Tag Archives: dishevel hair in Ancient Egypt

Hair was essential in Aztec Mourning like in Ancient Egypt.

Mourning is a extended practice in funerals of many cultures all over the world. Not just in Ancient Egypt, but also in some other African cultures, in the ancient Assyria or in Archaic Greece.

Recently I wrote a short text about mourning in Ancient Egypt for www.mexicolore.co.uk, an on-line platform for the diffusion of Aztec culture. My contribution was just a small text included in an article about the mourning among the Aztecs.

Aztec ritual weeping; Florentine Codex, Book 1.

 Aztec ritual weeping; Florentine Codex, Book 1. Photo: http://www.mexicolore.co.uk


American cultures prove, not only that crying for the dead in funerals is a practice inherent to human being, but also that hair is an essential element during the “ritual weeping”.

According to Katherine Ashenburg, Aztecs (central Mexico) had also, as in Ancient Egypt, professional mourners for crying for to dead kings and noblemen and for those who died in war.  Those Aztecs professional mourners did, together with the widows and the children of the deceased ones, a public lament, in which they cried and showed their long and disheveled hair as a proof of their sadness. In addition, during 80 days the widow (s) entered in a period of real dirty, since they could not wash themselves, nor their bodies, nor their hair…After that a ritual washing happened for concluding the mourning.

Native woman from Michoacan

Native woman from Michoacan plaiting her hair.

On the other hand, it is said that native women from Michoacan (in the south of Mexico) plaited her hair for catching in it pain and sadness.

Summing up, also in American cultures women’s hair was a very important element related to the mourning practices, as it was in the ancient Egyptian culture.


Hair in Egyptian Art for Respect and Reverence in Women.

Egyptian artisans of the New Kingdom used hair in their drawings for expressing body movements (dance, body bow…).

This technique, adopted from the way of drawing the professional mourners, was applied to the masculine figures in a respectful attitude. The front lock of hair forwards helped the Egyptian artist to represent the respectful bow in front of deities.

Later on, we find that this same practice was applied also to some femenine figures.

In the Papyrus of Anhai, which dates from XX Dynasty, the dead women was represented  also bending her body to the goods, but her whole mane of hair is shaken forwards. The gesture remembers the one of the mourners covering their faces with their hair.

Papyrus of Anahi. the dead woman with her hair forwards and bending her body as a sign of respect. XX Dynasty. Ancient Egypt . British Museum.

Papyrus of Anahi. the dead woman with her hair forwards and bending her body as a sign of respect. XX Dynasty. Photo: British Museum.

Obviously we are not facing here a mourning rite. The Egyptian artist took the tachnique from the mourning scenes and this way he could stress the gesture of respect of the dead women in front of the goods.

The point here is to see how this practice of the whole mane of hair forwards is applied in Egyptian art to a female figure. While for the dead men the front lock of hair was enough for stressing the respectful attitude. The idea that comes to our mind is that the hair forwards covering the face was in Egyptian art just a female gesture.

Book of the Dead of Henuttawy. XXI Dynasty. Ancient Egypt. British Museum

Book of the Dead of Henuttawy. XXI Dynasty. Photo: British Museum

The Book of the Dead of Henuttawy dates also from XXI Dynasty and shows Henuttawy adoring the rising sun . In this case the body gesture is not just respect, but reverence. She is completely on earth, kneeling and facing the ground, while many locks of hair are falling in front of her head. Here the Egyptian artist utilised this femenine resource of the disheveled hair falling forwards for stressing the reverential attitude of the woman.

Summin up, Egyptian artists used the hair for representing the mourning gestures of women in funerals. This technique was later also adopted in Egyptian art from the New kingdom to express some quotidian body movements (playing music, dancing, bending) and some attitudes related to them (respect and reverence).



The Egyptian Verbs for “Disheveling Hair”

Ancient Egypt language had many different words for expressing the disorder in a long female hair.

We have seen that in the funerary context the most used one was the verb nwn, which literally meant “to dishevel the hair over the face”,nwn gesture of disheveling hair in Ancient Egypt that is, to shake the mane of hair forwards and cover the face with it.  So the verb refers to the fact of extending the hair upside down. That was the gesture the mourners did during their mourning ritual in the Egyptian funerals. The verb is documented already from the Old Kingdom and closely realted to the funerary context.

All during this blog we have seen how the nwn gesture was made by the common mourners during the cortège, but overall by the two professional mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys during the resurrectional rites. Making the nwn gesture those two women evoked some crucial moments of the Myth of Osiris, as the copulation beweet Isis and Osiris, when Isis as a kte produces vital breath with her wings or the maternity of Osiris.



Another Egyptian word was tejtej (also written with the determinative of hair) tejtej-dishevel hair in Ancient Egyptwhich meant the tangled hair. According to Erman and Grapow, it was documented from Middle Kingdom and the sense of this verb was related to disorder. It was also applied to the fact of having the ideas mixed-up, so producing a state of confusion. The enemies of Egypt were as well tejtej when captured, since they were put all together in a disordered pile.

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 over the corpse of Osiris. Relief from the temple of Seti I in Abydos. XIX Dynasty.

It is interesting to notice that chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead, which relates the copulation of Isis with Osiris, uses the verb tejtej for referring to the disordered hair of isis during her copulation with Osiris (Urk. V, 87). It still gains sense when we realise that tejtej is a reduplicated form from the Egyptian verb tej, which meant “get drunk”. And one epithet of Isis from the New Kingdom was “Lady of the Inebriation”. So, aluding to this state of confusion, which in the Myth of Osiris would be the moment of the copulation.

The verb sps has a very similar meaning as nwn, it was used for the tousled hairsepes- dishevel hair in Ancient Egypt, the main difference is that sps was documented from the New Kingdom, concretely in the Book of the Dead, while nwn is an existing verb for disheveled hair from the Old Kingdom. On the other hand it seems quite sure that nwn was the verb for referring to the concrete gesture of covering the face with the hair.

Two women shaking their hairs. Relief from the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut in Karnak. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Two women shaking their hairs in the Festival of the Valley. Relief from the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut in Karnak. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

We have also to notice that the verb sps was later on also written with the determinative of a dancing person and it meant “dance”. sepes- dishevel hair in Ancient Egypt

At that point we could think that the verb sps could refer to the tousled during some dancing. If so, it comes tour mind those dances made by women during the Festival of the Valley or the Heb Sed. In them those dancers shook their hair forwards and disheveled it on her faces as symbol of renewing.

For the moment we cannot give many conclusions, but we know that the original word related to disheveled hair was nwn, as the gesture of shaking hair forwards by the mourners in the funerary ceremony.

In the Middle Kingdom appears the verb txtx, apparently evoking the chaos and disorder of a tousled hair and applied to the copulation of Isis and Osiris.

From the New Kingdom the verb sps is another way of referring to disheveled hair, although probably taken from ritual dances in which the dancing women made the nwn gesture of shaking hair forwards.