Tag Archives: rite of passage

Cutting the Lock of Hair s3mt in Ancient Egypt.

The Coffin Texts show us how the lock of hair s3mt was not just a symbolic element which had a very important place in the funerary imagery. Apparently it could also have been a physical thing which was manipulated and cut during the ceremony.

Chapter 532 is about to restore many parts of the corpse. To place the deceased’s head in his neck is the main gesture for reaching the new life:

Formula for placing the head…Mi head is placed. My neck is put by Tefnut. This is the day of putting their heads to the gods. My two eyes are given to me, I see with them. I have received my dorsal spine from Ptah-Sokaris. Is tied to me a lock of hair in Heliopolis, the day of cutting the lock s3mt[1]

chapter 532

In this chapter the deceased gets his eyes, his neck, his spine and the lock of hair syt, which we have already identified as the frontal lock of hair in mourners. According to the text it is a Helipolitan practice for restoring the corpse, which also includes the cutting of the lock of hair s3mt.

The Osirian ritual of Ancient Egypt represented the life, death and resurrection of that god. During the Stundenwachen-liturgy, where the two representative mourners of Isis and Nephtys had an important role, there was a practice of tying up the lock of hair. According to the inscription[2], in the second hour of the night one of the mourners, called “small Dyerit”, says:

“Join the head for you, put the plaits of hair Hnskwt[3].Stundenwachen

 Sr can be translated as “hair of woman” or “hair of animal”[4] and srt means “bull’s hair”[5]. The action takes place in a resurrection rite where the mourner is giving a hair element. Could we think of a relationship between this passage of the Stundenwachen and the chapter 532 of the Coffin Texts? The imbalance here is that the document of the Middle Kingdom mentions the lock of hair syt, while the document from a later period mentions the plait of hair Hnskwt. Maybe we should think of a variation due to the passing of time.

Chapter 640 of the Coffin Texts mentions also the same practice, although in a more confusing context:

“A knot is tied for me around me in the sky connected with the earth by Re each day. He puts a knot on the inert over his two thighs on that day of cutting the lock of hair s3mt.

chapter 640

  Seth ties a knot around me when the ennead is in its first power, with no turmoil.

You protect me against those who slew the father. Nut ties a knot around me, at the sight of the first time before I had seen Maat, before the gods were created[6]. I am Penty[7]; I am the heir of the gods”[8].

We find again the expression to cut the s3mt in a context of Heliopolitan divinities.

Would the action of cutting the lock of hair in Ancient Egyptian funerals come from prehistoric times? Cutting rituals (depilation, cutting hair, dental mutilations…) are usually in all cultures one of the first techniques of purification; by means of that men apart themselves from animality[9]. The fact of cutting is something fundamental in initiation ceremonies, as it is for instance circumcision. We know that in Ancient Egypt the cut of the side lock in children was made when they were already adults[10] (nowadays some African peoples still do the same), so in the pass from childhood to a new state of existence.

Nudity and lock of hair were features of childhood. Relief from the mastaba of Ptahhotep in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Nudity and lock of hair were features of childhood. Relief from the mastaba of Ptahhotep in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

We know that death for the Egyptians was just a change of condition and funerary ritual was not just a burial ceremony, but a rite of passage. The dead changed his condition; he passed from dead to reborn, from child to adult, from crescent to full moon. And in some moment of that process happened to cut the s3mt. The fact that this Egyptian word could also be translated as “mourning” or “sadness” refers us again to the mourning women; were there a connection between these women and the cut of the lock of hair s3mt?

P. Barguet considered cutting the s3mt as a Helipolitan ritual[11]. The side lock of Egyptian children was cut when they became adults. In Roman times athletes and youth initiated in Isis cult were distinguished because first ones had a side lock on the top of the head, while second ones had it over the right ear; this lock of hair was cut with the puberty at the same time of circumcision[12]. In religious sphere, Khonsu, the lunar god, was represented with his side lock and his lunar head-dress.

Could we think of cutting the s3mt of chapters 532 and 640 as a lunar rite? In a symbolic context, maybe to cut the s3mt was made when the moon was not a crescent anymore, but a full moon, that is, when the moon stopped being a child and became an adult. In the funerary ceremony, this cut of hair was maybe made as a symbol of the lunar rebirth of the deceased; it could reflect the end of the chaos and darkness which dominated the universe before the creation. Cutting the s3mt would mean full moon, light, order and new life.


[1] CT VI, 532

[2] H. Junker studied the inscription from Dendera, Edfu and Philae.

[3] H. Junker, 1910; E XIV, 95.

[4] Wb IV, 191, 3 y 4.

[5] Wb IV, 191, 5.

[6] The primeval moment.

[7] Pnt is an Egyptian verb related to the making of bread (to knead) and beer (press) (Wb I, 511, 3). Desinence y converts it in a prospective passive participle, which indicates a future fact, so, Pnty would mean “The one who will be produced”; that would refer to the deceased as a new creation.

[8] CT VI, 640

[9] G. Durand, 1979, p.160.

[10] Scholars consider that circumcision in Ancient Egypt was made between six and fourteen years old.

[11] P. Barguet, 1986, p. 52, n. 5

[12] V. von Gonzenbach, 1957 (summary in AEB, nº 57214, pp. 61-62).