The Hair as a Symbol of Water in Ancient Egypt: The Hair is the Primeval Water.

In 1964 D. Bonneau assimilated the hair of Isis with the rise of the Nile due to the bushes of papyrus floating on it[1]. According to her, “in the ancient Egyptian tradition the manes of the gods were bushes of papyrus”[2] and the locks of hair are the vegetable fibres that content the first rise and announce the flooding of the river. For that reason D. Bonneau assured that usually the hair was united to gods related to the flood of the Nile[3]. That also would explain why in decoration the water was always coloured in green with black waves or why the hieroglyph of water were usually in black colour.

A boat is on a green water with black waves. Relief from the mastaba of Ti in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

A boat is on a green water with black waves. Relief from the mastaba of Ti in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Hieroglyph of water in black colour. Coffin of the Middle Kingdom. Bahr el-Yussef Museum. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Hieroglyph of water in black colour. Coffin of the Middle Kingdom. Bahr el-Yussef Museum. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

From the Old Kingdom we can see this relationship between hair and water. In the Pyramid texts of Pepi I we read that “…the hair of Pepi is the Nun…”[4] In fact, the hair is inseparable from the aquatic element, since in those parts where there were no papyri, Egyptians called “the hair of Isis” to coralline formations in the shores of Red Sea and the Indic Ocean[5].

We could then think of the hair as the water having the principles of the Creation and Renewing. The water of the flood has a magic power itself, as we can read in the magical Papyrus from Paris I, line 29. It is said how, for ensuring the effectiveness of the sacrifice of a cock, it was necessary “to go to a place where the Nile has already retired its water before nobody has step on it, or to a place dipped completely by the water of the Nile, or to a place flooded by the Nile in an accidental way [6]. According to these words it had to be a place soaked by those regenerating principles, which improved the magic. If the water had this magical power and was assimilated to the hair, it makes sense to think about a magical attribute of the hair.

It seems obvious the relationship in Ancient Egypt between the renovating rituals and the flooding, which was announced by Sothis, the brightest star that appeared  in the morning sky with the sun between the seventeenth and the nineteenth of July[7]. Sothis was for Egyptians «  the one who renovates the vegetation »[8] and she was assimilated to Isis: “Your sister Isis comes to you, happy with your love, you put her over your phallus, your semen goes up to her, sharp as Sothis, (like) Horus equipped coming out from you, like Horus who is in Sothis » [9]. The sexual aspect is very important and we consider it later.

Isis, assimilated to Sothis, announces with her hair the rise of the Nile, like the second one does appearing in the firmament. Isis is “the one who makes the Nile to increase and flow, the one who makes the Nile to get bigger in this season [10]. So, the mane of Isis would be a promise of resurrection, because would be the image of the water that creates and renovates. In the funerary rite it would emanate to the dead by means of the nwn gesture next to the corpse.  That would suppose a return to the Nun, the primeval waters where the first living went out from as the Nile permits the constant renovation of the Egyptian life. To shake the hair onwards would be then the announcement of a new creation, like the presence of Sothis means the beginning of the flood and the New Year.

Nile fertilising the land of Egypt near of Al-Minya. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Nile fertilising the land of Egypt near Al-Minya. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Many years ago S. Mayassis already studied the meaning of hair in Egyptian believing[11]. According to him, the hair was a synonym of power[12] and Isis covered her face with her mane to get profit of its own force and allow also the others to do the same thing[13]. S. Mayassis considered also to untie the hair was a way of putting the magical power of the knot aside[14], so the force of the hair was set out and joined the person[15].

Certainly the hair constitutes an element of power and vigour, but Mayassis did not mention that the power of the Isis’ mane is because its assimilation with the renovating water of the flood. That would explain the nwn gesture done by mourners in funerals was a revitalising gesture, that brings backs the dead to the Nun, for bringing him back to life, since he is “the one who has been created in the Nun [16].

In the month of Khoiak, the fourth month of the season Akhet (Inundation), took place the Mysteries of Osiris, a group of rites recalling the Osiris Myth[17]. In all these rites the mourning had a relevant place; women representing Isis and Nephtys were mourning at the moment of making the figurine of Osiris with earth and cereal[18], which grow up as a symbol of life and resurrection.  In the festivity of Osiris, the two representatives of Isis and Nephtys recited aloud a sacred song of mourning the twenty-fifth day of the Khoiak month just before the Osiris resurrection[19]. Lamentation would be the prelude of the new life for Osiris, also evident with the rise of the Nile[20]; in the funeral the meaning of that mourning would be the same.

On the other hand, Pausanias said how the tears of Isis were considered as the flood of the Nile: “Egyptians say that Isis weeps for Osiris when the river starts increasing; and when it floods the fields, they say that it is Isis’ tears[21]. Once the Nile started its rise, Egyptians celebrated the Festival of Isis; she, as mourner of Osiris, caused with her tears the increase of the water level of the Nile[22]. In fact, in the Songs of Isis and Nephtys, when they mourn we read: “I am Isis I flood the land in that day[23].

Tears (in Ancient Egyptian rmit) had in Egyptian mythology a strong creation power, because mankind (rmT) issued from tears[24].  According to a legend dating from XII Dynasty, the god Re sent one of their two eyes for fighting against his enemy Apophis. That eye was taking a long time to come back, so it was replaced by another one.  When the eye of Re came back from the battle and saw another one in his place he became very upset. This eye started crying and people came from its tears. For consoling the sorrow Re turned it into the ureus and put it on his forehead.

Amehotep I with the ureus in his forehead. Painting from the tomb of Inerkha in Deir el-Medina. Altes Museum of Berlin. XX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Amehotep I with the ureus in his forehead. Painting from the tomb of Inerkha in Deir el-Medina. Altes Museum of Berlin. XX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

According to B. Mathieu “to come out from the eye” (pr m irt) is an Egyptian expression for referring to the weeping and he emphasizes the fact that mankind appears from a sorrow[25]. The eye and the humidity coming out from it (tears) have the power of giving life: “He has opened his eyes in the moment he was going out from the Nun. All these things have come to existence from his eyes”[26]. That would explain such an important role of the mourners during the funerary rite; they shed their tears with regenerating power that will help in the resurrection of the dead. We need also to notice the importance of the eye as a beneficial organ for the regeneration of the deceased (we will see it in another post).

In chapter 674 of the Coffin texts we could already read how “the water is the hair sema of Mht over you”. Water and Inundation are vital elements par excellence in Egyptian mythology. Water has always a negative and a positive aspect, because for renovating it is needed first a destruction. If the hair sema is like the water, that one will also have a double value: it will be at the same time image of chaos and of new life.

For that reason, we could think that the nwn gesture, depending on in which moment of the funeral it would be made, it could refer on one hand to the sorrow for the dead and the chaos of the death, and on the other hand to the rebirth and a the new creation. Mourners could shake their hair onwards as a sign of despair but also as an image of the primeval and chaotic water, which have the power of giving life and create.

[1] Bonneau, 1964, p. 259.

[2] Bonneau, 1964, p. 260.

[3] Bonneau, 1964, p. 260, n. 9.

[4] Budge,  1969, p. 109. This same assimilation of hair and Nun appears in the papyri of Ani and Un.

[5] “Juba relates that near of Trogloditas Islands a brush grew up in deep down in the sea called “hair of Isis”, without leaves and similar to coral” (Pliny the Elder, Natural History,  XIII, 51)

[6] Bonneau, 1964, p. 285.

[7] Bonneau, 1964, p. 263.

[8] Pyr. 477.

[9] Pyr. 632.

[10] Budge, 1973, p. 278.

[11] Mayassis, 1955.

[12] Mayassis, 1955, p. 354.

[13] Mayassis, 1955, pp. 354 y 362.

[14] Mayassis, 1955, p. 356.

[15] Mayassis, 1955, p. 362.

[16] CT, 544.

[17] That also shows the relationship between Osiris and the water.

[18] Guglielmi, 1980, p.80.

[19] Gaballa and Kitchen, 1969, p.45.

[20] Kees, 1956, p. 354.

[21] Pausanias, De Phocicis,  X, 32,10.

[22] Frazer, 1914, Third Ed., p. 33.

[23] Canciones…,3,16.

[24] Guglielmi, 1980, p. 82.

[25] Mathieu, 1986, p. 500.

[26] Fragment on the South facade of the temple of Hathor in Dendera (el-Kordy, 1982, p. 203).


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