Eagles and Falcons: Bilingual Symbols of Power

The Egyptian symbols of pharaonic power show the pharaoh as the god-king Horus who unites both Upper and Lower Egypt under his power. The pharaoh is also portrayed as the warlike protector of his country who smites its enemies with his godly power. The most important Egyptian symbol of power in the iconography of Ptolemaic coins is the falcon or symbol of Horus. Horus, like many Egyptian gods, had an anthropomorphic (human) form, a theriomorphic (animal) form, and a composite form. Pharaohs were frequently depicted with the theriomorphic falcon of Horus as a protector or as a representation of their divinity. Since the pharaoh is associated with Horus during his life and Osiris after his death, the symbols of Horus used by a Ptolemaic ruler would associate him with worldly power. This section of the exhibit will use Egyptian symbols of power to explain how the native Egyptians may have interpreted the coins introduced into their society by the Greeks. While there is, of course, no way of knowing how any particular person may have viewed these coins, the iconographic connections between the coins and the symbols of the pharaoh are striking.


Fig. 7 Head of a Hawk from the Temple at Hierakonpolis c. 2250 BCE, gold inset with obsidian eyes, 37.5 cm tall, Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Fig. 7 illustrates an Old Kingdom pharaoh as Horus in his theriomorphic falcon form. He wears the double-feathered crown with a uraeus or cobra on the front. The pharaoh was depicted with many different crowns for different occasions. Some had different symbolic meanings. The double-feathered crown is a crown of the gods Amun, Horus, and Min. This falcon, like the eagle on the bronze coin is a fierce, regal creature, and it is easy to see how a person could see them as the same symbol. The falcon is the symbol of the pharaoh’s authority because of his relationship to the god. The eagle is a symbol of the Ptolemaic king’s authority to tax and create laws. Whoever looks at the bronze coins in Fig. 8 and 9 can be in no doubt of who holds the power in the Ptolemaic kingdom.



Fig. 8 Ptolemy IV  Bronze coin. Diademed head of Zeus-Ammon right/ Eagle facing left standing on thunderbolt with cornucopia

Fig. 8 shows a bronze coin from the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-204 BCE) with the standard images of the head of Zeus and the eagle. In this case, the eagle has a small, thin cornucopia on its left. A native Egyptian who handled this Ptolemaic coin may well have read this symbol as the Horus falcon. The eagle and the falcon are both fearsome birds and this eagle in particular looks like a regal brother of the falcon. The cornucopia to the left of the eagle is small and thin, almost snakelike. I argue that a Greek immigrant to Egypt holding this coin would see this symbol as a cornucopia, representing fertility and plenty, but that a native Egyptian might see it as the uraeus, or cobra.

The uraeus is the cobra seen on many pharaonic headdresses. It represents the goddess Wajdet, the protector of Lower Egypt and the Delta. Any headdress worn by the pharaoh in art could have a uraeus to show the pharaoh’s divine protection. When combined with the vulture head of Nekhbet, the goddess of Upper Egypt, the pharaoh can portray himself as the one who unites the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. The coin’s small snake-like cornucopia and the Horus-evoking eagle could have been interpreted as a familiar Egyptian iconography of pharaonic power by natives who would have received their wages in bronze coin and spent it on their yearly salt tax. These symbols of power and plenty were bilingual in the sense that Greeks and Egyptians may have interpreted them slightly differently, but all who used these coins would have read their most important message of Ptolemaic ruling power.




Fig. 9 Ptolemy VI (180-164 BCE) bronze coin 36 mm, lotus issue. Diademed head of Zeus-Ammon right/ Eagle facing left standing on thunderbolt with lotus flower

 Fig. 9 shows a coin of Ptolemy VI that is almost identical that in Fig. 8, but there is one important difference. This one has a lotus flower where the cornucopia was in the coin struck by Ptolemy IV Philopator. The lotus flower is an important symbol to Egyptians, particularly those from Upper Egypt. Each half of Egypt had a flower that represented it symbolically; in Lower Egypt it was the papyrus flower and in Upper Egypt, the lotus. Just like the vulture and the cobra, the papyrus and lotus can be combined together to represent the unity of Egypt. The lotus and papyrus join together in a form called the sematawy. This lotus coin forms a perfect pair with the cornucopia or uraeus coin. With the first, we have the protective symbol of Lower Egypt and the Delta. With the second, we have the floral symbol of Upper Egypt. The coins in Fig. 8 and Fig. 9 show both the similar symbols that the Greeks and Egyptians used and the adoption of an Egyptian symbol to integrate into Ptolemaic coin iconography.

Next: Cleopatra VII: The Last Ptolemy