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The Rite recalls the Myth. The Hair gives Breath of Life and Virility in Ancient Egypt.


The whole funerary ceremony is full of practices that recall the mythic death and resurrection of Osiris and the mourning rite is not an exception. The legend tells how the goddess Isis, when mourning the death of her husband, became a kite and put over the mummy of her husband; flapping her wings she could give the breath of life to Osiris and helped in his reanimation. In this work we have seen that there is also in the thought of ancient Egypt an assimilation between hair and feathers, therefore the nwn gesture of the mourner shaking the hair sm3 forwards the corpse could be interpreted as a way of producing the air that the deceased needs for breathing and coming back to life.

Isis as a kite over the corpse of Osiris. Relief from the temple of Seti I in Abydos. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.common.wikimedia.org)

Isis as a kite flapping wings over the corpse of Osiris. Relief from the temple of Seti I in Abydos. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.common.wikimedia.org)

Changing into a kite, Isis could also restore Osiris’ virility. Egyptian funerary texts claim that when the mourners (smwt) give their hair sm3w to the deceased, he impregnates those women. It is interesting to notice that the Egyptian year started with the inundation (season of akhet), which was announced in some rituals (also the funerary one) with the nwn gesture, and the first month of that season was called, which means « inebriation ». On the other hand, the reduplicated form of txi is txtx and means “to dishevel”.

Isis as a kite is over the body of the dead. Statuette of prince Tutmosis, son of Amenhotep III. XVIII Dynasty. Altes Musuem (Berlin). Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Isis as a kite is over the body of the dead. Statuette of prince Tutmosis, son of Amenhotep III. XVIII Dynasty. Altes Musuem (Berlin). Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Inebriation and dishevelling are two concepts together in the orgy, and this one is a way of coming back to the primeval chaos. It is the first state of creation, where sexuality and dishevelled hair take part. From anthropological point of view orgy is an act on behalf of life, it helps in generating a new productivity and in agricultural societies it strengthens the agrarian fertility; the orgy stimulates the renovation from the chaos. If the funerary ceremony is a way for getting the deceased’s resurrection through a return to the primeval moment, the eroticism, which encourages the chaos’ creation power, needs to be also a part of the ritual.

When the Egyptian mourner was making the nwn gesture during the Opening of the mouth ceremony, she was making a symbolic movement with her hair sm3 recalling the episode of the Osiris legend when Isis over the mummy restored the virility of her husband and copulated with him.

Opening of the Mouth ceremony; on the right the mourning is making the nwn gesture forwards the mummy. Tombof Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Opening of the Mouth ceremony; on the right the mourning is making the nwn gesture forwards the mummy. Tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

The ejaculation of Osiris was a very important step in the myth because it was a proof of his physical regeneration; in fact the virility is in Egyptian sacred iconography a resource the artist had for indicating the resurrection, since he represented the deceased with “penile erection”. It also granted the conception of Horus, his heir, his avenger, the one who eliminated the evilness and restored the order, succeeding to the Egypt’s throne and allowing his father Osiris to revive as king of the Hereafter.

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Pulling and shaking hair over the mummy in Ancient Egypt.


We have already seen how in chapter 180 of Book of the Dead the mourners appear dishevelled for or over the deceased.

Mourner covering her face with her hair. Tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.egyptraveluxe.blogspot.com

Mourner covering her face with her hair. Tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.egyptraveluxe.blogspot.com

The dead is now in the Hereafter and needs to get again the mobility. This chapter treats about the physical resurrection of the deceased and it was included in many tombs of kings (Tutmosis III, Seti I, Ramses II, Meneptah I, Seti II, Siptah, Ramses III and Ramses IV). In all cases the verb used for dishevelled was nwn. Taking into consideration those determinatives and the iconography of tombs of Amenemhat and Renni, one correct translation could be “…they are dishevelled over you…”.

We can then visualize the nwn gesture over the corpse for his benefit. Because after that the chapter follows: “…your soul gets happy, your body becomes glorious…” It describes the resurrection of the mummy, process in which was important that rite of mourning.

At this point we need to mention three relevant documents that refer to the role of mourning women in front of the body.

1)      The tomb of Ramses IX. On the left wall of the funerary chamber there is a unique scene of resurrection. The dead as a mummy inside an oval, over the corpse four women are making the nwn m gesture of pulling their locks of hair.

Women pulling lock of hair over the dead. Tomb of Ramses IX. Valley of the Kings. XX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Women pulling lock of hair over the dead. Tomb of Ramses IX. Valley of the Kings. XX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

In the following scene the dead is not a mummy anymore, but now his legs and arms have movement. That makes us think about the nwn m gesture as something made for revitalising the body. The text accompanying the image is a fragment of the Book of Caverns in which we read about the resurrection of the dead and in that context it says:

“Those Goddesses are so, they are mourning over the secret place of Osiris…they are together, screaming and crying over the secret place of the ceremony…their secret is in their fingers…”

It is clear the relationship between mourning and the resurrection of the dead, to whom the women are pulling their locks of hair. On the other hand it is interesting to pay attention to the expression “…their secret is in their fingers…”, because with those fingers they are holding their hair. Which one is the secret? Is the resurrection or the way for reaching that resurrection?

2)      The coffin of Ramses IV. In the head piece there is a representation of Isis and Nephtys making the same nwn m gesture.

Isis and Nephtys pulling their locks of hair. This image is the head piece of the coffin of Ramses IV.

Isis and Nephtys pulling their locks of hair. This image is on the head piece of the coffin of Ramses IV.

Both goddesses are facing the head of the dead and the image is accompanied by an inscription where we read:

 “They move their faces during the moan; they mourn over the secret corpse of …

Both goddesses are holding their locks swt, the water is dropping from the eyes of these goddesses…the breath comes from them (the goddesses)…”

In some moment of his resurrection the dead finds Isis and Nephtys, which leaning their faces, holding their locks of hair swt and crying over the corpse, allow the dead to breathe and revive.

There is a very similar example in the coffin of the dwarf Dyedhor, who was dancer in the Serapeum. This coffin was found in Saqqara and belongs to the Persian period. The coffin of Dyedhor shows also Isis and Nephtys pulling their frontal locks of hair (Cairo Museum, nº cat. 1294).

3)      The stele C15 in Louvre Museum is another important document for this subject. It was found in Abydos and dates from XI Dynasty. His owner was Abkaou, chief of the cattle. In the Middle Kingdom became very popular to put a stele in Abydos in the memory of the deceased god Osiris. In this stele the lower register shows Abkaou receiving the offerings while in an upper register there is an image of the ceremonies that took place during the Osiris festivity. Two mourners are over the lying corpse and both cover their face with the hair; in fact it remembers what it is said in chapter 180 of Book of the Dead.

Two mourners making nwn gesture over the corpse. Detail of the stele of Akbaou (stele C15) from Abydos. Musée du Louvre. XI Dynasty. Photo (stele): www.cartelfr.louvre.fr; photo (detail): www.commons.wikimedia.org

Two mourners making nwn gesture over the corpse. Detail of the stele of Abkaou (stele C15) from Abydos. Louvre Museum. XI Dynasty. Photo (stele): http://www.cartelfr.louvre.fr; photo (detail): http://www.commons.wikimedia.org

The inscription is much reduced: once hieroglyph tm and twice the hieroglyph nwi.   niw tm

The verb tm in ancient Egyptian means “complete”, “be completed”, “join the different parts of the body” (Wb V, 303), especially when it is about the parts of the dead (Wb V, 305, 1) and nwi means “to be in charge of” (Wb II, 220);  the whole could be translated as “to be in charge of completing”. In the Myth of Osiris Isis with the help of Nephtys are the ones who collect the different parts of the body of Osiris, so these two mourners of the image would also be in charge of mending the body of the dead. The nwn gesture they are doing over the body would be one of the practises for revitalizing the deceased.

Suming up, mourners in Ancient Egypt made a kind of rite with their hair during the funerals. It could be to cover the face with the hair (nwn) or pull the frontal lock of hair (nwn m). In both cases we have proofs of this practise over the corpse and always with a revitalising goal.

For understanding better the meaning of this practise we have to know more about the symbolism of hair.