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The Rekhyt Bird of Ancient Egypt


The rekhyt bird is the term for the lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), a species of plover with a
distinctive crested head. It was often used as a symbol for subject peoples or foreign
captives. This may have been due to the bird’s strange running habit using uplifted wings for
balance (but preventing it from flying) which roughly resembled a bound captive with his
arms pinioned behind his back.

The meaning of the rekhyt bird changed over time. It is thought that in the Predynastic and
early Dynastic eras the rekhyt sign indicated an enemy, or foreigner, who had been
subjugated by the ruler. In later times, it seems that the appearance of the rekhyt,
particularly sitting or standing on a basket, meant "the common people", although it never
seemed to lose its meaning as "foreigner".

The lapwing appears in ancient Egypt throughout its long history, first appearing in the
Predynastic era on a number of artifacts.


The Scorpion Macehead
One of the earliest depictions of this bird is found in the upper register of relief decoration on
Scorpion II’s macehead (ca. 3100 BCE) comprising a row of lapwings (rekhyt birds) hanging
by their necks from ropes attached to standards. During this time, the sign of the rekhyt
indicated foreigners or non-Egyptian people. Therefore, their appearance on the Scorpion
macehead may indicate that the king [of a region in Upper Egypt] had successfully defeated
foreigners. The standards themselves represent various provinces, among them the
belemnite of Min and the animal of Seth.



Register showing the rekhyt birds

It has also been suggested that the portrayal of the rekhyt bird indicates the Lapwing-people,
referring to the subjugated inhabitants of the Delta.1

The standards on the Scorpion macehead are very similar to those shown on the Bull
palette2, which show two canids, an ibis or heron, a falcon and the sign of the god Min. It has
been suggested that the Bull palette is a commemorative palette to celebrate either the
defeat of the Desert People or, as others have suggested, the capture of various towns in
Upper Egypt (i.e. Asyut, Koptos, Hermopolis and Panopolis). Alternatively the standards
may have symbolised allied towns under the control of the king.


1 Gardiner [1989], p.403
2 Refer to the Predynastic palette documents
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