Among the Ancient Egypt gods, Isis and Nephtys occupied a very important role.
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: 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)…
Egyptian art can hide very important information in small pieces.
That is the case of the stele of Sebekaa in 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…
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”.
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.
That 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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Serket from the tomb of Nefertari. XIX Dynasty. Valley of the Queens. Photo: www.jfbradu.free.fr
It has been always thought that the ancient Egyptian deity Serket was the Scorpion Goddess, whose power was in her stings.
Scholars considered that, due to the quality of killing with the poison, Serket was in Ancient Egypt an effective divine protection against poisonous bites.
Nowadays it is widely considered that in fact Serket was not a scorpion, but a nepid, that is a water scorpion.
The water scorpion is an insect which lives in the marshes and, whose appearance remembers the one of scorpions. The water scorpion looks like an earth’s scorpion due to the shape of its two forelegs and to a long breathing-tube at the end of the abdomen that looks like a sting.
Although morphologically they seem to be very close, the nepid is a harmless insect, while the scorpion is harmful and in some cases can cause death. The bite of a scorpion produces many damages, among them the asphyxiation; on its behalf the waterscorpion presents a breathing-tube at the end of the abdomen which allows t take air while the animal is under the water. So, Ancient Egyptians could have considered the water scorpion as the positive counterpoint of the lethal scorpion. They would be the both side of the same matter:
Serket. scorpion versus nepid
On the other hand, Serket is a name which comes from the verb srk:
which means “breathe”, “make breathe” (Wb IV, 201). And Serket is the short version of the name of this goddess. Her complete name was srkt Htw:
This ancient Egyptian name meant: “she makes breathe the windpipe”.
Among the faculties the dead (assimilated to Osiris) needed for coming back to his new life, was the breath. According to the belief of ancient Egypt, it was Isis the goddess who blew air to the nostrils of Osiris by beating her wings. And Serket was eventually assimilated to Isis.
This exposure makes us think of the posibility that ancient Egyptians included Serket in the team for protecting the corpse thanks to her faculty for allowing the breathing.