Hair and Snake as Symbols of Rebirth in Ancient Egypt.

The connection between the hnskt plait and the snake shows again a relationship of two vital elements. All during this work we have seen how the hair was considered in ancient Egyptian as a generating life element. Egyptians also attributed vital energy to snakes, since in mythology this animal was one of the first manifestations of live. On the other hand it is interesting to notice that this is a lunar animal par excellence[1].

According to R. Briffault, “the snake and the moon are interchangeable” in many cultures because both are immortal; they are in constant renovation and that is why the snake is considered a representation of the moon[2]. The serpent shed its skin periodically, it transforms, but it does not perish, it renews itself as the moon does. But also snakes appear and disappear easily; they hide under the ground, the “underworld”, where shed the skin and regenerate themselves. In Book of the Amduat, the snake is one of the symbols of death and rebirth[3] and Re, in the twelfth hour, rejuvenates in a snake’s belly[4].

Twelfth Hour of Amduat, where Re goes out as Khepri from the snake . Painting from the tomb of Amenhotep II in the Valley of the Kings. XVIII Dynasty. Photo:

Twelfth Hour of Amduat, when Re goes out as Khepri from the snake . Painting from the tomb of Amenhotep II in the Valley of the Kings. XVIII Dynasty. Photo:

What about women? They are also “closely associated with the snake, in the same way they are related to the moon”[5]. Serpents have as well a deep fecundity symbolism. Some scholars think that the snake has at the same time a feminine side (lunar) and a masculine one, since its shape and its movements suggest the virility of the penis[6]. So, snakes combine the two principles masculine and feminine needed for the creation. Anyway, in Ancient Egypt the phallic condition of the snake does not seem to be too emphasized[7].

Lastly, the snake is a death’s keeper and, according to Egyptian religious texts, it protects the dead[8]; since it lives in the underworld, it dwells close to the deceased’s spirits and knows the secret of the death. Serpent has a very positive role in the myth of the hero who defeats the death[9]. In fact, according to M. Eliade, « Great goddesses have usually a snake as attribute, they maintain this way their lunar nature, and these goddesses are at the same time funerary divinities. The snake is so, a funerary animal and a symbol of regeneration » [10]. For that reason, we can find in some versions of the Egyptian myth that in the creation of the world, the primitive god is in the Nun as a serpent, where he comes back again also in shape of snake[11].

We can see clearly in chapter 219 of the Coffin Texts the connection between the snake and the resurrection, since to go out from the egg with the plaits hnkswt and the snakes is a synonym of rebirth. The dead one is reborn from the place where the life germinates and goes out from it with its vital power (snakes and/or plaits of hair hnkswt), a very similar image we can have in mind just thinking of Osiris going out from the womb of his mother Nut with the uraeus [12]. If hnkst is a parallel of hnskt and this one is the lock of plaits falling at the back of mourners, again we find these women and their hair in a resurrection act.

[1] All animals that appear and disappear in a cyclic way (snails, reptiles, bears…) are considered as lunar creatures (J.E. Cirlot, 1991, p. 285).

[2] R. Briffault, 1974, p. 314.

[3] W.B. Kristensen, 1992, p. 21.

[4] V, 648.

[5] R. Briffault, 1974, p. 316.

[6] G. Durand, 1979, p.303.

[7] V, 650.

[8] Pyr. 226-224, 276-299, 375-401, 727-733; CT 160, 369, 372, 375, 378, 381, 423, 434-436, 586, 686, 717, 885; LdM,  33-35, 37, 39.

[9] G. Durand, 1979, p.305.

[10] M. Eliade, 1970, p.150.

[11] LdM, 175.

[12] A. Mariette, 1875, II, 152-153, 3; Ph. Derchain, 1963, p. 22.

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