Ancient Egyptian names
Names, to the Egyptians, were meaningful. Together with your titles – your job – they summed up who you were. Your name could even be considered a part of your soul.
Not all names have straightforward meanings as words, but many do. Some names invoked the protection of a particular god, as in the case of the Fifth Dynasty official Harkhuf (“Horus-protects-him”), while others were a wish on the part of a parent, as in the case of the First Intermediate Period noble called Ankhtifi, whose name means “may he live”, or perhaps the feeling of their parents about them, which might explain the name of the Fifth Dynasty official Senedjemib – “(the one) who pleases” (literally, “the one who makes the heart happy”). Others are explicitly theological, as in the case of the Middle Kingdom official Khnumhotep – “Khnum-is-satisfied”, or the 11th Dynasty minor official Heqanakht, whose name, referring to the divine personification of magic (Heqa), means “Heqa is powerful”.
Kings’ names, too, are loaded down with meaning. Not only is the king often given a name at birth connected with the gods, such as the three 12th Dynasty kings called Senwosret (“man of Wosret”), but on their accession to the throne their birth name became prefixed with the phrase son of Re, and acquired four other names. Each of these names was, like their birth name, prefixed with a title, but unlike the birth name, were carefully composed statements about the king’s divine origin, and political authority. When written out fully, the first of the king’s was the “Horus” name; this linked him with the son of underworld god Osiris, who avenged his father’s murder by defeating his uncle, Set, in a struggle for the kingship of Egypt, and was thus regarded as the ideal king. From the 18th Dynasty onward, every king took a “Horus” name which began with Kanakht, “the strong bull”.
After this was the “Two Ladies”, or Nebty name. This name was prefixed with a special hieroglyph, depicting the goddesses Wadjet and Nekhbet. Nekhbet (“She of Nekheb”) was the protector of the city of Nekheb, while Wadjet (“She who is Green”) was the deified eye of Ra, who, according to several myths, became the uraeus, or rearing cobra which sits on the forehead of royal crowns. For reasons which are not clear, Tutankhamun’s funerary mask has both Wadjet and Nekhbet on the brow.
Next came the “Horus of Gold” name. The significance of this name is more contested, but presumably had similar meaning to the “Horus” name. The meaning of this name may be connected with the origin of Book of the Dead Spell 77, which is titled “Spell for Transforming into a falcon of gold”.
Next is the nesu-bity name. This name is preceded by two words, written with a sedge plant and a bee. The significance of this name is far from clear, though several possibilities have been suggested, including that it signifies that the king is king of Upper and Lower Egypt. Alternatively, they may represent two complementary natures of kingship, civil and religious. Both words are used next to the king’s name to mean “King so-and-so”, but bity is used more rarely for this, and appears to be relegated to more ritual or religious functions. The Fifth Dynasty king Neferirkare (“Beautiful Is The Action of Re’s Soul”) is described in the tomb of the sem-priest Rawer as “bity Neferirkare” on the day of his coronation (the “day of taking the prowrope of the god’s boat”), and the 18th Dynasty king Amenhotep I was referred to after his death only as bity at the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina, where he was worshipped as a god and consulted as a divine oracle.
Finally came the king’s son of Re name. This was their birth name, and this name often invoked the god Ra, particularly in the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties, but was not necessarily so, and could be connected with other gods or goddesses, as in the four 11th Dynasty kings called Montuhotep (“Montu-is-satisfied”), or the number of kings of the First and Second Intermediate Periods called Intef (“May-he-bring”).
Gods’ names could also be meaningful, though the origin of some – in particular, Osiris – remain problematic. Some simply named the thing they were most associated with, like Ra, which is also the word for “sun”. Others identified them with a particular town, like Andjety (“the one of Andjet”). Some described what the god did, like Wepwawet, whose name means “the one who opens the road”, perhaps referring to his action in clearing the way for Osiris in the underworld. Some others described their nature, like the lioness goddess Sekhmet, which means “She-who-is-powerful”, or Amun, whose name means “The hidden one”, and whose name may indicate his connexion with the mysterious creator god, “He-whose-names-are-hidden”.
Whatever your status in the world, from the highest to the lowest, your name was much more than just what you were called.