Tag Archives: nwn

Open Reflections on Mourning Ritual in Egyptian Geography.


What about considering the iconography from the geographical point of view?  If we order in a map of Ancient Egypt the scenes we have found of mourning women that is what we have:Hair in Geography

The resulting map is the following:

Map hair

It seems that the nwn m gesture of pulling the front lock of hair belonged more to the Lower Egypt, while the nwn gesture of shaking hair was more habitual in the Upper Egypt. The exception was the royal tombs of New Kingdom, where the artist included also scenes of mourners (Isis and Nephtys or mourners of the Hereafter) pulling hair. So many questions come now to mind:

  • Did the nwn m gesture come from the north?
  • Did the nwn gesture have its origin in Upper Egypt?
  • Had the nwn gesture its origin in the Myth of Osiris? And was it typical from Abydos?
  • Were both gestures from Abydos and nwn m was extended to the north, while the nwn was extended to the south?
  • Did the election of one or another gesture depend on the place the burial took place?
  • Was the nwn m gesture introduced from the north in the royal funerary habits of New Kingdom?
  • While mourners pulled and/or shook their hair in Egyptian funerals, what happened in Nubia?

As we can notice, the matter is still full of questions with no answer. Many doubts come to our mind and we need to study deeper, slowly and with more documents.

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Open Reflections on Shaking Hair in Ancient Egypt.


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

grafico nwn

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

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

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

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

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

Mourning Women and Mourning Hair in Ancient Egypt Funeral.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mourners over the corpse. Detail of the stele of Akbaou. XI Dynasty. Photo: www.commons-wikimedia.org

Mourners over the corpse. Detail of the stele of Akbaou. Musée du Louvre. XI Dynasty. Photo: http://www.commons-wikimedia.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hair is Water in Ancient Egypt.


In the ninth hour of the Book of the Gates there is the "pool of the drowned". These are the waters of the Nun with bodies floating. These are the primeval waters, which revives the deceased. Scene from the tomb of Tauseret in the Valley of the Kings. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.thebanmappingproject.com

In the ninth hour of the Book of the Gates there is the “pool of the drowned”. These are the waters of the Nun with bodies floating. These are the primeval waters, which revives the deceased. Scene from the tomb of Tauseret in the Valley of the Kings. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.thebanmappingproject.com

The women’s hair is also assimilated to the liquid element. To give the hair sm3 is a way of giving the primeval waters of the first moment in the Egyptian cosmogony. The regenerating rite is mainly a creation ceremony, so it is necessary to remember the primeval waters (Nun) where the world came from. Making the nwn gesture of throwing the hair forwards, the mourners transfer to the corpse the Nun (Nwn), the mythical waters that originated everything. This is a very important step in the regenerating rite, since the renovating waters (so the mourner’s hair) erase the mortal past and transport the deceased to a new existence. Coming back to the primeval moment, the dead one becomes a new-born baby, it is when the Egyptian funerary texts refer to him as an “inert one in the Nun “, it is just the instant when his mother’s water break and he is reborn.

Hair sm3 also symbolizes the waters of the inundation. In this work we have seen how the nwn gesture was as well made in two other Egyptian festivities: The Festival of the Valley and the Sed Festival. Both celebrations coincide with the appearance of Sothis in the sky and the following rise of the Nile and both festivities are a process of death and resurrection for granting the continuity of Amun and Pharaoh’s power respectively.

Dancers in the Festival of the Valley. Red Chapel of Hatshepsut in Karnak. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Dancers in the Festival of the Valley. Red Chapel of Hatshepsut in Karnak. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

In both events there were a group of dancers making the nwn gesture, which as we understand it, it was more than just an artistic movement. According to us, and due to the assimilation between hair and water, when throwing their hair forwards those dancing women were announcing the regenerating waters, which will renew the power of both god and king. In the same way, in the mourning ritual, with the nwn gesture the mourner sent the renovating waters to the deceased.

Hair is Maternity in Ancient Egypt.


The nwn gesture has also a positive reading, because the hair sm3 has also a double value in Egyptian thinking. The hair sm3 is an element full of life force, which has to be delivered to the deceased for making easier the final resurrection.

To give the hair sm3 (rdi sm3) is a gesture that can be linked to the act of nursing; the mother’s milk is the first food, in the Egyptian funerary ambit the dead one in his rebirth is like a baby, so giving the hair sm3 contributes to this idea of the mummy as a new-born baby.

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

Internal side of the cover of the Coffin of Peftjauneith from Saqqara. Nut with raised arms and hair standing on end. Ptolemaic Period. Rijksmuseum of Leiden. Photo: www.rmo.nl

Internal side of the cover of the Coffin of Peftjauneith from Saqqara. Nut with raised arms and hair standing on end. Ptolemaic Period. Rijksmuseum of Leiden. Photo: http://www.rmo.nl

When the mourner makes the nwn gesture of throwing the hair onwards over her face she turns into the deceased’s mother, from whose belly he will be born. The mummy, assimilated to Osiris, is the Nut’s son and this goddess makes the nwn gesture inside the coffin, where happens the regeneration process. Nut bended and with her hair extended forwards gives birth her son Osiris, i. e. the dead one. For that reason we can find inside many coffin covers an image of Nut with raised arms and hair standing on end; it is the way the artist could represent her in that surface; but in reality she was bended forwards making the nwn gesture.

Hair is Darkness in Ancient Egypt.


All along this work we have seen that hair, in its different aspects, is an essential element in the Egyptian funerary ceremony. Its importance has two dimensions, ritual and symbolic and it is based on how the mourners treat it during the mourning rite and in the strong symbolic meaning of each hair aspect. Hair is a reviving tool, whose handling and symbolism helps in the deceased’s resurrection.

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

Hair sm3, whose most precise meaning seems to be the hair that comes from the crown (so the hair from its first origin in the head) is directly related in the funerals with the nwn gesture.

The nwn gesture has two variations: nwn: to shake the hair forwards covering the face with it and nwn m: to pull the front lock of hair swt/syt[1].

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

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

The nwn gesture has a very deep meaning, negative and positive.

HAIR IS DARKNESS.

In Ancient Egypt belief the hair sm3 means the darkness of the death, because the hair on the face stops the mourners seeing. With the nwn gesture the women reproduce the deceased’s blindness. It is also a way of alluding to the dead person’s lack of knowledge, because not to see means not to know, it is the state of unconsciousness typical of death. The negative nature of the nwn gesture comes not only from the darkness that causes the hair sm3, but also for the evilness that it symbolizes. The hair sm3 is assimilated to the damage done to the lunar eye. The hair sm3 in the Egyptian funerary belief is the image of the disaster that caused the blindness, the evil that Seth made to the eye of Horus, the lack of moon (so the light) in the night sky.

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

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

While on earth the mourners have their hair over their faces, in the mythical sphere the Udjat eye has no vision, it cannot bright in the sky for illuminating the night. For recovering the brightness it is necessary to eliminate the evil, in the mythic dimension is when Thoth, spits on the sm3 and heals the lunar eye. The night has again its natural guide, the moon, and the moon is fundamental in all the regenerating process.


[1] In the Old Kingdom mourners pull the hair sm3; apparently it was later when the word sm3 is changed by the term for front lock of hair syt/swt.

Hair and Death in Ancient Egypt. First Summary.


Hair and mourning women. Summary

According to what we have seen in the category « Hair and Mourning Women » we can mention some main ideas:

  • Mourners in Ancient Egypt made two gestures: Nwn: to cover their faces with their hair sm3 (in some cases is Snw) and nwn m: to pull their front lock of hair swt. Both are a way of showing despair and sadness.

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

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

  • The hair over the face symbolized the darkness of the death into which the dead is sunk; it remembered the chaos in the primeval state of creation, so the Nwn gesture symbolized the Nun, the primeval waters.
  • Egyptians assimilated the hair sm3 to vital elements as breath, vegetation and water. So, to give the hair sm3 with the nwn gesture was a propitiatory practice, the hair became an instrument for sending vital energy to the deceased.
  • The heir was an important figure for the deceased’s resurrection in Ancient Egypt belief. As in the Osirian myth, Horus was the avenger who restored the cosmic order. For that reason the dead had to get again his virility. The nwn gesture in funerals could be a way of symbolizing the mythical copulation through which Osiris recovered his virility and Isis could conceive Horus.

    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

  • The deceased, as Osiris and as a reborn, became Nut’s son. This goddess also made in the mythic sphere the nwn gesture. In funerary ceremony, the nwn gesture that the mourners made with the hair would remember the posture of Nut, as sky goddess, when bearing Osiris.

Locks, Plaits and Ringlets. Summary

The main ideas of the second category are:

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.

  • The deceased was welcome to the Hereafter by Hathor, lunar goddess whose face is flanked by the two ringlets wprty. When she received the dead one these two ringlets opened and let see her face; that symbolized to see the light of the full moon in the night sky and it was the culmination of the lunar resurrection for the deceased, in the same way the full moon in the Osiris myth meant the resurrection of the god.
  • Egyptians identified the plaits Hnskt with lunar elements as horns (an image of the crescent) and snakes (which regenerates regularly), and also helped in that lunar resurrection.

    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.

  • The lock of hair s3mt seems to be also identified with the first moments of life and the childhood of the moon (it would be the side lock of children), so it was as well an element for contributing to the lunar resurrection of the dead. It also seems to have a negative aspect, since it was maybe identified with the evil which threats the dead one and which suffers an ablation for allowing the deceased to get back to life.