Tag Archives: coffin

Isis, Nephtys, Neith and Serket. Four Divine Egyptian Mourners?


Last week we saw that in some cases Egyptian art offers images, whose meaning seems not clear, but which are based on well known practices from Ancient Egypt.

That was the case of two scenes, one from the Book of the Caverns in the tomb of Ramses IX and the other one from the temple of Osiris in Abydos. In both cases four mourning women appear pulling and shaking a front lock of hair.

Four mourners for Osiris. Temple of Abydos. Ancient Egypt.

Four mourners for Osiris with their front lock of hair falling forwards. Temple of Abydos. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

We know that in Ancient Egypt belief the official mourners who took part in the deceased’s resurrection were two, Isis and Nephtys. However in these two images they are four women making a mourning rite. Can we deduce something more about the identity of this foursome?

These four female figures are categorized in the tomb of Ramses IX  as “goddesses” and they are included in the decorative program of a tomb and the temple of Osiris in Abydos, both belonging to a funerary context. So, for deducing more about them, we have to consider three main aspects: They are four, they have a divinie nature and they are related to the mummy and the  body’s restoration.

Is there a group of four goddesses in Ancient Egypt, who took care of the deceased? Yes, Isis, Nephtys, Neith and Serket. In the Egyptian thought they four formed a team for protecting the dead, or more concreetly, the organs of the dead.

Canopic shrine of Tutankhamun. Serket. Ancient Egypt.

Canopic shrine of Tutankhamun with Serket on the left and Isis on the right. XVIII Dynasty. Cairo Museum. Photo: www.globalegyptianmuseum.org

For that reason they four were the guardians of the caponic jars which contained the organs of the dead and of the coffin, which contained the mummy. And their image together were usual in these Egyptian canopic chests and sarcophagi.

Coffin of Khonsu, Sennedjem's son, from Deir el-Medina. Neith and Serket at the feet end. XIX Dynasty. Ancient Egypt.

Coffin of Khonsu, Sennedjem’s son, from Deir el-Medina. Neith and Serket at the feet end. XIX Dynasty. Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Photo: www.drhawass.com

These are the four goddesses who spread their arms over the funeral chest of Tutankhamun. We can see them also in the coffin of Khnonsu (Sennedjem’s son) from XIX Dynasty, Isis and Nephtys are depicted at the head end of the coffin, while Neith and Serket appear together at the feet end.

Coffin of Khnum Nakht. Feet extreme with inscriptions referring to Nephtys. XIII Dynasty. Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York. Ancient Egypt

Coffin of Khnum Nakht. Feet extreme with inscriptions referring to Nephtysand also Serket. XIII Dynasty. Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York.

Neith and Serket, together with Isis and Nephtys, were also mentioned in the inscriptions of some coffins and in canopic chests dating from the Middle Kingdom.

Wooden canopic chest of Satipi. Neith is included in the inscription. XII Dynasty. Ancient Egypt.

Wooden canopic chest of Satipi. Neith is included in the inscription. XII Dynasty. Photo: British Museum.

So, the union of these four goddesses was something well established in Ancient Egyptian belief. And the four mourners in the tomb of Ramses IX and the temple of Osiris in Abydos could perfectly be those ones.

 

 

The wrong location of Isis and Nephtys in the coffin of Khnum Nakht.


In Ancient Egypt iconography Isis was mainly placed at the feet of the mummy, while Nephtys were at his head. That happened in tomb walls and in sarcophagi.

We have seen that this position was not accidental, but something deliberate. That typical icon of the mummy flanked by Isis at his feet and Nephtys at his head would remain two things. On one hand, it could represent a birth itself, when one woman gives birth (Isis) and being assisted by a midwife (Nephtys). On the other hand, it could refer to the mythical copulation between Isis and Osiris, so the goddess being at his feet would be ready for putting herself over her husband.

Coffin of Khnum Nakht. Head extreme with image of Isis. On the left the false door with the two udyat eyes indicating the threshold between the earthly world and the Afterlife. XIII Dynasty. Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York. Ancient Egypt.

Coffin of Khnum Nakht. Head extreme with image of Isis. On the left the false door with the two udyat eyes indicating the threshold between the earthly world and the Afterlife. XIII Dynasty. Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York.

But, sometimes, Egyptian art surprises us with some exceptions. Looking at the coffin of Khnum Nakht in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York we realised that the decoration in it did not follow the rule we have said before.

The coffin of Khnum Nakht dates from the XIII Dynasty and comes from Meir (Middle Egypt). The decoration in it includes on the left side of the coffin the false door with the two udyat eyes. That indicates that the head of the mummy was located behind it.

Coffin of Khnum Nakht from Meir. XIII Dynasty. Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York. Ancient Egypt

Coffin of Khnum Nakht from Meir. An image of Isis at the head extreme of the coffin. XIII Dynasty. Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York.

At both extremes of the corpse the artist placed two goddesses. At the extreme of the head appears a goddess with a strange standard on her head carrying two hieroglyphs of the sealed oil jar with unguent mrht or mDt. According to the inscription above, she is Isis the Divine (Ast nTrt).

At the feet of the coffin there is no image, but two paintings of the façade of the palace. However we know this was the place of Nephtys thanks to the inscription.

Coffin of Khnum Nakht. Feet extreme with inscriptions referring to Nephtys. XIII Dynasty. Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York. Ancient Egypt

Coffin of Khnum Nakht. Feet extreme with inscriptions referring to Nephtys. XIII Dynasty. Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York.

Isis and Nephtys were there, at both extremes of the coffin assisting in the deceased’s resurrection. But it is surprising to watch that they were not where they were supposed to be: that is, Isis at the feet and Nephtys at the head.

We do not why, but the artist who decorated the coffin of Khnum Nakht located the feet as the place for Nephtys and the head as the place of Isis.

Was it maybe just a mistake? The coffin is made with an exquisite technique, so the manufacturer was not a beginner. The coffin was decorated by an expert (or a team of experts).

Was the icon of Isis at the feet and Nephtys at the head of the corpse still not too consolidated during the Middle Kingdom?…

Hair is Maternity in Ancient Egypt.


The nwn gesture has also a positive reading, because the hair sm3 has also a double value in Egyptian thinking. The hair sm3 is an element full of life force, which has to be delivered to the deceased for making easier the final resurrection.

To give the hair sm3 (rdi sm3) is a gesture that can be linked to the act of nursing; the mother’s milk is the first food, in the Egyptian funerary ambit the dead one in his rebirth is like a baby, so giving the hair sm3 contributes to this idea of the mummy as a new-born baby.

Funerary stele of Lady Taperet with an image of Nut in nwn gesture. XXII Dynasty. Musée du Louvre. Photo: www.nybooks.com

Funerary stele of Lady Taperet with an image of Nut in nwn gesture. XXII Dynasty. Musée du Louvre. Photo: http://www.nybooks.com

Internal side of the cover of the Coffin of Peftjauneith from Saqqara. Nut with raised arms and hair standing on end. Ptolemaic Period. Rijksmuseum of Leiden. Photo: www.rmo.nl

Internal side of the cover of the Coffin of Peftjauneith from Saqqara. Nut with raised arms and hair standing on end. Ptolemaic Period. Rijksmuseum of Leiden. Photo: http://www.rmo.nl

When the mourner makes the nwn gesture of throwing the hair onwards over her face she turns into the deceased’s mother, from whose belly he will be born. The mummy, assimilated to Osiris, is the Nut’s son and this goddess makes the nwn gesture inside the coffin, where happens the regeneration process. Nut bended and with her hair extended forwards gives birth her son Osiris, i. e. the dead one. For that reason we can find inside many coffin covers an image of Nut with raised arms and hair standing on end; it is the way the artist could represent her in that surface; but in reality she was bended forwards making the nwn gesture.

The meaning of the word swt


There is another chapter referring to swt; although it is a confusing text, we can make some deductions examining consciously the words. In the chapter 332 of the Coffin Texts the dead is being guided by a powerful goddess who is

“…the lady of the power, who guides to those ones in the caverns. I am Hathor, Lady of the northern sky, who maintains the ropes kAsw of those awaken…the earth trembles because of the jubilation, while the locks of hair are in the mourning…

locks of hair in the mourning

Sw is a verb, whose meaning is “to be something harmful for someone”[1], maybe it could be translated as “hurt “or “wound”. The substantive would then be swt (“damage”, “hurt”)[2].  We already find this verb in the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom:

The two armas over the head is a very normal posture among mourners in Ancient Egypt. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

The two arms over the head is a very normal posture among mourners in Ancient Egypt. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

“The deceased is the Lord of his enemies, which have been beaten by Horus for him. Go up! Sit over him! You are stronger than him, hurt him…!” (di ir.k swt ir.f)[3]Isis is sitting, her arms over her head. Nephtys, holds her breasts because of the death of her brother, Anubis is bended over his stomach, Osiris is in his damage » (Wsir m swt.f) [4].

We could maybe consider the word swt as a passive participle of the verb sw, so the translation would be something as: “the damaged ones” or “the hurt ones”, the ones who have been damaged, that is, the mourners Isis and Nephtys; they were hurt by the death of Osiris and that is why they are in mourning.  This would also explain the use of the hieroglyph of hair as determinative in so many words that refer to mourners and mourning.This passage is clearly describing the typical funerary scene in which the mummy is laying while Anubis makes his embalming process and the two mourners Isis and Nephtys regret the death of her husband/brother.

We should also notice a kind of word game with the “locks of hair” (swt) in chapter 531 and the “hurt ones” (swt) in chapter 332, in both cases applied to the mourners who dishevel their hair as a sign of mourning.  It is as well interesting how each mourner is indentified with a lock of hair; so mourners and hair go together. That is what we call a metonymy; the whole (the mourners) is designated using its most significant part (the hair).

But we wanted to go on searching more on the verb swverb sw  and we found that it also could be translated as “to increase the strength” or “to get the strength back” [5]. We can read this verb in the Pyramid Texts[6] and also in the Coffin Texts:

“…I came and I recovered the strength back in nsrsr island”[7].isla nsrsr

In both texts the dead, after drinking milk or beer (both considered revitalising drinks), recover his force and comes back to life. It makes sense the use of the hair as determinative ; if the hair is an energy source and the nwn/nwn m gesture pretend the resurrection of the corpse, it is normal here to find it related with a verb meaning « fortify ». On the other hand, swt is a causative verb that derives from wt, whose translation is “be powerful” or “be big” [8]. In addition, wt also means « to embalm » [9] and there is direct relationship between embalming and the deceased’s resurrection. One of the main goals of embalming was to reconstruct the whole body, the physical reconstruction as getting the soul’s support, and this consolidation is connected with the hair element.


[1]   Wb IV, 59, 16

[2]   Wb IV, 59, 18

[3] Pyr., 652.

[4] Pyr., 1281-1282.

[5] D. Meeks, 1977-1979, II, p. 311, nº 78.3367; D. Meeks, 1976, p. 88, n. 14.

[6] Pyr., 1282 b.

[7]CT VII, 1013. Translation of P. Barguet (P. Barguet, 1986, p. 417).

[8] Wb IV, 77, 9.

[9] Wb I, 378, 8.

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.