In Ancient Egypt groups of common mourners walked during funerary processions making many gestures of lament: raising arms, beating their arms…One of the most typical gestures of these mourners was to pull from their lock of hair.
We can watch this typical mourning movement in two dimensional depictions, as for instance the mastaba of Mereruka (Saqqara) or the tomb of Ramses IX (KV6).
The religious texts of Ancient Egypt mention the fact of pulling from the lock of hair with the locution nwn m.
Mourners in the tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín
We usually considered this gesture as “pulling the front lock of hair”, due to the act that the artists of Ancient Egypt depicted the mourners always pulling from a lock of hair that hanged from their front.
However, there is an exception. The wooden anthropoid coffin of Amenemipet, from the XXI Dynasty, presents in its outer decoration a group of common mourners crying, bending their bodies, raising their arms… It is interesting to notice how the artist of Ancient Egypt introduced here the frontal perspective for depicting one mourner in the center of the group, so she raises her two arms at each side.
Common mourners in the coffin of Amenemipet. XXI Dynasty. British Museum.
At left of the image in a smaller scale a mourning woman pulls with both hands not from a front lock of hair, but from a lateral lock of hair.
In Ancient Egypt the lateral lock of hair was a distinctive of childhood.
For the ancient Egyptian artist of the Old Kingdom, the lateral lock of hair pending from the scalp was, joint with nudity, an iconographical resource applied mainly to boys. Many familiar statues from the Memphite cemetery show how the male was the one with that hairstyle.
Also the two dimensional art presents many images of young boys with the side lock of hair, as for instance in the reliefs from the tomb of Ptahhotep.
But, was this ancient Egyptian rule always like that? No.
The group statue of Nikare with his wife and his daughter is one good exception. This statue comes from Saqqara (?) and is dated in the V Dynasty. Nikare’s daughter is represented in an unusual way for the rules of 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.
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.
The iconography in Ancient Egypt was not gratuitous. Every image had a reason to be, but also every space.
From the Old Kingdom the two mourners in the role of Isis and Nephthys were accompanying the dead until the tomb at both ends of the mummy. The hieroglyphs of the wooden coffins from the Middle Kingdom tell how Isis was located at the feet and Nephthys at the head. This position could be due to a will of reproducing the moment of the rebirth of the deceased.
Later on the art of Ancient Egypt found in the coffin a new surface for including several icons, as the two professional mourners. From the XXI Dynasty became common to include these two female figures upside down in the in the external feet surface of the lid of the anthropoid coffin.
The inner part of the coffin offered also the artists of ancient Egypt a great surface for the sacred iconography. So, what was outside could also be drawn inside. At that point is emblematic the outer coffin of Nesykhonsu (XXI-XXII Dynasty), in whose interior…
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In Ancient Egypt the Legend of Osiris was so important that it was integrated into the solar theology. As a result Isis and Nephthys, the two mourners of Osiris, became an essential part of some solar iconography, so both from the New Kingdom were depicted flanking the solar disk in its daily rebirth.
Book of the Dead of Nespakashuty. XXI Dynasty. Photo: www.louvre.fr
It also had an effect in the holy conception of geography in Ancient Egypt. If the rising sun occupied the east and the sunset the west, the two mourning goddesses had to be also located somewhere, so they had to have also a geographical assignation: north and south. At that point the titles of the two goddesses are quite explicit. In Ancient Egypt, Isis was “The One of the South” and Nephthys “The One of the North”.
Cartonnages in Ancient Egypt were used over the wrapped mummy mainly for mummy masks and some important parts of the body.
The cartonnage of Irtirutja in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York dates from the Ptolemaic period. In it one can see how the artist of Ancient Egypt dedicated this technique for covering some special parts of the mummy.
The fact of choosing those parts of the anatomy could reveal an intention of including the essential elements in the belief of Ancient Egypt for the dead’s resurrection.
Obviously the mummy mask was obligated, since, among the many faculties the dead had to recover, there were the faculties of seeing and breathing.
The feet of the mummy were covered with two images of Anubis. It seems as if they were inverted, but they are actually dressed to the deceased’s eyesight.
Two images of the scarab with the solar disk were also a grant of the mummy’s rebirth. In Ancient Egypt, the Osiriac resurrection and the solar rebirth were united, in the iconography and in the religious texts.
Image of Nephthys mourning in the mummy of Irtirutja. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York.
The four sons of Horus (two at each side of the body) were also included in the composition, They were a personification of the canopic jars, which contained the dead’s viscera, so they accompanied always the deceased.
Finally, the ancient Egyptian artist could not omit two of the most important figures in the dead’s resurrection: Isis and Nephthys, the two professional mourners, who making a mourning ritual gave the faculties back to the mummy…
It seems that in Ancient Egypt there were a relationship between the hair element and some rites of Heliopolis.
The funerary texts show that the hair, the lock of hair and the cut of this lock of hair were somehow connected with religious practices of this ancient Egyptian city.
In chapters 167 and 674 of the Coffin Texts the deceased receives the offers of bread for the snwt festivity and the bier for the dnit festivity in the moment when the two mourners prepare their hair for him. Both were important lunar celebrations in Heliopolis during the Old Kingdom.
Detail of the eye of Horus from the tomb of Roy. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo
The festivity of snwt was celebrated in Ancient Egypt the 6th day of the month (Wb IV, 153, 4) and dnit was the festivity of the first and third crescent (Wb V, 465, 6 and 7). During these days ancient Egyptians celebrated in Heliopolis the process of recovery of the lunar eye, and the following day was called “day of Horus’ festivity” (Derchain, 1962, p. 30). So in Heliopolis, the lunar cycle was celebrated with the hair element as a process of rebirth, as it was in the funerals of Ancient Egypt.
Tha artist in Ancient Egypt followed the rule of depicting children with the side lock of hair.
However, this archetype so common in the Old and Middle Kingdom, had some changes from the New Kingdom on.
Common mourners from the tomb of Ramose. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: wikipedia
It is specially evident in the mourning scenes. Among the mourners usually some young girls can be seen taking part in the mourning performance, crying and rising arms as their adult companions. These young girls could be depicted in a smaller scale or nudes, showing this way their lower status. Also, according to the canon of Ancient Egypt, they should be represented with the side lock of hair. But from the New Kingdom it did not always follow the rule and some variations were introduced in the way of drawing the chiildhoodin Ancient Egypt.
For instance already in the tomb of Ramose, dating from the XVIII Dynasty, there is a group of common mourners in the funerary cortège. Some of them could be young girls due to their smaller size in the depiction, although they appear with the same long hair and the same clothes as the adults. One of them, however, was really a very young girl, due to the samller scale, her nudity and her different hairstyle: a middlelong hair, fringe and sidelock of hair.
In the tomb of Ameneminet (TT277) from the XIX Dynasty…
Ancient Egypt gives us again a good document. The tomb of Amenhotep, the Gater’s keeper of god Amun, has been discovered in Gourna.
Although it is still too soon for seeing the whole decoration, some images of the walls can help us to imagine how could be some complete scenes.
Funerary procession of Amenhotep, the gatekeeper of god Amun in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo www.thecairopost.com
This is the case of a part of the funerary procession, which can be seen on the right wall of the funerary chapel. Walking to an image of the ancient Egyptian god Osiris there is a depiction of a typical funerary procession of Ancient Egypt: In the upper register two oxen with ropes attached to their horns are moving forwards the West, one man stimulates the animal with a kind of branches (a natural whip), some men are holding the rope, two men are raising their arms, another one is burning and pouring; behind him there is a standing man with a long stick and dressed with a kind of shroud…
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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.
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.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.