Category Archives: 02. HAIR AND MOURNING WOMEN

In Ancient Egypt Isis and Nephthys became Midwifes of Nut.


The most evident proof of the importance in Ancient Egypt of Isis and Nephthys in a rebirth process is in the Books of the Day and Night, which describe the journey of the sun god through the sky.

Nut swallowing the sun disk. Book of the Day. Tomb of Ramses V-VI. Ancient Egypt. Thebanmapingproject

Nut swallowing the sun disk. Book of the Day. Tomb of Ramses V-VI. Photo: Thebanmapingproject

According to the thought of Ancient Egypt, especially during the New Kingdom, Nut was the goddess of the sky, so the sun made a journey through the goddess’ body.

The dusk happened because Nut swallowed the solar disk and during the night he traveled all over the Nut’s belly. The morning after, the sunrise meant that Nut was giving birth the solar disk. That is the iconography that the artist of Ancient Egypt depicted on the ceilings of tombs from XX Dynasty.

But Nut was also Osiris’ mother and the resurrection of the dead in Ancient Egypt happened because the corpse was assimilated to Osiris, so the new-born was Osiris, son of Nut, who was assisted by Isis and Nephthys.

Isis and Nephthys receiving the solar disk. Book of the Night. Tomb of Ramses IX. Ancient Egypt. Thebanmappingproject

Isis and Nephthys receiving the solar disk. Book of the Night. Tomb of Ramses IX.Photo: Thebanmappingproject

Taking that into consideration, it make sense that the priests of XX Dynasty included the figures of Isis and Nephthys in the sun disk rebirth. As a consequence the artists of Ancient Egypt had to create a new iconography with the union of the sun rebirth and the Osirian tradition of the two divine mourners.

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Isis and Nephthys in Ancient Egyptian Solar Iconography.


It was a fact, that the ancient Egyptian corpus of images needed an iconography for expressing the union of Re and Osiris. And little by little in this iconography Isis and Nephthys, the two mourners of Osiris, became essential.

In the XIX Dynasty the ancient Egyptian artists conceived some of the most famous images of this conception combining same as ever iconography.

Isis and Nephthys flanking the corpse. Tomb of Nefertari. Ancient Egypt

Isis and Nephthys flanking the corpse. Tomb of Nefertari. XIX Dynasty.

For instance in the tomb of Nefertari, wife of Ramses II, the chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead was illustrated with the typical image of the corpse with the two mourners Isis and Nephtys, not as women, but as kites.

In this same tomb it was included the Litany of Re; it was an ancient Egyptian religious text, which was inscribed in all Ramesside tombs. It described different forms of the sun god and it stressed specially the symbolic union of Re and Osiris and the identification of the dead king with this dual god.

Ram-Headed mummy (Re-Osiris) with Isis and Nephthys. Ancient Egypt. Tomb of Nefertari. XIX Dynasty.

Ram-Headed mummy (Re-Osiris) with Isis and Nephthys. Tomb of Nefertari. XIX Dynasty.

In this context the ancient Egyptian artist adapted the typical scene mentioned above and represented Isis and Nephthys adoring the image of Re-Osiris, as a hybrid figure with three main features: the body of a mummy evoking Osiris and the ram head with a solar disk recalling Re. The corpse of Re-Osiris could not skip the figures of Isis and Nephthys. As the professional mourners of the mummy, the total resurrection of this god, even being solar and Osirian, depended on them.

But the importance of Isis and Nephthys was so big, that…

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Requirements of Professional Mourners in Ancient Egypt.


Among the Ancient Egypt gods, Isis and Nephtys occupied a very important role.

It is an ancient Egypt fact, that the two professional mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys did a mourning rite during the funeral for granting the dead’s resurrection.

All along our work we have been writing about those two women, who were essential in the funerary ceremony of Ancient Egypt, but what do we really know about them?

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

Ancient Egyptian art shows the two professional mourners always at both ends of the corpse in the cortege to the tomb; they are identified as Isis and Nephtys or as “kites” (according to the legend of Osiris Isis adopted the shape of a kite for giving him back the breath and his virility), but the inscriptions do not clarify much more about them.
There is an important ancient Egypt document, which could help us in understanding better the requirements of these two representatives of Isis and Nephtys for “working” as official mourners in ancient Egyptian funerals: The Songs of Isis and Nephtys (Brisith Museum Papyrus No. 10188)…

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Sex in Egyptian Art: the Stele of Sebekaa.


Egyptian art can hide very important information in small pieces.

That is the case of the stele of Sebekaa in British Museum.

Stele of Sebekaa from Thebes. XI Dynasty. Ancient Egypt. British Museum

Stele of Sebekaa from Thebes. XI Dynasty. Photo: British Museum.

This piece of ancient Egyptian art dates from XI Dynasty and it was found in Thebes. In just a space of 70 cm x 60 cm (aprox.) the Egyptian artist could include a number of typical scenes which dominated the corpus of funerary Egyptian art.

Although the whole composition does not have a narrative logic, the greater part of the activities can be identified: butchery, bakery, offerings…

Stele of Sebekaa from Thebes. XI Dynasty. British Museum. Ancient Egypt. On the left a detail of the image of the dead being embraced by a smaller human figure

On the left a detail of the image of the dead being embraced by a smaller human figure.

At the left of the middle register there is an isolated scene, which was not too usual in ancient Egypain art: the dead lies on his bier and he is embraced by a smaller figure. According to the information from the British Museum’s website: The man on the bed is probably the deceased, and the figure on top of him might be one of a variety of goddesses, such as Isis, Nephthys and Nut, who embrace him. Whether there are any sexual connotations in this scene is uncertain”.

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“The Hand to the Mouth”. Suckling the Dead in Ancient Egypt.


Funerary practice in the mastaba of Qar with lector priest, embalmer and mourner Drt; the scene is closed by two images of an ox. V-VI Dynasty. Giza. Ancient Egypt. Image: W.K. Sympson.

Funerary practice in the mastaba of Qar with lector priest, embalmer and mourner Drt; the scene is closed by two images of an ox. V-VI Dynasty. Giza. Image: W.K. Sympson.

The assiduousness of the icon in the icnongraphy of Ancient Eypt of the mother bringing closer her breast with the aid of her hand to her baby’s mouth seems to be plenty of sense in the ancient Egyptian belief related to the new life. For that reason it does not seem too crazy to think that the expression “Djat Ra” (“the hand to the mouth”) from the tomb of Qar was related somehow to the dead’s resurrection. Let’s also remember that this gesture “Djat Ra” was closely related to the Opening of the Mouth ceremony and the resurrection of Qar’s corpse.

how-to-breastfeed-your-babyThat quotidian gesture of bringing the breast to the baby’s mouth is, in fact, a very basic way of opening the baby’s mouth, for allowing him to nurse. The first tip given to mothers at the beginning of the breastfeeding is to open well the baby’s mouth and to point the nipple to the middle part of the baby’s palate.

In the context of Ancient Egypt this idea would fit in the following way:  

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“The Hand in the Mouth”: Nursing the Baby in Ancient Egypt.


Funerary scene in the tomb of Qar. VI Dynasty. Ancient Egypt

Funerary scene in the tomb of Qar. VI DynastyPhoto: Hair and Death in Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptian expression “Djat Ra“appears in a resurrection scene in the tomb of Qar; according to the inscription the mourner and the embalmer are making the “Djat Ra“. It could be a way of indicating  literally the gesture that both were making.

However, the expression “Djat Ra” also meant “feeding” [Wb V, 514] as the gesture of taking the mouth to the food. It could be related to the funerary offerings, which would grant the food for the dead in the Hereafter. But, it could also refer to gesture of the mother taking her breast to her baby’s mouth for nursing him. In fact the mother approaches her hand to her baby’s mouth for moving her breast closer.

Statuette of nursing woman. XII Dynasty. Ancient Egypt. Brooklyn Museum

Statuette of nursing woman. XII Dynasty. Ancient Egypt. Brooklyn Museum

The woman nursing her baby is a very common icon in Egyptian art. We can find many examples in the private sphere of reliefs and statuettes of nursing women.

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Hair was essential in Aztec Mourning like in Ancient Egypt.


Mourning is a extended practice in funerals of many cultures all over the world. Not just in Ancient Egypt, but also in some other African cultures, in the ancient Assyria or in Archaic Greece.

Recently I wrote a short text about mourning in Ancient Egypt for www.mexicolore.co.uk, an on-line platform for the diffusion of Aztec culture. My contribution was just a small text included in an article about the mourning among the Aztecs.

Aztec ritual weeping; Florentine Codex, Book 1.

 Aztec ritual weeping; Florentine Codex, Book 1. Photo: http://www.mexicolore.co.uk

 

American cultures prove, not only that crying for the dead in funerals is a practice inherent to human being, but also that hair is an essential element during the “ritual weeping”.

According to Katherine Ashenburg, Aztecs (central Mexico) had also, as in Ancient Egypt, professional mourners for crying for to dead kings and noblemen and for those who died in war.  Those Aztecs professional mourners did, together with the widows and the children of the deceased ones, a public lament, in which they cried and showed their long and disheveled hair as a proof of their sadness. In addition, during 80 days the widow (s) entered in a period of real dirty, since they could not wash themselves, nor their bodies, nor their hair…After that a ritual washing happened for concluding the mourning.

Native woman from Michoacan

Native woman from Michoacan plaiting her hair.

On the other hand, it is said that native women from Michoacan (in the south of Mexico) plaited her hair for catching in it pain and sadness.

Summing up, also in American cultures women’s hair was a very important element related to the mourning practices, as it was in the ancient Egyptian culture.