The Concept of the Djed Symbol

Copyright © 2002 by Vincent Brown

Legend of Osiris | Body of Osiris | Four Pillars of Heaven | Four Sons of Horus | Ba-Neb-Djed

One of the most enigmatic symbols of Ancient Egypt is the Tet, or  Djed. Although it was widely used as a religious icon throughout much of the history and geography of Ancient Egypt, it is still not clearly understood what the Djed was originally conceived to represent. Determining its meaning from its appearance alone is not an easy task so we shall take some of the suggested definitions and analyse each individually. But first of all lets look at the key elements that make up the symbol.

Typical Distinctive Features of the Djed symbol:

  • Four horizontal bars surmounting a vertical shaft
  • Vertical striations between each bar
  • These striations are shown in profile on the sides of the Djed creating a curved appearance
  • Four bands around neck of the shaft
  • Sometimes a small capital can be seen surmounting the Djed
  • The Djed often stands on a rectangular base

Raymond Faulkner sees the Djed as 'a cult object resembling a tree trunk with lopped-off horizontal branches, sacred to Osiris, Ptah and Sokar'1 He interprets the meaning of its use hieroglyphically as 'stable', 'enduring'.

Alan Gardiner suggests that it represents 'a column imitating a bundle of stalks tied together'2 Yet he describes this hieroglyph: F41, the top section of the Djed,3 as 'vertebrae conventionally depicted'.4 It is used in the word pesed, meaning 'back', as in 'spine'.5

According to Wallis Budge, the Djed is the oldest symbol of Osiris, and symbolizes his backbone and his body in general.  He states that originally Osiris was probably represented by the Djed alone, and that he had no other form.  He regards the Djed hieroglyph as a conventional representation of a part of his spinal column and gives its meaning as "to be stable, to be permanent, abiding, established firmly, enduring.6

Scenes depicting the 'Raising of the Djed' ceremony
Scenes depicting the 'Raising of the Djed' ceremony

The reconstruction of the body of Osiris occurred at a place called Djedu,in the Delta region of Lower Egypt and it was here that the yearly ceremony of 'Raising the Djed Pillar' took place on the last day of the month of Khoiak, the eve of the agricultural New Year. The next day marked the beginning of the four month long season of Pert, or 'Going Forth' during which the lands rose out of the flood waters allowing the fields to be sown.Djedu was also referred to as Per-Asar-Neb-Djedu, meaning "The House of Osiris - the Lord of Djedu".  The Greeks called it Busiris, after the shortened title Per-Asar - "The House of Osiris"

Mythologically, the 'Raising of the Djed' symbolised the resurrection of Osiris, and with its annual re-enactment represented the death and renewal of the yearly cycle.  Osiris is referred to as "Lord of the Year" in the Pyramid Texts7 and that he was also the god of agriculture meant that his annual resurrection ensured the stability of the abundance of the next season's crops. 8

A Tree:

From the descriptions above it can be understood that the general concept of the Djed symbol appears to be a combination of the backbone of Osiris, a column or pillar, and the trunk of a tree.  The Legend of Osiris as told by Plutarch reinforces this interpretation. The story involves the murder of Osiris in which his body is trapped inside a chest and becomes enclosed in a huge tree at Byblos.  The trunk of this tree containing the body of Osiris is then cut down and turned into a pillar for the house of the King. This pillar is referred to by the Djed hieroglyph and the branches of this magnificent tree were said to have been turned to the four cardinal points. 9

Osiris-Seker entombed inside the trunk of a tree
Osiris-Seker entombed inside the trunk of a tree

The rituals and spells described in the archaic Pyramid Texts are most likely the source of this later legend related by Plutarch.  Without including the occasions when expressed as a title prefixed to the King's cartouche, the god Osiris is mentioned in over 170 different utterances or spells in the Pyramid Texts.  Utterances such as 478, 482, 532, and 535, for example tell of Isis searching for the body of Osiris, while utterance 364 describes the gathering together of the body parts by Nephthys leading to his resurrection.  In utterance 532 Osiris is struck down by Seth.  The body of Osiris becomes enclosed in the trunk of a tree and is associated with the Djed pillar in utterance 574.

Much later, the detail was added that the tree enclosing of the body of Osiris was located at Byblos. This probably refers to the tradition related in the Hymn to Osiris, dating from the Middle Kingdom, of sending sailing expeditions to Byblos to obtain trees from which to make coffins.10

The Backbone of Osiris:

Chapter 155 of the Book of the Dead associates the Djed with the backbone and vertebrae of Osiris.  Budge states that the oldest form of his spinal column was probably represented by part of the back bone with portions of the ribs attached to it.  He suggests that as time went on it was drawn on a stand with a broadened base to form what we see as the Djed.11

Even when pictured without the ribs attached, four vertebrae supported by a stand take on the appearance of the Djed:

F41 on a stand
Hieroglyph of the spine placed
on a stand to form the Djed symbol

Four vertebrae pictured surmounting a stand
Four vertebrae pictured
surmounting a stand

Looking at images of the backbone, a likeness to the Djed symbol can be observed:

illustration of the spine illustration of the spine

In the two examples above, the upper four vertebrae have been left as is, while the lower four vertebrae forming the stand have had their transverse processes 'trimmed' to form a straight shaft.  The spine on the right, with its central vertical ridge looks very much like the Djed depicted below:

In utterance 321 of the Pyramid Texts the King ascends to the sky with Re on the backbone of Osiris.  An Old Kingdom variant of the determinative hieroglyph in this word 'backbone' is F41, which is the top part of the Djed Pillar: F41

A Pillar:

Most of the Djeds found in later tombs have been flat objects, usually no thicker than a quarter of its width, these flat representations of the Djed probably being derived from the hieroglyphic renditions.  But in these two ivory Djeds from the First Dynasty pictured below, we see that the Djed was originally more of a round pillar than a flat object.  Being such old pieces, they give us valuable insight into the original design and therefore the original function of the Djed before it became a flat icon.

Two ivory Djed pillars.
Two ivory Djed pillars found in a
First Dynasty tomb at Helwan.

(photograph taken by J.D.Degreef)

The ancient Egyptians divided the sky into two parts in very early times, with the Eastern end resting on the 'Mountain of Sunrise' and the Western end on the 'Mountain of Sunset'.  Later a division into four parts was made and the four corners of heaven were protected by four gods.12

Heaven is described in the Pyramid Texts as resting on the staffs of these four gods13 indicating that the quartering of heaven occurred at a very early time, before the Pyramid Texts were written.

"O you four gods who stand at the supports of the sky,
my father Osiris the King has not died in death,
for my father Osiris the King possesses a spirit in the Horizon"

- PT 556.

The Four Pillars of Heaven were personified as these four gods known also the Four Sons of Horus, who support the four corners of the sky with their sceptres.  Here we have another instance in which the pillar is combined with the human form.

M13 In Wallis Budge's Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary is the word spelled with a single papyrus stem, which has the meaning not only of "youthful" and a type of "sceptre", but also "... pillar, support, column".14
M13 on a baseThe same word, wadj (w3d) composed of the single hieroglyph only with the addition of a base is interpreted by Raymond Faulkner as meaning "papyriform column".14b

In utterance 217 of the Pyramid Texts this hieroglyph is used to denote four pillars by following it with the number four:

Hieroglyphs of utterance 217 of the Pyramid Texts

"O Re-Atum, this King comes to you,
an Imperishable Spirit, Lord of the affairs of the place of the Four Pillars"

Four Pillars written in hieroglyphs
 "Four Pillars"

Another way of writing the word 'Four Pillars' is by placing the four pillar hieroglyphs in a row:

The mention of the place of the 'Four Pillars' is a reference to Heaven, which the Ancient Egyptians believed to rest on these four pillars.  The columns supporting the roofs of temples were often shaped like papyrus stems, hence the hieroglyphic writing of the word "pillar".

illustration of a papyriform pillar
Papyriform pillar

illustration of 4 papyriform pillars
Four Pillars

Another way of depicting 'Four Pillars' would be to put one behind the other with each sticking up a bit above the one in front so that it can be seen:

illustration of 4 papyriform pillars, one behind the other
Four pillars combined
and topped with capitol

illustration of a djed pillar
A Typical Djed

This method of describing 'Four Pillars', one behind the other in typical ancient Egyptian artistic style, creates an image that looks remarkably like the Djed symbol.  In the following two scenes from the Temple of Hathor at Denderah, the four papyrifrom pillars on either side of the funeral bier in the first picture are exchanged with Djed pillars in the next:

Horus presenting Osiris with a flower.  Under the bier are the four crowns of Osiris. Four hawks perched on top of the lotus's.
Horus presenting Osiris with a flower.  Under the bier are the four crowns of Osiris.
Note also the four hawks perched on top of the lotus's.

Mariette, Denderah, IV, 65.

Isis at the head of a funeral brier instead of Horus.  Osiris-Djed in Djedu stands to the right. Djed pillars are on either side of the bier.
A similar scene only with Isis at the head instead of Horus.  Osiris-Djed in Djedu stands to the right.
Note that the four papyrus stems on either side of the bier in the previous picture
have been exchanged with Djed pillars in this picture.

Mariette, Denderah, IV, 71.

At the coronation of the new Horus-King, four birds each bearing the name and head of the one of the Four Sons of Horus were released towards the four directions marked by the four pillars of Heaven.15

The Four Sons of Horus:

When the four pillars are combined they form the Djed pillar, a symbol synonymous with the body of Osiris.  Another way in which these gods were related to the body of Osiris is through their association with his four bodily organs.  These were removed from the body during mummification, individually embalmed and placed inside jars, then reunited inside a funerary box and entombed with the body.16

Inside the tomb of Horemheb in the Valley of the Kings, his canopic chest containing the four organs was placed in a small room, featuring a life sized image of the Djed pictured together with Osiris.  The Four Sons of Horus are again related to his body by them featuring on the four sides of his sarcophagus together with their protective goddesses, Isis, Nephthys, Serqet, and Neit much like the canopic chest of Tutankhamun pictured below.

The Four alabaster canopic jars of Tutankhamun

The Four alabaster canopic jars of Tutankhamun
(photograph courtesy of Jon Bodsworth of Gizaview)

Although they are usually described as standing at the four corners of Heaven, in a number of instances the gods of the four supportsof the sky are combined and positioned at the eastern horizon to take part in the resurrection of the dead king17 with the rebirth of the new sun.

..."he (Re) commends to me these four children who sit on the east side of the sky"
- PT 507.

The word for pillar, wadj, also means "raw", "make flourish",18 and "to be young and new", "youthful"19 and therefore fits in a general sense with the Four Sons as they are the young children of Horus who aid in the rejuvenation of the King.  They are sometimes represented as sprouting from the top of a lotus, which, like the papyrus, symbolized new life as in the vignette from chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead:

The 'Four Sons' personified and combined atop an open lotus in front of Osiris
The 'Four Sons' personified and combined
atop an open lotus in front of Osiris 

After having passed through the night sky in utterance 334 of the Pyramid Texts, the King grasps the tail of the sun-god Re and after claiming to be the son of a god, declares that he is a flower rising from the waters of the Nile. In utterance 512 the King is given Four jars full of provisions and is purified on top of the lotus flower describing a scene not unlike the one depicted in the vignette above:

"Raise yourself, my father, receive these your Four pleasant provisions-jars20
bathe in the Jackal Lake,
be cleansed in the Lake of the Netherworld, 
be purified on top of your lotus-flower in the Field of Rushes...
Raise yourself, go in your spirit-state."
-PT 512.

The Four Sons of Horus also provide the deceased with food and drink that will sustain him in the afterlife as evidenced in utterance 338 of the Pyramid Texts:

Hapy, Duamutef, Kebhsenuf, and Imsety will expel this hunger
which is in my belly and this thirst which is on my lips.
- PT 338

Perhaps the four canopic jars in which the bodily organs were placed were originally intended to represent these four jars of provisions that are mentioned in the texts.  In life, these four organs process the air, food and drink and convert it into the energy that can be assimilated by the body, the generators of 'Life-Force' as it were. 

It may be interesting to note a similar belief amongst the Taoists of ancient China where four containers are mentally constructed around the navel, into which the energies generated by the organs are collected.  The contents of these four containers are combined to form a ball of energy that is then circulated through the body in what is referred to as the "Microcosmic Orbit".21

In death, however, the Ancient Egyptians put these organs inside jars, perhaps to simulate the absorption of the provisions by the organs thereby providing sustenance for the King in the afterlife.  Like the ancient Chinese, the Egyptians associated the characteristics of each of the organs both with young children and with different animals. These four 'sons' of Horus may be viewed in this regard as being the four elements that together form the soul, the hawk being the symbol of both the god Horus and at one time the soul, or ba.22

In utterances 544, 545, 670 and 688 of the Pyramid Texts, the Four Sons of Horus lift the king into the sky to be reborn.  The same four youths are also responsible for binding together the reed boats on which the Sun god Re goes to the horizon in utterance 519, and in 522 they bring the boat built by the Ram-god Khnum.


The backbone of Osiris was found at a place called Djedet, the Greek Mendes, 23 a well-established site of importance in the Delta during the Early Dynastic period.24 The god of the city was the sacred ram called Ba-Neb-Djed, meaning 'Ram, Lord of the Djed', though sometimes he was called 'Ram with four heads upon on neck' relating to a legend in which he unites within himself the souls of Re, Osiris, Shu, and Kheper.25 The god was worshipped as a form of Khnum and was also identified with Osiris.26

A local form of Osiris was made by merging with the Ram as 'Osiris the Ram, Lord of Djedu'.27

Hieroglphs saying: Osiris the Ram, Lord of Djedu
Osiris the Ram, Lord of Djedu

an illustration depicting the Soul of Osiris incarnate as a Ram
The Soul of Osiris incarnate as a Ram

The Djed is occasionally depicted surmounted by Ram horns, thereby associating it with the Ram of Mendes in the form of Ba-Neb-Djedu.28 The Rams horns are a common feature on the crown of Osiris and at times he is described as being two horned, tall of crown and of having great presence in Djedu.29 

Three illustrations of Osiris-Djed crowned with the two horns of the Ram
Osiris-Djed crowned with the two horns of the Ram

The Djed has been said to represent the support of the sky, the pillar of cosmic stability. Khnum is often pictured holding up the arms of Shu helping him to support the body of the sky goddess, Nut. Sometimes he even replaces Shu, in his role of the Khnumsupporter of Heaven and at times he was referred to as the "raiser up of heaven upon its four pillars and supporter of the same in the firmament".30 In this capacity he is depicted as the Djed with arms upheld supporting the sky as pictured on the right.31  In a hymn inscribed on the walls of the temple of Esna, Khnum is called "The prop of heaven who hath spread out the same with his hands"32 and in the Pyramid Texts, Khnum is referred to as a "Pillar of the Great Mansion."33 In utterance 586 of the Pyramid Texts Khnum makes a ladder for the king to use to ascend to the sky.  The word for 'ladder' in this case, however, is spelled with the symbol for 'ribs'34.  This would seem to be alluding once again to the backbone of Osiris, upon which, the King ascends to the sky with the sun god Re in utterance 321 of the same texts.  The Old Kingdom variant of the determinative hieroglyph in this word 'backbone' is F41, the top part of the Djed Pillar: F41

The Djed is frequently used to symbolize the Sun in its rising, and like the Djed, is a commonly used metaphor for the rebirth of the King's soul.  In chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead, the soul of Osiris finds the soul of Re in Djedu:

"He found the soul of Re there, and they embraced each other"

This notion of the King finding the soul of Re in Djedu was developed at a much earlier time and it is described in the Pyramid Texts where it is written:

"O you of Djedu, O Djed pillar which is in the 'Place Where his Soul is Found',35
...the King finds you seated on the 'Tower of the Mummified Body'36on which the gods sit; 
the owners of doubles are bound for him..."
- PT 410

"...he commends me to these four children who sit on the east side of the sky,
these four black haired children who sit in the shade of
the 'Tower of the Mummified body'."
- PT 507

"I have gone up by means of the staff which is in the 'Place Where his Soul is Found'
I have gone up upon the ladder with my foot on Orion and my arm uplifted..."
- PT 625

The first quote above is from utterance 410 of the Pyramid Texts and shows that 'you of Djedu', a title of Osiris, 37 and the Djed pillar itself are situated in a mythological place called the 'place where his soul is found'.38 Then in utterance 625 the Djed pillar in the 'place where his soul is found' is referred to as a "staff" by means of which the deceased "goes up", presumably referring to the staffs of the Four Sons of Horus combined in the east which help lift the King into heaven.

Returning to utterance 410, the King finds Osiris seated "...on the 'Tower of the Mummified body', which is associated with the Four Sons of Horus on the east side of the sky in utterance 507.

The object of mummification was not so much the preservation of the body as it had been during life, but the transfiguration of the corpse into a new body 'filled with magic', a simulacrum or statue in wrappings and resin.39 The King's ba could not be released from his body unless the corpse was made 'firm', 'established', 'stable', 'enduring', 'whole', 'sound',40 in other words, made Djed-like.  The 'Tower of the Mummified body' is therefore an accurate description of the function and meaning of the Djed pillar and is reminiscent of the imagery evoked by the Legend of Osiris, in particular, the body of the dead Osiris-King becoming enclosed inside a huge pillar.

This connection of the 'Tower of the Mummified body', with the Djed Pillar, Osiris, his soul, and the Four Sons of Horus in the east with their staff(s), reinforces a number of the interpretations of the Djed symbol that have been suggested in this article.

Furthermore, it brings us to the fascinating subject of iconic symbolism in religious and funerary architecture.

Pyramid of Man

The pyramid belonging to a king named Khnum-Khufu has a chamber system resembling the image of a mummified body crowned with the top part of the Djed pillar, much like the figures of Osiris-Djed pictured above.  The name Khnum-Khufu, meaning 'Khnum protects me', is reflected in the design of his pyramid, which may be likened to the image of Khnum as the Djed with his arms upraised, one to the north, the other to the south.

In the texts relating to the deification of the members, the deceased's hands are said to be those of the Ram god Ba-Neb-Djed, and his fingers associated with the constellation of Orion in the southern sky.41

"The Netherworld has grasped your hand at the place where Orion is, 
the Bull of the Sky has given you his hand....."
- PT 437

"May a stairway to the Netherworld be set up for you to the place where Orion is, 
may the Bull of the Sky take your hand..."
PT - 610

"May Orion give me his hand..."
PT - 582

The presence of the unique 'air-shafts' in the Khufu's pyramid has been and still is a topic of much discussion.  A number of Egyptologists have in the past expressed the possibility that these inaptly named 'air-shafts' were actually intended as release passages for the soul of the King entombed within the chamber that they emanate from.  In 1964 Egyptologist Dr Alexander Badawy, with the help of Virginia Trimble, realised that Orion was most likely the target of the burial chamber's southern shaft during the time of Khufu, which he deduced was designed to help the soul of the dead King rise up to his dwelling place in Orion as mentioned in the Pyramid Texts.42

Flinders Petrie had previously observed the southern shaft's alignment with the Midday Sun on the 2nd of November, a date that may even correlate with the Raising of the Djed ceremonies on the last day of Khoiak during the reign of Khufu, about four and a half thousand years ago.43

Such an alignment would have allowed the soul of Re to enter the Djed-shaped tomb, thereby fulfilling the textual declaration of the soul of Osiris and the soul of Re meeting in Djedu.44

The notion of the Djed inside the pyramid of Khnum-Khufu can be explored further at my website by clicking on the banner below. The site looks at the architectural metaphors formed by the innovative arrangement of the chambers inside the Great Pyramid following the theory proposed by James Allen and supported by other Egyptologists such as Jean Leclant and Mark Lehner, that the substructure of the Old Kingdom pyramids were designed to correspond to the geography of the Duat.

View the Footnotes

the Pyrmaid of Man logo - a mant sanding inside the pyramid crowned with the Djed symbol