The Hair is a Symbol of Water in Ancient Egypt. Hair in the Festival of the Valley.

The nwn gesture is also represented in a relief from the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut in Karnak. A group of women are dancing in the Festival of the Valley[1].

Dancers in the Festival of the Valley. Red Chapel of Hatshepsut in Karnak. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Dancers in the Festival of the Valley. Red Chapel of Hatshepsut in Karnak. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

This festivity is documented for the first time in the temple of Mentuhotep II in Deir el-Bahari as a funerary Theban festivity. It was a feast in honour of the deceased ones. People visited the necropolis, decorated the tombs and carried offers to the dead relatives. In the gods sphere the image of the god Amon went out from the temple of Karnak in his sacred barque [2] and crossed the Nile for visiting every funerary temple of the West Bank. In the procession accompanying Amon there was a feminine clergy, among which there were some dancers.

Barque of Amon. Relief from the mortuary temple of Seti I in Dra Abu el-Naga. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Barque of Amon. Relief from the mortuary temple of Seti I in Dra Abu el-Naga. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

The Festival of the Valley took place in the summer solstice, between the harvest and the flooding season. That means that it coincided with the rising of Sothis in the sky announcing the arrival of the flood[3]. People, who visited the tombs of their relatives during the night sung, drank and danced; according to some scholars sometimes the scenes were even “orgiastic”[4]. “The frontier between death and life disappears with the feast and the inebriation, the border that separates the living world and the Hereafter becomes blurred with the length of the night[5].

The last visit of Amon in his procession was the temple of Deir el-Bahari[6]. In the sanctuary of Hatshepsut the image of the god passed many days and nights. In this temple there is a scene with a barque over the “golden lake” surrounded by four ponds full of milk. During the night the barque was circled by torches, which were put out into the milk n the morning. That night took place the encounter between Amon and Hathor, the Cow Goddess. According to the scholar Naguib the milk into the ponds symbolised the milk of the Sacred Cow, the nourishment of Hathor; and at the same time these four ponds would symbolise the four cardinal points. So, “the solar God gets into the belly of the cosmic mother for renewing thanks to her milk, the same milk where the fire of the night is put out[7]. After that night the procession came back to the temple of Karnak.

After this encounter Amon was energized and ready for facing a new year. In fact it was a funerary festivity in which the god, as if it was a dead one, made a trip to the necropolis and was renewed after some ceremonial practices.

In addition the Festival of the Valley took place before the flood, and during that night of ecstasy Hathor showed her most erotic side. She was “the lady of the inebriation, the happiness in ecstasy, she promoted abundance and fertility”[8] , in whose night the flood was conceived[9]. The feminine being (Hathor) awarded the masculine principle (Amon) the fecundity power confirming this way the enthronement of the solar god.

In this renewing festivity we find again the nwn gesture. In the 30’s E. Brunner-Traut already compared the women who appear in the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut with the mourners of the tombs of Renni and Amenemhat, but she considered that they had nothing to do with each other[10]. According to her, the dancers of the Red Chapel were making a gesture of excitement and ecstasy[11], the movements of the mourners ware just a part of the moan[12]. However, H. Wild considered that what was said in chapters 1005 and 1974 of the Pyramid Texts about mourners pulling hair (« The souls of Buto rock for you; they beat their bodies and their arms for you, they pull their hair for you… ») was a description of a special dance in honour to the deceased king[13].

In the Theban tomb 53 of Amenemhat from the reign of Tutmosis III there is a very similar scene to that one of the Red Chapel. Some women are dancing or tumbling and caver their faces with the hair. In front of them three more women are shaking sistrums and a mena necklace; so this ceremony was related to the cult to Hathor.

Dancers from the tomb of Amenemhat (TT53). Gourna. XVIII Dynasty.

Dancers from the tomb of Amenemhat (TT53). Gourna. XVIII Dynasty.

In the 70`s Vandier considered that these were acrobatic dances and that women were making somersaults[14]. In the 80’s W. Decker, based on a reconstruction made by O. Keel[15], accepted the theory of Vandier and thought that the women with the hair over their faces were in fact getting ready for starting the somersault forward[16]. Also W. Decker compared this gesture with the one of the mourners in funerals (in particular with mourner in the Tomb of Minakht). But it seems unlikely that they describes similar moments; while in the first document we are in a group of dancing women, while in the tomb of Minakht she is not with other women making acrobatics.

Coming back to Deir el-Bahari, in the sanctuary there is a scene of the solar barque in procession. In it two women on their knees are touching their napes and cover their faces with the hair. Vandier thought that they were waiting their turn for making the same exercise as their fellows[17]. He emphasizes the fact that those women are not in a vertical posture, so maybe getting ready for making the somersault backwards[18].

Dancers in the Festival of the Valley. Relief from the temple of Deir el-Bahari. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Dancers in the Festival of the Valley. Relief from the temple of Deir el-Bahari. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

It seems obvious that those women were making some acrobatics, but we do not think that cover their faces with hair were just a way of representing the first step of a somersault.  If thinking of a gymnast gaining momentum, the hair is never covering the face. The gesture nwn in the images of the dancers in the Festival of the Valley is not realistic at all (although about the realism in Egyptian art is another subject for debate). Taking into consideration that as much in tombs as in temples we are facing renewing ceremonies with a regeneration intention. So it is easy to think that nwn gesture in that dance had a reviving purpose. Dancers and mourners do the same movement of bending the body and throw the hair forward; and apparently in both cases with a similar symbolism.

On the other hand, the dance is something very common in religious rituals[19], and they have a connection with lunar rites[20]. “The dance is maybe considered as a fact of pleasant magic for promoting the lunar rebirth”[21]. If we notice that the Festival of the Valley was a funerary ceremony celebrated after the first new moon (a symbol of death) and before the flood (the annual renovation in Egypt), we could think that it was, as in burials, a new creation rite, it was the announcement of a cyclic renovation and the reenergizing of Amon[22].


[1] Michalowski, 1970, fot. 70.

[2] With the ones of  Mut and Jonsu.

[3] Naguib, 1990. Leuven, p. 129.

[4] Stadelmann, 1990, p. 148.

[5] Stadelmann, 1990, p. 149.

[6] Naguib, 1990, p. 126.

[7] Naguib, 1990, p. 128.

[8] Naguib, 1990, p. 129.

[9] Naguib, 1990, p. 130.

[10] Brunner-Traut, 1938, p. 51, n. 13.

[11] Brunner-Traut, 1938, p. 52.

[12] Brunner-Traut, 1938, p. 60.

[13] Wild, 1963, p. 86.

[14] Vandier, 1964, p. 451.

[15] Keel, 1974, fig. 11

[16] Decker, 1987, pp. 140-142.

[17] Vandier, 1964, p. 450.

[18] Vandier, 1964, p. 450.

[19] “Funerary dances take part in rites of passage, as in breaking rites of African cultures” (Naguib, 1993, p. 29).

[20] Briffault, 1974, p. 341.

[21] Briffault, 1974, p. 342.

[22] The physical activity (the movement) is a help for the resurrection. Amon, as king of gods, had to renew his power, as in the living world did the pharaoh.

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