Tag Archives: dancing

The Hair is a Symbol of Water in Ancient Egypt. Hair in the Festival of the Valley.


The nwn gesture is also represented in a relief from the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut in Karnak. A group of women are dancing in the Festival of the Valley[1].

Dancers in the Festival of the Valley. Red Chapel of Hatshepsut in Karnak. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Dancers in the Festival of the Valley. Red Chapel of Hatshepsut in Karnak. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

This festivity is documented for the first time in the temple of Mentuhotep II in Deir el-Bahari as a funerary Theban festivity. It was a feast in honour of the deceased ones. People visited the necropolis, decorated the tombs and carried offers to the dead relatives. In the gods sphere the image of the god Amon went out from the temple of Karnak in his sacred barque [2] and crossed the Nile for visiting every funerary temple of the West Bank. In the procession accompanying Amon there was a feminine clergy, among which there were some dancers.

Barque of Amon. Relief from the mortuary temple of Seti I in Dra Abu el-Naga. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Barque of Amon. Relief from the mortuary temple of Seti I in Dra Abu el-Naga. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

The Festival of the Valley took place in the summer solstice, between the harvest and the flooding season. That means that it coincided with the rising of Sothis in the sky announcing the arrival of the flood[3]. People, who visited the tombs of their relatives during the night sung, drank and danced; according to some scholars sometimes the scenes were even “orgiastic”[4]. “The frontier between death and life disappears with the feast and the inebriation, the border that separates the living world and the Hereafter becomes blurred with the length of the night[5].

The last visit of Amon in his procession was the temple of Deir el-Bahari[6]. In the sanctuary of Hatshepsut the image of the god passed many days and nights. In this temple there is a scene with a barque over the “golden lake” surrounded by four ponds full of milk. During the night the barque was circled by torches, which were put out into the milk n the morning. That night took place the encounter between Amon and Hathor, the Cow Goddess. According to the scholar Naguib the milk into the ponds symbolised the milk of the Sacred Cow, the nourishment of Hathor; and at the same time these four ponds would symbolise the four cardinal points. So, “the solar God gets into the belly of the cosmic mother for renewing thanks to her milk, the same milk where the fire of the night is put out[7]. After that night the procession came back to the temple of Karnak.

After this encounter Amon was energized and ready for facing a new year. In fact it was a funerary festivity in which the god, as if it was a dead one, made a trip to the necropolis and was renewed after some ceremonial practices.

In addition the Festival of the Valley took place before the flood, and during that night of ecstasy Hathor showed her most erotic side. She was “the lady of the inebriation, the happiness in ecstasy, she promoted abundance and fertility”[8] , in whose night the flood was conceived[9]. The feminine being (Hathor) awarded the masculine principle (Amon) the fecundity power confirming this way the enthronement of the solar god.

In this renewing festivity we find again the nwn gesture. In the 30’s E. Brunner-Traut already compared the women who appear in the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut with the mourners of the tombs of Renni and Amenemhat, but she considered that they had nothing to do with each other[10]. According to her, the dancers of the Red Chapel were making a gesture of excitement and ecstasy[11], the movements of the mourners ware just a part of the moan[12]. However, H. Wild considered that what was said in chapters 1005 and 1974 of the Pyramid Texts about mourners pulling hair (« The souls of Buto rock for you; they beat their bodies and their arms for you, they pull their hair for you… ») was a description of a special dance in honour to the deceased king[13].

In the Theban tomb 53 of Amenemhat from the reign of Tutmosis III there is a very similar scene to that one of the Red Chapel. Some women are dancing or tumbling and caver their faces with the hair. In front of them three more women are shaking sistrums and a mena necklace; so this ceremony was related to the cult to Hathor.

Dancers from the tomb of Amenemhat (TT53). Gourna. XVIII Dynasty.

Dancers from the tomb of Amenemhat (TT53). Gourna. XVIII Dynasty.

In the 70`s Vandier considered that these were acrobatic dances and that women were making somersaults[14]. In the 80’s W. Decker, based on a reconstruction made by O. Keel[15], accepted the theory of Vandier and thought that the women with the hair over their faces were in fact getting ready for starting the somersault forward[16]. Also W. Decker compared this gesture with the one of the mourners in funerals (in particular with mourner in the Tomb of Minakht). But it seems unlikely that they describes similar moments; while in the first document we are in a group of dancing women, while in the tomb of Minakht she is not with other women making acrobatics.

Coming back to Deir el-Bahari, in the sanctuary there is a scene of the solar barque in procession. In it two women on their knees are touching their napes and cover their faces with the hair. Vandier thought that they were waiting their turn for making the same exercise as their fellows[17]. He emphasizes the fact that those women are not in a vertical posture, so maybe getting ready for making the somersault backwards[18].

Dancers in the Festival of the Valley. Relief from the temple of Deir el-Bahari. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Dancers in the Festival of the Valley. Relief from the temple of Deir el-Bahari. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

It seems obvious that those women were making some acrobatics, but we do not think that cover their faces with hair were just a way of representing the first step of a somersault.  If thinking of a gymnast gaining momentum, the hair is never covering the face. The gesture nwn in the images of the dancers in the Festival of the Valley is not realistic at all (although about the realism in Egyptian art is another subject for debate). Taking into consideration that as much in tombs as in temples we are facing renewing ceremonies with a regeneration intention. So it is easy to think that nwn gesture in that dance had a reviving purpose. Dancers and mourners do the same movement of bending the body and throw the hair forward; and apparently in both cases with a similar symbolism.

On the other hand, the dance is something very common in religious rituals[19], and they have a connection with lunar rites[20]. “The dance is maybe considered as a fact of pleasant magic for promoting the lunar rebirth”[21]. If we notice that the Festival of the Valley was a funerary ceremony celebrated after the first new moon (a symbol of death) and before the flood (the annual renovation in Egypt), we could think that it was, as in burials, a new creation rite, it was the announcement of a cyclic renovation and the reenergizing of Amon[22].


[1] Michalowski, 1970, fot. 70.

[2] With the ones of  Mut and Jonsu.

[3] Naguib, 1990. Leuven, p. 129.

[4] Stadelmann, 1990, p. 148.

[5] Stadelmann, 1990, p. 149.

[6] Naguib, 1990, p. 126.

[7] Naguib, 1990, p. 128.

[8] Naguib, 1990, p. 129.

[9] Naguib, 1990, p. 130.

[10] Brunner-Traut, 1938, p. 51, n. 13.

[11] Brunner-Traut, 1938, p. 52.

[12] Brunner-Traut, 1938, p. 60.

[13] Wild, 1963, p. 86.

[14] Vandier, 1964, p. 451.

[15] Keel, 1974, fig. 11

[16] Decker, 1987, pp. 140-142.

[17] Vandier, 1964, p. 450.

[18] Vandier, 1964, p. 450.

[19] “Funerary dances take part in rites of passage, as in breaking rites of African cultures” (Naguib, 1993, p. 29).

[20] Briffault, 1974, p. 341.

[21] Briffault, 1974, p. 342.

[22] The physical activity (the movement) is a help for the resurrection. Amon, as king of gods, had to renew his power, as in the living world did the pharaoh.

The Hair is a Symbol of Water in Ancient Egypt. Hair in the Sed Festival.


It is impossible to avoid thinking of a relationship between the nwn gesture and the Nwn , the primeval chaos of the Egyptian cosmogony (It is also unavoidable to think on a play on words). The first one could easily be a way of coming back to the primeval moment, to the chaotic waters (Nwn) where the Primeval Hill came out from and where the Demiurge created the world.

At this point, we have to think of some other Egyptian rites with a renovating goal. It would also be possible that in those rituals exist similar practices. And we have found very interesting results looking at some documents related to two festivities: the Sed Festival and the Festival of the Valley.

Nwn gesture in Sed Festival.

In the tomb of Kheruef in Thebes (TT192), from the reign of Amenhotep III, there is a relief of the Sed festival of that pharaoh. A group of women are making a dance in front of Amenhotep III, in some cases they are making the nwn gesture[1]. The inscription says that the women are stretching out facing the king and making the ceremony [Sed Festival] before the throne.

Dancers shaking hair in the Sed Festival. Tomb of Kheruef. Assassif. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Dancers shaking hair in the Sed Festival. Tomb of Kheruef. Assassif. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

The inscription just over the dancers could be a song, whose meaning would be related to their movements[2]. This same ceremony and dance is represented in some talatats found in Karnak, where it was the scene of the Sed Festival of Akhenaton.

The Sed Festival was a ceremony for renewing the pharaoh’s power. The king had a ritual death and afterwards he came back to life with all his faculties and in perfect physical conditions for going on with his kingship. It had five main parts:

  • The pharaoh is on a procession dressed with the Sed shroud
  • Rites of renewing and rebirth.
  • Homage is paid to the renewed king on his throne. He starts the new order of the world.
  • The pharaoh visits the gods in their chapels.
  • Ritual running of the pharaoh showing his physical vigour[3].

The Sed Festival has a Predynastic origin[4] and the god Sed could be an archaic version of Upuaut « The opener of the ways ». In the Palermo Stone the register related to the king Den shows the name of the god Sed written with the determinative of the Upuaut standard, the divinity that represents the king as the first-born son[5]. In addition it is interesting to notice how in the festival of Osiris in Abydos, the one avenging the death of his father was not Horus, but Upuaut[6].

We could maybe consider also that the Sed Festival in the Old Kingdom had some elements of the cult of Osiris[7]. In the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus, that tells the ascension of Sesostris I to the Throne of Egypt, we read that the erection of pillar djed (an Osirian rite) was a very important moment in the Sed Festival[8], there is also much iconography of the New Kingdom the relationship between the cult of Osiris and the Heb Sed[9].

This Festival is a death/resurrection ceremony, in which dancing women make an nwn gesture with their hair. What those dancers make with their hair could have a very deep symbolic meaning. The pharaoh is like a dead (although just hypothetically) and he has to revive. In this case the Sed Festival is a ceremony of death and resurrection, so those dancers maybe would be very close to the mourners in the funerary ceremony.

Mourning woman of Minnakht's tomb. www.1st-art-gallery.com

Mourning woman of tomb of Minnakht. Photo: http://www.1st-art-gallery.com

Dancing woman in nwn gesture. Tomb of Kheruef in Assassif. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Dancing woman in nwn gesture. Tomb of Kheruef in Assassif. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

There was also a relationship between the Sed Festival and the beginning of the flood[10]. The Sed Festival was celebrated before the appearance of Sothis (the Egyptian name for the star Sirius) in the sky announcing the coming of the annual flooding of the Nile that was the beginning of the New Year in Ancient Egypt. The flood is one of the best examples of annual renewing for the Egyptians. The water of the flood, as the water of Nun in the Egyptian cosmogony, contents the active ingredient for the new life: the mud that fertilises the ground and grants the maintenance of Egyptian people.  Also in the tomb of Kheruef we read: “…Appearance of (king Amenhotep)…for resting on his throne that was in his Sed palace, built by him on the west side of the city. Open the way through S.M. over the water of the flood, for bringing the gods of the Sed Festival”[11].

In a statue of the New Kingdom we read how the owner is « beloved of Sothis, Lady of the Sed Festival » and in the ceiling of Ramesseum Ramses II sees Sothis “at the beginning of the year, the Sed Festival and the flood[12].

The Heb Sed was celebrated neither during the rise nor during the decrease of the flow, but in the driest moment[13], before the rising of Sothis and the arrival of the flooding. The Sed Festival announced the future waters, so it was the prelude of the new era, the new revival after the drought. And we have seen that in the rite, a dance with the nwn gesture took place.

In the Sed Festival, the pharaoh was like a ritual dead who had to come back to life[14], so he was assimilated to Osiris. That would explain the Osirian tinge of the ceremony. The king, symbolically dead, received the rites that Isis, Nephtys, Anubis, Thot and Horus made over the corpse for reviving[15]. In this regenerating ritual appears the nwn gesture as a part of the practices for the rebirth of Osiris/pharaoh.


[1] Fakhry, 1943, Pl. XL, p. 497.

[2] Fakhry, 1943, p. 497. In the temple of Bubastis there are some fragments relating to the Sed Festival; one of them shows a group of dancers with a small part of this song. (Naville, 1892, Pl. XIV)

[3] V, col. 785.

[4] V, col. 782. The Sed Festival is documented from the beginning of I Dynasty in the Narmer macehead and also maybe in the Scorpion macehead (Cervelló Autuori, 1996, p. 209, n. 154).

[5] Cervelló Autuori, 1996, p. 208, n. 150.

[6] Cervelló Autuori, 1996, p. 210.

[7] V, col. 786.

[8] V, col. 786; Barta, 1976, pp. 31-43.

[9] V, col. 786.

[10] Hornung und Staehelin, 1974, p. 56.

[11] Translation of Helck, 1966, p. 78.

[12] AH 1, 1974, p. 58.

[13] AH 1, p. 58.

[14] Mayassis, 1957, p. 226.

[15] Mayassis, 1957, p. 68.