An enigmatic hieroglyph and amulet linked to Osiris’ backbone and resurrection.
The djed pillar was a roughly cruciform object with at least three crossbars, but almost always four that became one of the most recognizable symbols in ancient Egypt. It was sometimes surmounted by a small capital (or perhaps more correctly, an abacus used to support the architrave), and often stands on a rectangular base. Some depictions of the pillar portray it with human arms holding the royal regalia. In representations and in other instances, such as amulets, the djed pillar could be depicted as flat, but at other times it was produced as a fully round pillar.
Those who have heard various theologians speak on different passages of the bible, or who have read books on theology, perhaps better understand the complexity that might exist in a religion that lasted for well over 3,000 years, but which has no live theologists that might explain its mysteries. Like our modern religion, over time, the meaning of various aspects of theology can change somewhat radically.
In ancient Egypt, various theologies grew up to encompass a number of different concepts, such as creation, that were explained by varying mythologies. These concepts sometimes varied by region, or with time. For this reason, it is really somewhat difficult to determine how the concept of the djed pillar actually originated in the prehistoric period and it is likely that any such efforts are purely speculative.
As a fetish symbol, its origins seem to lie in the Predynastic period. Some scholars such as Manfred Luker have suggested that it might have originally represented a pole, perhaps with fertility associations. around which grain or corn was tied
R. T. Rundle Clark found a different origin. He pointed out that in the Old Kingdom, the pillar was shown in wall decorations at the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. In these drawings, the djed pillars were shown in the royal palace where they formed columns supporting windows. When one looked through the windows, the pillars gave the appearance of holding up the sky beyond. He wrote that “The purpose is clear:…the djed columns are world pillars, holding up the sky and so guaranteeing the space of air and world in which the king’s authority holds good”. However, in prehistoric times, he thought that the pillar was part of a “simple harvest ritual” performed by peasants in the Delta.
Others believe that perhaps it represented a tree devoid of most of its limbs and foliage, but the basis of this belief seems derived from theology that might not have existed in the earliest periods. It’s Predynastic origin probably did not involve many of its later conceptualizations centered around more mature theologies.
Over time, the djed pillar came to represent the more abstract ideas of stability and permanency. It was, like the ankh and ‘was scepter’ hieroglyphs, commonly used in this sense within decorative friezes. As prehistorical history became recorded, we see various interpretations of the djed pillar.
Ptah, the national god known best as the patron deity of Memphis is sometimes described as “the noble Djed”. However, the djed pillar was quickly associated with the god Sokar, and Sokar’s association with Osiris, the god of the dead, eventually led to the Djed being symbolic of that great god.
As theology progressed in Egypt, we see more definitive concepts of the djed pillar. In the Book of the Dead, the djed pillar is said to represent Osiris’ backbone and there are many other references in Egyptian literature to this association. Wallis Budge believed that it was the oldest symbol of Osiris, representing his body as well. However, there are many other tales from Egyptian mythology that explain the origin and meaning of the djed pillar.
One such example, explaining the djed pillar’s association with trees, comes directly from one of ancient Egypt’s most famous accounts, the murder of Osiris. In at least one variation of this story derived from Pyramid Texts and other early writings, but related by Plutarch, Osiris was apparently invited to a banquet by Seth. According to Robert A. Armour in Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt:
“Seth, who had secretly taken the measurements of Osiris’ body, constructed a fine chest to fit those measurements exactly. This richly decorated wooden box was a prize worthy of any man or god. At a feast at Seth’s banquet hall, the guests drank wine and sang songs while slaves scattered flowers about the room. At the height of the entertainment, the chest was carried in while the guests cried out in appreciation of its beauty. With words sweet as honey, Seth told those gathered there: ‘He who lies down in this coffin and whom it fits, to that man I will give it.’ The guests eagerly stepped forward, but each found that it was not the right size. When all the others had failed to fit the chest, Seth jokingly challenged the king (Osiris) to try. Proudly Osiris stepped into the chest and lay down to discover that it was a perfect fit, but no sooner was he inside than the conspirators slammed the lid over his head. While some nailed the top tightly, others poured hot lead around the edge so that Osiris quickly suffocated. The party guests then took the chest to the Nile and threw it with its divine contents into the waters, which carried them far away.”
Soon, Osiris’ wife, Isis, learned of this tragedy and went looking for his body. Eventually, she heard that the body had been washed ashore at a place called Byblos on the coast of Syria (though there is disagreement over this location). There, waves had carried it ashore and lifted it into the branches of a tamarisk tree, which grew to encompass and hide the coffin. The tree grew to be gigantic with such beautiful flowers that eventually the king and queen came from the palace to see the marvelous site. He ordered the tree to be cut down and used as a pillar to support the roof of his palace.
According to the story, Isis apparently traced her husband’s body to this foreign city, where she made acquaintance with the king and queen. As it turns out, the son of the king was mortally ill, and after ministering to the child, she was offered a gift. What she asked for was the beautiful pillar supporting the roof of the palace, which was granted to her. Next, she sent for carpenters who split open the trunk and removed the chest. Afterward, the men bound the tree back together and wrapped it in fine linen. She strewed it with spices and scented flowers and returned it to the king and queen. This became the djed pillar, which was worshipped from that day on by the people of Byblos, because it had once held the remains of Osiris. Afterward, its use spread throughout Egypt, where it became a symbol of strength.
This tale also seems in some way to support the concept R. T. Rundle Clark, for the djed pillar is often portrayed as a support, as in the palace at Byblos. Vincent Brown has advanced the ideas of Clark, with a theory that the djed pillar was seen as a support for the sky.
In some mythological accounts, the sky was divided into four parts and supported by the staffs of four gods. According to Brown, the staff may also represent pillars, which, in a method to describe four pillars, one behind the other in typical ancient Egyptian artistic style, might create an image that looks remarkably like the Djed symbol. Indeed, Ptah is often depicted holding the djed symbol as a staff, and lending further support to this theory are the bands found below the crossbars of some djed pillars that correspond to the papyrus and other columns in ancient temples, which symbolically held together the papyrus stalks.
It should be noted that the four gods who were responsible for holding up the sky were the Four Sons of Horus, and it is interesting to note that they were associated with the four canopic jars that contained the organs of the dead, which often had depictions of djed pillars adorning the exterior of the chest that held the jars. They also provided various services to the dead in the afterlife, strongly relating them to Osiris.
It was probably at Memphis that kings first performed a ceremony known as “raising the djed pillar”, which not only served as a metaphor for the stability of the monarch but also symbolized the resurrection of Osiris. Our best record of this ceremony comes from a depiction in the Osiris Hall at Abydos. It was eventually incorporated into one of the Sed Festivals of Amenhotep III at Thebes.
This ceremony, performed as early as the Middle Kingdom, took place at the time when the flood was at its height. Overall known as the Feast of Khoiak, it began with an effigy of the dead god, cast in gold and filled with a mixture of sand and grain. As the waters were receding from the inundation and grain was being planted in the land, the effigy was watered daily. Then, for three days, it was floated on the waters of the Nile, and on the twenty-fourth day of the ancient Egyptian month of Khoiak, it was placed in a coffin and laid in a grave. On the thirtieth day, the effigy was actually buried.
This seven-day delay represented the god’s seven-day gestation in the womb of Nut, his mother. On the last day, the king and priests raised a djed pillar as a symbol of Osiris’ rejuvenation and strength, apparently at a place in the Delta known as Djedu (Greek Busiris). Now, the land would be fertile for yet another year. The next day marked the four-month long season of Pert (Going Forth) during which the land appeared to rise up out of the floodwaters allowing the fields to be planted.
A discussion of the djed Pillar would not be complete without mentioning the Thet symbol. In some depictions, the djed pillar is represented alongside the thet sign, today often called “the blood of Isis”, which represented that ancient great goddess who was closely associated with Osiris. In some late period mummifications, men were sometimes discovered with a Djed and thet symbols clutched within their hands, and this same combination might be found in other locations of the body or on the sarcophagus.
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