The was-scepter is one of the highly recognizable symbols, or emblems, found in two dimensional representations and in three dimensional objects of ancient Egypt. It is a well known object to most ancient Egypt enthusiasts, though actually this name for it is a bit deceptive. Technically, it is certainly not always in the form of a scepter, but can also take the form of a stave, or staff, and can also be displayed as a type of border, and in other manners. In fact, Geoffrey Graham, in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, refers to it as a w3s-staff (w3s being a type of notation used by Egyptologists to denote the spelling of an Egyptian term where there is actually no modern English equivalent for some of the letters of the word), and tells us that it is “often erroneously called a ‘scepter’. However, that seems a bit misleading, because it could indeed be displayed in the same manner as other scepters, though it took other forms as well. However, popularly it is almost always referred to as a was-scepter (or sceptre), and this is the term we will use. In fact, physically, this argument only refers to the length of the shaft, though symbolically, it can have some ramifications and the way in which it is used.
Physically, a was-scepter consists of a staff with, what many scholars believe to be, the head of a seth or a desert animal at the head, and an open fork at the base. Some have speculated that the head could, at least at times, be in the form of a gazelle, a bird, a snake or some sort of fantastic animal. Others have argued that the fork at the base could actually symbolize legs. Used to support that argument is the fact that was-scepters are sometimes depicted in a personification, having arms added to the staff, but there are other such personifications of objects that would tend to dispute this theory.
We believe that the was-scepter may have been derived from walking sticks, fighting canes or perhaps even tent poles. Its forked base may have originally, and later even symbolically, been intended for controlling serpents, but this is by no means clear, and there are many arguments and theories about the origins of this ancient device. The was-scepter was a visual representation of the concept of “power” or “dominion”. Hence, it could symbolize power and authority. It is also associated with wealth and happiness. In later Egyptian reliefs, the was-scepter sometimes served as a vertical border on scenes, supporting elongated “sky” hieroglyphs and standing on elongated “earth” hieroglyphs, which served as the horizontal parts of the frame. They seem, therefore, to represent the pillars of the sky, and hence dominion over the entire universe. However, the was-scepter was also the hieroglyph for “Thebes”.
Many scholars believe that the head of the was-scepter may represent a seth animal, such as this one from the tomb of King Tutankhamun
Naturally, its earliest depictions in Egyptian art found it in the hands of the gods and goddesses, and a number of different gods through the pharaonic period are depicted with was-scepters. Later, it was co-opted for representations of kings, and still later, could even be depicted in the mortuary representations of private persons.
Was-staff could be represented both two dimensionally and in the round in a variety of ways. As mentioned, they could be depicted as a sort of border, but more typically they were either shown in the hands of a god or king, or as a staff. Variations on the was-scepter were found in the hands of Osiris and Ptah. In their hands, it was combined with the ankh and djed pillar, but there are also objects in the round also made in this manner. It could also sometimes be depicted as a hieroglyph, together with the ankh, being poured over the head of a ruler, therefore giving him both life and dominion.
It should probably be distinguished from a d’m-staff (or djam-staff), which is identical to the was-staff with the exception of an undulated shaft. Some sources have referred to these two different objects as being identical, but in fact the djam staff’s hieroglyphic meaning is “electrum”, a precious natural alloy of gold and silver, and it is more closely associated with Geb, god of the earth.
Though seen throughout ancient Egyptian art, unfortunately, while the overall meaning of the was-scepter seems fairly clear, textual information and other evidence about its origins, and probably there are nuances related to its various forms that we know practically nothing about.
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