The Egyptian Shen-Ring,
symbol of all symbols,
represents the coming together
of the linear ordinary way of being
and the global plenary one
– in two words: time and eternity.
The art of passing from the one to the other,
and linking them at will,
is the secret of all dynamism and freedom.
The shen ring is at first glance a circle with a horizontal line in a tangent along its bottom edge. However the shen is more than meets the eye. The Shen is a symbol which represents eternity. The more elongated version is known as a “Shenu”. It is used to house the name of someone in Mtu Ntr or hieroglyphics. Once a name was placed within it, it was thought to protect that person from negativity.
Deriving its name from the root shenu (to encircle), it was almost always a symbol of eternity. However, the shen ring also held the idea of “protection.” It most often carried this connotation when seen in its elongated variation, the cartouche; which surrounded the birth and throne names of the Pharaohs.
The shen frequently appeared depicted in the claws of the avian forms of the falcon-god Heru and various vulture goddesses. An example of this can be seen to the right. The shen was also depicted at the base of the notch palm branches held by the god of eternity, Heh.
The cartouche is an elongated version of the shen ring. The Egyptian name for the cartouche, shenu, is derived from the same verb, “sheni” (to encircle), as the shen ring. The modern name came from Napolean’s soldiers during his expedition to Egypt. The sign reminded them of the cartridges, “cartouches”, used in their guns.
The cartouche was the place holder for the name of the pharoah. As it is descended from the shen ring, the earliest examples of the cartouche were in fact circular and identical to that sign. Soon though, the ring was lengthened to hold the larger number of hieroglyphs in the pharaoh’s name. By the 5th dynasty, the pharaoh’s two most important names (he had five or more), his nomen (birth-name) and prenomen (throne name) were enclosed in cartouches.
The cartouche had clear solar symbology. It originally represented everything that was encircled by the sun — the king’s realm. The cartouche was also a protective symbol for the king. In the Eighteenth Dynasty, royal sarcophagi were constructed in the shape of the cartouche. The entire burial chamber of Thutmose III and the sarcophagus was in the this shape. It seems fitting that the king’s final resting place would be representative of his name and person.
The cartouche was also used in many decorative ways. For instance the box shown above was found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The symbols on the lid are his name. Finger rings were also made in the shape of the cartouche.
Finally, partially personified cartouches were found on many palace walls. Inside the ring would be the name of cities and subject peoples the king dominated during his reign.
- http://www.egyptianmyths .net/shen.htm
- http://www.egyptianmyths .net/cartouche.htm
- http://www.medhananda .com/home.htm
(Chinese Medicine considers Shen to be one of the “three treasures” that constitute life: Yin, the essence, Qi, the life force, and Shen, the spirit.)