Professional Mourners in Ancient Egypt.

The other point would be to discern who were these two women shaking and/or pulling their hair? Women represented next to the coffin are described as wife, widow, servant…The Egyptian Opening of the Mouth ceremony was secret and made by expert priests in the practices, therefore the mourning ritual, also secret and as a part of the first one, should be performed by women who knew very well every step of the rite.

Close to the mummy the wife cries, while the two mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys stand at both extremes. Detail from the Papyrus of Ani. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.wikimedia.org

Close to the mummy the wife cries, while the two mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys stand at both extremes. Detail from the Papyrus of Ani. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.wikimedia.org

If we pay attention to Egyptian scenes of funerary processions, in many cases we can see the deceased’s wife crying on the coffin, while at both extremes stand two women identified as Isis and Nephtys. Although there are generic terms in Egyptian language for mourners, as iAkbyt, smwt or HAyt, the two mourners taking part in the rites for recovering the mummy are called Dryt, the two kites. They are the female figures standing at each extreme of the corpse, making the mourning ceremony impersonating Isis and Nephtys. The other mourning women or the deceased’s wife are never designed like that because the kite per excellence in Egyptian mythology was Isis and by extension, Nephtys. The role of those mourning women was too important and they could not be secular women, but official mourners who had the authority for getting into the “secret place”, where the corpse came back to life.

Isis and Nephtys are at both extremes of the mummy. Behind Roy's wife mourns her husband's death. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Isis and Nephtys are at both extremes of the mummy. Behind Roy’s wife mourns her husband’s death. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

On the other hand these two women in the role of the goddesses are usually represented with clothing covering their hair, while the rest of mourners, also the wife, appear with the black mane visible. We could think that they were hiding a sacred element, through which they were able to bring the dead back to life. That makes us think that the mourning ritual was performed by someone who knew the secrets of the ceremony, a kind of priestess, who played the role of the deceased’s wife and sister-in-law, and who held the title of Drt.

The wife is kneeling and crying, Isis stands on the left and Nephtys on the right. Painting from the tomb of Samut in Assassif. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

The wife is kneeling and crying, Isis stands on the left and Nephtys on the right. Painting from the tomb of Samut in Assassif. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

Which features should they have these called souls of Buto? Obviously they should be initiated in the Osiris Mysteries, but we know from the Lamentations of Isis and Nephtys that one of the requirements for being a mourner in the role of Isis and Nephtys was not have been mother yet, so to have intact the power of conceiving. This idea is reinforced when in that same text Osiris is considered “the first-born who opens the body”. This was a way of being faithful to the myth and also a way of securing the resurrection of the dead, because the conceiving faculty of both Isis and Nephtys was intact[1].

About what other requirements they needed to have we do not know, but everything points to a pair of women who knew about that secret and sacred rite of mourning and performing with their hair in the deceased’s benefit. They had nothing to do with the common mourners of the cortège and nor with the dead’s wife, maybe even they had any kinship. Possibly they were professional mourners, knowing when to scream, when to recite some speeches and when and how to shake and/or pull their hair.


[1] Ph. Derchain also considered that they were two women without children (Derchain, 1975, p.73). In the myth of Osiris Isis has not yet given birth Horus. This one is born after his father’s death and his birth is the grant of the resurrection of Osiris. In the funerary ceremony the idea would be the same one: maternity happens after the decease.

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