Tag Archives: mummy

The Lock of Hair s3mt and the Childhood of the Deceased in Ancient Egypt.


The Coffin Texts mention a final shape of hair also with a deep symbolic meaning. It is the lock of hair s3mt. About the meaning of s3mt there are different opinions. According to A. Erman and H. Grapow s3mt means “sadness” [1]; A. Gardiner translates it as “mourning” [2] and for R.O. Faulkner its meaning is “lock of hair” [3]. We will treat that later and we will notice that all translations result in the same idea.

In chapter 334 of the Coffin Texts the deceased is Ihy[4], the son of Hathor[5], but he is also son of Re, Isis and Nephtys. In fact, many passages of the text refer to the dead one as a being in his first steps of existence. The chapter is very long, so we will skip a part of the text and will focus on the most interesting sentences for the subject we talk about:

“To change into Ihy…I am the first product of Re, he created me in the body of my mother Isis…

 I am the son of Nephtys, I have been great and lucky.

 My lock of hair s3mt is not destroyed in the bosom of my father and my mother.

 CT 334 samt

I live, I exist…I am a protector. I am acclaimed in my name of Khonsu. I am immortal in the sky, with Re and my mother Hathor…”

His lunar nature comes from his condition as son of Re; he succeeds his father the sun, who rules the daily sky, in the sky during the night, the moonlight follows the sunlight. And we already know that the moon in Ancient Egypt is a symbol of new life in the Hereafter. The entire chapter is about the dead one as a new born, a son, he has the ability to be born with no handicaps, even his s3mt keeps intact and thanks to it, he can live and exist.

It is also interesting to notice that because the s3mt has not been destroyed the deceased exists and he is acclaimed in the name of Khonsu. This god was the son of Amon and Mut (Theban Triad) and his image characterized by the lunar head-dress and the side lock of hair[6]. Khonsu and his side lock were a symbol of youth and showed him as the heir[7]. Could we think of the s3mt as the side lock of Khonsu?

Khonsu with side lock and lunar head-dress. Relief from the funerary temple of Seti I in Dra Abu el-Naga. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Khonsu with side lock and lunar head-dress. Relief from the funerary temple of Seti I in Dra Abu el-Naga. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

If the lock of hair is synonymous with rebirth and inheritance; not destroy it would mean continuity and constant renovation.  The dead one would be in the funerary thought of Ancient Egypt assimilated with Khonsu in the first step of the regeneration. Khonsu with the side lock (maybe s3mt) is the crescent, the childhood of the moon, and he starts its way to maturity; its growth for becoming the full moon, which materializes the deceased’s resurrection[8].

We have to take into consideration also the following passage:

“I am the ejaculated one, I crossed through her two legs…I have germinated in the egg, I have harried up through its sf[9], I have slid on its snf[10]. I am the lord of the blood…my mother Isis conceives me when she is unaware of her body under the fingers of the lord of the gods, who invades her that day of magnificence[11]…that day of disorder[12]… »

To keep the s3mt means to germinate into the egg, that vital centre which contains the energy to create a new being. The deceased remains inside the egg still unborn but and he will be reborn from it.

So, the lock of hair s3mt and the rebirth/regeneration appear together. Could we then think of that lock of hair s3mt as vital factor which helps the deceased in his resurrection? The answer seems to be affirmative[13].


[1] Wb IV, 18, 10.

[2] A. Gardiner, 1988, p. 588.

[3] R. O. Faulkner, 1988, p. 210.

[4] He is the musician with the sistrum.

[5] Already in Old Kingdom the deceased is “Horus, son of Osiris,…son of Hathor, the semen of Gueb (Pyr., 466 a-b)

[6] J. Zandee, recalling Kees, who considered the lunar eye a parallel of the lock of hair (ZÄS 60), identified this one with Khonsu (J. Zandee, 1953, p. 112).

[7] Ph. Derchain, 1962, p. 40.

[8] In chapter 310 there are many verbs of growth, and that could be a proof of how the power of Khonsu increases (J. Zandee, 1953, p. 111)

[9] P. Barguet translates “egg white”.

[10] P. Barguet translates “yolk”, although its real meaning is “blood”.

[11] Could that refer to the sexual act?

[12] The translation of Xnnw is “uproar”, “disturbance” (Wb III, 383, 15). We are facing in this passage a moment of disorder, while the deceased is conceived; that shows the relationship we have already seen between chaos and orgy.

[13] As son of Isis the deceased is then also Horus and we will see later the relationship between this god and the lock of hair s3mt.

The two Ringlets wprty give Access to the Realm of the Dead.


The presence of hair in Ancient Egypt funerary belief is more than just the mane or the lock of hair. There are mentions in three chapters of the Coffin Texts to another shape of hair: the ringlets.
1) In chapter 107 of the Coffin Texts the deceased goes out to the day, that is, he comes back to light and to life; in that process we read:

“…praises are given; the double ringlet starts the jubilee

wprty starts the jubilee

 While the Duat gets open for me…”

There is undoubtedly a word game with wpw (open) and wprty; since wpt can be also the crown as the origin of the hair[1], the upper part of the head (and also the zenith of the sky). On the other hand, the Egyptian word wprty describes the lateral plait or ringlet that can be seen in children as a sign of youth[2]; it is also the side lock of the god Khonsu[3], the god of moon.

The god Khonsu with side lock. Relief from the funerary temple of Seti I in Dra Abu el-Naga. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

The god Khonsu with side lock. Relief from the funerary temple of Seti I in Dra Abu el-Naga. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

D. Meeks translates it with a wider meaning as « lock of hair in the temple » [4]. Taking into account that the chapter relates how the deceased gets into the Duat, it makes sense to think about the two lateral ringlets of Hathor, the Egyptian goddess who receives the dead ones in the flank of the West Mountain, when they get into the realm of the dead, and she guides them in the night sky.

One of Hathor’s symbols of identity is her two big lateral ringlets framing her face[5]. Apparently this image of the goddess derives from a version of the myth of the “Eye of Re”.

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.

It relates how Hathor (also Tefnut) lived in the Nubian desert as a wild lioness, while her father Re ruled alone the mankind. This one commanded Shu and Thot the mission of looking for Hathor and bring her back to Egypt. When they were in Philae, Hathor immersed in the holy water of the first cataract and she became a very pretty woman “goddess of love, with pretty face and the hair on two big ringlets, bright eyes and firm breast”[6]. The legend of the Eye is the legend of the return: the return of the goddess from the desert, the flood after the winter, it is also the cyclic return of the agricultural prosperity[7].

2) In chapter 109 of the Coffin Texts we read:

“Open the Occident. Praises are given. The jubilee starts when Hathor gives the double ringlet”[8]

wprty starts the jubilee (109)

This chapter confirms the previous exposure, since the wprty are the two ringlets of Hathor. It is about the funerary goddess, the one who takes the deceased in the necropolis; she is “Hathor, the Mistress of the Occident, who rules the frontier of the desert”; she presents the two ringlets, Hathor, the lunar goddess which guides the dead in the darkness of the death.

Could we think that this passage is referring to a rite? Would it be ridiculous to think of a kind of priestess or representative of Hathor in the necropolis presenting two ringlets to the mummy? If so, and taking into consideration the assimilation of Hathor with Isis in Egyptian religion, could be that woman the mourner in the role of Isis? [9]. Thinking so, we would keep in the same line and with the mourners as the main persons of our research; we would not need to resort to a third woman, which, on the other hand, does not appear in any funerary scene.

3) In chapter 533 the dead becomes a scribe of Hathor; the text is long but just in a few sentences we find something very interesting for our subject:

“Become scribe of Hathor. I am the one who is glad before her horns, being arms united, the lector priest, scribe of god words…in the secret palace…

…my two ringlets get open

my ringlets open

 and the face of Hathor makes lighter to me. Hathor holds her arms out”

Once again we are facing Hathor as the goddess who takes the dead in, holding her arms out. When the two ringlets separate, as if they were curtains, the deceased discover her face, as if it was a window that lets the light come in; Hathor’s face gets lighter, like the moon in the dark sky.

For the expression “make lighter”, the scribe used the Egyptian word HD, which it is also used for terms related to « clear », « silver » or « moon » [10]. Separate the wprty ringlets means to see the moon; it is the access to the light after the darkness of the death. Hathor/moon allows the vision during the night; she illuminates, guides and takes the deceased in.

It is also interesting to notice how in chapter 44 of the Coffin Texts we can read: “Heaven’s doors open with your beauty, you go out and you see Hathor [11]. To get into the heaven and see the goddess, either the doors get open, or the wprty ringlets get separated. It seems both elements doors and ringlets could be assimilated and interchangeable. To separate the wprty as if they were curtains allows seeing the light (Hathor’s face / moon) in the middle of the night sky.


[1] Wb I, 297, 13. It is also the part of the head new born “opens” the mother for coming to life, so it is a part related to the rebirth.

[2] Wb I, 305, 6.

[3] We can read it in the propylon of the temple of Khonsu in Karnak. K. Sethe und O. Firchow, 1957, 67 78, 81.

[4] D. Meeks, 1977-79, II, p.94, 78.0951.

[5] According to S. Aufrère “Hathor dissimulait sa face ronde et plate d’Asiatique dans une épaisse coiffure de bédouine, aux inmenses volutes, formant la nuit de lapis-lazuli” (S. Aufrére, 1993, p. 17).

[6] H. Junker, 1911.

[7] E. Bresciani, 1993, p. 47.

[8] In some coffins the writing  wprt  is reduced tort.

[9] In the scene of resurrection in the tomb of Petosiris Isis on the left with the side lock is the “Lady of Rekhyt”, an epithet of Hathor (F. Daumas, 1960, pl. I).

[10] Wb III, 206-208

[11]CT I, 44.

When did the mourners pull or shake hair in the Egyptian funerary ceremony?


During these days we have seen how iconography and texts proof the existence of a gesture, posture or movement made by mourners in Ancient Egypt funerals. Sometimes they pulled their front lock of hair (nwn m) and sometimes they shook their mane onwards covering their faces with it (nwn). In both cases there was always an implicit symbolism, mostly related to the Osiris legend and the resurrection of the dead.

But now many questions come to mind: when did these women do that gesture during the funerary ceremony? Was the mourning rite constant during the whole ceremony or was just for some special moments? Were the normal mourners and the representatives of Isis and Nephtys making it together and/or at the same time?

Firstly we should distinguish the common mourners from the two women in the role of Isis and Nephtys. It makes sense to think about two different kind of performance. The iconography has several examples of mourners “outdoors” making the nwn m or nwn gesture. They would be part of the group of women accompanying the coffin in the funerary procession, we see them in movement in the reliefs from the tombs of Mereruka and Idu or in the Middle Kingdom coffin from Abydos; but also we see them in a more static moment, when some mourners are sit while others are making the nwn gesture, as in the tombs of Amenemhat, Miankht or Rekhmire.

Mourners in the tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Mourners in the tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

From the iconography we could deduce that the nwn gesture made by common mourners could take place:

-During the procession, while the coffin was transported.

-In necropolis, when the retinue has already close to the burial.

-Both, first during the procession and second once the retinue were in the necropolis, while the body was being buried.

Mourners. Painting from the tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Mourners. Painting from the tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

However we only have Isis and Nephtys in iconography making the nwn gesture in the stele C15 from the Middle Kingdom (the whole scene represents the Osiris Festivity) and the funerary temple of Seti I in Dra Abu el-Naga and also pulling their front lock of hair (nwn m) in the coffin of Ramses IV and the one of dwarf Djedhor. Religious texts mention how the goddesses make the nwn gesture and show or give the hair sema to the deceased. It does not seem to be a public moment, but a more secret practice and closely linked to the corpse and the resurrection of the dead. If so, the two mourners representing Isis and Nephtys would be two selected women for representing a divine role. And maybe their mourn ritual with their hair was a part of the group of practices made for the resurrection of the dead.

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 (stele C15). XI Dynasty. Photo: http://www.commons-wikimedia.org

In Ancient Egyptian funerals there was a ceremony for restoring the deceased’s faculties: the ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth, which ended with the final resurrection of the dead. Was it maybe during that ritual when the two mourners made their mourning gesture with their hair? As we will see further in this work, the Ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth was not a public ceremony, but a rite reserved for those who accomplished it, as they were the sem priest, the lector priest and the two mourners. It consisted of a group of practices in favour of the deceased; the goal was to restore all the faculties he needed for his resurrection and his new life in the Herefater: breathing, eyesight, mobility, sexuality… Those practises were made over the mummy or the statue of the deceased and it seems reasonable to think that the mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys did their nwn gesture near the body in some moment during the Ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth. In fact it is usual to find in the Egyptian iconography many scenes of that ceremony with the presence of mourners; maybe the most explicit one would be the one in the tomb of Renni, where we can see how priest is making the ritual over the corpse and the statue, while a mourner is making the nwn gesture.

Opening of the Mouth with mourner in nwn gesture on the right. Tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.oisplendorsofthenile.blogspot.com.es

Summing up, the nwn and nwn m gesture had two dimensions, with different meanings and in different moments of the funerary ceremony. The public one made by common mourners outdoors during the procession or out of the tomb in the necropolis; and the private one, made by the two women in the divine role of Isis and Nephtys for the resurrection of the dead. In the first case the nwn/nwn m gesture is related to the chaos, the darkness of the death and is a sign of despair. In the second one those same practices had a revivifying goal.

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.

 

 

Hair and Maternity in Ancient Egypt.


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

Funerary stele of Lady Taperet with an image of Nut in nwn gesture. XXII Dynasty. Musée du Louvre. Photo: www.nybooks.com

Funerary stele of Lady Taperet with an image of Nut in nwn gesture. XXII Dynasty. Musée du Louvre. Photo: http://www.nybooks.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Hair gives the Breath of Life in Ancient Egypt.


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

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

Isis as a kite over the corpse of Osiris. Relief from the temple of Seti I in Abydos. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.common.wikimedia.org)

Isis as a kite over the corpse of Osiris. Relief from the temple of Seti I in Abydos. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.common.wikimedia.org

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

verbo Hw                          pluma Swt                        alas DnHw

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


[1] Guglielmi, 1980, p. 81.

[2] Guglielmi, 1980, p. 80.

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

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

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

[6]CT II, 148

The Hair symbolises the Vegetation in Ancient Egypt.


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

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

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

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

el pelo de la tierra

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

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

In chapter 562 we also read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Vegetation grows up on shores

[2] Mention to the putrefied Osiris corpse.

[3] BD, 183.

[4] Derchain, 1964.

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

[6] The moonlight does not illuminate.

[7] Darkness caused by the death.

[8] Derchain, 1964, p. 137.

[9] Wb I, 579.

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

[11] Elíade, 1970, p. 297.

[12] Wb V, 328, 8.

[13] Wb IV, 518, 3.

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

The Hair 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).

The Hair is a Symbol of Water in Ancient Egypt. Hair in the Sed Festival.


It is impossible to avoid thinking of a relationship between the nwn gesture and the Nwn , the primeval chaos of the Egyptian cosmogony (It is also unavoidable to think on a play on words). The first one could easily be a way of coming back to the primeval moment, to the chaotic waters (Nwn) where the Primeval Hill came out from and where the Demiurge created the world.

At this point, we have to think of some other Egyptian rites with a renovating goal. It would also be possible that in those rituals exist similar practices. And we have found very interesting results looking at some documents related to two festivities: the Sed Festival and the Festival of the Valley.

Nwn gesture in Sed Festival.

In the tomb of Kheruef in Thebes (TT192), from the reign of Amenhotep III, there is a relief of the Sed festival of that pharaoh. A group of women are making a dance in front of Amenhotep III, in some cases they are making the nwn gesture[1]. The inscription says that the women are stretching out facing the king and making the ceremony [Sed Festival] before the throne.

Dancers shaking hair in the Sed Festival. Tomb of Kheruef. Assassif. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Dancers shaking hair in the Sed Festival. Tomb of Kheruef. Assassif. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

The inscription just over the dancers could be a song, whose meaning would be related to their movements[2]. This same ceremony and dance is represented in some talatats found in Karnak, where it was the scene of the Sed Festival of Akhenaton.

The Sed Festival was a ceremony for renewing the pharaoh’s power. The king had a ritual death and afterwards he came back to life with all his faculties and in perfect physical conditions for going on with his kingship. It had five main parts:

  • The pharaoh is on a procession dressed with the Sed shroud
  • Rites of renewing and rebirth.
  • Homage is paid to the renewed king on his throne. He starts the new order of the world.
  • The pharaoh visits the gods in their chapels.
  • Ritual running of the pharaoh showing his physical vigour[3].

The Sed Festival has a Predynastic origin[4] and the god Sed could be an archaic version of Upuaut « The opener of the ways ». In the Palermo Stone the register related to the king Den shows the name of the god Sed written with the determinative of the Upuaut standard, the divinity that represents the king as the first-born son[5]. In addition it is interesting to notice how in the festival of Osiris in Abydos, the one avenging the death of his father was not Horus, but Upuaut[6].

We could maybe consider also that the Sed Festival in the Old Kingdom had some elements of the cult of Osiris[7]. In the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus, that tells the ascension of Sesostris I to the Throne of Egypt, we read that the erection of pillar djed (an Osirian rite) was a very important moment in the Sed Festival[8], there is also much iconography of the New Kingdom the relationship between the cult of Osiris and the Heb Sed[9].

This Festival is a death/resurrection ceremony, in which dancing women make an nwn gesture with their hair. What those dancers make with their hair could have a very deep symbolic meaning. The pharaoh is like a dead (although just hypothetically) and he has to revive. In this case the Sed Festival is a ceremony of death and resurrection, so those dancers maybe would be very close to the mourners in the funerary ceremony.

Mourning woman of Minnakht's tomb. www.1st-art-gallery.com

Mourning woman of tomb of Minnakht. Photo: http://www.1st-art-gallery.com

Dancing woman in nwn gesture. Tomb of Kheruef in Assassif. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Dancing woman in nwn gesture. Tomb of Kheruef in Assassif. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

There was also a relationship between the Sed Festival and the beginning of the flood[10]. The Sed Festival was celebrated before the appearance of Sothis (the Egyptian name for the star Sirius) in the sky announcing the coming of the annual flooding of the Nile that was the beginning of the New Year in Ancient Egypt. The flood is one of the best examples of annual renewing for the Egyptians. The water of the flood, as the water of Nun in the Egyptian cosmogony, contents the active ingredient for the new life: the mud that fertilises the ground and grants the maintenance of Egyptian people.  Also in the tomb of Kheruef we read: “…Appearance of (king Amenhotep)…for resting on his throne that was in his Sed palace, built by him on the west side of the city. Open the way through S.M. over the water of the flood, for bringing the gods of the Sed Festival”[11].

In a statue of the New Kingdom we read how the owner is « beloved of Sothis, Lady of the Sed Festival » and in the ceiling of Ramesseum Ramses II sees Sothis “at the beginning of the year, the Sed Festival and the flood[12].

The Heb Sed was celebrated neither during the rise nor during the decrease of the flow, but in the driest moment[13], before the rising of Sothis and the arrival of the flooding. The Sed Festival announced the future waters, so it was the prelude of the new era, the new revival after the drought. And we have seen that in the rite, a dance with the nwn gesture took place.

In the Sed Festival, the pharaoh was like a ritual dead who had to come back to life[14], so he was assimilated to Osiris. That would explain the Osirian tinge of the ceremony. The king, symbolically dead, received the rites that Isis, Nephtys, Anubis, Thot and Horus made over the corpse for reviving[15]. In this regenerating ritual appears the nwn gesture as a part of the practices for the rebirth of Osiris/pharaoh.


[1] Fakhry, 1943, Pl. XL, p. 497.

[2] Fakhry, 1943, p. 497. In the temple of Bubastis there are some fragments relating to the Sed Festival; one of them shows a group of dancers with a small part of this song. (Naville, 1892, Pl. XIV)

[3] V, col. 785.

[4] V, col. 782. The Sed Festival is documented from the beginning of I Dynasty in the Narmer macehead and also maybe in the Scorpion macehead (Cervelló Autuori, 1996, p. 209, n. 154).

[5] Cervelló Autuori, 1996, p. 208, n. 150.

[6] Cervelló Autuori, 1996, p. 210.

[7] V, col. 786.

[8] V, col. 786; Barta, 1976, pp. 31-43.

[9] V, col. 786.

[10] Hornung und Staehelin, 1974, p. 56.

[11] Translation of Helck, 1966, p. 78.

[12] AH 1, 1974, p. 58.

[13] AH 1, p. 58.

[14] Mayassis, 1957, p. 226.

[15] Mayassis, 1957, p. 68.