Ancient Near Eastern Motifs

Del el-Bahari in Luxor, Egypt has an extensive mortuary temple complex.  In Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, some of the artwork was not exposed to the elements, so it is amazingly well-preserved and vivid in color.

In one section of the temple, you can see a winged sun disk, which is a common Ancient Egyptian motif. The sun disk often represented the Egyptian god Ra, later combined with Amun to become Amun-Ra.  Wings were often associated with the falcon god Horus, who also had a connection with the sun.

When I was at Deir el-Bahari, it was pointed out that this Egyptian iconography may be why the Bible used Ancient Near Eastern motifs that were familiar to people.  For instance, Malachi 4:1-2 (ESV) says:

”For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble.  The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”

Although I have not found verification, I was told that in addition to connections with the sun, Horus also had a connection with healing and protection.  Other Biblical references about healing or protection under wings can be found in Ruth 2:12, Psalm 57:1, and Psalm 91:4.

Here is a faded depiction of a winged-disk at the entrance of the Edfu Temple of Horus, who was later associated with the Greek sun god Apollo. This Temple was built by the Hellenistic Ptolemies, who would have had a greater connection with the Greek deities than with the Egyptian ones.

As I was thinking about Ancient Egyptian wing motifs, I was reminded of other Ancient Near Eastern deities related to the sun that also have wings.  For instance, the god Utu or Shamash was a sun deity among several Ancient Near Eastern peoples such as the Sumerians.  Interestingly, the word for “sun” in Hebrew is shemesh, in Arabic is shems, and in Aramaic is shimsha, meaning that these Semitic languages probably took their word for “sun” from this sun deity or vice versa.

The Ancient Assyrians later used very similar winged-disk iconography for their sun deity Ashur, which is where the word “Assyria” derives from.  Later, the pre-Islamic Persians used this iconography for their Zoroastrian symbol Faravahar.  I now wonder if there is a connection between the use of these birds of prey to represent chief deities / the power of a king manifested as a god, to the future use of eagles by more modern nations.  For instance, Ancient Rome used the eagle as its military symbol, which later led many modern nations such as Germany and the United States to also adopt the eagle as a national symbol. Interestingly, the current Egyptian flag also has an eagle depicted on it.

One final note about Egyptian sun deities.  One Egyptian god, Khepri, represented the sun but was depicted as a dung beetle or scarab. This is because when a beetle rolls a round piece of dung, it looks like a god moving the sun across the sky.  The 2019 Lion King film has a great scene depicting a dung beetle doing this. 

This is a dung beetle at Bet She’an, Israel.

This is the dung beetle god, Khepri, deppicted on a statue at the Karnak Temple.



Sources and Further Reading

“Egyptian Symbols: Winged Sun.” Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. http://egyptian-gods.org/egyptian-symbols-winged-sun/ (accessed September 1, 2019).

Mark, Joshua J. “Ancient Egyptian Symbols.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. February 10, 2017. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1011/ancient-egyptian-symbols/ (accessed September 1, 2019).

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