Bronze Ra ensign, Early Dynastic

Bronze Ra ensign, Early Dynastic
Period:Egypt, Early Dynastic Period/Thinite Period, Dynasty 02, Dynasty 2
Dating:2925 BC–2700 BC
Origin:Egypt, Lower Egypt, Memphis
Physical:12.3cm. (4.8 in.) - 384 g. (13.6 oz.)

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  This religious and royal ensign, originally inlaid with gemstones (probably carnelian, lapis lazuli, malachite and turquoise) represents the god Ra, with a falcon head and a human body. He is crowned with the solar disc and holds the feather of Maat (daughter of Ra). This is a variation on the traditional hieroglyph for Ra, where he is shown holding not the feather of Maat, but rather the ankh (symbol of life).

This rare ritual ensign proclaims the preeminent role of Ra. We estimate that this item is from an early dynastic period (no later than the 2nd Dynasty), and may possibly have been created at the initiative and for King Ra-Neb for use in his ritual devotions (see this collection's scarab-seal displaying Ra-Neb’s cartouche). It could also be an early representation of the ethical role of Maat, body and soul of Ra, cherished by Ra.

* These three kings, who ruled over a united Egypt from Memphis, were buried at Saqqara in two enormous series of underground galleries. Seals bearing their names were found in those galleries. The serekh of Ra-Neb exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was also found in Saqqara.

Of the Importance of Ra
We have ample evidence of the existence of a cult of Ra in the Archaic Period. During the reign of Hetepsekhemwy, first king of the 2nd Dynasty, the center of power moved from Hierakonpolis to Memphis, and a religious change—the emergence of the solar cult—started to take place. Accordingly, Ra appeared in Hetepsekhemwy’s successor’s ‘Name of Horus’: Ra-Neb/i>, (“Ra is my Master”). Ra-Neb’s own successor, Ne-Neter, furthered this cult *. As the Archaic Period unfolded, the cult of Ra moved from simple shrines to larger temples.

During the Old Kingdom, kings favored the development of an official solar cult, centered at Heliopolis. [They] “built great sun-temples, increased the power of Ra’s priesthood, and made the solar theology the official royal cult… where the king performed rituals for the state god, on behalf of his country and his people. The temple was not regarded as a place of community worship, but as the house of the god… In theory, only the king could approach the god, by virtue of his unique position as divine son… the performance of the daily ritual for the gods was believed to ensure the king’s victory over his enemies and the prosperity of Egypt” (Cavendish 1987:98-99). “From Chephren [4th dynasty] on, kings formally become ‘Son of Ra.’ They will keep this solar affiliation amongst their titulature until the end of the Egyptian civilization” (Posener 1970:247).

At the end of the First Intermediary Period—a protracted period of weakened royal power—the preeminence of Ra was challenged. Although Ra continued to be closely involved in funerary rituals and resurrection, the previously obscure god Osiris surged in popularity, and slowly permeated the official cults of other ancient and powerful gods all over Egypt. Osiris became established as God of the Dead, and the king was no longer thought of joining Ra in his solar boat upon his death. Instead, from the 12th Dynasty on, the king became Osiris upon his death.

Early in the Middle Kingdom, as Egypt united again, kings of the 12th Dynasty promoted the cult of a minor local god from Thebes: Amen. The role of Amen in the Egyptian pantheon kept growing until he became a national god and even, by the New Kingdom, the great god of Egypt, merged with Ra as Amen-Ra.

“But although the priests of Amen-Ra under the Middle and New Empires were supported by all the power and authority of the greatest kings and queens who ever sat upon the throne of Egypt, in their proclamation of a heaven, which was of a far more spiritual character than that of Osiris, they never succeeded in obliterating the belief in Osiris from the minds of the great bulk of the population in Egypt” (Budge 1969:[1]334). “ Every man hoped to rise from the dead and to enjoy immortal life, because Osiris rose from the dead and enjoyed immortal life, which he had the power to bestow upon his followers” (Budge 1973:[1]305). “The result of all this was to create a perpetual contest between the two great priesthoods of Egypt, namely, those of Ra and Osiris; in the end the doctrine of Osiris prevailed, and the attributes of the Sun-god were ascribed to him” (Budge 1969:[1]334).

Of the Importance of Maat
Kathryn Bard denotes that “Maat as an ethical concept incorporates a web of interconnected cosmic and social principles of ancient Egyptian religion.” The association of general aspects of culture with Maat contributed to the creation of a conservative society which viewed social change as a potentially dangerous deviation from Maat. This social order was established early on. Again, Kathryn Bard remarks that “Maat as an ethical concept is known from at least the 3rd Dynasty.” The ultimate responsibility for maintaining Maat fell to the king, thereby making the head of state the protector of cosmic order. Maat is what the god loves. Maat was associated with the legitimacy of the king, as reflected by epithets as early as Snefrw, first king of the 4th Dynasty.

Bibliography (for this item)

Bard, Kathryn A., and Steven B. Shubert
1999 Encyclopedia of the Archeology of Ancient Egypt. Routledge, London, United Kingdom. (34,459)

Budge, E. A. Wallis, Sir
1969 The Gods of the Egyptians or studies in Egyptian Mythology (unabridged republication of the 1904 edition by the Open Court Publishing Company). Dover Publications, New York, NY. ([2]92)

Budge, E. A. Wallis, Sir
1973 Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection (unabridged republication of the 1911 edition by the Medici Society). Dover Publications, New York, NY.

Bunson, Margaret
1999 The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Gramercy, New York, NY. (

Cavendish, Richard
1987 Mythology: an illustrated encyclopedia. Crescent, New York, NY. (

Grimal, Nicolas
1988 Histoire de l’Egypte ancienne. Fayard, Paris, France. (67-68)

Liebling, Roslyn
1978 Time Line of Culture in the Nile Valley and its Relationship to Other World Cultures. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.

Posener, Georges, Serge Sauneron, and Jean Yoyotte
1970 Dictionnaire de la civilisation Egyptienne. 2nd edition. Fernand Hazan, Paris, France. (

Schlögl, Hermann
1978 Le don du Nil. Art Egyptien dans les collections Suisses. Société de Banque Suisse, Bâle, Swizerland.

Tiradritti, Francesco
1998 Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. White Star Publishers, Vercelli, Italy.

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