Hair, Mourners and Light in Ancient Egypt.

The finality of the rites during the funerals in ancient Egypt was the deceased’s rebirth. In the mourning ritual accomplished during the Opening of the Mouth ceremony by the two women in the role of Isis and Nephtys, the dead returned to the womb for coming back to life as a new born; he was also the incarnation of Osiris, so the dead husband who needed stimulation for recovering the vital faculties (mobility, breath, eyesight, hearing, virility). The dead needed the eye irt eye irtfor reviving; the eye in Egyptian belief had a regeneration meaning from the moment it created the mankind (rmT Mankind rmT) from the teardrops (rmit teardrops rmit). So, the eye and its tears had the capacity of producing life. On the other hand we cannot omit the semantic relationship between the Egyptian word for eye irt and the verb for “make” iri[1]. For some the hieroglyph of irt could be an image of the solar disc inside the mouth as a symbol of the verb iri[2].

The sem priest is making the Opening of the Mouth ceremony on the dead's image, in front of him the make-up for Udjat eye as final offering. Painting from the tomb of Inerkha in Deir el-Medina. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

The sem priest is making the Opening of the Mouth ceremony on the dead’s image, in front of him the make-up for Udjat eye as final offering. Painting from the tomb of Inerkha in Deir el-Medina. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

But the eye needed by the deceased is the lunar eye Udjat, the symbol of light (life) in the darkness of the night (death). The light symbolises rebirth and nature and life depend on the received light[3]; much light means much life, while shadow means the contrary. The Udjat eye as the full moon is the light in the middle of the darkness and it is also the health and strength in the death[4]. The Udjat eye illuminates in the middle of the shadows as a manifestation of life.

In the Egyptian language the concept of lunar eye and light is closely linked to femininity. Not only because irt or wDAt are feminine words (ended in –t), there are many terms and expressions which support this idea: Axt is the « bright eye » of the sun god or Horus[5] ; iAbt is the « left eye », so the moon[6] ; HDt  is the « white of the eye » ; sSmt can be a designation for the « lunar eye »[7] ; iAbt.f iaH m grh means «  his left eye is the moon during the night »[8].

It is also interesting to notice that nearly all terms about hair we have seen taking part of the mourning ritual in ancient Egypt are feminine: Samt, Hnskt, wprty, lock swt. The exception is: hair sma (and/or Hair Sni ) . These two words we have seen that they are related to the idea of chaos and disorder, and when they entail the concept of resurrection they symbolize vegetation, water, breath of life or conception, but never moon/light.

Two different ways of representing Isis and Nephtys assisting the deceased: as the two kites (tomb of Sennedjem) and as women (tomb of Nakhtamon). XIX Dynasty. Photos: www.osirisnet.net

Two different ways of representing Isis and Nephtys assisting the deceased: as the two kites (tomb of Sennedjem) and as women (tomb of Nakhtamon). XIX Dynasty. Photos: http://www.osirisnet.net

The feminine principle was then basic in the ancient Egypt resurrection, it is necessary for giving birth and that makes the figure of Isis essential in the Osiris rebirth. Consequently, in Egyptian funerals the two kites or two Drty made their mourning ritual as impersonations of Isis and Nepthys, but also as women. And maybe that is why their hair with its lunar connexion was such an important element in the deceased’s reanimation.


[1] W. B. Kristensen, 1992, p. 13.

[2] J.E. Cirlot, 1991, p. 339

[3] J. Chevalier et A. Gheerbrandt, 1969, p. 154.

[4] W. B. Kristensen, 1992, p. 15.

[5] 3xt, with the cow determinative is a way of referring to Hathor, whose relationship with the full moon and the rebirth we have already seen. Wb I, 17, 3

[6] Wb I, 30.

[7] The translation of sSm is “guide”, and the moon is the guide in the night sky.

[8] R. el Sayed, 1987, pp. 62-67.

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