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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.

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Second Summary


The Hair and the Eye of Horus.

Detail of the mourners icovering their faces with the hair. Tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo

Detail of the mourners covering their faces with the hair. Tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo

The hair sm3 is assimilated to the lunar eye’s disease. The damage eye of Horus is an image of the battle between him and Seth, the Osiris’ murderer and in the Egyptian belief it symbolises the chaos and the darkness of the death. It is the moment the mourners are in nwn gesture and covering their faces with their hair sm3.

For the deceased’s rebirth it is necessary the healing of this lunar eye. In the mythic sphere is Thoth who spits on the eye for eliminating the disease it suffers, in the funerary ceremony we do not know if someone spitted on the mourner’s hair sm3.

Once the eye is recovered it becomes the Udjat eye. For contributing to the final resurrection the Udjat eye is offered to Osiris, this action symbolises the access from darkness to light.

In the funerary context it is the step from the hair sm3, image of chaos, darkness, evil, to the hair s3mt, assimilated to the Udjat eye. According to the funerary texts it is the moment of cutting the s3mt, something that can be understood as shaving the mourners and ending the mourning ritual.

The Hair and the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony.

On the right the mourner in nwn gesture towards the corpse. Scene from the tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

On the right the mourner in nwn gesture towards the corpse. Scene from the tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

The mourning ritual was one of the several sacred practices which formed the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. The two Drt, or two kites, maybe were professional and expert priestess who knew quite well this secret ritual of the resurrection. They shook (nwn) and/or pulled (nwn m) their hair towards the corpse dramatizing this way the passage in the Osiris’ legend, where Isis and Nephtys mourned his death, helped in his body recovery and contributed in his final rebirth.

Probably the mourning ritual started before the sacrifice of an ox. After a while hair started the slaughter of the animal while the mourners went on making the nwn gesture. The ox was the scapegoat and its death symbolised the victory of Horus over Seth, and the recovery of the Udjat eye. The female nature of these two women was crucial thanks to the relationship of women to moon and light.

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.

It is not clear if the mourning ritual was done before or after the tekenu rite, but in both cases the hair had a relevant role, because it seems that at the end a piece of hair was cut and offered to the deceased for his benefit and for contributing to his final resurrection.

Hair, Mourners and Secret in Ancient Egypt.


Egyptian funerary texts and iconography mention the mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys as making a mourning ritual with their hair for the benefit of the deceased. According to the sources, this rite was a part of the practises which formed the Opening of the Mouth for the mummy’s rebirth.

There is evidence of the Opening of the Mouth rite from texts of the Old Kingdom (inscription in mastaba of Metjen and in the Pyramid Texts). The Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom continue demonstrating the existence of this rite. In this period of the Egyptian history maybe can we envisage already one graphic proof in the stele of Abkaou (stele C15) from Abydos. In it the sculptor represented the rites of the Osiris festivity[1], where the myth was reproduced.  The two mourners shake their hair over the corpse; between them we can see the hieroglyphs of the adze and the sledge. What does it mean?

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

The sledge is the phoneme tm; it can be a negative verb[2], but it also is the term for “to complete”, “be completed”, in the sense of uniting the different parts of the body[3], mainly in relation to the mummy limbs[4]. The adze could be the verb nwi “to be in charge of”[5]. So, we could read the inscription as “in charge of completing” in the sense of restoring the corpse of the deceased. That would not be crazy if we think that in the legend Anubis was the one who embalmed the body, but with the assistance of Isis and Nephtys.

However, looking at the entire register of the stele there is no trace of inscription in the other images. So, why do we have to consider these three hieroglyphs as an inscription?

Detail of the register with the Osiris festivities. Stele d'Abkaou. Musée du Louvre. XI Dynasty. Photo: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Detail of the register with the Osiris festivities. Stele d’Abkaou. Musée du Louvre. XI Dynasty. Photo: http://www.commons.wikimedia.org

The tekenu on a sledge. Detail from the tomb of Montuherkhepeshef in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Image: www.excavacionegipto.com

The tekenu on a sledge. Detail from the tomb of Montuherkhepeshef in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Image: http://www.excavacionegipto.com

If we consider them just as the pure objects that they represent, we notice that the adze is one of the main tools in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony in the New Kingdom iconography; on its behalf the sledge is one of the means for transporting the human victim/tekenu, whose ritual we have seen was also part of the Opening Mouth ceremony in New Kingdom.

One possible theory could be that in the stele of Abkaou the sculptor was representing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony and the morning ritual in a shorten version, as it was done later in the New Kingdom, when artist included in the same scene mourners, priests, corpse and ritual tools. And we could as well think not just of a short version, but a codified way of representing a hidden ritual in the attempt of protecting the information of a confidential rite.

Opening of the Mouth ceremony. The image shows the two mourners, the priests and the table with all the tools utilised, included the foreleg of an ox. Painting from the tomb of Khonsu in Gourna. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Opening of the Mouth ceremony. The image shows the two mourners, the priests and the table with all the utilised tools, included the foreleg of an ox. Painting from the tomb of Khonsu in Gourna. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

The renovating rites for the mummy’s rebirth might be secret. All along this work we have read some funerary texts making allusion to this concept of “hidden” in everything surrounding Osiris’ death and resurrection. For instance, in the tomb of Ramsés IX the inscription accompanying the scene of the women pulling their frontal locks of hair says: “…they are mourning over the secret place of Osiris…they are screaming and crying over the secret place of the ceremony …they move away SnDt[6], their two arms with their two arms, their secret is in their fingers…”[7]. In the same line we have the coffin of Ramses IV, decorated with both mages of Isis and Nephtys pulling their frontal lock of hair and whose inscription says:  “…the two goddesses who are in this secret place…they hide the secrets of the divine land… They move their faces during the moan; they mourn over the secret corpse Both goddesses are holding their locks swt”.

It seems that in ancient Egyptian belief, the mystery of death and resurrection was not accessible to all people; because of that in the Book of the Dead we read in relation to the Osiris’ resurrection. “… it is a secret of the Duat and a religious mystery in the deceased’s Kingdom …it is a mystery, that cannot be know, to take care of the blessed heart, give him movement, take away the bandage from his eyes, open his face…Read that with no one seeing it, apart from your truly friend and the lector priest[8].

The death itself was for the dead an initiation to the Hereafter’s mysteries[9]. Only the priests knew the secret of the Osiris death and resurrection, and to keep this secrecy was crucial for the universal harmony[10], possibly for that reason the “night of Isis” hid the mysteries of resurrection[11]. Even Isis sometimes received the name of “The Mysterious One”, since she “has been everything she has been, everything she is and everything she will be, and her veil, no mortal has never took off[12].

The Theban Books of Breathing, dating from Ptolemaic period was a funerary text recited just before closing the cover of the coffin [13] and the woman in the role of Isis gave a speech for reviving Osiris and help his soul go up to the sky as lunar disc: “That is something that needs to be hidden. Do not let anyone read it. It is useful for one in the necropolis. He will live again successfully millions of times”[14].

The chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead mentions the moment Osiris recovers his virility thanks to Isis, and she stresses the secret nature of her action: “I am Isis, you found me when I had my hair disordered over my face, and my crown was dishevelled. I have conceived as Isis, I have procreated as Nephtys. Isis dispels my bothers (?). My crown is dishevelled; Isis has been over her secret, she has stood up and has cleaned her hair”

The Magical Papyrus Salt 825 contains a text about the rite for the conservation of life and it informs the reader that the “House of Life” is hidden, unknown and invisible; it is a “secret book…contains life and death. Do not reveal it, the one who reveals it will die suddenly or will be murdered[15].

Opening of the Mouth ceremony at the door of the tomb. Painitgn from the tomb of Khonsu in Gourna. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Opening of the Mouth ceremony at the door of the tomb. Painting from the tomb of Khonsu in Gourna. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

Everything points to the idea that in ancient Egypt the resurrection process is something that only concerns to the deceased and the team helping him in his recovery and that it is not something accessible for everybody. That would explain then why there is no much iconographical evidence of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony; it comes mainly from New Kingdom on (tomb decoration or papyri) and it is not explicit at all. On the other hand these scenes showing the priests and mourner with the mummy in front of the tomb would not be real. If the ritual for the resurrection was something secret, the Opening of the Mouth ceremony could not be made in open air. All practices for helping the mummy to come back to life should be made inside the tomb or inside a special building in the necropolis. So the images of the mourners crying close to the corpse while the priests are officiating would be the artistic solution to allude to the rite without revealing details.


[1] Gayet, 1886, pl. LIV.

[2] Wb V, 302, 5.

[3] Wb V, 303.

[4] Wb V, 305, 1.

[5] Wb II, p. 220

[6] Fear (?).

[7] Piankoff, 1942, pp. 1-11; 1944, pp. 1-62; 1946, pp. 1-50.

[8] LdM, 148.

[9] S. Mayassis, 1957, p. 218.

[10] S. Mayassis, 1957, p. 42.

[11] Sinesio, Epist., XIII,v.s. 89; S. Mayassis, 1957, p. 65.

[12] Plutarco, De Iside et Osiride, 9.

[13] J.Cl. Goyon, 1972, p. 217.

[14] Book of Breathing I, 1.

[15] Ph. Derchain, 1964, p. 139.

[16] S. Mayassis, 1957, p. 40.

The meaning of the word swt


There is another chapter referring to swt; although it is a confusing text, we can make some deductions examining consciously the words. In the chapter 332 of the Coffin Texts the dead is being guided by a powerful goddess who is

“…the lady of the power, who guides to those ones in the caverns. I am Hathor, Lady of the northern sky, who maintains the ropes kAsw of those awaken…the earth trembles because of the jubilation, while the locks of hair are in the mourning…

locks of hair in the mourning

Sw is a verb, whose meaning is “to be something harmful for someone”[1], maybe it could be translated as “hurt “or “wound”. The substantive would then be swt (“damage”, “hurt”)[2].  We already find this verb in the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom:

The two armas over the head is a very normal posture among mourners in Ancient Egypt. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

The two arms over the head is a very normal posture among mourners in Ancient Egypt. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

“The deceased is the Lord of his enemies, which have been beaten by Horus for him. Go up! Sit over him! You are stronger than him, hurt him…!” (di ir.k swt ir.f)[3]Isis is sitting, her arms over her head. Nephtys, holds her breasts because of the death of her brother, Anubis is bended over his stomach, Osiris is in his damage » (Wsir m swt.f) [4].

We could maybe consider the word swt as a passive participle of the verb sw, so the translation would be something as: “the damaged ones” or “the hurt ones”, the ones who have been damaged, that is, the mourners Isis and Nephtys; they were hurt by the death of Osiris and that is why they are in mourning.  This would also explain the use of the hieroglyph of hair as determinative in so many words that refer to mourners and mourning.This passage is clearly describing the typical funerary scene in which the mummy is laying while Anubis makes his embalming process and the two mourners Isis and Nephtys regret the death of her husband/brother.

We should also notice a kind of word game with the “locks of hair” (swt) in chapter 531 and the “hurt ones” (swt) in chapter 332, in both cases applied to the mourners who dishevel their hair as a sign of mourning.  It is as well interesting how each mourner is indentified with a lock of hair; so mourners and hair go together. That is what we call a metonymy; the whole (the mourners) is designated using its most significant part (the hair).

But we wanted to go on searching more on the verb swverb sw  and we found that it also could be translated as “to increase the strength” or “to get the strength back” [5]. We can read this verb in the Pyramid Texts[6] and also in the Coffin Texts:

“…I came and I recovered the strength back in nsrsr island”[7].isla nsrsr

In both texts the dead, after drinking milk or beer (both considered revitalising drinks), recover his force and comes back to life. It makes sense the use of the hair as determinative ; if the hair is an energy source and the nwn/nwn m gesture pretend the resurrection of the corpse, it is normal here to find it related with a verb meaning « fortify ». On the other hand, swt is a causative verb that derives from wt, whose translation is “be powerful” or “be big” [8]. In addition, wt also means « to embalm » [9] and there is direct relationship between embalming and the deceased’s resurrection. One of the main goals of embalming was to reconstruct the whole body, the physical reconstruction as getting the soul’s support, and this consolidation is connected with the hair element.


[1]   Wb IV, 59, 16

[2]   Wb IV, 59, 18

[3] Pyr., 652.

[4] Pyr., 1281-1282.

[5] D. Meeks, 1977-1979, II, p. 311, nº 78.3367; D. Meeks, 1976, p. 88, n. 14.

[6] Pyr., 1282 b.

[7]CT VII, 1013. Translation of P. Barguet (P. Barguet, 1986, p. 417).

[8] Wb IV, 77, 9.

[9] Wb I, 378, 8.

The Locks of Hair swt are Isis and Nephtys.


The chapter 531 of the Coffin Texts treats about the prophylaxis of the different parts of the funerary mask, always assimilating them with many divinities. After saying how perfect is the face (that is the mask) of the dead we read:

Your White Crown is Thoth; your crown is Wp-wawt[1]. Your eyebrows are both Enneads. Your eyes are the boat of the day and the boat of the night.

Your two locks of hair are Isis and Nephtys.

Swt are Isis and Nephtys

Your nape is Duanenuy. Your plait is Hddt

Hnskt is Hddt

 The funerary mask is like a complete head, or like its substitute, and to put it on the deceased’s face is a revivifying action. The dead is assimilated to the acephalic Osiris and the mask has two functions. On one hand it hides the damage made by Seth on the Osiris’ face; on the other hand it restores the faculties to the head, as to see and to breath; through the mask the dead can also perceive things that mortals cannot notice[2]; the replacement of the head, symbolised by the placement of the mask, allows the deceased to come back to life.

Scholar D. Meelks translated the word swt as “lock” or “plait”[3]. Due that the chapter is describing the funerary mask; we could think that this word would be making an allusion to the two locks of hair that fall on both sides of the face; in the same way that Isis and Nephtys are always at both extremes of the dead.

Khonsu's funerary mask. XIX Dynasty. Metropoliltan Museum of New York. Photo: www.metmuseum.org

Khonsu’s funerary mask. XIX Dynasty. Metropoliltan Museum of New York. Photo: http://www.metmuseum.org

Let’s remember also that we have already seen how the word swt designates the front lock of hair the mourners pull. Maybe both locks of hair were assimilated to the hair the two goddesses pull from.

In the wig both locks of hair fall at both sides of the face while the rest of the hair falls over the back. The term hnskt usually means “plait of hair”[4].  But in the context we are the two locks of hair are assimilated with Isis and Nephtys, and just before the text mentions the nape, so it makes sense to think of Hnskt as the mop of hair that in the wig falls on the back[5]. On the other hand, the term Hnskty is a dual that means « the two women with plait », Isis and Nephtys[6]. And that refers us to those images of Isis and Nephtys with the head-dress afnt (see image in header) or to those images of mourners with the hair tied in a back tail; , which would reinforce the idea that hnskt could be that hair identified with the goddess Hddt (a kind of Isis in Edfu).

Mourners with hair tied in a back tail. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Mourners with hair tied in a back tail. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

At this point we consider important to point out a scene of a libation on an altar in Dendera. In it the spelling of Isis Hddt is changed by another one that refers to a light symbolism.  We are in a context where the mission of Isis is to bright in the sky just in the moment of bringing the flood[7]. That makes us think about what we have seen in former chapters about the nwn gesture and the beginning of the Egyptian year; the nwn gesture would be a way of symbolising the new flood, the new year and, therefore, the new life. Again we would be facing the hair element with a strong regenerating symbolism.


[1] “The One who open the ways”, the name of the jackal god from Asiut, that opens the ways to the king in the battle. Let’s think about its presence also in the Sed Festival.

[2] D. Meeks, 1991, p. 7.

[3] D. Meeks, 1977-1979, II, p. 312, nº 78.3373.

[4] Wb III, 116, 4.

[5] Chr. Desroches-Noblecourt considers that Hnskt refers to the small braids under the head-dress afnt (Chr. Desroches-Noblecourt, 1953, p. 28, n. 2) and that it is related with the manifestation of the deceased’s ka (Chr. Desroches-Noblecourt, 1953, p. 25, n. 5). The mother of the dead in funerals wears the head-dress afnt: “Your mother is the great cow in el-Kab, (with) the crown Atef and head-dress afnt, with long hair, with hanging breasts, which has nursed you(Pyr., 2003).

[6] Wb III, 121, 1. It appears like that in The Songs of Isis and Nephtys, Pap. Bremner-Rhind I; 1,9; 3,23; 6,23 y 11,19.

[7] M-Th. Derchain-Urtel, 1993. Leuven, p. 102.

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.

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


We already know the relationship between mourning and hair and the connexion it has with the Osiris legend. A very important part of that myth is the episode when Osiris recovers his virility. According to the legend, once the different parts of Osiris corpse were found and the body was restored, Isis put herself over her husband’s body and conceived the posthumous son Horus. Thanks to that act the cosmic order was again established; Horus became the king of Egypt and Osiris resurrected as the king of the Hereafter.

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.

In a coffin found in Gebelein and dating from the XIII Dynasty, there is a vignette with both women assisting the dead, over him is bending a feminine image.

A female figure is bending over the dead. Scene in a coffin from Gebelein. XIII Dynasty.

A female figure is bending over the dead. Scene in a coffin from Gebelein. XIII Dynasty.

Already in the 50’s Chr. Desroches-Noblecourt considered that the goal of this gesture was to give back the virility to the mummy[1]. In fact, the Pyramid Texts show that in the Old Kingdom Isis and Nephtys were considered the responsible ones of regenerating the deceased’s faculty for fertilising[2]. The Egyptian iconography has several examples of the copulation of Isis and Osiris; Isis as a kite[3] put herself over the phallus of her husband, and she assures the conception of the son who will avenge the murder of his father; also literature has many examples of that episode:

I am your sister Isis. No god and no goddess have done what I have done. I have performed the procreation, although I am a woman alone, for making your name to endure on earth. Your divine semen was inside my womb and I put it over the earth, this way he can spread your image. He is healthy, although you suffer. He must send the violence to those who had caused it. Set succumb to his knife. Fellows of Set succumb because of Set. The throne of Geb is yours. You are his beloved son…”[4]

 In some tombs of the Middle Kingdom were found some figurines maybe used for restoring the virility to the dead. According to Chr. Desroches-Noblecourt, these figurines evocate a young femininity and with no visible effects of maternity; so, they would not be images of fecundity, but of eroticism[5]. That premise would send us to what we exposed formerly (see post of 27th May) about the two mourners in the roles of Isis and Nephtys; we think that these two women should have been mother yet. It looks as if these figurines were also put in tombs of New Kingdom for restoring the ka of the dead[6].

In chapter 991 of the Coffin Texts we could read how the dead is “the one who fertilises the mourners” (see post of 21rst May) and in The Songs of Isis and Nepthys there are several allusions to that matter; many times Osiris is “the lord of the sexual pleasure”[7], “the lord of the love [8], “bull that fertilises the cows[9]. We also read in that text: « you give the life over the woman[10], so, « you impregnate her »; it is the same meaning as we read in chapter 991 of Coffin Texts. In the Songs of Isis and Nephtys Osiris is also called « the one who engenders » [11] and the mourners ask him to have sexual relations:

“Copulate you with us as a male” [12].

“Copulate you with your sister Isis[13].

 There is a very meaningful sequence: 

“Lord of the sexual pleasure,

¡Oh! Come to me;

Be in union the sky and the earth”[14].

 In the mythic sphere the primeval union is the one between earth and sky (in Ancient Egyptian cosmogony between Geb and Nut); it is the moment of the Creation, symbolised by the sexual act because it contents the power of generating life. This reflexion makes us think of orgy as a sexual celebration; in many cultures orgy is a synonym of agricultural fecundity; it is an act in favour of life for stimulating new births; and there is also a bond between vegetation and eroticism.


[1] Desroches-Noblecourt, 1953, p. 43.

[2] Pyr., 366, 628 a, 631 b, 632 a-d and 123-125.

[3] Roeder, 1960, p. 180.

[4] Pap. Louvre, 3079; Roeder, 1960, p. 182.

[5] Desroches-Noblecourt, 1953, p. 18. However she accepts the idea of the virginity of the two mourners representing Isis and Nephtys.

[6] Desroches-Noblecourt, 1953 p. 39.

[7] Songs…1,23; 12,8.

[8] Songs…3,5.

[9] Songs…3,6.

[10] Songs…14,27.

[11] Songs…3,26.

[12] Songs…2,9.

[13] Songs…5,25.

[14] Songs…12,8-9-10. There are allusions to that matter in 7,4; 12,11-12; 12,16.