Tag Archives: egypt

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

In Egyptian religion, Osiris is the god of death, but also of vegetation and his myth has an erotic component. According to M. Eliade “moments of cosmic crisis are a pretext for the unleashing of an orgy. The earth needs to be revived and the sky needs to be excited, to make the good conditions for the cosmic Hierogamy; this way cereal grows up, women engender children, animals reproduce and dead ones full their vacuum with vital power[1].

From the basis of the Eliade’s theory, orgy is an act of renovation and regeneration; it is a way of coming back to the first moment just before the final creation, when still chaos and confusion dominate the existence.  After the orgy a new life starts and with it the chaos disappears and the world is reorganised; the orgy is the experience of the original state[2].

Orgy is even the image of chaos. Orgiastic festivities allude to the chaotic moment in which the world is lost and from where the new power comes out for reorganising and restoring the cosmic order. As J. E. Cirlot says “the goal is not to obtain physical pleasure, but to help the world dissoluteness; a temporary breaking-off for the following restoration of the original “illud tempus[3]. Orgy is, then, according to scholars, an act which generates life.

The connexion of orgy with life could make us think of the relationship also with the moon, because it is a star which remakes and renews itself. The moon is also the night star, when chaos and darkness reign. And it is in the same way related to vegetation, since agricultural rites are also lunar rites due to their regeneration nature. In fact, from prehistoric times, lunar symbols have erotic connotations thanks to the analogy between vulva and shell; for instance, the spiral is a sign that derivates from the snail shell; and this animal, which appears and disappears, is usually assimilated to the moon, and also for that same analogy the spiral has an erotic nuance[4].

We can guess that in Ancient Egypt funerary ceremony, mourners representing Isis and Nepthtys and the gesture nwn of shaking hair smA onwards could also have an erotic nature, whose goal was to help the dead come back to life. For some scholars “the spreading through sexual act could be considered according to primitive thought, as an alternative to the eternal life”[5]. The fertilizing nature of copulation seems to be united to resurrection as a regenerating element. It is the union of the two principles, masculine and feminine, the union that in the Creation myth produces the first manifestation of life.

In this regard, we cannot forget to mention chapter 17 of Book of the Dead, which captures perfectly all we have been talking about[6]:

“I am Isis, you found me when[7] I had my hair disordered[8]  over my face, and my crown[9] was dishevelled[10]. I have conceived[11] as Isis, I have procreated as Nephtys.

Isis dispels my bothers (?)[12]. My crown is dishevelled; Isis has been over her secret, she has stood up[13] and has cleaned[14] her hair”[15]Chapter 17 BD

H. Goedicke states that the chapter is describing clearly the copulation of Isis and Osiris[16]. Isis, making the nwn gesture put herself over the body of her husband Osiris, who lies face up; she gets pregnant and protects the dead. All that practice is her secret; afterwards she stands up and does her hair. It is also interesting to point out that in Papyrus Turin, just before that we read: “…both sisters are given to me for pleasure…”[17]

It seems clear the relationship between the dishevelled hair and the sexual act; especially if we consider that the verb “dishevel” (txtx) has the same root as « inebriation » (txi).

According to A. Gutbub, the festivity of inebriation in honour of Hathor which was a part of the Festival of the Valley maybe was also celebrated in funerals in honour of the deceased[18]. The scholar considers also that the ritual wpi hn made in the Sed Festival could be interpreted as the union of Hathor with the king during an inebriation celebration[19]. That being the case, the sexual element would be a part of funerary-initiation rites; in them the goal is the change of status of the initiated one by means of returning to the primeval moment and the subsequent rebirth.

The Osiris legend tells that Isis invented during the mummification the remedy for getting the immortality, but it was not enough. She had to assure a descendent of the deceased, because the earth needed an heir for the throne, who also had to help in his father’s resurrection. Isis became a kite, flapped her wings and revived her husband; with this gesture she could also conceive her son Horus, but this “is something that needs to be hidden, it is not allowed that a man or a woman divulges it aloud[20]. Maybe that is the reason of describing the act as « secret » and could also explain the shortage of documents.

It is important for that matter to mention one scene of resurrection in the tomb of Petosiris. The deceased, assimilated with Osiris and represented as a scarab with the atef crown, has the goddess Isis on both sides.

Scene from the tomb of Petosiris in Tuna el-Gebel. The deceased in the middle, as ascarab with atef crown, is flanked by Nekhbet and Uadyet and by two late versions of Isis. Late Period.

Scene from the tomb of Petosiris in Tuna el-Gebel. The deceased in the middle, as ascarab with atef crown, is flanked by Nekhbet and Uadyet and by two late versions of Isis. Late Period.

The Isis in the right hand is represented with the sign of the full sail, symbol of breath and wind; in this scene the goddess is called the Lady of the North, the Lady of vivifying wind, while Osiris is on copulation:

Words said by Isis, Lady of the red crown: the north wind is destined to your nose…I made your throat breath. The divine mother, she joined the limbs of her brother in the palace. They look for Osiris…he is in copulation[21].

In this passage we read about the breath of life and the sexual act, both apparently evoked by the nwn gesture. This posture would recall the Osiris legend, when Isis as a kite lands over her husband, she flaps her wings for giving him the breath of life and put herself over his phallus for giving him back his virility and conceive Horus. The birth of the son means the victory over the temporality by means of perpetuity of the lineage; the second element is result and image of the former one[22]. The son is the image of eternity and balance in the same person, as result of the creation.

Isis as a kite flaps wings and put herself over her husband.  Relief from the temple of Seti I in Abydos.  XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.passion-egyptienne.fr

Isis as a kite flaps wings and put herself over her husband. Relief from the temple of Seti I in Abydos. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.passion-egyptienne.fr

It makes sense then to think about the nwn gesture in funerals made for the mourners representing Isis and Nephtys (by extension) as a way of remembering the sexual episode of the Osiris myth, but in the most human version.

Tomb of Renni in el-Kab. Photo: www.egyptraveluxe.blogspot.com.es

The mourner is making the nwn gesture to the deceased. Tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.egyptraveluxe.blogspot.com.es

[1] Eliade, 1970, p. 301.

[2] Durand, 1979, p. 297.

[3] Cirlot, 1991, p. 341.

[4] Elíade, 1970, p. 140.

[5] Briffault, 1974, p. 313.

[6] Urk.V, 87, 1-7; Urk. V, 89, 1-3.

[7] sDm.n.f expressing past tense.

[8] The verb psx can be transitive: “dishevel the hair” or intransitive: “be crazy”, “despair”. It could also refer to the disorder of the hair or of the heart because of fear (Wb I, 550, 16).

[9] Wpt can be translated as “crown” or the top of the head. RA can be “the beginning”, as the origin of the scalp, where the hair starts, so the “crown”; or also the beginning of the hair from the face, so, the forehead.

[10] txtx is to dishevel the hair (Wb V, 328, 8).

[11] The verb iwr means “conceive”, “be pregnant” (Wb I, 56, 1).

[12] According to Erman and Grapow, sAwt means “safe-keeping” (Wb III, 418, 5); but if we apply this translation, the sentence makes no sense.  In another version of chapter 17 of Book of the Dead, with Dr.s  sAwt.i, we read: Nb-Hwt  bHn.s  Xnnw.i (Junker, 1917, p. 157). BHn means “cut” or “eliminate” (Wb I, 468, 10; Faulkner, 1988, p. 83), as a parallel with Dr; and Xnnw means “disturbance”, “disorder” (Wb III, 383, 15; Faulkner, 1988, p. 203), so sAwt maybe has a similar meaning.

[13] aha.n sDm.n.f can be a narrative tense, so it could be translated as “then”. But if we consider aha as a verb, the translation should be “she stood up”.

[14] sin means “clean”, “scrub” (Wb III, 425, 8; Faulkner, 1988, p. 213). It would be possible to think of Isis standing up and doing her hair after dishevel. (txtx).

[15] Urk. V, 87, 1-4 y Urk. 88, 17- 89,3.

[16] Goedicke, 1970, p. 25. He also thinks that there is a passage in Pap. Chester Beatty I, 16, 10-11 and in Pap. Westcar 2, 1.

[17] Rachewiltz, 1989, p. 59.

[18] Gutbub, 1961, p. 50.

[19] Gutbub, 1961, p. 60.

[20] Books of Breathing cf. Desroches-Noblecourt, 1968.

[21] Daumas, 1960, p. 68, pl. I.

[22] Durand, 1979, p. 290.

Hair and Maternity in Ancient Egypt.

We already read in Old Kingdom how Isis and Nephtys were considered the responsible ones of the dead resurrection: “Ounas goes up through the two thighs of Isis. Ounas rises through the two thighs of Nepthys” [1]. Both goddesses were the two women who conceived and who gave birth to the Pharaoh, this one rose to heaven after his night travel (death). In the funerary context, the dead Osiris had to be reborn as the son of Geb and Nut: “he is the first-born of Geb, the first-born son of Nut, the one who gone out from the womb with the ureus…”[2]. Also, the resurrection of the deceased had a lunar nature and there is another explanation of the lunar cycle, in which the star was born from the womb of the sky goddess Nut and was then swallowed by her at the end of the cycle[3]. Taking into consideration these three points, we could consider that the two women representing Isis and Nephtys in the symbolic sphere engendered the newborn (the dead) and in somehow made also the role of mothers of the deceased. For that reason we read in the Pyramid Texts “Isis has conceived him and Nephtys has nursed him” [4]. From the Old Kingdom there was a relationship between the goddess Nut and the hair: « Nut gives you her two arms, she with the long hair, whose breasts are suspended »[5]. Nut-nwn  Also in the Middle and the New Kingdoms we read: “…this N. goes up to Busiris for seeing Osiris… Nut shakes her hair when she sees me…[6] So, from those quotes we could imagine the goddess Nut making the nwn gesture of shaking hair onwards. The following step was to search on the multiples images in Ancient Egyptian art of Nut and to see if that could have an iconographical basis. The best example is the funerary stele of the Lady Taperet from XXII Dynasty. It is a small wooden stele with painted decoration in both sides with Taperet praying Ra and Atum. On both sides the upper part is decorated with the body of Nut as the vault of heaven, interesting is the scene with Atum where Nut is the firmament and her hair is falling onwards.

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

This image of Nut and the fact that she is the mother of Osiris in the Ancient Egyptian cosmogony lead us to the conclusion that passages from Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts and  Book of the Dead allude to the birth of the dead. Nut, bended and with her face looking at her pubis sees how his son (the dead) is coming to life. For that reason it is said that Nut shakes her hair when she sees Osiris; in that moment she is making the nwn gesture. This posture has then a very strong symbolic meaning: it is an image of maternity and very close to the rebirth of Osiris as a newborn/resurrected. There is also similar example in a coffin of Uresh-Unefer from the Late Period. We see in it a relief with late version of the same scene with Nut onwards and with a suspended lock of hair. Thinking about coffin as the receptacle of the mummy we need to look on how could be Nut represented on it.

Relief on the coffin of Uresh-Nefer. Late Period. Metropolitan Museum of New York. Photo: www.egiptologia.net

Relief on the coffin of Uresh-Nefer. Late Period. Metropolitan Museum of New York. Photo: http://www.egiptologia.net

There are many examples of coffins from the Late Period with representations of Nut on the internal side of the cover. In them the goddess is frontally extended all over the surface with hair standing up. In this case we are facing just a different perspective of the same posture. Nut in the cover would be making also the nwn gesture of shaking the hair onwards. The goddess as the sky vault swallows the evening sun and gives birth the morning sun; also many times Nut is the night sky, so she swallows the evening sun and gives birth the full moon.

Coffin of Khenstefnakht from the Late Period. Inside the cover, the goddess Nut with her hair standing up. She swallows the evening sun and gives birth the morning sun. Musée Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire (Brussels). Photo: www.vroma.org

Coffin of Khenstefnakht from the Late Period. Inside the cover, the goddess Nut with her hair standing up. She swallows the evening sun and gives birth the morning sun. Musée Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire (Brussels). Photo: http://www.vroma.org

Internal side of the cover of the Coffin of Peftjauneith. Nut in black is an image of the night sky vault. The goddess with her mane standing up is swallowing the evening sun and giving birth the full moon. Rijsmuseum. Photo: www.rmo.nl

Internal side of the cover of the Coffin of Peftjauneith. Nut in black is an image of the night sky vault. The goddess with her mane standing up is swallowing the evening sun and giving birth the full moon. Rijsmuseum. Photo: http://www.rmo.nl

Inside the coffin takes place the conception and rebirth of the dead, Nut bended, with the hair onwards, will give birth his son Osiris and will put her arms around him: “…Geb is there protecting you; he is your father, you have been put on the world by him; the arms of Nut are around you, she has brought you to life, she brings your beauty…[7].

[1] Pyr., 379c y  996c.
[2] Mariette, 1875, 152-153, 3; Derchain, 1963, p. 22.
[3] Derchain, 1962, p. 27.
[4] Pyr. 1154.
[5] Pyr.2171 a.
[6] CT I, 312 y LdM, 78.
[7]CT I, 60. Translated by Barguet, 1986, p. 198).

The Hair gives the Breath of Life in Ancient Egypt.

In Abaton, where Isis and Nephtys moan[1], is also where “Osiris receives the crying from your mouth and his soul breaths thanks to the weeping”[2]. The breathing is essential for living and also for rebirth; according to what we have read, that breath can be transmitted by means of mourning. There is a chapter of the Coffin Texts where the deceased’s breath is assured thanks to different aspects of hair, we read how the dead “…breathes the east wind through her plait, he catch the north wind through her plait, he takes the south wind through his plaits[3], he takes the west wind through his curls (or his plaits)…” [4].

Thanks to the hair element the dead /Osiris can breathe the wind from the four cardinal points, in the same way that he could breathe in Abaton thanks to the weeping. Again hair and mourning are two inseparable aspects[5] and once again this union hair-mourning-breath sends us to the Osiris Myth. Isis as a kite moved her wings over the corpse of Osiris made the air for causing his resurrection.

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. Photo: http://www.common.wikimedia.org

On the other hand it is also interesting to have a look on the word hw, which indicates a movement made by the feathers and whose writing in hieroglyphs was with the determinative of the hair[6]; also words as “feather” or “wings” in some cases could be written with the determinative of hair.

verbo Hw                          pluma Swt                        alas DnHw

So, the union feather-kite-air seems to be very close to the union hair-mourning-breath; it would not be hare-brained to think then in a relationship between the kite’s feather (in the mythical dimension) and the mourner’s hair (in the ritual dimension), both elements making the breath of life.

[1] Guglielmi, 1980, p. 81.

[2] Guglielmi, 1980, p. 80.

[3] In some coffins we read “eyebrow”.

[4]CT III, 228. A very similar passage is in Book of the Dead (LdM 172).

[5] In the Coffin Texts we read: “…the hands of Ssmw are united over the lungs…” (CT III, 168); and in coffin B4Bo the writing for “lungs” is pulmones

[6]CT II, 148

The Hair symbolises the Vegetation in Ancient Egypt.

If tears are identified with the water and the flood, could we then think of the hair as the shores and the vegetation? If so, we would have a very symbolic image of Egypt: the tears drooping from the eyes would be like the Nile, while the hair at both sides of the face would be both banks of the river.

Mourners with tears falling from their eyes (water) and hair on both sides of the face (vegetation). The image could be a metaphor of the Egyptian landscape, made up by the Nile and the both shores of the river. Painting from the tomb of Ramose in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Mourners with tears falling from their eyes (water) and hair on both sides of the face (vegetation). The image could be a metaphor of the Egyptian landscape, made up by the Nile and the both shores of the river. Painting from the tomb of Ramose in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

At that point it is meaningful the fact that in Egyptian the expression for “vegetation” was « the hair of the earth ».

el pelo de la tierra

In chapters 168 and 562 of the Coffin Texts both banks of the river are considered as the manes shenu of Isis and Nephtys[1]. Chapter 168 says :

 « Join both banks. The hair of Isis is tied to the hair of Nephtys (and) vice versa.atar pelo de Isis y NeftisFluids[2] have no boat. River is dry. Geb has taken the water up. Both hands of Smsw are united over the lungs of Both Ladies »

In chapter 562 we also read:

« The hair of Isis is united to the mane of Nephtys …The West bank joins the East bank. Both united when they were separated. Then I passed across…I reunited with both sisters, they do not suffer anymore… »

 To unite both hairs shenu means to get both banks together, and that would allow the dead to pass to the Hereafter without needing any boat. The hair of Isis and Nephtys was a means for getting the resurrection.

But we can move a step forward. The union of both shores symbolised the reconciliation of the two sisters. According to a version of the legend, Osiris cheated on Isis with her sister Nephtys, of which union Anubis was born. Obviously that caused discord between both sisters; in the symbolic dimension the union of both manes was the end of the discord, as we can read in Book of the Dead: “Pray Osiris …both shores are reconciled…he has caught aversion from their hearts for you, they hug each other[3].

It is also interesting to indicate that in chapter 167 of Coffin Texts the mourners give their hair sema , while in the following 168 the hair shenu of Isis and Nephtys get tied, so we could wonder if they are two successive acts or one same gesture means two different actions.

The Papyrus Salt 825 in the British Museum (from the Late Period) contents the rites for preserve the life[4], which were a group of practices made during the month of Thot[5], and we can read in it:

(I,1) “The night is not lighter[6] and the day does not exist[7]. One mourning is made twice in the sky and in the earth (I,2) Gods and goddesses put their hands over their heads, the earth is devastated (I,3) the sun does not rise and the moon is late, it does not exist. The Nun staggers ;(I,4) the earth frets; the river is not navigable anymore. (I,5)…Listen. Everybody is moaning and crying. The souls, (I,6) the gods, the goddesses, people, the Akhu, the dead ones, small animals (I,7) and big ones, the… cry, cry so much,…” [8].

For the expression “the earth is devastated” the scribe wrote:

la tierra calvaThe verb fk means « be bald »[9]. The wasteland is an earth without hair. The absence of hair is a parallel of the absence of herb[10]. So, the hair shenu of Isis and Nepthys could easily be assimilated to the vegetation.

Life and death in Ancient Egypt were made conditional to nature and the seasons. The inundation that extended the mud all over the land and fertilised it, made possible the vegetation to grow up once the water retired. That was during peret, the season of sowing. If the hair element was before related to water, now it is linked to plants as the result of the fertilization of the land thanks to the regenerating waters.

The funerary cult is usually influenced by the cult to fertility and the “sacrifices and/or offers to the ancestral souls are taken from agricultural rites”[11]. The Osiris rite is an agricultural and lunar ritual, where lunar cycle and agrarian rites are mixed. As the moon does, the plants also have a cycle of birth, growing, death and resurrection. Cyclic also are the seasons (from drought to fertility). Moon, plants and seasons are cyclic; for that reason in Egyptian religion the lunar divinities are also vegetation gods.

In Ancient Egypt there were three seasons: akhet (inundation), peret (sowing) and shemu (harvest). The Egyptian year stated with the flooding of the Nile and the first month of akhet was tekh emborracharse, word which meant « get drunk ». Inebriation and inundation together makes us think of concepts as chaos and orgy and also of the disorder of the hair sema, since the verb tekhtekh estar desgreñado(duplication of tekh) means “to dishevel”[12]. At the end of the akhet season (in the month of Khoiak) took place the festival for Osiris.

Osiris, the mutilated god, came back to life in his shape of moon and in his shape of plant, so both cases were perfect images of resurrection. In those rites first some grains were put into moulds with the shape of the mummy of Osiris, where those grains would become plants. The 23rd of that moth took place a ceremony symbolizing the search and collection of the pieces of the corpse of Osiris and the embalming made by Anubis in the Golden House, which was also the place where the « Ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth » was carried out. According to some documents of Middle and New Kingdom, the 23rd day on Khoiak month was also called the day of the “Great Mourning”. The night of 25th took place the Lamentations of Isis and Nephtys, songs which read aloud the women representing the two goddesses. Just after that mourning rite, in the sunrise of 26th, was the resurrection of Osiris.

So, the akhet season started with the inebriation, the disorder, the chaos, and the primeval waters and finished with the fertilisation of the land, the end of the darkness and the resurrection of Osiris after a Mourning Rite made by Isis and Nephtys.

The hair of Isis and Nepthys had a role related to the cycle of life: first the sema is identified with the water, the inundation, the Nun, as a receptacle of regenerating principles; afterwards the hair shenu is assimilated to vegetation, as the product of the creation and as a manifestation of life. This would explain succession of chapters 167 and 168 in the Coffin Texts.

Once again hair is an element related to life; although we have seen now two different terms (first sema and then shenu) we are not moving away from the funerary and mourning context. The verb sheni means « suffer » and related to it is the name of the goddess Shentayt[13]. This divinity, which is documented from XIX dynasty, was assimilated to Isis as a mourner and widow of Osiris and appears in funerary rites of regeneration and purification oh him[14].

[1] Vegetation grows up on shores

[2] Mention to the putrefied Osiris corpse.

[3] BD, 183.

[4] Derchain, 1964.

[5] When the ceremony took place there also were some other funerary festivities (Derchain, 1964, p. 63).

[6] The moonlight does not illuminate.

[7] Darkness caused by the death.

[8] Derchain, 1964, p. 137.

[9] Wb I, 579.

[10] In agricultural people the growing of the hair is linked to the image of the growing of alimentary plants; and the same idea of growing up is related to the idea of rise. (Chevalier et Gheerbrandt, 1969, p.369).

[11] Elíade, 1970, p. 297.

[12] Wb V, 328, 8.

[13] Wb IV, 518, 3.

[14] Cauville, 1981, pp. 21-40.

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.

Hair and Death in Ancient Egypt: Pulling Hair also in the Hereafter.

Mourners of Re pulling hair. Section two of the Book of Caverns. Tomb of Ramses VI. XX Dynasty.

Mourners of Re pulling hair. Section two of the Book of Caverns. Tomb of Ramses VI. XX Dynasty.

Not only on ancient Egyptian funerals were mourners shaking or pulling hair. Also in the Hereafter, supernatural beings were responsible of these kinds of practices. Book of Caverns show in the second section the god Re with head of crocodile walking towards nine divinities that hold their front lock of hair, the text says:

“Oh! The one who mourns, big of lock syt and of strong cry in the West protect the king.

“Oh! The one of the hair who is on the moan [1]el que está sobre el lamento

“Oh! These nein gods that mourn for Osiris, that cry for that one who is in front of Amduat.

Oh, look at me! I am walking towards you I pass by your caverns I call you and you scream to me. Duaty, he feels happy with your voice, those ones who mourn in Duat, the ones with secret faces, under you lock of hair syt[2], your voice is for me. I call you together , I light you up[3], mourners…you lead me and I walk towards you[4], I really protect your souls, I make you have my light, I take away the darkness that is on you…big mourners, having goods, you who are over the lock of hair syt in the land of the West . I walk on the ground I came from in my first birth”.

In the Duat the iakbyw (mourners) work for the regeneration of the dead god Osiris, crying and holding their locks of hair. And at the same time, that resurrection provides protection and light for their souls . When the deceased is in darkness the mourners are “under the lock of hair” covered with this hair:

bajo el mechón syt

When the deceased revives  and can walk in the Duat, the expression is just the contrary: “over the lock of hair” :

sobre el mechón syt

They are not anymore under the hair, but they have come to the light and the dead is “happy with the youth of his body

The words syt and swt describe the front lock of hair the mourners pull. We find also the term syt in The Coffin Texts in chapters 799 and 532, where tells about « tying the lock syt in Heliópolis the day of cutting the samt » and in several documents from the New Kingdom we also can read how a male characters are the mourners of Re and hold their lock of hair syt/swt[5] they grant that Osiris can be justified in the Hereafter [6]. At this point it is also interesting to say that in the chapter 339 of the Coffin texts, the day of the resurrection of Osiris is the day ofshaving the mourning women”.

Again, also in the Hereafter, the nwn m gesture is a part of the mourning rite, as a sign of pain but also as a way of making the dead revive and make easier his way in to the Hereafter.

[1] . Pay attention in the word used for moan (samt), which has de determinative of the hair. In the cenotaph of Seti I in Abydos we read: “Oh! The one of the hair, over his moan, who puts his voice, to whom the souls call” 

[2] . Piankoff translated the preposition  as “carrying” the locks syt.  But the first meaning of that preposition is “under”. If we take the sentence as “under the locks of hair syt” it made sense with the previous expression: “of secret faces”, so, “hidden under the hair”.

[3] The light comes after the darkness of the death.

[4] Mourners guide the dead with their screams. The deceased is blind (dead) and on the way to the new light (new life).

[5] Piankoff and Jacquet-Gordon, 1974, p. 55, Pl. 10.

[6] Berlin Papyrus 6, Piankoff and  Jacquet-Gordon, 1974, p. 57.

Hair and Death in Ancient Egypt: Parts of the contents.

The work has four main parts:

1) The first one is dedicated to the gesture of shaking the hair made by mourners in Ancient Egypt.

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

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

Using the written documents and the iconography, this subject is treated from the practical and symbolic point of view, since I write about the symbology of hair for better understanding that gesture in the funerary context.

2) In the second part I tackle four different aspects of the hair:

  • the lock of hair swt
  • the braid Hnskt
  • the two curls wprty
  • the long hair (mane)  Samt

All speeches here are about these forms of hair from a symbolic perspective, which is always related to regeneration concept, so important in Ancient Egypt.

3) The third part of the work contemplates the relationship between the hair and the Udjat eye (Eye of Horus)Udyat Eye. At the end of the funerary ceremony the delivery of the Udjat eye means the resurrection of the deceased, assimilated to the god Osiris. In this last step the presence of the hair is very relevant, and to analyse it in third place is helpful for understanding much better the final of the funeral.

4) Once I have seen evidences in Ancient Egypt of a lamentation rite with the hair as the main element, I wanted to know in which moment of the funeral it took place. Reading between the lines the funerary texts and the iconography, we could think that the mourning rite was carry out in some moment during the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony, a group of practices made in front of the mummy or the statue of the dead.

Women mourning beside the mummy. Tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Women mourning beside the mummy. Tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

The two mourners representing the goddesses Isis and Neftis could be in charge of renewing gestures with their hairs for helping the deceased’s regeneration.

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.


In 2005 I published my book about Hair in Funerary Context in Ancient Egypt, which was my doctorate research. With the help of Nadine Guilhou from Université Paul Valéry (Montpellier) I came to important conclusions that helped to know much better some funerary rites in Ancient Egypt.  But, mainly, I noticed the importance of mourning women, whose presence was crucial for the dead’s resurrection.

Mourning women, one of them on the ground pulling her hair. Relief from the tomb of Mereruka in Saqqara. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

It was published in Spanish and my intention was to translate it into English or French for the international community.

Thanks to the new technologies, now we can share knowledge in an easy and quick way, so I have thought to use them  to transmit that content to everyone who could be interested.

I hope you enjoy.

María Rosa Valdesogo Martín