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Symbols from the Middle East

by Shira

 

 

Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

There are many ancient symbols that evoke images of the Middle East in people's minds. Often, people recognize the symbol, but no longer know anything about its original significance. This page provides an overview of selected symbols, their meaning, and their history.

 

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Aladdin's Lamp

The imagery of the magic lamp as we know it today comes from the collection of stories known as 1001 Nights or Arabian Nights. This collection of stories was assembled into a single book by French translator Antoine Galland in the early 18th century.

Marco Polo reported a real-life individual named Aladdin, who was chief of the secret brotherhood of assassins, the hashishim, in the fortified valley of Alamut (in what is now modern-day Iran) near Kazvin. Over time, several chieftains in turn adopted the name of Aladdin. This sect worshiped the moon as a symbol of the Goddess, as a Vessel Of Light. The Vessel was simultaneously Aladdin's lamp (source of a genie), and the moon (source of all souls).

Lamp

 

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Ankh

The ankh was the Egyptian cross of life, representing the union of male and female sexual symbols: a female oval surmounting a male cross. Its other name was Key Of The Nile, because the sacred marriage between God and Goddess was supposed to take place at the source of the Nile each year before the flood. Egyptians regarded the ankh as a universal life-charm. In hieroglyphics, the ankh stood simply for the word "life".

In ancient Egyptian art, deities are often portrayed as holding the ankh in one hand. Sometimes they are shown in funerary art as offering the ankh to the deceased person.

Ankh

 

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Evil Eye Amulet

This symbol is widely used in Turkey as an amulet against the evil eye. It may be incorporated into jewelry, or hung in a home, office, or car. In Turkish, the name for this amulet is nazar boncuk.

The evil eye is a jealous look cast at someone that has the power to bring misfortune. This amulet's purpose is to ward it off.

The traditional colors for the Turkish evil eye charm are shades of blue and white, representing water with its life-giving properties. People sometimes use other colors simply out of personal taste, but the blue theme is by far the most common.

Evil Eye Amulet

 

 

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Eye of Ra

This is also known as the Utchat, sometimes spelled Udjat, and it refers to Egypt's sacred eye symbol. The right eye is called the Eye of Ra, symbolizing the sun. The left is called the Eye of Thoth, symbolizing the moon. Both eyes together are the Two Eyes Of Horus The Elder. The eye is the part of the body able to perceive light, and is therefore the symbol for spiritual ability.

The first mention of the eye comes from a Heliopolis creation myth featuring Atum. Over time, the stories of Ra and Atum coalesced, and the Eye became associated with Ra.

In another story, when Horus battled Set for the right to the throne, Set snatched away his eye and threw it into the celestial ocean. Thoth then recovered it. It was this eye which Horus used to revive his sleeping father Osiris (whom Set had killed) so that Osiris could be resurrected to rule the underworld. In an alternative version of this story, Horus' eye was torn into fragments by Set, whereupon Thoth restored it completely. As a result of this story, the eye came to represent wholeness, and was used in hieroglyphic writing to represent wholesomeness and unity.

Utchat

Today's familiar sign for prescription, Rx, derived from the Utchat symbol. In the second century, Galen used mystic symbols to impress his patients, and borrowed this one from the Egyptian lore. It then gradually evolved into today's Rx sign for prescriptions.

 

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Falcon

The god Horus, who was the archetype for the pharaohs, frequently appeared in Egyptian art as either a falcon, or a man with the head of a falcon. Falcon mummies have been found at some ancient cemeteries.

Horus was the god who represented the Pharaohs. The funeral ceremonies of Pharaohs often included the release of a live falcon to depict the dead king's soul flying away to the afterlife.

Falcon

 

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Genie

In Arab legends, a genie or djinn is a spirit being made of smoke and possessing free will. Djinns were often perceived as being more powerful than mortals, but less powerful than angels.

Some believe the word "genius" came from the same root. In Islam, the djinn were viewed as pagan semi-demons because of their association with the old pre-Islamic religion.

 

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Khamsa / Hamesh

The khamsa (in Arabic) or hamesh (in Hebrew) is a symbol that looks like a stylized hand and is used to ward off the evil eye of jealousy. The word also refers to the number "5".

Arabs sometimes call this the hand of Fatima, named after the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed.

Amulets with the khamsa are often worn as necklaces. The image may also appear the form of wall hangings or may be incorporated into paintings. In Egypt the hamsa may be made of pottery with a turquoise glaze.

Sometimes, the khamsa includes an eye as part of the image, as shown in the drawing to the right..

Khamsa

 

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Lotus Flower

The lotus flower appeared in legends originating both from India and from ancient Egypt. Because this page's focus is on the Middle East and North Africa, this definition will correspondingly focus on ancient Egypt's use of the lotus symbol.

The lotus flower played a prominent role in the version of the creation story that originated in Heliopolis. Before the universe came into being, there was an infinite ocean of inert water which constituted the primeval being named Nun. Out of Nun emerged a lotus flower, together with a single mound of dry land. The lotus blossoms opened, and out stepped the self-created sun god, Atum, as a child. (See the entry for Eye of Ra for a continuation of this story.)

A slightly different version of the creation story originated in Hermopolis. In that version, the sun god who formed himself from the chaos of Nun and emerged from the lotus petals was Ra. His history went on to say that the petals of the lotus blossom enfolded him when he returned to it each night. The lotus is a flower which opens and closes each day.

Lotus

The lotus flower has been featured extensively throughout the art of ancient Egypt. In various works of art, it is shown held in the hand of a god or human, serving as a border to outline a section of the artwork, unfolding to reveal various gods or humans, and many other depictions. Often, the lotus is used to represent Upper Egypt, while the papyrus is used to represent Lower Egypt. Ancient temples would often feature some columns with lotus flowers at the top and others with papyrus flowers, to represent the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt into a single nation.

In Mesopotamia, the lotus was the flower of Lilith, the Sumero-Babylonian goddess that Jews claimed was Adam's first wife.

 

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Phoenix

According to legend, the phoenix was a bird that would live for 500 years, then erupt into flames. A new young bird would emerge from the flames to begin the cycle of life anew. Early Christians embraced this ancient legend as a metaphor for the Resurrection.

In ancient Egypt, the phoenix was known as the benu, and was linked to the city of Heliopolis. This word, benu, means "to rise in brilliance". The benu was sometimes associated with Upper Egypt, wearing the white crown of Osiris.

In one version of the creation myth, Ra rose in the shape of a phoenix from the primordial ocean of Nun and landed on a single mound of dry land, then let the sun's rays shine forth from himself.

Phoenix

 

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Scarab

The Egyptian scarabaeus beetle was the symbol of the god Khepera, a solar deity, said to roll the ball of the sun across the heavens as the beetles roll their balls of dung across the ground. Egyptians believed that these balls of dung contained the fertilized eggs from which the next generation would hatch, and therefore took the scarab as a symbol for the self-regenerative nature of the sun god.

In one version of the creation myth of ancient Egypt, a lotus flower rose out of the primeval waters of Nun, the infinite ocean of chaos. The petals parted to reveal a scarab beetle. The scarab then transformed itself into a boy, who wept. His tears then became humankind.

Scarab

The sacred beetles were depicted on all kinds of amulets and seals. Carved scarabs replaced hearts within mummies. Including a scarab in the tomb was supposed to ensure the rebirth of the deceased in the afterlife.

To this day, some Egyptian and Sudanese women believe that the dried and powdered beetles, ingested in water, act as conception charms.

 

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Shamrock

According to the Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths And Secrets, the three-lobed trefoil that we now call a shamrock originated in the East. Pre-Islamic Arabs called it shamrakh, the three-lobed lily or lotus flower of the ancient Moon-goddess’s trinity consisting of Al-Lat, Kore (or Q're) the Virgin, and Al-Uzza, the Powerful One. Together, this triple goddess was known as Manat, the Threefold Moon.

To the ancient Arabs, the shamrakh represented a design of three yonis, and it appeared on artifacts of the ancient Indus Valley civilization, as well as on stone, pottery, and woodwork in Mesopotamia, Crete, and Egypt between 2300 and 1300 B.C.

Shamrock

 

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Sistrum

The sistrum was a sacred rattle, used in the worship of the Egyptian goddesses. The sound of its clattering wires was said to dispel evil spirits. Egyptian paintings show the sistrum not only in the hand of the Goddess herself, but also in the hands of her priestesses and other high-ranking women.

The curved top stood for the orbit of the moon, sometimes presided over by a figure of Bastet. The four rattles represented the four elements which the goddess had used to create the universe. Their sound indicated mingling of the elements in the process of creation.

Sistrum

 

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Sphinx

The image of the sphinx is usually associated with the Egyptian goddess Hathor in her role as the lioness / destroyer.

As the sun god Ra grew older, he became fearful of his enemies and asked Hathor to help him. She took on the job with a vengeance and seemed to enjoy the killing. Ra then worried that she would wipe out the entire human race, so he had red dye mixed in ale and spread about the land. Hathor, thinking it was blood, drank it and became intoxicated. She forgot her assignment and humankind was saved.

Sphinx

 

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Uraeus

The uraeus was the Egyptian cobra symbol of the Goddess as creatress. The symbol was worn on the foreheads of deities and rulers in the position of the "third eye" of insight, and stood for royal spirit, healing, and wisdom. In hieroglyphics, the uraeus was the sign for "Goddess", derived from Wadjet. Uraeus

 

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Winged Sun Disk

The winged sun disk is a very ancient symbol. Long before Egyptian civilization flourished, the sun disk appeared in the literature of ancient Sumer, which was the first known civilization.

In ancient Egyptian religion, the sun disk became a primary symbol of Ra, the sun god. He was called the Sun Of Righteousness with healing in his wings," a title which Christians later adopted for their own god.

The sun disk was carved over the doorways of many Egyptian tombs and temples, and it appears on many papyri. In the illustration above, the sun disk is carried on the wings of Horus, and flanked by two uraeus.

Sun Disk

 

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Ziggurat

The ziggurat was the Mesopotamian version of the Mountain of Heaven, resembling the pyramids of Egypt and Central America in that its summit was a meeting place between deities and mortals. At the peak of the ziggurat the Goddess came down to mate with the king, or the God to mate with the queen.

Sumerian towns featured ziggurats as early as 3,500 B.C. In Babylon, the ziggurat was the core of the city. Its seven stages were supposed to represent the seven heavenly spheres.

Ziggurat

 

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