Category Archives: 05. HAIR AND THE OPENING OF THE MOUTH

Two Professional Mourning Men in Ancient Egypt?


The two Drty (two kites), offering nw vases to the four pools. Relief from the tomb of Pahery in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Ancient Egypt

The two Drty (two kites), offering nw vases to the four pools. Relief from the tomb of Pahery in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

In Ancient Egypt a couple of two professional women in the role of Isis and Nephthys were actively involved in the dead’s resurrection. They appear usually at both ends of the coffin, during the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony or, from the New Kingdom, kneeling and offering two globular vases nw at the end of that funerary ceremony.

At the beginning we thought that this scene of the professional mourners offering the vases nw was something exclusive of the New Kingdom and of the Theban area. However we were maybe wrong; Ancient Egypt reveals always something new.

In some tombs from the Old Kingdom and from the Memphite area the artists of Ancient Egypt included an iconography, which remembers that one from later periods and from the south.

Funerary chapel of Iasen-front view with statue. Giza. Ancient Egypt. osirisnet

Funerary chapel of Iasen-front view with statue. Giza. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

That is the case of the tomb of Iasen in Gizah (G2196) from the Old Kingdom. In the funerary chapel, to the left of the niche with the statue of the deceased, there is an image of Iasen seated and facing the offering table. Underneath two unidentified kneeling men are facing the dead and offering nw vases. Their position clearly reminds the one of the two professional mourners at the end of the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, which will become so common during the New Kingdom.

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The Ancient Egyptian Dead Breathes Thanks to “The Hand in the Mouth”.


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 ancient Egyptian expression “The Hand in the Mouth” (Djat Ra) as a way in Egyptian language of referring to the gesture made by the mother breastfeeding her baby. In the funerary sphere of Ancient Egypt that expression seems to be related to the mourning rite made by the professional mourner during the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. The dead, assimilated to a new-born, would need this gesture as a symbol of his first feed for the Hereafter.

In the relief from the tomb of Qar, this movement of approaching the hand to the mouth was also made by the embalmer. The expression Djat Ra related to a masculine figure cannot have a maternal explanation.

Sem priest opening the mouth with his little finger. Rekhmire. Ancient Egypt

Sem priest opening the mouth with his little finger. Tomb of Rekhmire.

Looking at some depictions of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony from the New Kingdom we can see how, among the many practices made in favor of the deceased in Ancient Egypt, there is one in which the funerary sem priest opens the dead’s mouth (or the statue’s dead  mouth) with his little finger. Had this ritual gesture made on the corpse or on the statue a resurrection purpose in Ancient Egypt?

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An Egyptian Ostracon with Professional Mourners inside the Tomb.


Ostracon with funerary scene. New Kingdom. Manchester Museum. Ancient Egypt

Ostracon with funerary scene. New Kingdom. Manchester Museum.

Last week we could read about ostracon 5886 in Manchester Museum. In that skecht the Egyptian artists represented what happened outside the tomb. Let’s see now what happened inside.

Inside the tomb, a man is descending and some others appear in the funerary chamber carrying the coffin. But there are two important things: a man with a jackal head is next to the corpse and two kneeling figures are in a corner of the chamber.

Acccording to Campbell Price the coffin would be being  placed into the tomb, which is completely true. But was it necessary for placing the coffin a man with a jackal-headed mask and those two kneeling figures?

Ostracon with funerary scene. Detail of the inside. New Kingdom. Manchester Museum. Ancient Egypt.

Ostracon with funerary scene. Detail of the inside. New Kingdom. Manchester Museum.

The schematic scene would in fact represent what happened inside the tomb for reviving the deceased. We have already seen that the Egyptian Opening of the Mouth ceremony would happen inside the tomb and that the two mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys were a part of the party making a mourning rite in favour of the mummy.

The man with the jackal-headed mask as a living image of Anubis would play the role of the embalmer. In our opinion these two kneeling figures would be the two representatives of Isis and Nephtys.  In fact the scene shows the members of the common Egyptian scene in which Anubis assists the mummy while Isis and Nephtys are (standing or kneeling) at both ends of the corpse. The difference here is that these ones stay apart in the chamber and already with their short hair.

Isis and Nephtys at both extremes of the corpse with shen rings. Tomb of Siptah. XIX Dynasty. Valley of the Kings. Ancient Egypt. Photo: www.thethebanmappingproject.com

Isis and Nephtys at both extremes of the corpse with shen rings. Tomb of Siptah. XIX Dynasty. Valley of the Kings. Photo: http://www.thebanmappingproject.com

The man on the right seems to hold with his hand a long straight object, which seems to be more similar to a kind of strike than to an incense burner, Could we consider it as the adze used in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony?

Opening of the Mouth ceremony from the tomb of Menna in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Opening of the Mouth ceremony from the tomb of Menna in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

Both men are holding the mummy as if they wanted to place it down in the shaft after having finished the rites.

It does not seem too ridiculous to think that such schematic skecth would represent the end of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony and the moment in which the mummy is finally buried. Meanwhile the two professional mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys would wait kneeling and already with no mane of hair until the dead is placed in the burial place and the shaft is sealed.

While that was happening inside the tomb, outside the common mourners would be lamenting, three of them with raise arms and one of them with hair on her face and her arms hanging down.

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.

The Mourning Ritual in the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony.


The fact of being a secret ceremony would explain why it is so rare to find images of the two mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys carrying out the mourning ritual. The iconography shows them crying next to the mummy, but it is not usual to see what exactly they do.

on the right the mourner in nwn gesture towards the corpse. Scene from the tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

On the right the mourner in nwn gesture towards the corpse. Scene from the tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

Some of the most explicit images of what the mourners do with their hair over or in front of the mummy are the stele of Abkaou (XI Dynasty), the tomb of Renni in el-Kab (XVIII Dynasty), the funerary temple of Seti I in Dra Abu el-Naga (XIX Dynasty) or the tomb of Ramsés IX (XX Dynasty); being scenes included in the coffin we could also put in this group the representations of Isis and Nephtys pulling their frontal lock of hair in the coffin of Ramsés IV (XX Dynasty) and in the coffin of Nes-shu-tefnut (Ptolemaic period).

Isis and Nephtys making nwn m gesture. Sarcophagus of Royal Scribe Nes-shu-tefnut from Saqqara. Ptolemaic Period. Kunsthistorisches Museum in Wien. Photo: www.globalegyptianmuseum.org

Isis and Nephtys making nwn m gesture. Sarcophagus of Royal Scribe Nes-shu-tefnut from Saqqara. Ptolemaic Period. Kunsthistorisches Museum in Wien. Photo: http://www.globalegyptianmuseum.org

Even the Opening of the Mouth rite of the tomb of Rekhmire does not give us a defined idea of the performance these women did it is the most complete scene of the whole ceremony that ancient Egyptians have left to us, but it is not clear what these two women did, since the mourners appear with a passive gesture. However, thanks to the funerary literature, we know that already from the Old Kingdom they performed a mourning ceremony screaming, crying and shaking or pulling hair. So, Rekhmire wanted the resurrection rites to be reflected in his tomb, but the artist might have a sacred limit, because the divine secrets must be concealed as a sign of respect[1].

According to the sources we have seen all along this work we have proofs of the following:

  • The mourning rite was a part of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony.
  • The mourning rite could be made by two women in the role of Isis and Nephtys or just by one mourner in the role of Isis (as Osiris’ wife), reproducing a passage of the Myth of Osiris.
  • In this mourning ritual the hair of the mourner(s) was the main element.
  • This mourning ritual consisted not just of crying for the death of Osiris (the deceased), but of a gesture made with the hair.
  • This gesture could be to shake the hair forwards and cover the face with it (nwn) or to pull the frontal lock of hair (nwn m).
  • According to the iconography these two gestures were made over or in front of the corpse, so in the deceased’s direction.

There is no evidence in iconography, or in the funerary texts that both gestures were done together. It seems that in the mourning rite the mourner(s) did one or another. On what did the choice depend? We do not know.

At this point we wonder in which moment of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony did the mourners made the nwn or the nwn m gesture. Mostly the iconography shows the mourner(s) in the moment of the ox sacrifice, as we can see in the tomb of Rekhmire or in TTA4 and TT53.

Sacrifice of the ox with the presence of the mourner. Painting from the tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Sacrifice of the ox with the presence of the mourner. Painting from the tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Thanks to the funerary texts we know that slaughtering the ox and mourning were not made at the same time. The Pyramid Texts give us a clue of what was first: “…the souls of Buto rock for you; they beat their bodies and their arms for you, they pull their hair for you. They say to you: Oh, Osiris you have gone and come back, you were sleepy and have waked up, you were dead and you have revived…Stand up, look what your son has done for you…he has beaten for you the one who beated you as a bull, he has killed for you the one who killed you as a bull sm3[2] may the mourning stop in both palaces…you go up (Osiris) to the sky and you are like Wpw-W3wt[3]. Your son Horus leads you over the heaven’s ways…”[4].

Reading this passage it seems that we find the following sequence:

1. The souls of Buto are Isis and Nephtys, so the mourners shake and/or pull their hair. We are in full mourning ritual.

2. Horus gets into the drama. That means that Isis has already conceived him and he could then revenge his father’s death. In the funeral it might be the moment of the sacrifice of the ox, as scapegoat. It remembered the fight between Horus and Seth and the victory of the falcon god.

3. Once the animal has been slaughtered, so the death of Osiris revenged, the moan stops. In this moment the deceased receives the foreleg and the heart of the ox and the Udjat eye as a symbol of the final resurrection. The end of the mourning was the cut of the s3mt. And maybe then was also when the mourner(s) were shaved and a lock of hair, assimilated to the healed lunar eye, was offered.

4. The Osiris’ rebirth is a fact.

If the sacrifice of an ox was the revenge of Horus it seems logical to think that the gesture of shaking hair was done before it. One of the meanings of this gesture was to allude to the moment Isis, as a kite, set on Osiris’ phallus for conceiving Horus. Once the heir was there, someone could revenge the Osiris’ death; it was the moment of the fight between Horus and Seth, which ended with the death of this one and the resurrection of Osiris. So firstly the mourner(s) started the gesture nwn towards the mummy; as the hair covering the face could also be a way of remembering the chaos and darkness, which in the legend was the battle between Horus and Seth, in some moment of this mourning rite, when the two mourners (kites) were still making the nwn gesture, started the ox’ slaughter. Once the animal had died, the two mourners (Isis and Nephtys) would stop the nwn gesture.

Sacrifice of an ox in the funerary ceremony. Painting from the tomb of Menna in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Sacrifice of an ox in the funerary ceremony. Painting from the tomb of Menna in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

Taking into consideration that the mourning ritual and the ox’ slaughter were a reproduction of a passage of the myth of Osiris, it seems quite logical to place them at the end of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, after other practices as for instance the tekenu ceremony. This is the way it appears in the tomb of Rekhmire. The tomb of Menna (TT69) has also a scene of the Opening of the Mouth where the tekenu practice appears at the beginning.

Opening of the Mouth ceremony from the tomb of Menna in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Opening of the Mouth ceremony from the tomb of Menna in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

But in the tomb of Renni in el-Kab (EK7) there is a different version. On the east wall we can see how one mourner is making the nwn gesture towards the mummy during the Opening of the mouth ceremony.

On the right the mourner with short hair is wrapping someone. Scene from the tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

On the right the mourner with short hair is wrapping someone. Scene from the tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

In the upper register a woman with no mane, so the mourner appears wrapping with a kind of clothing a masculine figure. Would it be the early stage of the tekenu rite? So it seems; because the following image shows the tekenu being transported on a sledge while behind him stands the Drt with short hair.

The tekenu on a sledge, behind we can see the mourner (Drt) with short hair. Scene from the tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

The tekenu on a sledge, behind we can see the mourner (Drt) with short hair. Scene from the tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

If so, then the mourning ritual with the hair would have been made before it. Why? Maybe these two practices made in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony had not an orthodox order or maybe the artists did not knew so much so they could represent the ritual as it was.


[1] S. Mayassis, 1957, p. 40.

[2] The bull sm3 is a bull for sacrifice that was assimilated to Set (Wb IV, 123, 17). It is interesting to notice the same phonetic as the word for hair sm3, which we know was related to darkness and chaos.

[3] The One who opens the Ways.

[4] Pyr., 1004-1010; 1972-1978

Hair, Mourners and Secret in Ancient Egypt.


Egyptian funerary texts and iconography mention the mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys as making a mourning ritual with their hair for the benefit of the deceased. According to the sources, this rite was a part of the practises which formed the Opening of the Mouth for the mummy’s rebirth.

There is evidence of the Opening of the Mouth rite from texts of the Old Kingdom (inscription in mastaba of Metjen and in the Pyramid Texts). The Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom continue demonstrating the existence of this rite. In this period of the Egyptian history maybe can we envisage already one graphic proof in the stele of Abkaou (stele C15) from Abydos. In it the sculptor represented the rites of the Osiris festivity[1], where the myth was reproduced.  The two mourners shake their hair over the corpse; between them we can see the hieroglyphs of the adze and the sledge. What does it mean?

Detail of the stele of Abkaou in the Louvre Museum. XI Dynasty. Photo: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Detail of the stele of Abkaou in the Louvre Museum. XI Dynasty. Photo: http://www.commons.wikimedia.org

The sledge is the phoneme tm; it can be a negative verb[2], but it also is the term for “to complete”, “be completed”, in the sense of uniting the different parts of the body[3], mainly in relation to the mummy limbs[4]. The adze could be the verb nwi “to be in charge of”[5]. So, we could read the inscription as “in charge of completing” in the sense of restoring the corpse of the deceased. That would not be crazy if we think that in the legend Anubis was the one who embalmed the body, but with the assistance of Isis and Nephtys.

However, looking at the entire register of the stele there is no trace of inscription in the other images. So, why do we have to consider these three hieroglyphs as an inscription?

Detail of the register with the Osiris festivities. Stele d'Abkaou. Musée du Louvre. XI Dynasty. Photo: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Detail of the register with the Osiris festivities. Stele d’Abkaou. Musée du Louvre. XI Dynasty. Photo: http://www.commons.wikimedia.org

The tekenu on a sledge. Detail from the tomb of Montuherkhepeshef in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Image: www.excavacionegipto.com

The tekenu on a sledge. Detail from the tomb of Montuherkhepeshef in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Image: http://www.excavacionegipto.com

If we consider them just as the pure objects that they represent, we notice that the adze is one of the main tools in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony in the New Kingdom iconography; on its behalf the sledge is one of the means for transporting the human victim/tekenu, whose ritual we have seen was also part of the Opening Mouth ceremony in New Kingdom.

One possible theory could be that in the stele of Abkaou the sculptor was representing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony and the morning ritual in a shorten version, as it was done later in the New Kingdom, when artist included in the same scene mourners, priests, corpse and ritual tools. And we could as well think not just of a short version, but a codified way of representing a hidden ritual in the attempt of protecting the information of a confidential rite.

Opening of the Mouth ceremony. The image shows the two mourners, the priests and the table with all the tools utilised, included the foreleg of an ox. Painting from the tomb of Khonsu in Gourna. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Opening of the Mouth ceremony. The image shows the two mourners, the priests and the table with all the utilised tools, included the foreleg of an ox. Painting from the tomb of Khonsu in Gourna. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

The renovating rites for the mummy’s rebirth might be secret. All along this work we have read some funerary texts making allusion to this concept of “hidden” in everything surrounding Osiris’ death and resurrection. For instance, in the tomb of Ramsés IX the inscription accompanying the scene of the women pulling their frontal locks of hair says: “…they are mourning over the secret place of Osiris…they are screaming and crying over the secret place of the ceremony …they move away SnDt[6], their two arms with their two arms, their secret is in their fingers…”[7]. In the same line we have the coffin of Ramses IV, decorated with both mages of Isis and Nephtys pulling their frontal lock of hair and whose inscription says:  “…the two goddesses who are in this secret place…they hide the secrets of the divine land… They move their faces during the moan; they mourn over the secret corpse Both goddesses are holding their locks swt”.

It seems that in ancient Egyptian belief, the mystery of death and resurrection was not accessible to all people; because of that in the Book of the Dead we read in relation to the Osiris’ resurrection. “… it is a secret of the Duat and a religious mystery in the deceased’s Kingdom …it is a mystery, that cannot be know, to take care of the blessed heart, give him movement, take away the bandage from his eyes, open his face…Read that with no one seeing it, apart from your truly friend and the lector priest[8].

The death itself was for the dead an initiation to the Hereafter’s mysteries[9]. Only the priests knew the secret of the Osiris death and resurrection, and to keep this secrecy was crucial for the universal harmony[10], possibly for that reason the “night of Isis” hid the mysteries of resurrection[11]. Even Isis sometimes received the name of “The Mysterious One”, since she “has been everything she has been, everything she is and everything she will be, and her veil, no mortal has never took off[12].

The Theban Books of Breathing, dating from Ptolemaic period was a funerary text recited just before closing the cover of the coffin [13] and the woman in the role of Isis gave a speech for reviving Osiris and help his soul go up to the sky as lunar disc: “That is something that needs to be hidden. Do not let anyone read it. It is useful for one in the necropolis. He will live again successfully millions of times”[14].

The chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead mentions the moment Osiris recovers his virility thanks to Isis, and she stresses the secret nature of her action: “I am Isis, you found me when I had my hair disordered over my face, and my crown was dishevelled. I have conceived as Isis, I have procreated as Nephtys. Isis dispels my bothers (?). My crown is dishevelled; Isis has been over her secret, she has stood up and has cleaned her hair”

The Magical Papyrus Salt 825 contains a text about the rite for the conservation of life and it informs the reader that the “House of Life” is hidden, unknown and invisible; it is a “secret book…contains life and death. Do not reveal it, the one who reveals it will die suddenly or will be murdered[15].

Opening of the Mouth ceremony at the door of the tomb. Painitgn from the tomb of Khonsu in Gourna. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Opening of the Mouth ceremony at the door of the tomb. Painting from the tomb of Khonsu in Gourna. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

Everything points to the idea that in ancient Egypt the resurrection process is something that only concerns to the deceased and the team helping him in his recovery and that it is not something accessible for everybody. That would explain then why there is no much iconographical evidence of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony; it comes mainly from New Kingdom on (tomb decoration or papyri) and it is not explicit at all. On the other hand these scenes showing the priests and mourner with the mummy in front of the tomb would not be real. If the ritual for the resurrection was something secret, the Opening of the Mouth ceremony could not be made in open air. All practices for helping the mummy to come back to life should be made inside the tomb or inside a special building in the necropolis. So the images of the mourners crying close to the corpse while the priests are officiating would be the artistic solution to allude to the rite without revealing details.


[1] Gayet, 1886, pl. LIV.

[2] Wb V, 302, 5.

[3] Wb V, 303.

[4] Wb V, 305, 1.

[5] Wb II, p. 220

[6] Fear (?).

[7] Piankoff, 1942, pp. 1-11; 1944, pp. 1-62; 1946, pp. 1-50.

[8] LdM, 148.

[9] S. Mayassis, 1957, p. 218.

[10] S. Mayassis, 1957, p. 42.

[11] Sinesio, Epist., XIII,v.s. 89; S. Mayassis, 1957, p. 65.

[12] Plutarco, De Iside et Osiride, 9.

[13] J.Cl. Goyon, 1972, p. 217.

[14] Book of Breathing I, 1.

[15] Ph. Derchain, 1964, p. 139.

[16] S. Mayassis, 1957, p. 40.

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.