Tag Archives: dishevelled

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.


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.