What is a Cartouche? (with picture)

R. Kayne
R. Kayne
Cartouche designs come from Egypt.
Cartouche designs come from Egypt.

A cartouche is an ancient Egyptian design, first known as a shen. The shen or cartouche, dating back some 5,000 years, is a hieroglyphic rope looped and tied at the bottom, forming a closed circle. The encircling rope symbolizes eternity with no beginning or end, often enclosing a sun, indicating the king’s rule over the cosmos. The shen is seen in many ancient Egyptian artifacts, often grasped in the talons of various avian gods, hovering protectively over a ruling king.

Around the close of the 3rd Dynasty, (circa 2575 BC) Huni used a cartouche to enclose his sovereign name. Over time the cartouche became vertically elongated to hold the cuneiform glyphs of longer royal names. A double-cartouche was sometimes used to display the royal name alongside the given, or birth name. Egyptians believed that writing down a name was important, or the soul risked being lost after death. This might explain why the cartouche appears on many royal sarcophagi.

The cartouche was such a powerful symbol that Tuthmosis III (1504 BC - 1450 BC) dictated his entire burial chamber, as discovered in the Valley of the Kings, be cartouche-shaped, along with his sarcophagus. Temple inscriptions from the Greco-Roman Period also show the cartouche holding names of gods, such as Osiris and Isis.

Today anyone can enjoy the royal blessing of a custom cartouche with his or her name in hieroglyphics. A cartouche can hang from a necklace, bracelet, or can be purchased as earrings. Custom cartouches come in many styles in both gold and silver.

Some websites that sell cartouches will translate names into hieroglyphics so the customer can see what it will look like in glyphs before ordering. Long names may have to be shortened, as most cartouches are limited to about six glyphs. A short name, such as “Jan” or “Bob” can be augmented with an ankh or other symbol.

A custom cartouche can be a unique and interesting gift, carrying with it a royal and rich history. Many online dealers boast that their cartouches are handcrafted in Egypt. Prices range from about $30 US dollars (USD) to over $100 USD, so there is something for every budget. If ordering a custom cartouche, be sure the name is spelled correctly upon ordering, as custom-made jewelry might not be returnable.

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    • Cartouche designs come from Egypt.
      Cartouche designs come from Egypt.