Tag Archives: hair

Open Reflections on Pulling Hair in Ancient Egypt .


The nwn m gesture of pulling the front lock of hair.

As we can see in the graphic here below the nwn m gesture of pulling hair is very present in the Old Kingdom, while we have no documents of it from the Middle Kingdom. It appears again later and especially strong in iconography. Documents from the Late Period on are less.

gráfico nwn m

Which ideas can we take from?

Nephtys pulling her front lock of hair. Detail from the sarcophagus of Nesshutefnut from the Ptolemaic Period. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.  www.khm.at

Nephtys pulling her front lock of hair. Detail from the sarcophagus of Nesshutefnut from the Ptolemaic Period. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. http://www.khm.at

  • If we have to take notice just of the data, we could understand that the nwn m gesture disappears during the Middle Kingdom for appearing again in the New Kingdom, but does it make sense? We think the answer is no. In this case we guess we have to hold chance responsible again for it.
  • Maybe the point is that such a sacred practice had not an orthodox way of being expressed, or in religious texts, or in iconography. Once in the New Kingdom the decorative activity gets so intense and sacred texts increase little by little religious and artistic collectives establish some rules or some principles. From that moment on we can distinguish between the common mourners and the professional ones, both making similar gestures, but with different meanings and in different moments of the funerary ceremony.

Open Reflections on Shaking Hair in Ancient Egypt.


If we organise all the data in a graphic, we can more easily make some reflections for proving that the matter is still too far of being closed. Let’s see what we have about the nwn gesture of shaking hair forwards.

grafico nwn

    If we just look at the evolution we see that there is no trace of an explicit nwn gesture in the Old Kingdom. It seems that during the Old Kingdom the normal practice for mourners (the common ones and the two representatives of Isis and Nephtys) was to pull the hair (nwn m), not to shake it (nwn). This last one appears in documents from the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom is the most prolific period, mainly in iconography. Does it mean something?

  • Was the nwn gesture of shaking hair sm3 forwards developed sometime before the Middle Kingdom; let’s remember that in XI Dynasty it is already entirely developed, as the stele of Abkaou proofs in the Festivity of Osiris.

    Detail of the stele of Abkaou in the Louvre Museum. XI Dynasty. Photo: www.commons.wikimedia.org

    Detail of the stele of Abkaou in the Louvre Museum. XI Dynasty. Photo: http://www.commons.wikimedia.org

  • Could we think that the nwn gesture was something that belonged just to the Festivity of Osiris? And later on it was included in the funerals of common people?
  • Maybe it has been a matter of pure luck and documents have not preserved (or have not been yet discovered) for knowing that the nwn gesture was also made by the two professional mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys during the Old Kingdom. In fact the Pyramid Texts say they pull their hair sm3, not their frontal lock of hair swt. Could it be a trace of the nwn gesture in the professional mourning ritual at that time?
  • On the other hand, the corpus of scenes the artists had for the private tombs of the Old Kingdom did not include images of the funerary ceremony nor of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. So, the nwn gesture could be made in the mourning ritual of the Old Kingdom, but we cannot see it because it was not represented.

Data Collection on Mourning Hair in Ancient Egypt.


We have seen all along this work many documents showing an Egyptian mourning ritual during funerals. Mourning women shook and/or pulled their hair, the common mourners during the cortège and the two mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys in a precise moment of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. But, was the reconstruction we have made of the funerary ceremony the same in every period of the history of Ancient Egypt and in every Egyptian city? Did the Egyptian mourners all over the country the same gesture with their hair?

DATA COLLECTION

Let’s compare chronologically the documents related to mourning women and the hair we have worked with. First we will compile in figures all the data about the nwn and nwn m gestures and about the haircut and offering and we will order them:nwn (2)

If finally we collect chronologically all the information, this is the result:

hair

According to that, the New Kingdom is the period of Egyptian history with a bigger legacy about mourning rites, especially in iconography, does it mean that in that moment the mourning ritual was more consolidated than before? If so, the latest period’s archaeological remains could make us think that the hair offering was a commoner practice in Greco-Roman times. No, things are not so easy.

Secular Mourning vs. Ritual Mourning. An Egyptian Custom.


We have seen Egyptian mourners, with Egyptian tears, shaking and pulling Egyptian hair and crying for an Egyptian corpse. But crying is spontaneous human expression, so mourning is not an isolated Egyptian practise; it is also a common behaviour in many other cultures, even nowadays it is still an important way of expressing desperation and sadness in case of death or any kind of disaster.

We have tried to look for similar examples of mourning in some other cultures near Egypt and more or less contemporary. We have found in some cases some coincidences, but also big differences.

In many African areas, women mourn in the same way Egyptian women did. They scream, lie down on the ground, and tear their clothes. But, apparently nothing is done with the hair.

Mourning woman when te city is being besieged. Relief from the tempel of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud. IX BC. Photo: www.lectio.unibe.ch

Mourning woman when te city is being besieged. Relief from the tempel of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud. IX BC. Photo: http://www.lectio.unibe.ch

From the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) in Assyria come some examples of women mourning and making gestures similar to those one we found in Egyptian funerals. His son Salmanasar III also left similar iconography. They are women crying desperate because their city is being attacked and their men killed. The document remembers the scene coming from the tomb of Inti in Dishasha (near Bahr el-Yusuf) from the IV Dynasty, where a woman is pulling her front lock of hair desperate because the city is being besieged.

Drawing of the relief in the tomb of Inti. Inside the fortress we can see the major and a woman, both pulling their lock of hair. Dishasha. VI Dynasty.

Drawing of the relief in the tomb of Inti. Inside the fortress we can see the major and a woman, both pulling their lock of hair. Dishasha. VI Dynasty.

But although they are examples of desperation as those Egyptian ones, the Assyrian women do not pull their hair nor shake it forwards. When Assyria was ruled by Ashurnasipal II and Salmansar III Egypt was in its Third intermediate Period.

There are several documents from the Archaic Greece showing women mourning in funerals. Many funerary plaques from that period show these women moaning and pulling locks of hair from their heads. Loutrophoros were vessels of pottery for water used in funerals, they were decorated with funerary images, and many of them show female during the mourning pulling locks of hair.

Eos mourning the death of  Memnon. Amphora in Etruscan museum in Vatican. VI BC. photo: www.facukty.gvsu.edu

Eos mourning the death of Memnon. Amphora in Etruscan museum in Vatican. VI BC. photo: http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/Read_Iliad.htm

In an amphora in the Etruscan Museum in Vatican the goddess Eos is depicted mourning the death of her son Memnon at the hands of Achilles, she is bended over her son’s corpse pulling a front lock of hair. Another good example for us is a hydria from the VI century b. C. containing the mythological scene of the mourning of Achilles killed by Paris; some of the Nereids appear pulling locks of hair. While that was happening in Greece, Egypt was ruled by the XXVI Dynasty.

Thetis and the Nereids mourning the death of Achilles. Musée du Louvre. VI BC. Photo: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Thetis and the Nereids mourning the death of Achilles. Musée du Louvre. VI BC. Photo: http://www.commons.wikimedia.org

Greek Illiad describes how in Patroklos’ burial his fellows cut themselves locks of hair and covered his body with them and how Achilles cut a yellow lock of his hair and put it in the hands of Patroklos.  These two gestures were made in honour of Patroklos, but not for helping him in a final resurrection. Anyway, did this practice belong to Homer’s times (VIII century BC) or to the Trojan War’s times (usually dated in XII century BC)? If we consider the first date Egypt is in the Third Intermediate Period, while the second one coincides with the end of the XX Dynasty.

As we can see all the Egyptian proves are much more ancient, some of them more than 2.000 years. On the other hand, in Ancient Egypt there were two types of mourning, the secular one and the ritual one. The first one is closer to the foreign examples we have seen: a human behaviour for sadness or in honour of the death. In the second case the gestures belong to a rite, which comes from a myth. Egyptian mourners during the Opening of the Mouth ceremony made the mourning ritual with their hair for reviving the mummy. Does anybody know something similar in other cultures?

Mourning Women and Mourning Hair in Ancient Egypt Funeral.


All along this work we have found three different mourners involved in Egyptian funerals.

Mourning men pulling hair. Relief from the matasba of Idu in Gizah. VI Dynasty. Photo: www.antiguoegipto.org

Mourning men pulling hair. Relief from the mastaba of Idu in Gizah. VI Dynasty. Photo: http://www.antiguoegipto.org

On one hand there were groups of common mourners (mainly women, but sometimes also men) among the rest of the members of the cortège. They were walking together weeping and making the typical gestures of mourning:  beating themselves, raising arms, ripping their clothes…those gesture included also to shake the hair and cover the face with it (nwn) or to pull a front lock of hair (nwn m). Egyptian documents (texts and iconography) do not give evidence that both gestures were made together; common mourners made one or another nor did the whole group do the same gesture all together. It seems that there was no coordination and that the women could make different mourning movements during the procession. The question is if that depended on something.

  • Was it something spontaneous and did it not depend on any order?
  • Was it an election of priests?
  • Did it depend on a local custom?
  • Was it an election made by the deceased’s family?
  • Was it an election made by the deceased? Taking into account that the tomb and its decoration was made while he was alive, it makes sense to think about a tomb’s owner election.

On the other hand, Egyptian iconography, specially tombs and papyrus from New Kingdom, show us the deceased’s widow next to the coffin also weeping and making mourning gestures, but apparently never shaking or pulling her hair. She is a mourning wife, but different from the group of common mourners and from the two representatives of Isis and Nephtys.

Isis and Nephtys are at both extremes of the mummy. Behind Roy's wife mourns her husband's death. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Isis and Nephtys are at both extremes of the mummy. Behind Roy’s wife mourns her husband’s death. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Finally, the funerary ceremony in Ancient Egypt counted on the participation of two mourning women playing the roles of Isis and Nepthys. The New Kingdom is the most prolific period of Egyptian history in scenes of them. They usually appear at both extremes of the coffin with a passive attitude, although funerary texts refer to them as active members in the corpse’s regeneration.

If we construct the puzzle with all the pieces from the different documents the scene we have is the following: during the cortège these two professional mourners stood static next to the mummy and with their hair covered by a piece of clothing, meanwhile the rest of mourners regretted the death of a person crying, screaming and shaking and/or pulling hair. Once the procession arrived to the necropolis things changed.

Cortège with the common mourners, the deceased's wife and the two Drty in the role of Isis and Nephtys. Papyrus of Nebqed. Musée du Louvre. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.eu.art.com

Cortège with the common mourners, the deceased’s wife and the two Drty in the role of Isis and Nephtys. Papyrus of Nebqed. Musée du Louvre. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.eu.art.com

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. Musée du Louvre. XI Dynasty. Photo: http://www.commons-wikimedia.org

The Opening of the Mouth ceremony for reviving the mummy took part somewhere in an enclosed area (most probably the tomb) and not in view of anyone. It was when the priestly team entered into the mythical dimension; the myth became rite in a group of practices for getting the deceased’s resurrection. The two women (Drty) turned into Isis and Nephtys and the mummy into Osiris. Outside the common mourners (included the deceased’s wife) kept moaning, but inside the two “kites” carried out a mourning ritual in which they made the nwn and the nwn m gestures. This way they reproduced that part of the Osiris myth in which Isis conceived Horus and he could revenge his father’s death.

During the Opening of the Mouth ceremony the sem priest played the role of the tekenu, helping in the transmission of life force to the corpse, but he also was the representative of Horus for facing Seth. This part of the myth is materialised in the rite by means of the sacrifice of an ox.

Sacrifice of the ox with the presence of the mourner. Painting from the tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Sacrifice of the ox with the presence of the mourner. Painting from the tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

The animal’s slaughter meant the victory of Horus over Seth, the good over the evil, so the mourning’s end. At that moment we consider the s3mt was cut, cutting this mourner’s hair symbolized the enemies’ annihilation, the end of the mourning and the Udjat eye’s recovery.

The two Drty (two kites), offering nw vases to the four pools. Relief from the tomb of Pahery in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

The two Drty (two kites), offering nw vases to the four pools, both with short hair. Relief from the tomb of Pahery in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

At the end of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony there were, among others, a hair offering. It was the mourner’s hair that had been shook and pulled and that served for symbolizing the revitalization process of the mummy (recovery of vital faculties, return to the Nun and to the womb…) and the removal of the evil which could drag out that process (lunar eye suffering, enemies, chaos…). This hair was offered as an image of the Udjat eye and materialised the deceased’s resurrection.

S3mt: Hair and Mourning, Evil and Udjat Eye.


The word s3mt appears repeatedly in the Egyptian funerary texts. It can be translated as lock of hair or mourning and it is closely linked to the idea of destruction of evil, the healing of the lunar eye and finally recovering the Udjat eye.

S3mt seems to refer to something related to the  mourning ritual and focused on the mourner’s hair. It could probably be considered as the hair that during the mourning rite women manipulated with a symbolic meaning, shaking it forwards (nwn sm3) or pulling it (nwn m swt).

Group of mourners, one of them making nwn m gesture of pulling her frontal lock of hair. Relief from the mastaba of Mereruka. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Mourner making nwn m gesture of pulling her front lock of hair. Relief from the mastaba of Mereruka. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

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

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

The funerary texts communicate that this s3mt was cut, using the Egyptian word Hsq, which meant “cut”, but also “behead”. And also we find evidence that the mourners were shaved at the end of the mourning rite.

The two Drty (two kites), offering nw vases to the four pools. Relief from the tomb of Pahery in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

The two Drty (two kites), offering nw vases with short hair to the four pools. Relief from the tomb of Pahery in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

Many documents assimilate the hair s3mt with the s3bwt snakes. These were malign animals that in Egyptian mythology beheaded the gods, so they were an image of the enemy and responsible of the death.

Beheading the snake as an image of the evil. The cat of Heliopolis killing the snake Apohis, enemy of Re. Painting from the tomb of Inerkha in Deir el-Medina. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Beheading the snake as an image of the evil. The cat of Heliopolis killing the snake Apohis, enemy of Re. Painting from the tomb of Inerkha in Deir el-Medina. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

In Egyptian funerary belief, it is necessary to restore the head for living again and annihilate those s3bwt. Making that the adversary is wiped out; the gods recover their heads and also their faculties for seeing, breathing and knowing.  In the funerary ambit, this will benefit the deceased, since cutting the s3mt will have the same effects on him: to recover the faculties that give him access to the new life.

Tekenu wrapped in a shroud and in foetal position over a sledge. Painting from the tomb of Ramose in Gourna.XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Tekenu wrapped in a shroud and in foetal position over a sledge. Painting from the tomb of Ramose in Gourna.XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Cutting the s3mt is also closely related to the sacrifice and the figure of tekenu. This human victim, who goes back to ancient times in Egyptian history, has a double value, expiatory and propitiatory. In the first documents, one of the remarkable elements of the human victim is a front lock of hair. Once the human victim is replaced by an ox in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony again the lock of hair is one of the most important elements. So, this last one seems to be related with the evil elimination.

Sacrifice of an ox in the funerary ceremony. Painting from the tomb of Menna in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Sacrifice of an ox in the funerary ceremony. Painting from the tomb of Menna in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

As cutting the s3mt is a way of removing the bad, it is also a way of recovering the Udjat eye as symbol of the final resurrection. Firstly Thoth spits on the damaged eye of Horus and this action is narrated in sacred texts as Thoth spitting on the hair sm3, afterwards the mourners are shaved or the s3mt is cut and the Udjat eye is offered to the deceased.

Eye of Horus, the falcon god. Detail from an image of Horus in the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Eye of Horus, the falcon god. Detail from an image of Horus in the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Summing up, to cut the s3mt supposes annihilate the enemy, the evil but also recover the Udjat eye and allow the final resurrection.

Ringlets and Plaits, Horns and Snakes, Moon and Resurrection.


In ancient Egypt some aspects of the hair have just a symbolic dimension in the deceased’s resurrection, these are the cases of the two ringlets wprty and the plait of hair Hnskt.

The goddess Hathor with lateral ringlets. Column from the temple of Khnum in Elephantine Island. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

The goddess Hathor with lateral ringlets. Column from the temple of Khnum in Elephantine Island. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Wprty are, according to the Coffin Texts, the two lateral ringlets at both sides of Hathor’s face; these two pieces of hair are in Egyptian imagery a kind of curtains which open and let see the goddess’ face. It is about the lunar divinity and to see her face means to see the moon, it is the metaphoric access to light from the darkness of the death, so a proof of resurrection. When the two wprty open, the deceased can come into the Herefater and be guided by the moon through the night sky.

Regarding the plait Hnskt, it is assimilated to the snake and the horns, both elements having a lunar nature. In Egyptian belief moon and snake are immortal, due to their cyclic renovation; they change gradually without dying; in fact that change is a way of regeneration and getting in a new existence. This is the Egyptian idea of death: it was not a disappearance, but a change of condition in the human life, so the funerary ceremony could be considered as a rite of passage.

Comparison of crescent (photo: www.channing.info) with the horns of a bull. Relief from a block in the Open Air Museum of Karnak. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martíni.

Comparison of crescent (photo: http://www.channing.info) with the horns of a bull. Relief from a block in the Open Air Museum of Karnak. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Horns in many ancient cultures, and also in the Egyptian one, were a symbol of regeneration thanks to the shape, which remembered the first quarter of the moon. This union between hair and horns makes us as well think about the two ringlets wprty of Hathor as a hair image of the two horns of the goddess. Precisely for that reason, the horns of Hathor can be connected with the plait Hnskt, which, according to one version of the Osiris legend, the goddess lost.

Head fragment from a statue of a "Bald of Hathor". New Kingdom. Metropolitan Museum of New York. Photo: www.metmuseum.org

Head fragment from a statue of a “Bald of Hathor”. New Kingdom. Metropolitan Museum of New York. Photo: http://www.metmuseum.org

In turn, all that can be related to the clergy of Hathor, whose priests were called “bald of Hathor” and whose requirement was the lack of hair in the crown, so remembering the goddess’ mutilation.

Pulling the front Lock of Hair in Ancient Egypt.


Group of mourners, one of them making the nwn m gesture of pulling her frontal lock of hair. Relief from the mastaba of Mereruka in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Group of mourners, one of them making the nwn m gesture of pulling her front lock of hair. Relief from the mastaba of Mereruka in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

In ancient Egyptian funerary ceremony mourners also made a different gesture with their hair, it was the nwn m gesture, which was to pull the front lock of hair. In fact, Egyptian language made an exercise of metonymy and the front lock of hair swt/syt was also used in many texts for designating the mourners, considering that it was their most significant part. According to some documents coming mainly from the Old Kingdom the nwn m gesture was a desperation act, since there is iconography showing mourners ripping their clothes, beating their arms and pulling their front lock of hair as a gesture of sadness.

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.

However, thanks to some sources coming from the New Kingdom it could also be a gesture made over the corpse or forward the mummy. It seems that in this case, it could be a way of transferring the life force contained in the hair to the deceased and helping in his final resurrection.

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.

But in the Egyptian belief the nwn m gesture was not only something made on earth, but also in the Hereafter. Those ones, who also mourned in the divine dimension and pulled their front lock of hair, guided the deceased with their shouts to find the way in the darkness of the death, so they helped him as well, as the mourners did on earth.

Why a front lock of hair? The forehead is a special part of the anatomy in ancient Egypt. According to one version of the episode of Horus and Seth, the lunar disk came out from the forehead of this one. We also know that Re put in his forehead the ureus, the snake which was in origin the eye of Re; the assimilation snake/eye makes us think of a triple similarity: lock of hair swt/ureus/lunar eye. If, as we have seen in this work, eye and snake are closely bound to the idea of resurrection, the front lock of hair might also have regenerating nature. That would reinforce the idea of the nwn m as a gesture made for the benefit of the deceased.

Ramses III holding the enemies. Relief from his funerary temple of Medinet Habu. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Ramses III holding the enemies. Relief from his funerary temple of Medinet Habu. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

On the other hand, Egyptian writing shows us the image of the enemy as a man making what we could understand as the nwn m gesture. We have seen the relationship between hair and enemy in the figure of the human victim in the Sed festival (tekenu) and also in the scenes of the Pharaoh killing the enemies of Egypt while holding them from their hair. The idea is that the front lock of hair swt could also represent the adversaries or the evil the deceased needs to eliminate for having access to the eternal life.

As in the case of  the nwn movement of shaking the hair sm3 forwards, we notice that the nwn m gesture of pulling the front look of hair swt/syt had a negative and positive value, since it was a proof of sadness and consternation but also something made for helping in the deceased’s resurrection.

The Rite recalls the Myth. The Hair gives Breath of Life and Virility in Ancient Egypt.


The whole funerary ceremony is full of practices that recall the mythic death and resurrection of Osiris and the mourning rite is not an exception. The legend tells how the goddess Isis, when mourning the death of her husband, became a kite and put over the mummy of her husband; flapping her wings she could give the breath of life to Osiris and helped in his reanimation. In this work we have seen that there is also in the thought of ancient Egypt an assimilation between hair and feathers, therefore the nwn gesture of the mourner shaking the hair sm3 forwards the corpse could be interpreted as a way of producing the air that the deceased needs for breathing and coming back to life.

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 flapping wings over the corpse of Osiris. Relief from the temple of Seti I in Abydos. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.common.wikimedia.org)

Changing into a kite, Isis could also restore Osiris’ virility. Egyptian funerary texts claim that when the mourners (smwt) give their hair sm3w to the deceased, he impregnates those women. It is interesting to notice that the Egyptian year started with the inundation (season of akhet), which was announced in some rituals (also the funerary one) with the nwn gesture, and the first month of that season was called, which means « inebriation ». On the other hand, the reduplicated form of txi is txtx and means “to dishevel”.

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.

Inebriation and dishevelling are two concepts together in the orgy, and this one is a way of coming back to the primeval chaos. It is the first state of creation, where sexuality and dishevelled hair take part. From anthropological point of view orgy is an act on behalf of life, it helps in generating a new productivity and in agricultural societies it strengthens the agrarian fertility; the orgy stimulates the renovation from the chaos. If the funerary ceremony is a way for getting the deceased’s resurrection through a return to the primeval moment, the eroticism, which encourages the chaos’ creation power, needs to be also a part of the ritual.

When the Egyptian mourner was making the nwn gesture during the Opening of the mouth ceremony, she was making a symbolic movement with her hair sm3 recalling the episode of the Osiris legend when Isis over the mummy restored the virility of her husband and copulated with him.

Opening of the Mouth ceremony; on the right the mourning is making the nwn gesture forwards the mummy. Tombof Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Opening of the Mouth ceremony; on the right the mourning is making the nwn gesture forwards the mummy. Tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

The ejaculation of Osiris was a very important step in the myth because it was a proof of his physical regeneration; in fact the virility is in Egyptian sacred iconography a resource the artist had for indicating the resurrection, since he represented the deceased with “penile erection”. It also granted the conception of Horus, his heir, his avenger, the one who eliminated the evilness and restored the order, succeeding to the Egypt’s throne and allowing his father Osiris to revive as king of the Hereafter.

Hair is Vegetation in Ancient Egypt.


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 at both sides of the face (vegetation). The image could be a metaphor of the Egyptian landscape, made up by the Nile and the both banks of the river. Painting from the tomb of Ramose in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

The connection of hair with nature is not only in its assimilation with water. The Egyptian funerary texts show hair Snw of Isis and Nephtys as an image of both banks of the Nile. According to Pausanias the tears dropping from the eyes of Isis were like the water in the riverbed, so the two mops of hair at both sides of the face could be considered as the vegetation on each bank of the Nile.

For reinforcing this idea we have the Egyptian language, which designates the vegetation as “the hair of the earth” el pelo de la tierraand considers a land with no plants as a “bald land”la tierra calva; therefore the hair is clearly in Egyptian belief identified with the vegetation. The two mourners’ pieces of hair/vegetation would be a metaphoric image of the two banks of the river.

From the natural point of view, we would be here facing a second seasonal step of the Egyptian calendar. The hair sm3 is a symbolic image of the inundation, that happens in the first season of akhet, while the hair Snw is referring to the plants, so the second season of peret. The growing of the plants is a natural rebirth, so making the nwn gesture and throwing the hair assimilated to the vegetation could be understood as a way of transferring the living force to the corpse; in the funerary dimension this would be a way of contributing to the mummy’s resurrection.