Tag Archives: resurrection

Pulling the front Lock of Hair in Ancient Egypt.


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

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

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

Women pulling lock of hair over the dead. Tomb of Ramses IX. Valley of the Kings. XX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Women pulling lock of hair over the dead. Tomb of Ramses IX. Valley of the Kings. XX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

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

Mourners of Re pulling hair. Section two of the Book of Caverns. Tomb of Ramses VI. XX Dynasty.

Mourners of Re pulling hair. Section two of the Book of Caverns. Tomb of Ramses VI. XX Dynasty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Isis as a kite is over the body of the dead. Statuette of prince Tutmosis, son of Amenhotep III. XVIII Dynasty. Altes Musuem (Berlin). Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Isis as a kite is over the body of the dead. Statuette of prince Tutmosis, son of Amenhotep III. XVIII Dynasty. Altes Musuem (Berlin). Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

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

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

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

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

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

Hair is Vegetation in Ancient Egypt.


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

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

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

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

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

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.

Professional Mourners in Ancient Egypt.


The other point would be to discern who were these two women shaking and/or pulling their hair? Women represented next to the coffin are described as wife, widow, servant…The Egyptian Opening of the Mouth ceremony was secret and made by expert priests in the practices, therefore the mourning ritual, also secret and as a part of the first one, should be performed by women who knew very well every step of the rite.

Close to the mummy the wife cries, while the two mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys stand at both extremes. Detail from the Papyrus of Ani. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.wikimedia.org

Close to the mummy the wife cries, while the two mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys stand at both extremes. Detail from the Papyrus of Ani. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.wikimedia.org

If we pay attention to Egyptian scenes of funerary processions, in many cases we can see the deceased’s wife crying on the coffin, while at both extremes stand two women identified as Isis and Nephtys. Although there are generic terms in Egyptian language for mourners, as iAkbyt, smwt or HAyt, the two mourners taking part in the rites for recovering the mummy are called Dryt, the two kites. They are the female figures standing at each extreme of the corpse, making the mourning ceremony impersonating Isis and Nephtys. The other mourning women or the deceased’s wife are never designed like that because the kite per excellence in Egyptian mythology was Isis and by extension, Nephtys. The role of those mourning women was too important and they could not be secular women, but official mourners who had the authority for getting into the “secret place”, where the corpse came back to life.

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.

On the other hand these two women in the role of the goddesses are usually represented with clothing covering their hair, while the rest of mourners, also the wife, appear with the black mane visible. We could think that they were hiding a sacred element, through which they were able to bring the dead back to life. That makes us think that the mourning ritual was performed by someone who knew the secrets of the ceremony, a kind of priestess, who played the role of the deceased’s wife and sister-in-law, and who held the title of Drt.

The wife is kneeling and crying, Isis stands on the left and Nephtys on the right. Painting from the tomb of Samut in Assassif. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

The wife is kneeling and crying, Isis stands on the left and Nephtys on the right. Painting from the tomb of Samut in Assassif. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

Which features should they have these called souls of Buto? Obviously they should be initiated in the Osiris Mysteries, but we know from the Lamentations of Isis and Nephtys that one of the requirements for being a mourner in the role of Isis and Nephtys was not have been mother yet, so to have intact the power of conceiving. This idea is reinforced when in that same text Osiris is considered “the first-born who opens the body”. This was a way of being faithful to the myth and also a way of securing the resurrection of the dead, because the conceiving faculty of both Isis and Nephtys was intact[1].

About what other requirements they needed to have we do not know, but everything points to a pair of women who knew about that secret and sacred rite of mourning and performing with their hair in the deceased’s benefit. They had nothing to do with the common mourners of the cortège and nor with the dead’s wife, maybe even they had any kinship. Possibly they were professional mourners, knowing when to scream, when to recite some speeches and when and how to shake and/or pull their hair.


[1] Ph. Derchain also considered that they were two women without children (Derchain, 1975, p.73). In the myth of Osiris Isis has not yet given birth Horus. This one is born after his father’s death and his birth is the grant of the resurrection of Osiris. In the funerary ceremony the idea would be the same one: maternity happens after the decease.

The Mourning Ritual in the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony.


The fact of being a secret ceremony would explain why it is so rare to find images of the two mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys carrying out the mourning ritual. The iconography shows them crying next to the mummy, but it is not usual to see what exactly they do.

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

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

Some of the most explicit images of what the mourners do with their hair over or in front of the mummy are the stele of Abkaou (XI Dynasty), the tomb of Renni in el-Kab (XVIII Dynasty), the funerary temple of Seti I in Dra Abu el-Naga (XIX Dynasty) or the tomb of Ramsés IX (XX Dynasty); being scenes included in the coffin we could also put in this group the representations of Isis and Nephtys pulling their frontal lock of hair in the coffin of Ramsés IV (XX Dynasty) and in the coffin of Nes-shu-tefnut (Ptolemaic period).

Isis and Nephtys making nwn m gesture. Sarcophagus of Royal Scribe Nes-shu-tefnut from Saqqara. Ptolemaic Period. Kunsthistorisches Museum in Wien. Photo: www.globalegyptianmuseum.org

Isis and Nephtys making nwn m gesture. Sarcophagus of Royal Scribe Nes-shu-tefnut from Saqqara. Ptolemaic Period. Kunsthistorisches Museum in Wien. Photo: http://www.globalegyptianmuseum.org

Even the Opening of the Mouth rite of the tomb of Rekhmire does not give us a defined idea of the performance these women did it is the most complete scene of the whole ceremony that ancient Egyptians have left to us, but it is not clear what these two women did, since the mourners appear with a passive gesture. However, thanks to the funerary literature, we know that already from the Old Kingdom they performed a mourning ceremony screaming, crying and shaking or pulling hair. So, Rekhmire wanted the resurrection rites to be reflected in his tomb, but the artist might have a sacred limit, because the divine secrets must be concealed as a sign of respect[1].

According to the sources we have seen all along this work we have proofs of the following:

  • The mourning rite was a part of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony.
  • The mourning rite could be made by two women in the role of Isis and Nephtys or just by one mourner in the role of Isis (as Osiris’ wife), reproducing a passage of the Myth of Osiris.
  • In this mourning ritual the hair of the mourner(s) was the main element.
  • This mourning ritual consisted not just of crying for the death of Osiris (the deceased), but of a gesture made with the hair.
  • This gesture could be to shake the hair forwards and cover the face with it (nwn) or to pull the frontal lock of hair (nwn m).
  • According to the iconography these two gestures were made over or in front of the corpse, so in the deceased’s direction.

There is no evidence in iconography, or in the funerary texts that both gestures were done together. It seems that in the mourning rite the mourner(s) did one or another. On what did the choice depend? We do not know.

At this point we wonder in which moment of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony did the mourners made the nwn or the nwn m gesture. Mostly the iconography shows the mourner(s) in the moment of the ox sacrifice, as we can see in the tomb of Rekhmire or in TTA4 and TT53.

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.

Thanks to the funerary texts we know that slaughtering the ox and mourning were not made at the same time. The Pyramid Texts give us a clue of what was first: “…the souls of Buto rock for you; they beat their bodies and their arms for you, they pull their hair for you. They say to you: Oh, Osiris you have gone and come back, you were sleepy and have waked up, you were dead and you have revived…Stand up, look what your son has done for you…he has beaten for you the one who beated you as a bull, he has killed for you the one who killed you as a bull sm3[2] may the mourning stop in both palaces…you go up (Osiris) to the sky and you are like Wpw-W3wt[3]. Your son Horus leads you over the heaven’s ways…”[4].

Reading this passage it seems that we find the following sequence:

1. The souls of Buto are Isis and Nephtys, so the mourners shake and/or pull their hair. We are in full mourning ritual.

2. Horus gets into the drama. That means that Isis has already conceived him and he could then revenge his father’s death. In the funeral it might be the moment of the sacrifice of the ox, as scapegoat. It remembered the fight between Horus and Seth and the victory of the falcon god.

3. Once the animal has been slaughtered, so the death of Osiris revenged, the moan stops. In this moment the deceased receives the foreleg and the heart of the ox and the Udjat eye as a symbol of the final resurrection. The end of the mourning was the cut of the s3mt. And maybe then was also when the mourner(s) were shaved and a lock of hair, assimilated to the healed lunar eye, was offered.

4. The Osiris’ rebirth is a fact.

If the sacrifice of an ox was the revenge of Horus it seems logical to think that the gesture of shaking hair was done before it. One of the meanings of this gesture was to allude to the moment Isis, as a kite, set on Osiris’ phallus for conceiving Horus. Once the heir was there, someone could revenge the Osiris’ death; it was the moment of the fight between Horus and Seth, which ended with the death of this one and the resurrection of Osiris. So firstly the mourner(s) started the gesture nwn towards the mummy; as the hair covering the face could also be a way of remembering the chaos and darkness, which in the legend was the battle between Horus and Seth, in some moment of this mourning rite, when the two mourners (kites) were still making the nwn gesture, started the ox’ slaughter. Once the animal had died, the two mourners (Isis and Nephtys) would stop the nwn gesture.

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

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

Taking into consideration that the mourning ritual and the ox’ slaughter were a reproduction of a passage of the myth of Osiris, it seems quite logical to place them at the end of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, after other practices as for instance the tekenu ceremony. This is the way it appears in the tomb of Rekhmire. The tomb of Menna (TT69) has also a scene of the Opening of the Mouth where the tekenu practice appears at the beginning.

Opening of the Mouth ceremony from the tomb of Menna in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Opening of the Mouth ceremony from the tomb of Menna in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

But in the tomb of Renni in el-Kab (EK7) there is a different version. On the east wall we can see how one mourner is making the nwn gesture towards the mummy during the Opening of the mouth ceremony.

On the right the mourner with short hair is wrapping someone. Scene from the tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

On the right the mourner with short hair is wrapping someone. Scene from the tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

In the upper register a woman with no mane, so the mourner appears wrapping with a kind of clothing a masculine figure. Would it be the early stage of the tekenu rite? So it seems; because the following image shows the tekenu being transported on a sledge while behind him stands the Drt with short hair.

The tekenu on a sledge, behind we can see the mourner (Drt) with short hair. Scene from the tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

The tekenu on a sledge, behind we can see the mourner (Drt) with short hair. Scene from the tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

If so, then the mourning ritual with the hair would have been made before it. Why? Maybe these two practices made in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony had not an orthodox order or maybe the artists did not knew so much so they could represent the ritual as it was.


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

[2] The bull sm3 is a bull for sacrifice that was assimilated to Set (Wb IV, 123, 17). It is interesting to notice the same phonetic as the word for hair sm3, which we know was related to darkness and chaos.

[3] The One who opens the Ways.

[4] Pyr., 1004-1010; 1972-1978

Hair, Mourners and Secret in Ancient Egypt.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Gayet, 1886, pl. LIV.

[2] Wb V, 302, 5.

[3] Wb V, 303.

[4] Wb V, 305, 1.

[5] Wb II, p. 220

[6] Fear (?).

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

[8] LdM, 148.

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Book of Breathing I, 1.

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

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

Hair, Mourners and Light in Ancient Egypt.


The finality of the rites during the funerals in ancient Egypt was the deceased’s rebirth. In the mourning ritual accomplished during the Opening of the Mouth ceremony by the two women in the role of Isis and Nephtys, the dead returned to the womb for coming back to life as a new born; he was also the incarnation of Osiris, so the dead husband who needed stimulation for recovering the vital faculties (mobility, breath, eyesight, hearing, virility). The dead needed the eye irt eye irtfor reviving; the eye in Egyptian belief had a regeneration meaning from the moment it created the mankind (rmT Mankind rmT) from the teardrops (rmit teardrops rmit). So, the eye and its tears had the capacity of producing life. On the other hand we cannot omit the semantic relationship between the Egyptian word for eye irt and the verb for “make” iri[1]. For some the hieroglyph of irt could be an image of the solar disc inside the mouth as a symbol of the verb iri[2].

The sem priest is making the Opening of the Mouth ceremony on the dead's image, in front of him the make-up for Udjat eye as final offering. Painting from the tomb of Inerkha in Deir el-Medina. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

The sem priest is making the Opening of the Mouth ceremony on the dead’s image, in front of him the make-up for Udjat eye as final offering. Painting from the tomb of Inerkha in Deir el-Medina. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

But the eye needed by the deceased is the lunar eye Udjat, the symbol of light (life) in the darkness of the night (death). The light symbolises rebirth and nature and life depend on the received light[3]; much light means much life, while shadow means the contrary. The Udjat eye as the full moon is the light in the middle of the darkness and it is also the health and strength in the death[4]. The Udjat eye illuminates in the middle of the shadows as a manifestation of life.

In the Egyptian language the concept of lunar eye and light is closely linked to femininity. Not only because irt or wDAt are feminine words (ended in –t), there are many terms and expressions which support this idea: Axt is the « bright eye » of the sun god or Horus[5] ; iAbt is the « left eye », so the moon[6] ; HDt  is the « white of the eye » ; sSmt can be a designation for the « lunar eye »[7] ; iAbt.f iaH m grh means «  his left eye is the moon during the night »[8].

It is also interesting to notice that nearly all terms about hair we have seen taking part of the mourning ritual in ancient Egypt are feminine: Samt, Hnskt, wprty, lock swt. The exception is: hair sma (and/or Hair Sni ) . These two words we have seen that they are related to the idea of chaos and disorder, and when they entail the concept of resurrection they symbolize vegetation, water, breath of life or conception, but never moon/light.

Two different ways of representing Isis and Nephtys assisting the deceased: as the two kites (tomb of Sennedjem) and as women (tomb of Nakhtamon). XIX Dynasty. Photos: www.osirisnet.net

Two different ways of representing Isis and Nephtys assisting the deceased: as the two kites (tomb of Sennedjem) and as women (tomb of Nakhtamon). XIX Dynasty. Photos: http://www.osirisnet.net

The feminine principle was then basic in the ancient Egypt resurrection, it is necessary for giving birth and that makes the figure of Isis essential in the Osiris rebirth. Consequently, in Egyptian funerals the two kites or two Drty made their mourning ritual as impersonations of Isis and Nepthys, but also as women. And maybe that is why their hair with its lunar connexion was such an important element in the deceased’s reanimation.


[1] W. B. Kristensen, 1992, p. 13.

[2] J.E. Cirlot, 1991, p. 339

[3] J. Chevalier et A. Gheerbrandt, 1969, p. 154.

[4] W. B. Kristensen, 1992, p. 15.

[5] 3xt, with the cow determinative is a way of referring to Hathor, whose relationship with the full moon and the rebirth we have already seen. Wb I, 17, 3

[6] Wb I, 30.

[7] The translation of sSm is “guide”, and the moon is the guide in the night sky.

[8] R. el Sayed, 1987, pp. 62-67.

Hair, Mourners and Moon in Ancient Egypt.


According to the Egyptian funerary texts the mourner/s crying close to the mummy were the representatives of Isis and Nephtys, in the iconography the inscription accompanying their/her image/s describes them/her as the deceased’s wife, widow or even servant; so stressing the wife’s role of Isis in the legend of Osiris.

They made a mourning ritual in some moment of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, not only as a sadness proof but also as means of getting the deceased’s rebirth. Thanks to the decoration in some New Kingdom tombs from Thebes we can discern that it happened when the ox was slaughtered.

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

From Egyptian funerary texts and from iconography the mourning ritual consisted in shaking hair and/or pulling hair towards the corpse. And presumably it ended with the cut of that shaken and/or pulled hair, which in the mythic sphere coincided with the offering of the Udjat eye to the deceased as a grant of his final resurrection.

At this “lunar” point the presence of two women in the rebirth process of the dead makes much sense. The moon is closely related to women, since it regularizes the menstrual cycle[1]. Scholar R. Briffault considered that in ancient Egypt women’s fertility depended on the moon and he assures the existence of a Theban inscription saying that women conceived thanks to the moon[2].  That point of view would give all the sense to the Osiris’ lunar rebirth, since thanks to it Isis could conceive Horus.

That would also explain why the Egyptian word for moon was masculine (iaH iah moon). According to R. Briffault lunar goddesses become prominent in advanced periods of the culture, especially with the agriculture development[3].  It is a star related also with the magical power of women[4], as the magic practiced by Isis and Nephtys over the mummy to contribute to the Osiris’ resurrection. Because in the primitive belief the moon’s attributes are character and aptitudes of women[5], the star portrays the women’s nature, so, as reflect of the sun, the moon is the feminine complement of the king of stars, which in the mythic sphere was Hathor[6].

Bronze statue of Osiris in his lunar facet. Late Period. Photo: www.metmuseum.org

Bronze statue of Osiris in his lunar facet. Late Period. Photo: http://www.metmuseum.org

At this point it goes without saying the important role of this goddess in the lunar resurrection. But it helps in understanding the function of the two mourners during the mourning rite. Isis and Nephtys appear as the leading performers in the Songs of Isis and Nephtys, where the lector priest barely takes part; that ritual was something just made by women. The lunar rebirth of the deceased seems to be in large part a responsibility of the two mourners impersonating Isis and Nepthys, maybe because this relationship of women with the moon as the star that regulates their fertility and their magic. They shaked or pulled their hair, which we have already seen it was related to the moon and finally Osiris/ the deceased comes back to life when he receives the Udjat eye, the full moon. Osiris/the deceased revives as a masculine moon, but for getting that state he needs the feminine aspect of the star[7].


[1] R. Briffault, 1974, p. 293.

[2] R. Briffault, 1974, p. 294.

[3] R. Briffault, 1974, p. 295.

[4] R. Briffault, 1974, p. 296.

[5] R. Briffault, 1974, p. 307.

[6] H. Kees, 1956, p. 210.

[7] For some scholars the Egyptian word for moon could remember the bisexuality in the creation of the world (S.Ratié, 1984, p. 179)

Hair, Mourners and Opening of the Mouth in Ancient Egypt.


We have seen throughout this work that the mourners’ hair (locks, mane, dishevelled, plaits) played a very important role in the funerary ceremony of ancient Egypt. We have also seen that sometimes those different aspects of the hair had just a symbolic meaning from a resurrection point of view (as for instance the two ringlets wprty). We also know now that there were two types of mourners: those ones being in a group in the procession accompanying the corpse and the two women impersonating Isis and Nephtys and in charge of the deceased’s rebirth.

The two priests and one mourner (the wife according to the inscription) in the Opening of the Mouth of Roy. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

The two priests and one mourner (the wife according to the inscription) in the Opening of the Mouth of Roy. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

According to the sources the hair of these two mourning women was important from many points of view: symbolic, mythic and ritual. From the Egyptian iconography and texts we can discern a mourning rite in which the two women made a gesture with their hair or lock of hair over the mummy with a regenerating goal, and we can also guess a practice of shaving or cutting hair to the two mourners that happened in some moment at the end of the funerals when the deceased’s rebirth was a fact.

After the embalming of the corpse, the cortège walked to the necropolis, once there took place the main Egyptian rite for the benefit of the dead: the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, which consisted in a group of gestures for transmitting vitality to the mummy (this way the deceased recovered the ability of breathing, seeing, hearing…), and the two representatives of Isis and Nephtys took part in that process. Many sources reflect this ritual, but usually they are not too explicit. It is mostly represented in a shorten way, with the lector priest and/or the sem priest holding the utensils used for the ritual (mainly the adze and the stone vessels) and officiating on the mummy, meanwhile two mourners or sometimes just one, cry close to the dead. In some cases the scene has a more divine nuance and the one officiating is Anubis, while Isis and Nephtys stay at both extremes of the corpse.

Anubis, Isis and Nephtys in the Opening of the Mouth rite. Painting from the tomb of Nakhtamon in Deir el-Medina. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Anubis, Isis and Nephtys in the Opening of the Mouth rite. Painting from the tomb of Nakhtamon in Deir el-Medina. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

The most explicit document about the Opening of the Mouth ceremony that ancient Egyptians have left to us is the representation in the south wall on the tomb of Rekhmire. In a composition of fifty three scenes the artist showed the rite step by step.

Opening of the Mouth ceremony from the tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Image: www.digitalegypt.ucl.uk

Opening of the Mouth ceremony from the tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Image: http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.uk

The broad outline which Rekhmire offers would be:

1. The mummy or deceased’s statue (as it is the case in Rekhmire’s tomb) is put on a mound symbolising the primeval hill.
2. The mummy/statue is purified with water, natron and incense.
3. The sem priest transmits the vital energy rememorizing the ancient Egyptian tradition of the sacrifice and rebirth of the tekenu. The sem priest imitated the ancient victim curled up and wrapped in a clothing, he came up from it and had a small dialogue with the lector priest:

Sem priest: “I saved the eye from his mouth, I healed his leg”

Lector priest: “I have placed your eye, through which you revive”[1].

4. The sem priest makes the first gestures of Opening the Mouth with the little finger.
5. The mesentiu (labourers) work on the statue (polishing and carving) as a creational gesture[2].
6. Sacrifice of the ox of Upper Egypt for restoring the vitality of the deceased. The sem priest offers the animal’s heart and foreleg to the mummy/statue. One of the mourners (the big Dyeret) is present:

Sem priest: “to stretch the arms towards the bull ng of Upper Egypt”

Slaughterer: “get up over him, cut its foreleg and remove its heart”

The big Drt says at his ear: “Your lips have done that against you. Will your mouth open?”

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.

This part of the ceremony is very important for us, not just because of the presence of one of the mourners, but also because it seems to remind the conflict between Horus and Seth. According to J. C. Goyon the sequence would stage when these two gods fought and Isis became a kite, landed on a tree and cried to Seth, who denounced unconsciously his crime: “Cry over you. Your own mouth has said it. Your ability has judged you. What else?[3]

The idea is the same one as in the tekenu ceremony we have seen in the tomb of Mentuherkhepeshef: killing a victim and offering the foreleg and the heart… but what about the hair?

Funerary scene of the tomb of Montuherkhepeshef in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty.

Funerary scene of the tomb of Montuherkhepeshef in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty.

Maybe we should relate the lock of hair of the tomb of Mentuherkhepeshef with the presence of the mourner in the tomb of Rekhmire; and think that a mourner’s piece of hair was cut and offered join with the foreleg and the heart.

7. After the sacrifice the sem priest makes more gestures of opening the mouth to the mummy/statue with the utensils, and in one case with the ox’s foreleg. The finality was to keep in touch the whole of the head with those magical tools (the nTrt adze and the wr-HkAw).
8. The mummy/statue is given to the rpat, who represented the heir[4], and the mesentiu work again on it.
9. New gestures of opening the mouth to the deceased are made. After that, there is an offer of 3bt stones[5].
10. Sacrifice of the ox of Lower Egypt. Here again we have the presence of one mourner, the small Dyeret, and once more the animal’s foreleg and heart are offered to the dead one.
11. After the sacrifice the priest opens again ritually the deceased’s mouth.
12. Funerary offerings and the final resurrection is a fact (the sem priest pays his respects to the new soul who lives in the Hereafter).

According to Rekhmire’s tomb, the two mourners impersonating Isis and Nephtys took part in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. TTA4 and TT53 have both scenes of sacrifice of an ox with the presence of one mourner. But it is also true that in some other cases there is no trace of mourning women in this rite, as we can see in the tomb of Menna[6]

Opening of the Mouth ceremony from the tomb of Menna in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Opening of the Mouth ceremony from the tomb of Menna in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

Anyway, sources proof that the two mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys made an important role in that ritual for the deceased’s resurrection. They were members of the group of personalities who took care of the rebirth of the corpse and who reproduced the myth of Osiris.

The Opening of the Mouth ceremony was a group of practices for giving the life back to the deceased assimilated to Osiris. The priests and the two mourners recreated the chapter of the legend where Horus avenges his father’s death at the hands of Seth. In the rite it is the moment of the animal sacrifice, the ox, as scapegoat, with the presence of the sem priest, the slaughterer and the two mourners. The animal’s foreleg and heart are offered to the dead one, but also a piece/lock of hair. At this point we must remember chapter 667 of the Coffin Texts, where the healing of the hair sm3 happens at the same time of the offering of the foreleg and the giving of breath. And the final resurrection happens when the lunar eye is reconstituted and offered as Udjat eye to the deceased. E. Otto assimilated the lunar eye with the foreleg and/or the heart of the animal victim[7]; for others the moon can also be a knife, a leg or a lock of hair[8].

Carrying the leg and the heart for the deceased. Painting from the tomb of Menna in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Carrying the leg and the heart for the deceased. Painting from the tomb of Menna in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

Throughout this work we have seen the relationship in Egyptian belief between the hair and the lunar eye and how there is a clear coincidence between cutting mourner’s hair (cutting the s3mt or shaving the mourners) and giving the Udjat eye to the dead one. It is also interesting to notice the use in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony of the flint knife peseshkef, considered by scholars as a very ancient tool for cutting the umbilical cord.

Knife peseshkef made of flint and coming from a tomb in Giza. VI Dynasty. Kunsthistorisches Museum of Wien. Photo: www.globalegyptianmuseum.org)

Knife peseshkef made of flint and coming from a tomb in Giza. VI Dynasty. Kunsthistorisches Museum of Wien. Photo: http://www.globalegyptianmuseum.org

The sacrifice of the ox represented the victory of Horus over Seth, it was also the moment of restoring the Udjat eye and, according to the funerary texts, shaving the mourners and/or cutting the s3mt. And New Kingdom iconography shows the mourners taking part in the Opening of Mouth ceremony and with no mane of hair after the rite.

But, do we really know why were these two women there, what did they really do or why their presence during the Opening of the Mouth is not so evident in iconography?


[1] E.Otto, 1960, p. 71.

[2] This step would be made when the ceremony was made on a statue. In ancient Egypt the sculptor was called sankh, which meant “to make live”.

[3] J.C.Goyon, 1972, p. 121.

[4] It means “prince” (Wb II, 415, 15).

[5] Some scholars consider they symbolize the milk teeth.

[6] TT69

[7] E. Otto, 1950, p. 171.

[8] Ph. Derchain, 1962, p.20.