Egyptian Tattoos: Symbolism and Meaning


World cultures and religions are a great source of inspiration for tattoo motifs. Everyone went crazy for Egypt when the almost intact tomb of Tutankhamun was found in 1922. The wealth of the tomb goods, the amazing styles of the artifacts, including the pharaoh’s gold and lapis lazuli death mask, captured the imagination and fueled fascination with Ancient Egypt and its art that continues to this day. Tattoos relating to the wonders of Ancient Egyptian art and its rich mythology and culture are one way in which Egyptian culture is still celebrated today. Popular motifs include Tutankhamun himself and hieroglyphic signs, such as the ankh and the Eye of Horus.

Related symbols from Near and Middle Eastern cultures that are much loved in contemporary tattoo art include the Eye of God, also known as the Eye of Providence, that also features in Hinduism and Buddhism. Another tattoo featuring an eye is the hamsa from North Africa and the Middle East, a good luck charm in the shape of a hand, often with an eye depicted in the middle of the palm. The om, or aum, motif is a symbol with deep spiritual significance in eastern religions such as Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism.

Ancient Egypt lives!

Over four thousand years since Tutankhamun died, Ancient Egypt’s art and culture remains timeless and contemporary. Fascination with Egyptian civilization actually began in the early nineteenth century, with momentum gaining ever since. It inspired art deco designs in the 1920s, after the world marveled at the wonders of the boy-king’s tomb, and Egyptian style still has huge appeal today. Some designs have spiritual significance that resonates with modern consciousness, while others are iconic visual motifs. Most Egyptian art is known from the tombs of the elite, which had very particular significance. Frescoes on tomb walls and the goods deposited with the embalmed bodies principally related to the afterlife that people were believed to embark upon after death.

Egyptian motifs used in tattoos may refer to the wonders of past civilizations and the thrill of archaeological discovery, but they may also echo the Ancient Egyptians’ spiritual concerns with life after death. The ouroboros (the snake eating its own tail), which symbolizes the cycle of life, death and rebirth, is also thought to have originated in Egyptian iconography.

The Eye of Providence, or the Eye of God

Elements of Ancient Egyptian iconography appear in other cultures too. The idea of the all-seeing eye appears in the Egyptian ‘Eye of Horus’ and the motif even appears on the Great Seal of America, which features on the back of the one dollar bill, along with a pyramid. Providence is the idea that God or some other spiritual force provides protection and divine guidance to believers.

The all-seeing eye is always watching over people, seeing all threats, but also human misdeeds. The Eye of Providence also appears in the coat of arms of various eastern European countries and as an architectural detail on Christian churches and other public buildings worldwide. It’s not just a western phenomenon. The same motif is also found in Buddhist and Hindu religious thought and art. Perhaps most famously, it was adopted by the Freemasons.

The association of the Eye of Providence with a pyramid may be an acknowledgment of the eye’s origins in ancient Egyptian religious ideas, as well as a symbol of aspiration to achievement and ethical living. In Christian contexts it took on another meaning. Here the pyramid often appears instead as a simple triangle enclosing the eye. This refers to the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). The eye is also often shown with rays of light emanating from it and radiating downward, representing the divine gaze. Sometimes clouds are also incorporated into the design.

The eye is always a powerful symbol that captures the viewer’s attention; we are perhaps hardwired to look at the eyes when we communicate. As a tattoo, the all-seeing eye has primarily spiritual significance, expressing feelings of religious devotion and the desire for protection, but it is also eye-catching as a design in its own right.

The Hamsa

The hamsa is yet another image that contains an eye, but here on the palm of a hand shape (always the right hand). Found in ancient Mesopotamia, and commonly today in North Africa (especially Tunisia) and the Middle East, the hamsa is used as an amulet that may be linked to warding off the evil eye, as well as bringing good luck and providing strength and protection. It is sometimes known as ‘the hand of God’, or of Fatima, or of Miriam (sister of Moses). It is commonly found in jewelery as well as in items of household décor, such as wall hangings.

As a tattoo, the hamsa works both as a minimalist outline with a central eye, or as a complex filigree of patterns and additional flourishes: curlicues, images of flowers – or anything else that takes your fancy! Some say that depicted facing down it brings blessings and answers prayers, while facing up it counters the evil eye.

The Om sign

The om, or aum, sign is unusual because it stands for a sound as well as spiritual values in eastern spirituality. The sign is usually represented in the script known as Devanagari, derived from ancient Brahmi writing, but many variations exist. The sound is a sacred mantra used in chanting, meditation and prayers. The meaning of om varies from religion to religion and is almost impossible to summarize, except to say that it is linked to the divine, to cosmic creation, the essence of life and knowledge of the self.

The flowing form of the om sign makes it ideal for a tattoo. Some say that, out of respect for its sacred origins, it should not be worn below the waist. An om tattoo is ideal for anyone interested in yoga, or eastern spirituality generally. As with the other tattoos discussed here, it evokes great civilizations and the most profound religious beliefs of some of the world’s greatest ever cultures.

The ankh

One of the best known images from Ancient Egypt is the ankh, which resembles a Christian cross, but with a teardrop-shaped loop at the top. The ankh is actually a hieroglyphic sign meaning ‘life’, but it could also symbolize air and water, the essentials for life.

It was later adopted by Coptic Christians in Egypt and by modern subcultures, including the goths. As a tattoo it’s a way of affirming the positive, but is also used by people of African descent around the world to celebrate their origins.

The Eye of Horus

Images relating to the deities of Ancient Egypt also regularly feature in tattoo designs. The Eye of Horus, the falcon-headed sky god, is derived from hieroglyphics. It was – and still is – associated with protection and good luck. As the name indicates, it depicts the outline of a single eye, with an eyebrow, a curling line that may mimic the markings of a falcon, and a teardrop-like detail. The design echoes the heavy kohl that the Egyptians used as eyeliner.

The Eye of Horus was sometimes painted on the bow of ships, to ensure safe sea journeys. The same design is also sometimes known as the Eye of Ra. Seven three thousand year-old mummies studied by archaeologists were found to have tattoos that were visible under infrared light. One, a woman, had a tattoo of an eye, which may indicate that she was a healer or priestess.

Hieroglyph tattoos generally

Egyptian hieroglyphs of various kinds can make wonderfully eye-catching tattoos. They were of two principal kinds: signs representing a consonant or syllable, and logograms, which stand for a complete word. The latter may have a literal meaning (such as a circular disc representing the sun) or a metaphorical significance (for example, a bird with a human head that represents the Egyptian concept of the soul). There are online resources that will allow you to roughly translate a word or name into hieroglyphics to create a unique tattoo.

Alternatively, the simple design quality of Egyptian logograms makes them ideal for small and minimalist tattoos, just as visual statements (though you might want to check out what they mean). Themes include animals, people at work, plants, ships, household goods and much more. Many of the hieroglyphs are forms that are completely unfamiliar to us today, and would appeal to people interested in the esoteric and the arcane. Multiple hieroglyphics can be grouped together on a cartouche, an oval-shaped ‘frame’ that was originally associated with the written names of Egyptian royalty.

Rulers and deities

Finds from the tombs of Ancient Egypt have, quite literally, become iconic. The extraordinary death mask of Tutankhamun is a popular tattoo choice, but there are many other options, such as the famous stone carving of the head of the beautiful Queen Nefertiti, or the elegant bronze and gold Gayer-Anderson cat.

Images of some gods and goddesses are also popular among tattoo-wearers, and there are plenty of striking images to choose from. One of the most celebrated male deities is Anubis, the god of the afterlife, who took souls to the realm of the dead. He was depicted with the head of an African wolf. The goddess Bastet, or Bast, was originally a lioness warrior, but through time became the cat goddess, depicted with a cat’s head. She might appeal to feisty women who also like cats – or to any cat lover. For other animal lovers, various creatures were celebrated in Egyptian art and religion and could serve as interesting tattoos. They include bulls, crocodiles and the sacred ibis.

Other goddesses that feature in tattoos are Isis and Ma’at. Isis was an extremely important goddess who revived her husband Osiris from the dead and was said to have many other magical powers, linking her to her all-powerful femininity. Ma’at, a goddess associated with truth, law, morality, order and balance, is often depicted in tattoos with glorious outstretched wings. A more sinister figure is Set, or Seth, a god who represents the opposite of the values embodied by Ma’at. Set was the destroyer: the god of deserts, storms, violence and disorder. He can be an interesting image, as well as a counter-cultural statement, since his head is that of a fantastic animal, with features resembling an aardvark, fox and donkey.

The uraeus (plural uraei), the stylized representation of a rearing cobra, is a striking design for a tattoo. It is a mark of royalty that appears on the blue and gold death mask of Tutankhamun (in the forehead area), along with a vulture. The cobra is the sign of the serpent goddess, Wadjet, who was believed to protect the pharaoh. Uraei were also used as lucky charms, and there is also an uraeus hieroglyph, with various meanings.

One more famous Ancient Egyptian deserves mention: Cleopatra. This legendary queen has inspired hundreds of plays, films and novels, with the glamorous Cleopatra ‘look’ popular in the 1930s, and again in the 1960s, after the release of the film starring Elizabeth Taylor. Tattoos of Cleopatra celebrate power, beauty and feminine mystique. Styles are diverse. Some draw on the distinctive style of Egyptian painting, but images of her as played by actresses who have taken the role are another option. Cleopatra’s image is a statement tattoo for women, but could just as well be worn by men.

Famous symbols of Ancient Egypt

Other icons of Ancient Egypt also make great tattoos. What is more evocative of Egypt than the Pyramids, those great feats of ancient architecture and engineering that have stood for thousands of years? Or the Great Sphinx – part-man, part lion – one of the most mysterious and enigmatic monuments of Ancient Egypt, whose ancient original meaning remains unclear. Other timeless symbols of Egyptian civilization include the scarab beetle (also known as the dung beetle), which was part of the complex symbolism around life, death and rebirth. The god Khepri had a scarab head, and was associated with the rising sun. Scarab carvings were carried as lucky charms and incorporated into jewelry. As tattoos they can serve much the same function, to bring good fortune.

Less well known today, but of great importance to the ancients, is the solar disc. The sun was an important figure in Ancient Egyptian religion. Ra, the sun god and life giver, was depicted with the head of a falcon, with a circular form known as a solar disk above it, sometimes with a snake curled around it. Also linked to this complex of beliefs is the winged sun symbol, which is used as a visually striking tattoo design. As the name indicates, it is a circular orb with outspread wings on each side of it. Sometimes a uraeus is part of the design. The winged sun motif was also used in ancient Mesopotamia and Assyria, and beyond.

Egyptian tattoo designs – variations and combinations

In the art of tattoos, it’s about the look as much as the meaning of an image. Egyptian motifs give the tattoo artist plenty of creative possibilities. Ironically, the same didn’t apply to the original artists, who were bound by strict rules of representation, which mean that the same style persisted for many centuries. For example, figures were always shown in profile view and the six colors used (red, yellow, blue, green, black and white) were highly symbolic, with very specific meanings. Red stood for life, power and wrath. Green symbolizes life and fertility, while blue represented creation and rebirth (hence the fondness for the blue semi-precious stone called lapis lazuli), and black evoked death. Yellow was the color of the pharaohs. Tutankhamun’s yellow gold and blue death mask makes use of this color-coding.

This color palette may be worth considering when you choose an Ancient Egypt-inspired tattoo, but in contemporary body art the rules are there to be broken, and great tattoos often depend on clever reinvention for their success. Hieroglyphic tattoos lend themselves to plain black line art. Different motifs can also be effectively combined. So, for example, a motif such as a scarab beetle can be combined with hieroglyphs to enhance the Ancient Egyptian visual flavor. Egyptian motifs also go well in mixed media tattoos, because they are so visually striking and can be used to create a beautiful patterned background. Ultimately it’s all down to whether you want to be faithful to the spirit of the past or maximize the visual appeal – or perhaps both.

Egyptian tattoos are equally evocative and great to look at whether rendered using simple forms, crisp lines and a restricted palette, or elaborated with fine detail and color. Simple forms like the ankh can be given attractive patterning. The pyramids can be represented as stylized triangular forms that emphasize their geometric quality or as realistic images, with brickwork detail, the desert sands and the sky that the pyramids rise into. (For another variation, see the Eye of Providence, below.) One thing is for sure: our love of Egyptian style and mystery has been around for two centuries, and the intrigue persists.

Recent Content