Hair, Enemy and Sacrifice in Ancient Egypt. Part II: Tekenu and Magical Heads.

The gesture made by the enemy is the same as the one made by mourners when they hold the front lock of hair swt. enemy and mournersThe relationship between enemy and hair is not exclusive of Sed Festival. Egyptian iconography always shows how the Pharaoh grabbed the hair of the enemies of Egypt. They were the personification of the evil and the king had to eliminate them for protecting the country from that danger. Was to kill them also to cut their locks of hair? In those scenes we can see the Pharaoh holding the mace but also sometimes a cutting weapon, the sickle. He could with it to cut the enemy’s head or as well his lock of hair.

Ramses III holding the enemies. Relief from his funerary temple of Medinet Habu. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Ramses III holding the enemies. Relief from his funerary temple of Medinet Habu. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

If cutting the enemy’s hair symbolizes to eliminate the danger, then the lock of hair swt symbolizes the enemy, the evil. We would be again in a case of metonymy with lock of hair swt. As we saw formerly the lock of hair swt identified the two mourners. Once again the whole (the enemy) is identified with a very significant part (lock of hair). In the renovation/resurrection sphere of ancient Egypt the tekenu, whose image appears in Sed festivals and funerals, would be that malignant being that must be destroyed; to cut and get his lock of hair could symbolize his murder, so the end of the danger, the pass from darkness to light, from death to new life.

Obviously this is just a hypothesis, since the rite of tekenu is still much unknown. Anyway, there are some documents that allow us to approach. The tomb of Montuherkhepeshef in Thebes[1] dates from XVIII Dynasty and has a very valuable scene related to the tekenu.

Funerary scene of the tomb of Montuherkhepeshef in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty.

Funerary scene of the tomb of Montuherkhepeshef in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty.

Among the many funerary scenes, there is one showing a hole containing the word tknwtknw; four elements share the place: the skin meska piel msk(apparently where the tekenu was wrapped), the heartheart, a bull leg bull leg and a lock of hairhair. It seems that they are parts of the tekenu[2]. Could we think that the human victim in some moment of the Egyptian history was replaced by an animal victim? All those parts of the victim seem to be very important in the funerary ceremony, at least in Montuherkhepeshef’s burial. Concretely, the lock of hair had to be in the same level of importance as the skin, the heart and the leg and maybe with a very similar function.

If the lock of hair swt in the Egyptian Sed Festival could be a symbol of the evil, and its destruction a symbol of the victory over the meanness, we could also think something similar in the funerary context. To eliminate the lock of hair swt would mean the victory of the good over the evil that the deceased needs for coming back to life. The document has not an easy explanation, but at least we can see how important could be the lock of hair in the mortuary ritual of tekenu; we could consider it as something for providing vital energy to the dead and as a grant of the end of the chaos and the danger; so the beginning of a new life for the deceased.

In this line we consider appropriate to mention the research made by R. Tefnin about the called “magical heads”[3] found in Giza[4]. They are sculptures of heads made in limestone and discovered in non royal tombs from IV Dynasty. The individual features makes think of portraits, but their purpose is not clear.

Magical heads from Giza. IV Dynasty. Cairo Museum. Photo: www.wikipedia.org

Magical heads from Giza. IV Dynasty. Cairo Museum. Photo: http://www.wikipedia.org

R. Tefnin noticed that, although their individuality, they shared many characteristics; actually it seems that a kind a damage was made in those heads before the burial; these damages were deep incisions in neck, top of the head, ears and in the frontal line of the hair. According to R. Tefnin these marks would respond to a ritual made in some moment of the funerary ceremony. We have already said that in Egyptian though the head was the centre of the life, the head has vital faculties as breathing, seeing, hearing, tasting. Not to have head meant the incapacity of making breathing and perceiving, and that was a synonym of death. Funerary texts show Osiris as a death being who needs to recover vital faculties for finishing his resurrection. In that point R. Tefnin refers to “the ambiguous attitude of Egyptians towards their deceased ones” [5].

Magical head of Nofer from his tomb in Giza (G2110A). IV Dynasty. Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Photo: www.mfa.org

Magical head of Nofer from his tomb in Giza (G2110A). IV Dynasty. Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Photo: http://www.mfa.org

On one hand the deceased needs the help of the living ones, but he can also be a danger; the dead ones belong to an unknown dimension, which the living ones cannot control, so the deceased can become a spirit coming back from the beyond to the earth with bad intentions[6]. If the dead could be an adversary, he had to be treated as an enemy. For R. Tefnin this point of view would explain those ritual mutilations made on the “Magical heads”.

The head, as image of the deceased as an enemy, suffers in some moment of the funerals, some ritual damages, which refer to punishments inflicted to adversaries: the incision in the neck would symbolize the beheading, the mark on the skull would be the hit with the mace, the cut of the ears was also a documented war practice, to cut the hair over the front should then also be a punishment made to the enemies.

Again we meet a relationship between cutting the hair and eliminating the danger. It is the same principle of the tekenu; the idea of an expiatory sacrifice materialized in renovating rites through the ablation of a lock of hair.


[1] TT 20.

[2] Spanish mission in the tomb of Dyehuty has discovered a very interesting scene related to the tekenu.

[3] Also known as “reserve heads” or “replacement heads”.

[4] R. Tefnin, 1991.

[5] R. Tefnin, 1991, p. 86.

[6] In fact we there were conjurations and incantations for avoiding the ghosts to annoy the living ones.

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