The White Crown and Red Crown of Ancient Egypt

The White Crown of Upper Egypt, known as the Hedjet, traces its roots deep into prehistory.  The first representations of the tapered bulb-shaped headdress occur in Nubia around 3500–3200 BC.  It is unclear how the White Crown subsequently became the preferred headdress of Egyptian (as opposed to Nubian) rulers–perhaps Nubians conquered Upper Egypt or vice versa early in prehistory–but the crown appears frequently in predynastic iconography from Upper Egypt.  The white crown was an emblem of Hedjet, the white vulture goddess of Upper Egypt and she is sometimes portrayed wearing it.  Osiris, lord of the underworld is also frequently portrayed in the white crown (albeit in a special priestly version adorned with feathers).

King Narmer wearing the White Crown (busy smiting) from the Narmer Palette (ca. 31st century BC)

It is unclear when the Red Crown of Lower Egypt (the Deshret) first came into use but it seems to have been a familiar device by the era of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt around the 31st century BC and it is entirely possible that it traces its origin to some point centuries before that.  It is unfortunate that we don’t know more about the origin of the Red Crown because its form is meant to mimic that of a honey bee with the strange red wire curl representing the bee’s proboscis.  A bee’s sting was nothing compared with the Red Crown’s other animal association: Wadjet the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt is often portrayed wearing the red crown (which looks very fetching on her hooded head).

King Narmer wearing the Red Crown (pictured with his eponymous catfish and chisel) from the Narmer Palette ca. 31st century BC

The two crowns are first seen together on the Narmer palette (from the 31st century BC) which commemorates the unification of Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt under King Narmer of Upper Egypt. Subsequent to the unification of the two lands, the two crowns are also sometimes shown unified as the  Pschent, the Double Crown of Egypt.

Thee Pschent, the Double Crown of Egypt, revered as the symbol of absolute kingship for 3000 years

Although both the White Crown and the Red Crown are well known images which reoccur throughout ancient Egypt’s 3000 year history, archaeologists and excavators have never found a single example of either one.  We don’t even know how they were made.  It has been speculated that the original white crown may have been woven of green papyrus and the original red crown may have been made of copper, but this is only speculation.  They may have been constructed of felt or leather or something else entirely.

The Apostate Pharaoh Akhenaten wearing the Blue Battle Crown ca. 1340 BC

There was a third crown worn by pharaohs, the Blue Crown known as Khepresh.  The Blue Crown was originally a battle crown and may have actually doubled as a helmet.  It was blue leather or cloth with gold disks. The first pharaoh depicted wearing the blue crown was Amenhotep III of the XVIII dynasty (who ruled from 1380’s to the 1360’s).  The Blue Crown became popular during Egypt’s age of empire when some pharaohs were always depicted with the battle crown, but it fell from favor after the conquest of Egypt by Cushites during the XXV dynasty.

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