Fans and Sunshades in Ancient Egypt

Fans and Sunshades in Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

A fan found in the Tomb of Tutankhamun

In old movies about kings and ancient times, one often finds, standing behind the throne, or walking in the footsteps of a king or queen, a fan carried by a servant. The fan bearer is usually an insignificant part of the scene. But in ancient Egypt, almost every object seems to have a symbolic message, and the symbolic nature of sunshades and fans was especially important. Furthermore, they could also be used as standards for various purposes.

The title of fan-bearer (fan-bearer to the right of the king) was an important one, though this official might not be the actual person carrying the fan.

An artists copy of a scene at Medinet Habu showing Ramesses III in his war chariot and behind his horse, fan bearers

Ancient Egyptian fans and sunshades often differed only in size. Large sunshades, used to protect one's eyes from solar glare, or perhaps even symbolically to protect onlookers from the brilliance of the king or another high official, were doubtless also used as fans, and the hieroglyphic sign acted as a generic determinative used for words representing both objects. In all periods, the most common types of fan were lotiform and palmiform, imitating the leaf of the blue lotus or the frond of the date palm. Other, less frequently found types were patterned after the leaves of other plants, bird wings and such objects were all doubtless used as fans. An actual example of the type of fan represented by the hieroglyph was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.

From a piece of Jewelry belonging o Amenemhet III, a personified Ankh holds a fan behind the king who smites the eneimes of Egypt

The double deity Hepui seems to have represented the two fans shown accompanying the king in representations from the earliest times, as in the "Scorpion Macehead", named for the scorpion hieroglyph which appears next to the king (King Scorpion), and which may represent his name. There, the fan bearers stand directly behind the king in what is evidently a scene depicting an important ritual event.

Because the fan represented the air it moved, it was an active, functional symbol of breathing and therefore of life itself. In fact, several types of fan were known by the term nefet, meaning "blower," and the symbolic content of this idea could be represented iconographically in a number of ways.

Fan Bearer to the right of the King and Sem-priest are the two titles of Khaemwaset, one of the sons of Ramesses III

Frequently in Egyptian art, the fan is shown held behind the person of the king not by actual attendants, but by partially personified ankh signs, whose arms hold the fan aloft. In the gold chest ornament of Amenemhet III, the king is shown in the ancient ritual pose of smiting the enemies of Egypt, or returning from the hunt, and the fan-wielding ankh signs in attendance clearly spell out the symbolic message that the "breath of life" (ankh) is with the king.

The fan also seems to have suggested the giving of life or life-giving fecundity in a different way. In its function of "blower" the fan could represent the sending forth of life-giving waters of the Nile. Although this image may have developed as a part of Osirian beliefs in alter times, it is possible that even as early as the Scorpion Macehead the fans attending the king represented the sending forth of the waters with which the king's agricultural activity seems to be concerned. By virtue of its shadow the fan or sunshade also represented the "shadow" which, like the soul, heart and name, was regarded as part of the composite human individual. This use of the fan is seen in New Kingdom funerary works such as the Book of Caverns where the hieroglyph appears atop the heads of certain beings and alongside ba birds which worship the image of the sun.

Another view of Khaemwaset, a son of Ramesses III, holding a khu fan

The short-handled khu fan surmounted by a single ostrich feather, with a papyrus-umbel handle, also appears frequently in Egyptian art, carried by the "fan bearer at the king's right side," or by the royal falcon (Horus), vulture or winged wedjat eye in attendance on the king or on a deity such as Osiris. It had the same phonetic value as the fly-whisk and could stand hieroglyphically for "protect," and royal guards may have carried it for this reason. It, too, could represent the "breath of life" when held by Isis, Nephthys or Horus, who waved it over the corpse of Osiris in order to revive him.






Reference Number

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