Tag Archives: mourning

Hathor and Baldness in Ancient Egypt Symbolism.

We have already seen the importance of Hathor and her two ringlets in the Ancient Egypt funerary imagery and symbolism. This goddess has many epithets which link her directly with the hair element; she is the “Lady of the plait” (Hnskt) or « the One of plait » (Hnsktt, Hnkstt)[1]. Also the priestesses who took part in the Hathor mysteries were called « the ones with plaits » (Hnskywt) or « the ones with ringlets » (wprtywt)[2].

There is a fragment of the Ramesseum Papyrus XI, where we read: “Mi heart is for you, my heart is for you as the heart of Horus is for his eye, the one of Set for his testicles, the one of Hathor for her plait, the one of Thoth for his shoulder[3]”. The text is mentioning mutilations suffered by these gods, so maybe were there an Egyptian myth where Hathor could lose a plait of hair? If so, we could then understand why in some magical practises dedicated to Hathor there had to use a plait of hair[4].

We must also take into consideration that in the Egyptian religion Hathor and Isis were associated. Plutarco assured that Isis pulled herself a lock of hair out when she knew about Osiris’ death[5]; this assertion makes us think of the image of mourners pulling their hair in funerals. We could link that with the damages mentioned above suffered by those gods in some parts of their bodies found in the text of Ramesseum Papyrus; however we have also to consider:

1) The iconography just shows us the gesture of pulling the lock of hair, but not the mutilation Plutarco mentions.

2) Ramesseum Papyrus mentions mutilations caused by another one to the god. In the case of Isis we would not be facing an attack to the goddess, but a self lesion.

Hathor and the loss of hair derives us to some statues dating from New Kingdom representing men sit in front of an Hathor’s symbol and which were studied by J.J. Clère[6]. Those men either they are bald, or they were supposed to be bald[7], because the inscription in all of them describe them as « the bald of Hathor ».the bald of Hathor

The Egyptian word for « bald » is is o iasiAs calvo , which defines the natural baldness, that is, the alopecia[8]. J.J. Clère considers that the term ias would have two senses: on one hand it would be « bald » in the most generic meaning, and on the other hand it would allude to the “sincipital baldness”[9]. That is, the alopecia in the upper half of the cranium, so the baldness in the wpt, as in the statues of the ias priests of Hathor[10], who had to be bald.

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 Art of New York. Photo: http://www.metmuseum.org

Around this matter it is interesting to have a look on a sentence in the Songs of Isis and Nephtys, which although very incomplete, could gain sense with all we have seen until now:

“…the baldness on the top of the head…” [11].

baldness on the top of the head

 J.J. Clère did not see the relationship between this partial sentence and the context it is written[12], but in fact it has, because that text is mentioning the damage that Seth has caused: « Seth is in every bad thing he has done » [13], «he has messed up the sky administration» [14], «and he has sent to us bad intentions» [15]. Could we think about a version of the Myth of Osiris, where Seth amputated the hnskt of Hathor? That would explain the comparison with the eye of Horus and the testicle of Re.

That being the case, the term is/ias would describe a sincipital baldness, however not a natural alopecia, but one caused by mutilation; ias would refer to an involuntary loss of the hair, while the term f3k would refer to the voluntary shave.

Equally we could think that Hnskt would be not just a lock of hair falling on the back, but also the hair in the top of the head (wpt). The priesthood of Hathor in the statuary lacks the hair on the wpt; the top of the head; where Hathor, as the cow goddess, has her horns. Could we then think of assimilation between the hair and the horns? If so, then we should also think about a possible version of the Myth of Osiris where Seth damaged Hathor’s horns. Maybe it would be more reasonable to consider that the Hathor in the Ramesseum Papyrus was in fact Isis, the mourning wife pulling her lock of hair as a despair gesture when she knew about the death of Osiris at the hands of Seth. In addition, the title of those ias priests in some statues refers to Isis: “I am the bald of Isis, the Big One” [16] ; « I am a bald one, excellent, favourite of Isis » [17].

Maybe for being assimilated to Isis, Hathor was a divinity very closed to Osiris in the Egyptian religion and it was very common to find her in images accompanying Osiris[18]. But her presence was not just in iconography; in celebrations in honour to Osiris during the month of Khoiak Hathor had also an important role. For instance, in the Middle Kingdom there was at the beginning of the month a sailing of Hathor. This goddess also appears six times accompanying Isis in the Festival of Sokaris (god assimilated to Osiris); her boat guides the other ones and the rest of goddesses are considered as different forms of Hathor[19].

Anyway, statues of ias priest show them always with an hathoric symbol; those men belonged to an Hathor’s clergy, who had to lack hair in the top of the head, apparently not voluntary; maybe in honour to the goddess, who suffered a mutilation with a similar result in her body.

"Bald of Hathor" Ameneminet. XIX Dynasty. Luxor Museum. Photo: www.eternalegypt.org

“Bald of Hathor” Ameneminet. XIX Dynasty. Luxor Museum. Photo: http://www.eternalegypt.org

Summing up, we have three main points related to Hathor and the hair:

  • Hathor related to the two ringlets wprty. These two lateral ringlets are like the two sky doors, which open and allow the deceased to go up to the celestial sphere and see the face of the lunar goddess, that is the moon, so the light in the darkness. The wprty are a grant of resurrection.
  • Hathor or Isis had a possible loss of hair (hnskt), as it was a mutilation, similar to that one suffered by Horus with his eye or Seth with his testicle.
  • Existence of a clergy of Hathor, whose requirement was the lack of hair on the top of the head (wpt), showing this way a relationship between Hathor and the lack or loss of hair.

[1] G. Posener, 1986, p. 113.

[2]S.A. Naguib, 1990, p. 13.

[3] According to some versions Seth attacked Thoth and cut off his arm. G. Posener,  1986, p. 111.

[4] Pap. Berlin 3027 9, 3-7; A. Ermann, 1901, p. 34. Although here the Egyptian word for plait is not Hnskt, but dbnt. Some scholars assure that there are representations of locks of hair with hathoric symbols of regeneration. E. Staehelin, 1978, p. 83.

[5] Plutarco, De Iside et Osiride, 14.

[6] J-J. Clère, 1995.

[7] J-J. Clère, 1995, p. 14.

[8] There is another Egyptian term for “bald”: f3k, used for the priesthood of Heliopolis. Actually it refers to the “shave”, not to the natural baldness. We have already written about the baldness and the lack of vegetation.

[9] J-J. Clère, 1995, p. 28.

[10] We read in the chapter 588 of the Coffin Texts and chapter 103 of the Book of Dead: “Speech for being at both sides of Hathor. I am one who has passed pure, a iAs priest. I will be Ihy in the Hathor’s entourage”.

[11] Pap. Bremner-Rhind, 2, 23.

[12] J-J. Clère, 1995, p. 30.

[13] Songs…, 2, 19.

[14] Songs…, 2, 20.

[15] Songs…, 2, 21.

[16] J-J. Clère, 1995, p. 76.

[17] J-J. Clère, 1995, p. 160.

[18] This assimilation comes from the Old Kingdom. Also in some cases Isis can appear as Re’s wife.

[19] Papyrus Bremner-Rhind ,19, 13 ff.

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 Hair as a Symbol of Water in Ancient Egypt: The Hair is the Primeval Water.

In 1964 D. Bonneau assimilated the hair of Isis with the rise of the Nile due to the bushes of papyrus floating on it[1]. According to her, “in the ancient Egyptian tradition the manes of the gods were bushes of papyrus”[2] and the locks of hair are the vegetable fibres that content the first rise and announce the flooding of the river. For that reason D. Bonneau assured that usually the hair was united to gods related to the flood of the Nile[3]. That also would explain why in decoration the water was always coloured in green with black waves or why the hieroglyph of water were usually in black colour.

A boat is on a green water with black waves. Relief from the mastaba of Ti in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

A boat is on a green water with black waves. Relief from the mastaba of Ti in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Hieroglyph of water in black colour. Coffin of the Middle Kingdom. Bahr el-Yussef Museum. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Hieroglyph of water in black colour. Coffin of the Middle Kingdom. Bahr el-Yussef Museum. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

From the Old Kingdom we can see this relationship between hair and water. In the Pyramid texts of Pepi I we read that “…the hair of Pepi is the Nun…”[4] In fact, the hair is inseparable from the aquatic element, since in those parts where there were no papyri, Egyptians called “the hair of Isis” to coralline formations in the shores of Red Sea and the Indic Ocean[5].

We could then think of the hair as the water having the principles of the Creation and Renewing. The water of the flood has a magic power itself, as we can read in the magical Papyrus from Paris I, line 29. It is said how, for ensuring the effectiveness of the sacrifice of a cock, it was necessary “to go to a place where the Nile has already retired its water before nobody has step on it, or to a place dipped completely by the water of the Nile, or to a place flooded by the Nile in an accidental way [6]. According to these words it had to be a place soaked by those regenerating principles, which improved the magic. If the water had this magical power and was assimilated to the hair, it makes sense to think about a magical attribute of the hair.

It seems obvious the relationship in Ancient Egypt between the renovating rituals and the flooding, which was announced by Sothis, the brightest star that appeared  in the morning sky with the sun between the seventeenth and the nineteenth of July[7]. Sothis was for Egyptians «  the one who renovates the vegetation »[8] and she was assimilated to Isis: “Your sister Isis comes to you, happy with your love, you put her over your phallus, your semen goes up to her, sharp as Sothis, (like) Horus equipped coming out from you, like Horus who is in Sothis » [9]. The sexual aspect is very important and we consider it later.

Isis, assimilated to Sothis, announces with her hair the rise of the Nile, like the second one does appearing in the firmament. Isis is “the one who makes the Nile to increase and flow, the one who makes the Nile to get bigger in this season [10]. So, the mane of Isis would be a promise of resurrection, because would be the image of the water that creates and renovates. In the funerary rite it would emanate to the dead by means of the nwn gesture next to the corpse.  That would suppose a return to the Nun, the primeval waters where the first living went out from as the Nile permits the constant renovation of the Egyptian life. To shake the hair onwards would be then the announcement of a new creation, like the presence of Sothis means the beginning of the flood and the New Year.

Nile fertilising the land of Egypt near of Al-Minya. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Nile fertilising the land of Egypt near Al-Minya. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Many years ago S. Mayassis already studied the meaning of hair in Egyptian believing[11]. According to him, the hair was a synonym of power[12] and Isis covered her face with her mane to get profit of its own force and allow also the others to do the same thing[13]. S. Mayassis considered also to untie the hair was a way of putting the magical power of the knot aside[14], so the force of the hair was set out and joined the person[15].

Certainly the hair constitutes an element of power and vigour, but Mayassis did not mention that the power of the Isis’ mane is because its assimilation with the renovating water of the flood. That would explain the nwn gesture done by mourners in funerals was a revitalising gesture, that brings backs the dead to the Nun, for bringing him back to life, since he is “the one who has been created in the Nun [16].

In the month of Khoiak, the fourth month of the season Akhet (Inundation), took place the Mysteries of Osiris, a group of rites recalling the Osiris Myth[17]. In all these rites the mourning had a relevant place; women representing Isis and Nephtys were mourning at the moment of making the figurine of Osiris with earth and cereal[18], which grow up as a symbol of life and resurrection.  In the festivity of Osiris, the two representatives of Isis and Nephtys recited aloud a sacred song of mourning the twenty-fifth day of the Khoiak month just before the Osiris resurrection[19]. Lamentation would be the prelude of the new life for Osiris, also evident with the rise of the Nile[20]; in the funeral the meaning of that mourning would be the same.

On the other hand, Pausanias said how the tears of Isis were considered as the flood of the Nile: “Egyptians say that Isis weeps for Osiris when the river starts increasing; and when it floods the fields, they say that it is Isis’ tears[21]. Once the Nile started its rise, Egyptians celebrated the Festival of Isis; she, as mourner of Osiris, caused with her tears the increase of the water level of the Nile[22]. In fact, in the Songs of Isis and Nephtys, when they mourn we read: “I am Isis I flood the land in that day[23].

Tears (in Ancient Egyptian rmit) had in Egyptian mythology a strong creation power, because mankind (rmT) issued from tears[24].  According to a legend dating from XII Dynasty, the god Re sent one of their two eyes for fighting against his enemy Apophis. That eye was taking a long time to come back, so it was replaced by another one.  When the eye of Re came back from the battle and saw another one in his place he became very upset. This eye started crying and people came from its tears. For consoling the sorrow Re turned it into the ureus and put it on his forehead.

Amehotep I with the ureus in his forehead. Painting from the tomb of Inerkha in Deir el-Medina. Altes Museum of Berlin. XX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Amehotep I with the ureus in his forehead. Painting from the tomb of Inerkha in Deir el-Medina. Altes Museum of Berlin. XX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

According to B. Mathieu “to come out from the eye” (pr m irt) is an Egyptian expression for referring to the weeping and he emphasizes the fact that mankind appears from a sorrow[25]. The eye and the humidity coming out from it (tears) have the power of giving life: “He has opened his eyes in the moment he was going out from the Nun. All these things have come to existence from his eyes”[26]. That would explain such an important role of the mourners during the funerary rite; they shed their tears with regenerating power that will help in the resurrection of the dead. We need also to notice the importance of the eye as a beneficial organ for the regeneration of the deceased (we will see it in another post).

In chapter 674 of the Coffin texts we could already read how “the water is the hair sema of Mht over you”. Water and Inundation are vital elements par excellence in Egyptian mythology. Water has always a negative and a positive aspect, because for renovating it is needed first a destruction. If the hair sema is like the water, that one will also have a double value: it will be at the same time image of chaos and of new life.

For that reason, we could think that the nwn gesture, depending on in which moment of the funeral it would be made, it could refer on one hand to the sorrow for the dead and the chaos of the death, and on the other hand to the rebirth and a the new creation. Mourners could shake their hair onwards as a sign of despair but also as an image of the primeval and chaotic water, which have the power of giving life and create.

[1] Bonneau, 1964, p. 259.

[2] Bonneau, 1964, p. 260.

[3] Bonneau, 1964, p. 260, n. 9.

[4] Budge,  1969, p. 109. This same assimilation of hair and Nun appears in the papyri of Ani and Un.

[5] “Juba relates that near of Trogloditas Islands a brush grew up in deep down in the sea called “hair of Isis”, without leaves and similar to coral” (Pliny the Elder, Natural History,  XIII, 51)

[6] Bonneau, 1964, p. 285.

[7] Bonneau, 1964, p. 263.

[8] Pyr. 477.

[9] Pyr. 632.

[10] Budge, 1973, p. 278.

[11] Mayassis, 1955.

[12] Mayassis, 1955, p. 354.

[13] Mayassis, 1955, pp. 354 y 362.

[14] Mayassis, 1955, p. 356.

[15] Mayassis, 1955, p. 362.

[16] CT, 544.

[17] That also shows the relationship between Osiris and the water.

[18] Guglielmi, 1980, p.80.

[19] Gaballa and Kitchen, 1969, p.45.

[20] Kees, 1956, p. 354.

[21] Pausanias, De Phocicis,  X, 32,10.

[22] Frazer, 1914, Third Ed., p. 33.

[23] Canciones…,3,16.

[24] Guglielmi, 1980, p. 82.

[25] Mathieu, 1986, p. 500.

[26] Fragment on the South facade of the temple of Hathor in Dendera (el-Kordy, 1982, p. 203).


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