The Golden Uraeus (Cobra) from the King Tut Treasures

March 29, 2024


Gilded wood figure of Netjer-ankh

Twenty-two black wooden shrines were stored in the innermost room of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and each of them contained one or two figures of either the king or a deity. Most of the deities are well known, but some are scarcely mentioned in Egyptian religious literature, and information about their attributes and connections is very slender. To the latter category must be assigned this gilded wooden serpent with eyes of translucent quartz, painted at the back and set in copper or bronze sockets. In spite of the shortness of the tail, it is clearly a cobra with neck dilated like the uraeus on the brow of a king.


An inscription painted in yellow on the black pedestal describes the deceased Tutankhamun as “beloved of Netjer-ankh”, which leaves no room for doubt that the name of the serpent deity was Netjer-ankh, meaning the “living god”. A serpent with that name, or its variant Ankhnetjer, is represented on painted wooden coffins found in middle Egypt and dating from some five centuries before the time of Tutankhamun; on the underside of its hood is the emblem usually associated with the goddess Neith, a feature also seen on the serpent in Tutankhamun’s tomb. The serpent depicted on the coffins is, however, not shown alone but as one of a group of five serpents, all with different names and more than one with the emblem of Neith on its hood. It has been suggested that each of the serpents originally represented one of the mystical elements immanent in the royal uraeus, and thus were minor deities with specialized functions.

The Golden Uraeus (Cobra) from the King Tut Treasures, Museum Reproduction

In the Eighteenth Dynasty at Thebes the priests of Amun, the national god, endeavored to synthesize the different local conceptions of the afterlife in a book called Am Duat, meaning “What is in the underworld”, which describes, with illustrations, the nocturnal journey of the sun god through the underworld from the western to the eastern horizons. The “book” appears, for the first time, on the walls of the tomb of Thutmose III, who died a hundred years before Tutankhamun. It is divided into twelve sections, each representing both one hour of the night and a geographical region, the latter being the subterranean counterpart of an important cult center in Egypt itself. The journey was fraught with dangers, largely caused by malevolent demons that tried to bar the sun god’s progress, but, with the aid of friendly deities and mysterious demigods, he always emerged triumphant on the eastern horizon in the morning. One of the demigods in serpent form, who acted as the custodian of the entrance to the sixth section of the underworld, bears the name Netjer-ankh, who may be the same divine entity as his namesake on the earlier coffins, but to whom the priests of Amun had assigned a different function. This serpent, however, does not bear the emblem of Neith on its hood, although two other serpents, which assist the sun god in the eleventh section of the journey, not only bear the emblem, at least in some representations, but are accompanied by Neith herself. The name is certainly of greater significance that the emblem, but it must be conceded that there is no exact parallel in the Book of Am Duat, or in any other New Kingdom religious work, either to the serpent on the coffins or to Tutankhamun’s gilded serpent. Variations in form, in function, or in name are not surprising after so long a lapse of time, and there is little doubt that Tutankhamun’s figure represents one of the serpents that he believed would help him in his passage through the underworld, either with the sun god or actually as the sun god himself.