Egyptian Uraeus: Definition, Symbol & Meaning

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

You need to know many important symbols in order to understand Egyptian civilization. One of the most ubiquitous is the uraeus. In this lesson, we'll check out this symbol and see what it meant to ancient Egyptians.

The Uraeus

Imagine that you have an interest in ancient Egypt. Who doesn't, right? Now, imagine that you want to be able to talk intelligently about Egyptian history. Sometimes, you just want to say something more elegant than, ''Hey, check out that snake thing on the pharaoh's crown.'' Well, that snake thing is called a uraeus. Now that you know what it's called, it's time to learn how to talk about it.

That snake symbol on the royal crown is called the uraeus.
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Wadjet

Why do pharaohs put a stylized rearing cobra on their crowns? To understand this, we need some background on Egyptian mythology. In Egyptian art, the cobra often represented the goddess Wadjet. Wadjet was a protective deity and daughter of the sun god, Re. Her job was essentially to help protect Egypt and the cosmos from chaos, the ultimate evil in Egyptian mythology.

Wadjet was one of the oldest deities in the Egyptian pantheon, worshipped from the earliest evidence of Egyptian civilization and presumably even beyond that. In fact, her cult actually predates unified Egypt itself. Wadjet was specifically the protective deity of Lower Egypt, the kingdom based around the Nile Delta. Even after the Lower and Upper Kingdoms unified into a single state, Wadjet would always remain a symbol of this part of Egypt. In fact, one of the ubiquitous symbols of unified Egypt is the Eye of Re with a vulture (a protective symbol of Upper Egypt) and the uraeus (the symbol of Wadjet and therefore of Lower Egypt).

The mask of Tutankhamen has both a cobra and a vulture, symbolizing his authority over both halves of Egypt.
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The Uraeus and the Pharaoh

Wadjet was a goddess who protected Egypt from the forces of chaos, so her appearance as a reared cobra makes sense. But this doesn't explain why she was found on the crowns of the pharaohs, resting on the monarchs' foreheads. The uraeus was also found on crowns and statues of queens (although the uraeus was uncoiled on the queens' crowns and coiled on the kings').

The funerary mask of Amenemope with a coiled uraeus
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There are three reasons for the ubiquitous appearance of this image.

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