modern Naqada) in Upper Egypt. Such dualism between the two divine brothers Horus and Seth would have appealed to the Egyptians' understanding of their world. This interpetation may explain the writing of the name in the Middle Kingdom, when a falcon hieroglyph is consistently added over the hieroglyph for “gold,” at which point the name may have been understood as the “Horus of gold.”

The fourth and fifth entries in the titulary are sometimes referred to as the throne and birth names, respectively. Each is written inside an oval ring (called a “cartouche” today) that is a hieroglyph representing a length of rope folded and tied at one end. This hieroglyph symbolizes everything that the sun encircled and is thus an indication of the king's overlordship of the cosmos.

The throne name, often rendered as “King of Upper and Lower Egypt” in modern translations, literally means “He who belongs to the sedge and the bee” (nsw-bἰty in Egyptian); the sedge plant (sw) is a symbol of Upper Egypt, and the bee (bἰt) represents Lower Egypt. This name is another symbol of the king's dominion over the southern and northern regions of Egypt. By the middle of the fourth dynasty, in the reign of King Djedefre, one of Khufu's sons, the throne name is almost always compounded with the divine name “Re.” For example, Djedefre's name means “his strength is Re”; Khafre's name, “Re appears”; Menkaure's name, “The kas of Re are firm,” and so forth. From the Middle Kingdom onward, this is the name most often used to identify the king when only one of the five names is used in an inscription. When two names are used, the throne and the birth names are selected.

The last element, the birth name, was, as the modern appellation implies, the name given to the king at birth. It is sometimes referred to as the “Son of Re” name, since this epithet always precedes the cartouche inside which the birth name is written. The epithet symbolizes the filial relationship between the king and the creator god Re. This fifth name is the one modern scholars use when mentioning a specific king (for example, King Tutankhamun), often followed by a roman numeral to indicate which one of the similarly named kings is meant (for example, Amenhotpe III, Ramesses II).

Historical Development

Although all components of the five-fold titulary are attested by the end of the first dynasty, the most common name to appear in the earlier historical records is the Horus name. Kings of the first dynasty are usually referred to by compound names such as “the Horus Aha” or “the Horus Djer.” One can see how such names, which have clearly aggressive tones at this time, were not chosen at random, and how they often indicate a king's desire to announce his political program. For example, the two names just mentioned mean “the fighter” and “the strong one,” respectively. Other kings of this early period are similarly named the Horus Djet (“the cobra”), the Horus Den (“the [head] cutter”), and the Horus Adjib (“the slaughterer of hearts”). At this time the Two Ladies name should perhaps not be considered as part of an institutionalized royal titulary, since it mostly functions as an epithet forming part of the throne name.

Great changes in the royal titulary occurred during the Old Kingdom. The last king of the third dynasty, Huny, was the first to enclose his throne name in a cartouche. The use of the epithet “Son of Re” by the kings of the fourth dynasty has already been mentioned, but the other major development at this time was that henceforth, Egyptian kings would be mentioned more by their names within the cartouche than their Horus names. Another notable elaboration came with the kings of the fifth dynasty, who were the first to distinguish between the throne and the birth names by using two cartouches in their titulary.

By the Middle Kingdom, the full five-fold royal titulary was clearly established, and kings henceforth used all five royal names regularly. By the New Kingdom, another significant change was the addition of epithets, such as “Strong Bull” to the Horus name to indicate military prowess, and “Ruler of Thebes” or “Beloved of (a given divinity)” to the cartouches containing the birth name. The last epithet was often used to honor the god of a particular site where the royal cartouche was carved. Another reason for the inclusion of an epithet within a cartouche name was to allow one king to differentiate himself from previous, similarly named rulers. For example, the throne name of the nineteenth dynasty king Ramesses II is Usermare Setepenre (“Powerful is the Cosmic Harmony of Re, Chosen by Re”). To distinguish himself from his illustrious predecessor, Ramesses III of the twentieth dynasty added the epithet “Mery-Amun” (“Beloved of Amun”) to the Usermare portion of his throne name. The additional phrase was itself borrowed from Ramesses II's birth name, Ramesses Mery-Amun.

This borrowing of portions of a venerated ancestor's name was not a new phenomenon. The practice is attested as far back as the Middle Kingdom, when Amenemhet I, the first king of the twelfth dynasty, borrowed part of the titulary of King Tety, the founder of the sixth dynasty. Tety had called himself the Horus Sehetep-tawy (“He Who Pacifies the Two Lands”). Amenemhet I modified this into Sehetep-ib-tawy (“He Who Pacifies the Mind of the Two Lands”) as his first Horus name; he would later change this to Wehem-mesut (“Repeating of Births”), an epithet that would be used by subsequent kings in their titulary to inaugurate new eras of their own. Similarly, King Tety had chosen Sema (“The Uniter”) for his Golden Horus name—the same name Amenemhet I later chose for his own Golden Horus name.

Such borrowings became fairly commonplace when certain kings wished to look back to better times than their own, or simply to recall more illustrious ancestors. The first instance is clearly visible with certain rulers of thirteenth dynasty, who added the names Antef and Amenemhet to their cartouches, reminding their contemporaries of the great kings of the eleventh and twelfth dynasties. For the second case, we can look to King Thutmose I of the eighteenth dynasty, who simply added the adjective “great” to the throne name of King Senwosret I of the twelfth dynasty to form his own throne name. Similarly, when King Cambyses, a foreign ruler on the throne of Egypt, requested the help of an Egyptian priest to compose his royal titulary, the priest chose the Horus name Sematawy (“The Uniter of the Two Lands”), recalling that of the great eleventh dynasty ruler Nebhepetre Montuhotep I, who had ended the civil war of the First Intermediate Period to usher in the prosperous period of the Middle Kingdom. Similarly, when King Nektanebo I of the thirtieth dynasty established himself on the throne, he chose Kheperkare for his throne name, invoking the throne name of the great twelfth dynasty ruler Senwosret I.

See also NAMES.


  • Gardiner, Alan H. Egyptian Grammar. 3d rev. ed. Oxford, 1957. Excursus A, pp. 71–76, is an excellent introduction to the royal titulary and its significance.
  • Quirke, Stephen. Who Were the Pharaohs?: A History of their Names with a List of Cartouches. New York, 1990. One of the most accessible and up-to-date studies of the topic.

Ronald J. Leprohon