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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.

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The Locks of Hair swt are Isis and Nephtys.


The chapter 531 of the Coffin Texts treats about the prophylaxis of the different parts of the funerary mask, always assimilating them with many divinities. After saying how perfect is the face (that is the mask) of the dead we read:

Your White Crown is Thoth; your crown is Wp-wawt[1]. Your eyebrows are both Enneads. Your eyes are the boat of the day and the boat of the night.

Your two locks of hair are Isis and Nephtys.

Swt are Isis and Nephtys

Your nape is Duanenuy. Your plait is Hddt

Hnskt is Hddt

 The funerary mask is like a complete head, or like its substitute, and to put it on the deceased’s face is a revivifying action. The dead is assimilated to the acephalic Osiris and the mask has two functions. On one hand it hides the damage made by Seth on the Osiris’ face; on the other hand it restores the faculties to the head, as to see and to breath; through the mask the dead can also perceive things that mortals cannot notice[2]; the replacement of the head, symbolised by the placement of the mask, allows the deceased to come back to life.

Scholar D. Meelks translated the word swt as “lock” or “plait”[3]. Due that the chapter is describing the funerary mask; we could think that this word would be making an allusion to the two locks of hair that fall on both sides of the face; in the same way that Isis and Nephtys are always at both extremes of the dead.

Khonsu's funerary mask. XIX Dynasty. Metropoliltan Museum of New York. Photo: www.metmuseum.org

Khonsu’s funerary mask. XIX Dynasty. Metropoliltan Museum of New York. Photo: http://www.metmuseum.org

Let’s remember also that we have already seen how the word swt designates the front lock of hair the mourners pull. Maybe both locks of hair were assimilated to the hair the two goddesses pull from.

In the wig both locks of hair fall at both sides of the face while the rest of the hair falls over the back. The term hnskt usually means “plait of hair”[4].  But in the context we are the two locks of hair are assimilated with Isis and Nephtys, and just before the text mentions the nape, so it makes sense to think of Hnskt as the mop of hair that in the wig falls on the back[5]. On the other hand, the term Hnskty is a dual that means « the two women with plait », Isis and Nephtys[6]. And that refers us to those images of Isis and Nephtys with the head-dress afnt (see image in header) or to those images of mourners with the hair tied in a back tail; , which would reinforce the idea that hnskt could be that hair identified with the goddess Hddt (a kind of Isis in Edfu).

Mourners with hair tied in a back tail. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Mourners with hair tied in a back tail. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

At this point we consider important to point out a scene of a libation on an altar in Dendera. In it the spelling of Isis Hddt is changed by another one that refers to a light symbolism.  We are in a context where the mission of Isis is to bright in the sky just in the moment of bringing the flood[7]. That makes us think about what we have seen in former chapters about the nwn gesture and the beginning of the Egyptian year; the nwn gesture would be a way of symbolising the new flood, the new year and, therefore, the new life. Again we would be facing the hair element with a strong regenerating symbolism.


[1] “The One who open the ways”, the name of the jackal god from Asiut, that opens the ways to the king in the battle. Let’s think about its presence also in the Sed Festival.

[2] D. Meeks, 1991, p. 7.

[3] D. Meeks, 1977-1979, II, p. 312, nº 78.3373.

[4] Wb III, 116, 4.

[5] Chr. Desroches-Noblecourt considers that Hnskt refers to the small braids under the head-dress afnt (Chr. Desroches-Noblecourt, 1953, p. 28, n. 2) and that it is related with the manifestation of the deceased’s ka (Chr. Desroches-Noblecourt, 1953, p. 25, n. 5). The mother of the dead in funerals wears the head-dress afnt: “Your mother is the great cow in el-Kab, (with) the crown Atef and head-dress afnt, with long hair, with hanging breasts, which has nursed you(Pyr., 2003).

[6] Wb III, 121, 1. It appears like that in The Songs of Isis and Nephtys, Pap. Bremner-Rhind I; 1,9; 3,23; 6,23 y 11,19.

[7] M-Th. Derchain-Urtel, 1993. Leuven, p. 102.

When did the mourners pull or shake hair in the Egyptian funerary ceremony?


During these days we have seen how iconography and texts proof the existence of a gesture, posture or movement made by mourners in Ancient Egypt funerals. Sometimes they pulled their front lock of hair (nwn m) and sometimes they shook their mane onwards covering their faces with it (nwn). In both cases there was always an implicit symbolism, mostly related to the Osiris legend and the resurrection of the dead.

But now many questions come to mind: when did these women do that gesture during the funerary ceremony? Was the mourning rite constant during the whole ceremony or was just for some special moments? Were the normal mourners and the representatives of Isis and Nephtys making it together and/or at the same time?

Firstly we should distinguish the common mourners from the two women in the role of Isis and Nephtys. It makes sense to think about two different kind of performance. The iconography has several examples of mourners “outdoors” making the nwn m or nwn gesture. They would be part of the group of women accompanying the coffin in the funerary procession, we see them in movement in the reliefs from the tombs of Mereruka and Idu or in the Middle Kingdom coffin from Abydos; but also we see them in a more static moment, when some mourners are sit while others are making the nwn gesture, as in the tombs of Amenemhat, Miankht or Rekhmire.

Mourners in the tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Mourners in the tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

From the iconography we could deduce that the nwn gesture made by common mourners could take place:

-During the procession, while the coffin was transported.

-In necropolis, when the retinue has already close to the burial.

-Both, first during the procession and second once the retinue were in the necropolis, while the body was being buried.

Mourners. Painting from the tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Mourners. Painting from the tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

However we only have Isis and Nephtys in iconography making the nwn gesture in the stele C15 from the Middle Kingdom (the whole scene represents the Osiris Festivity) and the funerary temple of Seti I in Dra Abu el-Naga and also pulling their front lock of hair (nwn m) in the coffin of Ramses IV and the one of dwarf Djedhor. Religious texts mention how the goddesses make the nwn gesture and show or give the hair sema to the deceased. It does not seem to be a public moment, but a more secret practice and closely linked to the corpse and the resurrection of the dead. If so, the two mourners representing Isis and Nephtys would be two selected women for representing a divine role. And maybe their mourn ritual with their hair was a part of the group of practices made for the resurrection of the dead.

Mourners over the corpse. Detail of the stele of Akbaou. XI Dynasty. Photo: www.commons-wikimedia.org

Mourners over the corpse. Detail of the stele of Akbaou (stele C15). XI Dynasty. Photo: http://www.commons-wikimedia.org

In Ancient Egyptian funerals there was a ceremony for restoring the deceased’s faculties: the ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth, which ended with the final resurrection of the dead. Was it maybe during that ritual when the two mourners made their mourning gesture with their hair? As we will see further in this work, the Ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth was not a public ceremony, but a rite reserved for those who accomplished it, as they were the sem priest, the lector priest and the two mourners. It consisted of a group of practices in favour of the deceased; the goal was to restore all the faculties he needed for his resurrection and his new life in the Herefater: breathing, eyesight, mobility, sexuality… Those practises were made over the mummy or the statue of the deceased and it seems reasonable to think that the mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys did their nwn gesture near the body in some moment during the Ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth. In fact it is usual to find in the Egyptian iconography many scenes of that ceremony with the presence of mourners; maybe the most explicit one would be the one in the tomb of Renni, where we can see how priest is making the ritual over the corpse and the statue, while a mourner is making the nwn gesture.

Opening of the Mouth with mourner in nwn gesture on the right. Tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.oisplendorsofthenile.blogspot.com.es

Summing up, the nwn and nwn m gesture had two dimensions, with different meanings and in different moments of the funerary ceremony. The public one made by common mourners outdoors during the procession or out of the tomb in the necropolis; and the private one, made by the two women in the divine role of Isis and Nephtys for the resurrection of the dead. In the first case the nwn/nwn m gesture is related to the chaos, the darkness of the death and is a sign of despair. In the second one those same practices had a revivifying goal.

The sexual Meaning of Hair in Ancient Egypt Funerals. Part I.


We already know the relationship between mourning and hair and the connexion it has with the Osiris legend. A very important part of that myth is the episode when Osiris recovers his virility. According to the legend, once the different parts of Osiris corpse were found and the body was restored, Isis put herself over her husband’s body and conceived the posthumous son Horus. Thanks to that act the cosmic order was again established; Horus became the king of Egypt and Osiris resurrected as the king of the Hereafter.

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.

In a coffin found in Gebelein and dating from the XIII Dynasty, there is a vignette with both women assisting the dead, over him is bending a feminine image.

A female figure is bending over the dead. Scene in a coffin from Gebelein. XIII Dynasty.

A female figure is bending over the dead. Scene in a coffin from Gebelein. XIII Dynasty.

Already in the 50’s Chr. Desroches-Noblecourt considered that the goal of this gesture was to give back the virility to the mummy[1]. In fact, the Pyramid Texts show that in the Old Kingdom Isis and Nephtys were considered the responsible ones of regenerating the deceased’s faculty for fertilising[2]. The Egyptian iconography has several examples of the copulation of Isis and Osiris; Isis as a kite[3] put herself over the phallus of her husband, and she assures the conception of the son who will avenge the murder of his father; also literature has many examples of that episode:

I am your sister Isis. No god and no goddess have done what I have done. I have performed the procreation, although I am a woman alone, for making your name to endure on earth. Your divine semen was inside my womb and I put it over the earth, this way he can spread your image. He is healthy, although you suffer. He must send the violence to those who had caused it. Set succumb to his knife. Fellows of Set succumb because of Set. The throne of Geb is yours. You are his beloved son…”[4]

 In some tombs of the Middle Kingdom were found some figurines maybe used for restoring the virility to the dead. According to Chr. Desroches-Noblecourt, these figurines evocate a young femininity and with no visible effects of maternity; so, they would not be images of fecundity, but of eroticism[5]. That premise would send us to what we exposed formerly (see post of 27th May) about the two mourners in the roles of Isis and Nephtys; we think that these two women should have been mother yet. It looks as if these figurines were also put in tombs of New Kingdom for restoring the ka of the dead[6].

In chapter 991 of the Coffin Texts we could read how the dead is “the one who fertilises the mourners” (see post of 21rst May) and in The Songs of Isis and Nepthys there are several allusions to that matter; many times Osiris is “the lord of the sexual pleasure”[7], “the lord of the love [8], “bull that fertilises the cows[9]. We also read in that text: « you give the life over the woman[10], so, « you impregnate her »; it is the same meaning as we read in chapter 991 of Coffin Texts. In the Songs of Isis and Nephtys Osiris is also called « the one who engenders » [11] and the mourners ask him to have sexual relations:

“Copulate you with us as a male” [12].

“Copulate you with your sister Isis[13].

 There is a very meaningful sequence: 

“Lord of the sexual pleasure,

¡Oh! Come to me;

Be in union the sky and the earth”[14].

 In the mythic sphere the primeval union is the one between earth and sky (in Ancient Egyptian cosmogony between Geb and Nut); it is the moment of the Creation, symbolised by the sexual act because it contents the power of generating life. This reflexion makes us think of orgy as a sexual celebration; in many cultures orgy is a synonym of agricultural fecundity; it is an act in favour of life for stimulating new births; and there is also a bond between vegetation and eroticism.


[1] Desroches-Noblecourt, 1953, p. 43.

[2] Pyr., 366, 628 a, 631 b, 632 a-d and 123-125.

[3] Roeder, 1960, p. 180.

[4] Pap. Louvre, 3079; Roeder, 1960, p. 182.

[5] Desroches-Noblecourt, 1953, p. 18. However she accepts the idea of the virginity of the two mourners representing Isis and Nephtys.

[6] Desroches-Noblecourt, 1953 p. 39.

[7] Songs…1,23; 12,8.

[8] Songs…3,5.

[9] Songs…3,6.

[10] Songs…14,27.

[11] Songs…3,26.

[12] Songs…2,9.

[13] Songs…5,25.

[14] Songs…12,8-9-10. There are allusions to that matter in 7,4; 12,11-12; 12,16.

 

 

Hair and Death in Ancient Egypt: Foreword.


 

I started this research when Dr. Nadine Guilhou from the university of Montpellier told me about some images in Egyptian iconography where hair in funerary rites was treated in a very special way.

The first important document was a vignette in the chapter 168 of the Book of the Dead. Here mourning women in the funeral cortege of Re were shaking their hair and covering their faces with it.

Chapter 168 B of the Book of the Dead.

Chapter 168 B of the Book of the Dead.

I needed to be sure that it was not an isolated case, so I had to find out more similar examples. I found many similar scenes in Theban tombs from the New Kingdom where mourning women gesticulated in the same way: Amenemhat (TT82),  Minakht (TT87), Rekhmire (TT100) and Ineni (TT81), in the tomb of Renni at el-Kab (see the front of the blog). Out of the burials, but always in the funerary context, there is a scene from the funerary temple of Seti I in Dra Abu el-Naga.

Relief from the tomb of Amenemhat (TT 82)

Relief from the tomb of Amenemhat (TT 82)

Such a common attitude could not be just a coincidence, or a theatrical exposure of pain, but it had to arise from a deeper reason related to the funeral rite.

I still needed to look for more. Together with the iconography in Egyptology is necessary to have a look to the vocabulary. Among the words used by the Egyptian for “mourner” there was iakhbyt or hayt; I noticed that in many cases the writing did not include the determinative of a woman or a dishevelled woman, but the hieroglyph of the hair.

Determinatives of a woman and a dishevelled woman.

Determinatives of a woman and a dishevelled woman. Below the words in egyptian for “mourner“.

Jeroglíficos Foreword1


  This showed that the mourner’s hair was such an important part of them, that even it could identify them.

As we were in the funeral field, I had to consider all funerary texts and I found many allusions to the capillary element. Those ones were more frequent in the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom and all of them with a « common denominator »: in all speeches mentioning the hair, mourner women were the main personages (and of course the mourning rite) and the Osiris myth was the backdrop.

For supporting the written document of the Middle Kingdom I found two images from the same period. One of them was a representation of a mourner beside the coffin leaning onwards and with her hair over her face; the other one was the Louvre stela C15, where the two mourners who assist the dead are doing this same gesture.

Mourning woman beside the coffin. Image in a coffin of the Middle Kingdom from Abydos.

Mourning woman beside the coffin. Image in a coffin of the Middle Kingdom from Abydos.

Given that the Coffin Texts is where more allusions to hair can be found, I decided to initiate the research with reading of this corpus, so the other texts I mention are just support documents.