Now that I seek myself in a serpent: the snake in ancient Egypt

The serpent is a fascinating animal when it comes to Egyptian mythology. Unsurprisingly, their power was both feared and admired by ancient Egyptians, which was reflected in the duality of the serpent in Egyptian mythology.

The rearing cobra adorned the heads of pharaohs as a symbol of royalty and protection. The goddess Meretseger watched over the Valley of the Kings from up high on the Peak of the West. The underworld was littered with protective serpents, such as Mehen, who would encircle Re in his boat during his nighttime journey through the underworld. Yet one of the most destructive forces in Egyptian mythology was the serpent Apep (Apophis), who had to be defeated each night by the sun god Re. Hieroglyphs of serpents in tombs would sometimes be drawn with their head separated from their bodies to prevent them from doing magical damage to the tomb owner.

Serpents were a true reflection of the duality so important to many aspects of Egyptian life.

And, almost more than any other creature, they were depicted in many weird and wonderful ways. This project is a personal photographic study of this duality and the myriad representions of these amazing animals.

All photos are © Julia Thorne. Please don’t just take my photos, but if you’d like to use any in a lecture, presentation or blog post, please drop me an email via my contact page. If you share them on social media, I’d appreciate a link back to this site or to one of my social media accounts. Thanks!

painted egyptian gods re as a serpent and osiris on papyris
Detail of Re encircling Osiris, from the Book of Breathing. Detail is a couple of centimetres wide, photographed with macro lens [Roman Period | Garstang Museum of Archaeology | Acc. No. E.508]
a roman egyptian marble statue of a pharaoh
Roman-period statue of a pharaoh holding a jar with a serpent handle [World Museum]
an ancient egyptian serpent-headed deity
Detail of a serpent-headed deity holding a knife on a cartonnage coffin lid for a young woman or adolescent girl [Roman period | Koptos | Manchester Museum | Acc. No. 1763 | 150.5 cm (whole coffin)]
a painted ancient egyptian hieroglyph of a viper with its headed severed
Detail of a beheaded viper hieroglyph on the coffin board of Ipi [Middle Kingdom | Beni Hasan | Garstang Museum of Archaeology | Acc. No. E.577]
an ancient egyptian serpent armband
Copper alloy serpent armband. Composite image of 114 photos, using focus stacking and exposure bracketing [Roman period | Manchester Museum | Acc. No. 11335 | 9.2 x 5.7 cm (whole object)]
an ancient egyptian rearing cobra on papyrus
Rearing cobra from the Book of the Dead of Inaros [Late Period | Garstang Museum of Archaeology | Acc. No. 2017/34/1]
an ancient egyptian ba bird on a coffin
Detail of a ba bird standing on a rearing cobra on a cartonnage coffin lid for a young woman or adolescent girl [Roman period | Koptos | Manchester Museum | Acc. No. 1763 | 150.5 cm (whole coffin)]
ancient egyptian serpent- and frog-headed deities
Detail of serpent- and frog-headed deities on a cartonnage coffin lid for a young woman or adolescent girl [Roman period | Koptos | Manchester Museum | Acc. No. 1763 | 150.5 cm (whole coffin)]
a meroitic pot with rows of incised cobras
Meroitic pot with rows of rearing cobras with sundisks [Meroitic cemetery, Faras, Sudan | Meroitic period (300 BC-400 AD) | Manchester Museum | Acc. No. 8467 | 9.7 x 9 cm]
an ancient egyptian serpent on a pot
Detail of an inscribed viper on the neck of a ceramic vase. This detail is only a few millimetres wide [Predynastic period | A-Group Koshtamna 181 K06 (Egyptian import) | Garstang Museum of Archaeology | Acc. No. E.4261 | 26.4 cm (height of whole pot)]
detail of an ancient egyptian woman on a limestone stela
Detail of the princess Isis, daughter of king Ramesses VI, and priestess of Amun. Here, she has two rearing cobras on her forehead, one on her headdress, and three on her sistrum. Composite image of 3 photos using exposure bracketing [Koptos (Qift) | New Kingdom (20th Dynasty) | Manchester Museum | Acc. No. 1781 | 64 x 93.5 cm (whole stela)]
serpent armbands on a gilded ancient egyptian coffin
Detail of serpent armbands on a gilded mummy. Composite image made from 66 photos, using focus stacking and exposure bracketing [Roman period | Hawara | Manchester Museum | Acc. No. 1766.a | 166 cm (whole coffin)]
a triple-headed serpent deity and bull-headed deity in the egyptian underworld
Triple-headed serpent deity and bovine deity in the Hall of Truths, Book of the Dead of Inaros [Saite Period | Garstang Musem of Archaeology | Acc. No. 2017/34/1]

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