What was the significance of birds in the art of ancient Egypt, and how is that symbolism conveyed in contemporary Egyptian art?

Expert Answers
kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Birds played a symbolically important role in the art of ancient Egypt.  One of the most important symbolic meanings was the use of the bird with a human head, Ba, which conveyed the soul of the individual being depicted.  The ancient Egyptians were strong adherents to the notion that every living being possessed a soul, represented by Ba, that would depart the physical remains of the deceased and spend the day in the field, returning to the tomb of the deceased at night.  Birds were often associated with death and the afterlife in Egyptian art.  

In addition to the representation of the soul and the afterlife, Egyptians used images of birds to represent goddesses, particularly Nekhbet, the vulture goddess who protected Upper Egypt, and Rekhyt, or Lapwing, which was physically restrained from being able to take flight and was used to symbolize the subordination of common people to the Pharoahs.  Vultures were typically used to symbolize or represent motherhood, but the association with Nekhbet is the most important use of the vulture image.  The god Horus was frequently depicted as a falcon, protecting the living Pharoahs, and the Ibis, one of the waterfowl of the Nile region, was used to represent Thoth, god of wisdom.

In short, birds were frequently represented in ancient Egyptian art, and symbolized items or concepts of great signficance to Egyptian mythology.  

Contemporary Egyptian art, unsurprisingly given the Egyptian people's pride in their ancient history, continues to include images prevalent in the art of their ancestors.  That paean to Egypt's past includes the continued use of birds, but in a more "modern" depiction that is often more abstract.  The Ba and the Ka continue to be represented in modern Egyptian art, still symbolizing the human soul.  Modern Egyptian art, however, incorporates less of the symbolism prevalent in the ancient art, and uses more contemporary influences.  The symbolism remains, but appears in forms more recognizable with modern art writ large.  Modern Egyptian art is more prone to represent modern Egyptian values and history than the ancient images associated with the centuries of Pharaonic rule.  The art is less oriented toward that era and more focused on the issues and challenges affecting modern Egyptian life.

An added factor in analyzing Egyptian art is the role of Islam, which strongly eschews living images in favor of calligraphy inspired by that religion.  There is less emphasis on concepts like the afterlife and more emphasis on politics.  An exception, however, apparently exists with regard to the tatoos adorning the bodies of many young Egyptians, which draw heavily from ancient Egyptian art, including depictions of pharoahs and gods, including Horus, depicted as a falcon.  [see www.freetattoodesigns.org/egyptian-tattoos.html]

To the extent that modern Egyptian artists depict concepts like the soul and the underworld, they continue to draw from the past, including the use of birds.  Art, however, is far more broadly practiced than in the days of the pharoahs, and reference to those concepts is far less prevalent.