The Egyptian word for phallus is ḥnn, perhaps pronounced khenen (the kh is a guttural as in Hanukkah or Loch Lomond). In Egyptian hieroglyphs, khenen is spelled with three pictographs: a picture of twisted flax (the first sound in the word for wick [ḥat], which is made of twisted flax, is kh), followed by two water signs (the ancient word for water—nwy—begins with the n sound). These three signs are then followed by a sign called a determinative. Determinatives have no phonetic value; they indicate the general category to which a noun or verb belongs. For example, the determinative may indicate the word is a city or a deity. Determinatives also serve to solve another problem: Egyptian words spelled with hieroglyphs regularly omit vowels (just like Hebrew), so they can be pronounced in more than one way and have different meanings depending on how they are pronounced. The determinative indicates how the vowel-less word is to be pronounced and therefore what it means. The determinative sign indicating that ḥnn is to be pronounced khenen and therefore means “phallus” is a phallus. This determinative is pictured circumcised. Ḥnn could mean hoe or plow if a picture of one of those items was used as a determinative instead of a phallus.

The phallus sign also served another function in Egyptian hieroglyphics. By itself it stood for the sound mt (perhaps pronounced met). Met is the West Semitic (the same language group as Hebrew) word for male. The fact that the phallus is used as a sign for the sound of the West Semitic word for male suggests that West Semitic speakers had some influence on the Egyptian script when it was first being created.

In the inscription, from the Festival Scenes of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, the phallus symbol appears near the bottom of the long column at left. In the highlighted area, the pharaoh declares to his attendant officials, “Behold my benefactions, which are in front of you.” The phallus symbol, coupled with the leftward-opening U-shaped symbol above it and the papyrus book roll below it, means “before, in front of.” The papyrus symbol serves as a determinative to indicate an abstract concept (that is, the phallus symbol is not to be understood literally). Beneath them are symbols for a bread loaf (the semicircle) and water (the wavy line) and three vertical lines; together they mean the plural “you.”

We wish to thank Donald Redford and Lanny Bell for their help.