A cartouche was a name plate attached to your coffin or worn as an amulet around your neck. Simply, it was an oval plate with your name written in the middle of it, in hieroglyphics (the alphabet used in ancient Egypt). Usually, hieroglyphics were written running from top to bottom rather than left to right!
To make a cartouche, the embalmers (priests who made the mummies) would make an oval shape out of earth clay and the hieroglyphs were drawn on. The oval was then heated or glazed to harden it so that it would last for years in the tomb.
Sometimes symbols of gods were also drawn. The embalmer showed if the mummy was an important person by drawing a line next to the final hieroglyph in the name.
Originally, cartouches were only used for royalty and pharaohs, but were later used by all people in ancient Egypt as they became more popular.
The cartouche was used to protect the person from evil spirits in life and death. The oval shape acted as a barrier to the evil spirit so that the evil could not get to the name of the person, meaning your body and soul were safe.
At the start of ancient Egypt, pharaohs would use amulets as their cartouche. However, because a cartouche was considered so powerful, sometimes people would not want to write a name on an amulet.
They thought that if the amulet fell into the wrong person’s hands, it would give them power over the owner of the name on the amulet!
As well as protecting you against evil, a cartouche was used to help your soul reach the afterlife. If something happened to your body once it was mummified, or if your name was not written down somewhere on the coffin, your soul could get lost.
The ancient Egyptians believed that your soul was split into two parts – the Ba and the Ka – and both would roam around the living world.
Therefore, the soul used the name plate to get back to the correct body and tomb. Without a name plate, your soul would not be able to find its way home and so could not make it to the afterlife.
That’s also why disturbing the tomb was such a terrible crime in ancient Egypt. If someone removed the cartouche and disturbed the mummified body, your soul would not get home or reach the afterlife.
Grave robbing (and destroying mummies to get to hidden treasures in the folds of the wrapping) was punished with a horrible death as stolen goods could be replaced but those lost souls could not be directed home again.
This is also one of the reasons why the tombs of important people had lots of traps inside them – to protect their souls in the afterlife.