Isis and Nephthys in the Mourning Rite of Ancient Egypt.

Texts and iconography show how in Ancient Egypt there was a mourning rite during funerals in which mourners shook or pulled their hair. It could be done by the group of women accompanying the dead or by the two mourners as representatives of goddesses Isis and Nephtys. In this last case, those women made one or another gesture (nwn or nwn m) over the corpse as if they wanted to provide some energy contained in their hair[1] (and also maybe in their tears).

Once we talk about Isis and Nephtys we need to report to The Lamentations of Isis and Nephtys[2] and The Songs of Isis and Nephtys[3] (both from the Ptolemaic Period). The texts were read aloud in the festivities at the Osiris Temples[4].

Isis and Nepthys. Tomb of Tauseret in the Valley of the Kings. XIX Dynasty. Photo:

Isis and Nepthys. Tomb of Tauseret in the Valley of the Kings. XIX Dynasty. Photo:

According to these texts those two women should not be opened nn wp(t).sn.  The verb wpi means “separate”, “open” and according to R.O. Faulkner this expression meant that the two mourners representing Isis and Nephtys should be virgin. But the verb wpi has a relationship with the concept of maternity, because a non open body or belly refers to a body that has not yet given a birth. We can read in addition, in Pap. Westcar 5,11 the sentence “that they have not been opened with birth(n m mst), that is, that they have not been mothers.

So, maybe the idea of Faulkner was not exact, and we should better think that one of the requirements for being a mourner in the role of Isis and Nephtys was not to have been mother yet , so to have intact the power of conceiving. On the other hand we cannot forget that in those texts Osiris is “the first-born who opens the body” (1,19; 1,24 ; 8,25; 9,15 and 9,17). This was a way of being faithful to the myth and also a way of securing the resurrection of the dead, because the conceiving faculty of both Isis and Nephtys was intact[5].

Line 3,2  is also important for the Osiris’ regeneration; after talking about the chaos and disaster caused by Seth, we read: “…the one who is removed, is removed from death. Our eyes cry over you…” We find again the revitalising power of tears and moan, so it helps in pulling Osiris out from the death. And we get the same conclusion reading lines 11,6-11,7: “Be powerful thanks to us and to the moan (?). They join your body for you while mourning”.

The Harper’s Song of the tomb of Intef[6] is a very pessimistic poem affirming that the death is the end of everything and nobody can do anything to avoid it; it is very sceptic about the funerary ceremonies for the resurrection of the dead : “It is the day fo the cries of mourning. Their[7]moans cannot save from the Afterlife a heart’s man… ». Although negative, this premise confirms the fact that there was a mourning rite for helping the dead to return to life.

The mourning practices had a crucial role in funerals of Ancient Egypt. They were not just a sign of pain because of the beloved’s death, but they were a group of gestures necessary for the dead’s resurrection

The gesture nwn of covering the face with the hair sema and/or the nwn m of pulling the lock of hair swt made by the representatives of Isis and Nephtys were a way of coming back to the primeval moment, to the primeval waters (Nwn) where the creation of a new human being is conceived (nwnw, nnw, nn) [8].

So, we are seeing important concepts that we have to consider in the mourning rite of Ancient Egypt:

  • Mourning
  • Hair
  • Isis and Nephtys
  • Maternity
  • Water

[1] The proper name Sema-ankh  documented in a mastaba in Giza reflects the link already in the Old Kingdom between the hair and the concept of life (Hassan, 1934-1935, p. 165)

[2] Pap. Berlín 3008.

[3] Pap. British Museum 10188.

[4] Lichtheim, 1980, p. 116.

[5] Ph. Derchain also considered that what they wanted were two women without children (Derchain, 1975, p.73). It is also interesting to notice that in the myth of Osiris Isis has not yet given birth Horus. This one is born after his father’s death and his birth is the grant of the resurrection of Osiris. In the funerary ceremony the idea would be the same one: maternity happens after the decease.

[6] Fox, 1977, pp. 393-423. Lichtheim, 1973, pp. 194-197.

[7] The mourners.

[8] nwnw, nww, nn means “young”, “new”, “healthy” (Wb II, 215, 20), what would reinforce this idea of revitalising act.

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