Egyptian horses, chariots and bows: metaphors for control

Walk into any major Museum collection and Egyptian artefacts are easy to spot. We might say it has a strong brand!  We know that mummies, coffins, sarcophagi, pyramids and strange gods with animal heads atop human bodies are some of the items that instantly say “Egypt” to us. Plus, the curious sacred writing, the hieroglyphs, which may mislead us at first into thinking this is a pictorial script in which each picture represents an idea, concept or word.  (This is not the case.) Only after some time might an observer become aware that some of the imagery – the iconography – of the kings of Egypt includes horses and chariots – and bows. The best known king of Egypt, Tutankhamun, is represented several  times mounted on a chariot. His fabulous funerary treasure, now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, includes a large gold fan depicting on one side the young king hunting ostriches in the desert and, on the other, his return with the bodies of the birds he has skilfully shot with his bow. His two servants stagger along under the weight of the ostriches. Other vigorous and dramatic images on an inlaid box show the king and his chariot as an enormous, dominating presence relative to the other elements of the scene. On the lid, many different kinds of wild animals, including asses, are shown fleeing in front of him. On the sides, the superhero king overcomes his Nubian and Syrian enemies. Despite the pleading demeanor of these enemies, tiny under the bodies of the rearing horses, the king is about to crush them to death.

As far as we know, this imagery and these artefacts were made specifically for Tutankhamun’s burial in the Valley of the Kings. This shouldn’t be taken for granted, as it is certainly the case that items made for a particular royal individual often ended up in the burial of another relative. However, further investigation into the funerary artefacts of other Egyptian rulers reveals a decidedly repetitive element. Again and again the king, whichever king it is, appears in a pose generally known as ‘smiting the enemy’. He is mounted in his chariot with a bow, or occasionally a sword called the ‘khepesh’, overcoming his enemies who are never shown with any potency at all. Sometimes the ‘enemy’ is represented by wild animals or birds. Were all these kings truly superheroes who had rescued their land from its enemies? What is the significance of the overcoming of wild beasts?

‘Smiting the enemy’ is a piece of very ancient Egyptian iconography.  It is at least as old as the Egypt that emerged from the unification of two separate geographical entities (the Delta and the Nile Valley) in 3100 BCE.  It appears on an extremely important Egyptian artefact of very early date, the palette of King Narmer, who is shown lifting a macehead to crush the skull of an enemy who kneels defeated at his feet. Actual maceheads are known and they are important ritual and symbolic artefacts of great size, containing imagery that gives us tantalising glimpses into the foundation of the Egyptian state. Violence, or the threat of violence, is part of the maintenance of authority right from the start. The difference between the semi-legendary Narmer and Tutankhamun, who reigned nearly 2000 years later, is that Narmer is on foot, whilst Tutankhamun and the other rulers of the New Kingdom have horses and chariots; and tend to wield bows or swords rather than blunt instruments.

The innovative, creative ancient Egyptians, to whom we owe so much relating to the development of architecture, agriculture and medicine, amongst other human activities, did not play a part in the early development of chariotry. The origins and progress of chariotry technology across the ancient world is still a rich field for researchers. Two pioneering scholars in this field, Mary Littauer and Joust Crouwel, also produced an outstanding volume on the chariots of Tutankhamun. This is published by the Griffith Institute as part of a series on the artefacts from the tomb.  Several chariots, amazingly robust, delicate in appearance, and sheeted in gold, were included amongst the treasures in Tutankhamun’s tomb. They had been dismantled, like flat pack furniture, to take into the tomb, providing a marvellous investigative opportunity for the two researchers whose volume accordingly tells us a great deal about the construction of these vehicles. Prior to the middle of the second millennium BCE, the ancient Egyptians had no knowledge of the horse or chariot; wheeled vehicles played no significant part in their culture and the River Nile was the highway of the country, carrying goods and people from the Delta down to the Nubian border in the south and vice versa. Prior to 1650 BCE the horse was apparently not known in Egypt; it appears only once before this in a late Middle Dynasty tomb in the delta that is something of an anomaly. (The arrival of the horse in ancient Egypt, and who brought it, is a complex topic that is still the subject of discussion.) Along with the chariot, the earliest examples of which are to be found at Sintashta in Kazakhstan, came the compound bow, another weapon that we have come to associate particularly with steppe tribes in later periods. As these items of new technology were adopted by more ancient cultures, they were changed and adapted to suit the needs, forms and iconography of the culture.

The Egyptians (strictly speaking, the Theban dynasty who were buried in rich tombs in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor)  managed not only to acquire the practical skills relating to horse management and training but also to  embed the new technology into ancient iconography. They did this incredibly successfully.  Careful observation of one piece of significant art will show just how successful this was.

The image is of the king Amenhotep III, whose New Kingdom reign, for many, marks the zenith of Egyptian culture. It is a dual image, apparently a mirror image although the carved stela is incomplete, of the king competently driving his two horse chariot whilst also handling a bow and a whip. The triangular bow is of a type known from this period. Composite recurve bows were also known and it is more usual for them to be associated with chariotry. The king is upright and strong and looks straight ahead. Allowing some leeway for Egyptian artistic convention (which attempts to show as much of the body as possible, hence the torso facing the viewer whilst the king is obviously actually standing sideways), the straight line of his lower arm leading into the rein would prove very pleasing to a modern driving judge. This a good place to mention that many of these monarchs were extremely young when they came to the throne; by some estimates Amenhotep would be a pre-teen.  Chariot driving and the management of horse teams quickly became an indispensable part of princely education.

There is a fundamental harmony in the scene at first sight. The mirror image (and the two horse team) leads into the idea of duality, a balanced duality as the king faces both ways. In fact, although the stela can only offer us a two dimensional view, we can perhaps extend the vision to a multi dimensional 360 degree king who faces all ways at all times, always looking to the encircling horizon of his land. Without access to modern multimedia opportunities, the Egyptian state still managed to convey extremely complex ideas in stone and paint. Each kingly image is offered the Ankh symbol of life by the vulture goddess. The young king appears competent, confident, authoritative and far-sighted. This is quite deliberate.

Taking the theme of harmony further, if we draw an arc from the tip of the furthest royal plume on the far horse, over the top of the king’s head, to the centre of the sun disc supported by two cobras (a reference to the other ancient goddess of Egypt), a harmonious half circle, like half a sun disc, is created. Again we might even visualise a mirror image below the two upper images, creating a disc like circle suggestive of the whole of kingly authority through day and night, at all times, in all places; and a strong link to the solar disk itself, echoed again in the solar disks mounted at the end of the yoke between the horses and the also the disks on their bridles. Again and again we are reminded of the harmony of the circle, in the wheels, the frame of the chariot, the loop of the horses’ tails, the curve of their quarters and necks, the line of the sheets that they wear and even the musculature.  The harmonious line of the plumes pointing back leads us directly to the sun above the king and to the king himself, the representative of divine order on earth.

Duality can also lead to tension. In Egypt, this tension, it is argued, is, in fact,  “The source of political order and stability: the reconcilation of conflicting powers epitomized by the gods Horus [ ] and Seth [ ], in whose
reconciliation is subsumed the political divisions of Egypt” (Barrie Kemp, “Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation”, page 28, with reference to a an image in which Horus and Seth knot together the symbolic plants of the two lands of Upper and Lower Egypt, the papyrus and the reed).

The image of Amenhotep III, however, does not speak of reconciliation. On the backs of the chariot horses are mounted bound Nubian captives, apparently seated two to a horse. They may be represented sitting sidesaddle but this again possibly relates to artistic convention at this time. The Nubians appear subdued and powerless; the plumes on their heads point straight up, unlike those of the horses which mark them out as being from the royal stables. In other words, the Nubians, unlike the horses are not linked to the king; there is no communication between them. The captives are a disharmonious element in the scene and two further figures stress this point: the Nubian apparently mounted at the front of the chariot just behind the jaunty backside of the horse and the strange, grotesque head apparently appearing from under the king’s feet. There may be further comparisons to be drawn in the highly groomed, bedecked horses with their apparently deliberately hogged manes and the wigs (or hairstyles) of the Nubian prisoners.

When giving talks, I have frequently described this image as “cruelly witty” and to the king, no doubt it was such an image. It manages to convey all sorts of complex ideas about authority over potential enemies both within the state and beyond its boundaries. I believe that a comparison is also to be drawn between the horses (willing subjects of the king) and the Nubians (representing chaotic elements to be overcome, just like the wild desert animals). It’s a stark choice: be as my horses, who live well and receive the best of care – or face the consequences. It’s also a coded message to the Egyptian gods that the king is fulfilling his role. The traditional enemies of Egypt were frequently referred to as “The Nine Bows”. The two most important foes were Asiatics from the north and Nubians from the south. The breaking of an enemy bow was a highly ritual act since bows, certainly by the New Kingdom, were complex and expensive weapons. (We may be reminded here of the much later practice of only interring parts of broken bows in the graves of horseback archers of the steppe, since any complete and functioning bows were far too valuable to include as grave goods.) The ancient Egyptians found many opportunities for portraying their enemies, on artefacts, lying under the king’s feet (on the base of sandals, for instance), or under his chariot wheels in a similarly debased and servile condition. In fact, in letters to Egyptian kings from lesser monarchs it’s usual for the “junior” king to use greetings such as “Great King, King of all countries, I fall at the feet of my Lord, my Sun, seven times and seven times”; and that is from rulers that are not enemies of Egypt, but diplomatic partners.

Some would see this image as part of this propaganda. It doesn’t necessarily represent realistic treatment of captives although the Egyptians constantly exerted their power over their Nubian neighbours (and the gold in their land). It’s certainly designed to make the Nubians appear foolish and clumsy. In fact, though, there’s plenty of evidence to show that the Nubians were extremely skilled in raising, training and using horses and many were in the employ of the royal stables. They were also fighters in the Egyptian army and some received lavish burials for their loyalty. Further to the south and later, Kush had a reputation second to none for its horsemanship and its rulers played a major role in later Egyptian history. They gave their horses rich burials marking their status and significance to Kush. This image of Amenhotep III is art with a purpose, as is all Egyptian art, however mysterious it may appear. Its function is to convey the power of the king and the superiority of Egypt. The reality is often very different.

Finally, we get a glimpse of  the king’s relationship to his horses; a complex one. Are they servants, slaves, courtiers or friends? Further investigation into other texts and images reveals a closer understanding to which we can better relate. However, for now, take one last look at the positions of the horses’ heads. If you have the opportunity, seek out some further Egyptian images and note that what holds them in that position is frequently a fixed rod running from the bridle to the yoke.  This is very reminiscent of some of the less enlightened modern methods of forcing the heads of horses into fixed positions and it is a pity that after several thousand years this is still sometimes considered to be appropriate behaviour.

A version of this first appeared in the equestrian journal “Tracking-up” (Winter 2008-2009.) This version is also available on

Image of Tutankhamun kindly provided by Patrick Houlihan.

For those who would like further reading on the topic of Egyptian bows and warfare, I recommend the following:

“Egyptian Warfare and Weapons” by Ian Shaw, Shire Publications, London 1991 ISBN 0 7478 0142 8

“Self Bows and Other Archery Tackle from the Tomb of Tut’ankhamun” by W. McLeod: Tut’ankhamun’s Tomb Series Vol. IV, gen. ed. J. Harris, Griffith Institute, Oxford 1982 ISBN 0 900 416 335

“Composite Bows from the Tomb of Tut’ankhamun” by W. McLeod: Tut’ankhamun’s Tomb series, gen. ed. J. Harris, Griffith Institute, Oxford, 1970.

“Chariots and Related Equipment from the Tomb of Tut’ankhamun”, Tut’ankhamun’s Tomb series, gen. ed. J. Harris, Griffith Institute, Oxford, 1985.

For a good general background to ancient Egyptian culture, “Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation” by Barry J. Kemp (published by Routledge, ISBN 0 415 06346 9) and the “Oxford History of Ancient Egypt”, ed. Ian Shaw, published by Oxford University Press (ISBN 0 19 815034 2) are recommended.