Tag Archives: tomb

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 offering in Ancient Egypt. Archaeological remains.


Iconography and texts point to an Egyptian funerary custom of shaving or cutting a piece of hair to the two mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys. But, does the archaeology say something to us? The answer is yes. There is archaeological information from different moments of the Egyptian history proving the existence of hair offering to the dead.

  • In the tomb of king Djer in Abydos (I Dynasty), a piece of hair and a false fringe were found by Petrie. He considered that they could be from the queen. Nowadays these remains are in Pitt Rivers Museum of Oxford[1]. In a common sepulchre in Abydos, dating possibly from the III Dynasty, many locks of hair were found, some of them were plaited and some were tangled up[2].

    Hair remains from the tomb of King Djer. I Dynasty. Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Photo: www.prm.ox.ac.uk

    Hair remains from the tomb of King Djer. I Dynasty. Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Photo: http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk

  • In a “pan-grave” from the Middle Kingdom near Balabish[3], at the south of Abydos, was found a burial with a masculine mummy, close to the body were laying out some plaits of hair, which apparently did not belong to the mummy[4], so they should be a ritual offering.
  • In the tomb of Tutankhamon was found inside a small anthropoid sarcophagus a plait of hair belonging to the Queen Tiye. According to A. Rowe, that would a queen’s relic, who was divinised, so that plait was considered a goddess’ hair[5]. Due that Queen Tiye was dead when Tutankhamon was buried, it seems much more logical to think of a familiar relic[6].
  • From Deir el-Bahari is a group of tombs from XVII, XVIII and XIX Dynasties.  Maspero assures there were locks of hair wrapped and put between legs, arms and around the necks of each mummy[7].
  • In a tomb of Deir el-Medina were found locks of hair inside a basket[8].
  • In the tomb of Queen Ahmose- Meritamun (XVIII Dynasty) H. E.Winlock found three baskets with human locks of hair and plaits of hair inside them.
    Inner coffin of Ahmose-Meritamun. XVIII Dynasty. Cairo Museum. Photo: www.wikimedia.org

    Inner coffin of Ahmose-Meritamun. XVIII Dynasty. Cairo Museum. Photo: http://www.wikimedia.org

    They were found with some other toilette objects. For that reason, Winlock considered that this hair was maybe for the Mertiamon’s hairdressing in the Hereafter[9]. This hypothesis sounds logical.

  • In many houses from Amarna were found clay balls with hair inside. They cold maybe be utilised for some kind of domestic magic[10].
  • In el-Kahun, Petrie found in 1890 in a tomb dating from the XX Dynasty two clay balls with locks of hair inside[11].
  • From Deir el-Bahari is a mummy dating from XXI Dynasty of a young girl, between her two legs were put locks of hair of 40 cm long[12].
  • In Gurob Tomb 605 at both feet of a female mummy was a squared case, which contained locks of hair. In some other tombs were also found hair remains[13].
  • Finally, we have to mention the Douch necropolis, in el-Kharga[14] and dating from I-V  centuries. In ten tombs were found deposits with globular clay vases with cut hair wrapped in clothing packs inside[15]; these vases were sometimes on the ground and sometimes inside a kind of whole in the walls of the funerary chambers . According to scholars the hair inside did not belong to the deceased ones, since these ones still had their own hair, but offerings.
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. Relief from the tomb of Pahery in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

All these archaeological remains make us think of those images of the twomourners called Drt with short hair at the end of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony and also of those texts mentioning the shaving of the mourners and the cut of the s3mt.


[1] Petrie and M. Flinders, 1902, p. 5, Pl. IV, fig. 7.

[2] Maspero, 1912, p. 170.

[3] It was in the group B 213, near the cultivable area.

[4] Wainwright, 1920, p. 11.

[5] Rowe, 1941, p. 624.

[6] Nachtergael, 1980, p. 243.

[7] Maspero, 1893, p. 274.

[8] Wagner et allii, 1984-1985, p. 188. They are in Musée du Louvre (Département des Antiquités Égyptiennes, Inv. Nº E 18851).

[9] Winlock, 1932, p. 34, Pl. XXXII y XXXIII.

[10] Peet and Woolley, 1923, p. 66.

[11] Crompton, 1916, p. 128. They are in the Manchester Museum.

[12] Daressy, 1907, p. 34.

[13]Bell, 1985, pp. 61-86, Pl. II.

[14] Dunand, Heim, Henein, Lichtenberg, 1992; Wagner et allii, 1984-1985, pp. 175- 202.

[15] The tombs are: T3, T4, T5, T7, T9, T11, T12, T53, T58, T66.

Hair, Hathor and Moon.


Joint with the hair, we have seen now two new important elements which we cannot ignore: Hathor and light. Hathor is mentioned as the « guide of the boat, who keeps ropes kasu in front of the rudder in the West ways… », she is « the lady of the light, who guides the Big One who is tired ». Hathor and light means that the text is referring to the lunar Hathor, the guide during the night.

According to an Egyptian tradition, Hathor was patroness of deceased[1]; she was a goddess that very soon became the goddess of The West and the imagery put her on the flank of the mountain, the place of the sunset and where the dead ones got into the Underworld[2].

The goddess Hathor in the flank of the west mountain ready for receiving the dead. Painting from the tomb of Shuroy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XIX Dynasty. Phot: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

The goddess Hathor in the flank of the west mountain ready for receiving the dead. Painting from the tomb of Shuroy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XIX Dynasty. Phot: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Religious texts show that from very soon Hathor was a goddess who received the dead[3], who sheltered him[4], who helped him in reaching the eternity[5]; in the Afterlife the dead was in the entourage of Hathor[6] and she was the main one in the necropolis, that is why one of her epithets was “Hathor at the head of the Necropolis”[7]. Hathor helped the dead to go up to the sky, the same sky where she is guardian and that is his own body as celestial cow. In fact, the Egyptian name Hathor means « The house of Horus » [8].Hathor's name

Hathor grants the dead be sitting in the sky, that according to E. Drioton would be a lunar paradise[9], so a night sky. Not only Hathor has a relationship with the moon, with the night sky and with Horus[10], she also is connected somehow with the Udyat eye[11]. There are several examples of Hathor with a lunar character, so she is the “left eye of Re” [12], the “eye of Re in the sky during the day and the eye of Horus which makes the darkness bright” [13].

It is well-know the relationship between cattle and the moon, because the horns are assimilated to the crescent quarter. This aspect contributes to that image of Hathor as a sky goddess, which exist in Ancient Egypt from the Predynastic period.

Cow-head palette from Gerzeh. Predynastic period. Photo: www.touregypt.net

Cow-head palette from Gerzeh. Predynastic period. Photo: http://www.touregypt.net

We see it clearly in the cow-head palette from Gerzeh in Cairo Museum with the image of a cow rounded with stars making a very ancient image of a celestial cow[14].

But Hathor, is mainly a mother goddess, a celestial cow whose main role is feed people and gods and, so that, has the faculty of giving the life[15]. Maybe that is the reason why, as a mortuary divinity, Hathor also took part in the deceased’s resurrection and was assimilated with Isis[16].

The maternal nature of the cow makes that animal a symbol of rebirth. In this sense Hathor should be consider as a manifestation of the primeval mother[17]. Because “horns of cattle, that characterize great fecundity gods, are the emblem of the divine “Magna Mater[18] and because moon and fertility go together.

Hathor, as lunar deity, is also guide of the boat and she maintains the ropes. In this regard we consider interesting to refer to chapters 404 and 405 in the Coffin Texts, where the bow rope is assimilated to the braid of Isis. It is the night boat, which carries the deceased when he revives during the night, so it is the moon. The shape of the boat could remember the quarter of the moon, so the boat crescent-shape will be one of the first means of transport[19] in Egyptian culture, as it will be for the dead once he will be in the Afterlife.

In fact, the usual head-dress for lunar deities is a full moon over a crescent, in the same way the deceased reborn as a full moon will travel in the Hereafter in the lunar boat, identified with the crescent.

Head-dress of Khonsu with full moon over the crescent. Relief from the temple of Khonsu in Karnak. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Head-dress of Khonsu with full moon over the crescent. Relief from the temple of Khonsu in Karnak. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

So, what we are facing is a lunar rebirth. In that rebirth we have seen the important role of the hair element. The feminine hair appears related to water, maternity, sexuality…and also now to the moon.  If hair is related to water and moon, the lock of hair swt in mourning should also have a connection with the lunar resurrection of the dead, with the goddess Hathor in her lunar nature, as guide of the boat (crescent of the moon) in the dark of the night sky.

Hathor capital. Bahr el-Yussef museum. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Hathor capital. Bahr el-Yussef museum. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

So, we have the mourners and /or the locks of hair swt in the moan, that is, mourning on earth during the funerals while the goddess Hathor in her lunar nature is in the night sky with her both ringlets on each side of her frontal face;  Hathor  is a grant of the deceased’s resurrection and she guides the boat, which bow rope is the braid of Isis. In the funerary ceremony the two locks of hair of the mourners could be the announcement of the lunar resurrection.


[1] E. Drioton, 1985, p. 188.

[2] A. Erman, 1952, p. 50.

[3] Pyr. 1026.

[4] CT VI, 769.

[5]CT V, 398.

[6] LdM, 144.

[7] S. Allam , 1963, p. 67

[8] S. Allam, 1963, p. 99

[9] E. Drioton, BiOr 15, p. 189.

[10] A. Mariette, 1875, IV, 77 a; en Ph. Derchain, 1962, p. 46.

[11] CT VI, 670.

[12] A. Mariette, 1875, I, 112, 7(A).

[13] A. Mariette, 1875, VI, 144, 2-3(J).

[14] According to F. A. Hassan it could represent Orion (F. A. Hassan, 1992, p. 314).

[15] One epithet for Hathor is “Mistress of Life” (A. Mariette, 1875, I, 26 f.).

[16] According to a version of the Osiris legend, Isis lost her head and Thoth replaced it with a cow’s head (Pap. Sallier IV). In addition, sometimes Hathor is called with the epithet of “Beautiful One of Osiris” (A. Mariette, 1875, VI, 3, 3).

[17] F. A. Hassan, 1992, p. 315.

[18] M. M. Eliade, 1970, p. 146.

[19] G. Durand, 1979, p. 238.

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 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.

Hair and Death in Ancient Egypt: Pulling Hair also in the Hereafter.


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.

Not only on ancient Egyptian funerals were mourners shaking or pulling hair. Also in the Hereafter, supernatural beings were responsible of these kinds of practices. Book of Caverns show in the second section the god Re with head of crocodile walking towards nine divinities that hold their front lock of hair, the text says:

“Oh! The one who mourns, big of lock syt and of strong cry in the West protect the king.

“Oh! The one of the hair who is on the moan [1]el que está sobre el lamento

“Oh! These nein gods that mourn for Osiris, that cry for that one who is in front of Amduat.

Oh, look at me! I am walking towards you I pass by your caverns I call you and you scream to me. Duaty, he feels happy with your voice, those ones who mourn in Duat, the ones with secret faces, under you lock of hair syt[2], your voice is for me. I call you together , I light you up[3], mourners…you lead me and I walk towards you[4], I really protect your souls, I make you have my light, I take away the darkness that is on you…big mourners, having goods, you who are over the lock of hair syt in the land of the West . I walk on the ground I came from in my first birth”.

In the Duat the iakbyw (mourners) work for the regeneration of the dead god Osiris, crying and holding their locks of hair. And at the same time, that resurrection provides protection and light for their souls . When the deceased is in darkness the mourners are “under the lock of hair” covered with this hair:

bajo el mechón syt

When the deceased revives  and can walk in the Duat, the expression is just the contrary: “over the lock of hair” :

sobre el mechón syt

They are not anymore under the hair, but they have come to the light and the dead is “happy with the youth of his body

The words syt and swt describe the front lock of hair the mourners pull. We find also the term syt in The Coffin Texts in chapters 799 and 532, where tells about « tying the lock syt in Heliópolis the day of cutting the samt » and in several documents from the New Kingdom we also can read how a male characters are the mourners of Re and hold their lock of hair syt/swt[5] they grant that Osiris can be justified in the Hereafter [6]. At this point it is also interesting to say that in the chapter 339 of the Coffin texts, the day of the resurrection of Osiris is the day ofshaving the mourning women”.

Again, also in the Hereafter, the nwn m gesture is a part of the mourning rite, as a sign of pain but also as a way of making the dead revive and make easier his way in to the Hereafter.


[1] . Pay attention in the word used for moan (samt), which has de determinative of the hair. In the cenotaph of Seti I in Abydos we read: “Oh! The one of the hair, over his moan, who puts his voice, to whom the souls call” 

[2] . Piankoff translated the preposition  as “carrying” the locks syt.  But the first meaning of that preposition is “under”. If we take the sentence as “under the locks of hair syt” it made sense with the previous expression: “of secret faces”, so, “hidden under the hair”.

[3] The light comes after the darkness of the death.

[4] Mourners guide the dead with their screams. The deceased is blind (dead) and on the way to the new light (new life).

[5] Piankoff and Jacquet-Gordon, 1974, p. 55, Pl. 10.

[6] Berlin Papyrus 6, Piankoff and  Jacquet-Gordon, 1974, p. 57.

Pulling and shaking hair over the mummy in Ancient Egypt.


We have already seen how in chapter 180 of Book of the Dead the mourners appear dishevelled for or over the deceased.

Mourner covering her face with her hair. Tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.egyptraveluxe.blogspot.com

Mourner covering her face with her hair. Tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.egyptraveluxe.blogspot.com

The dead is now in the Hereafter and needs to get again the mobility. This chapter treats about the physical resurrection of the deceased and it was included in many tombs of kings (Tutmosis III, Seti I, Ramses II, Meneptah I, Seti II, Siptah, Ramses III and Ramses IV). In all cases the verb used for dishevelled was nwn. Taking into consideration those determinatives and the iconography of tombs of Amenemhat and Renni, one correct translation could be “…they are dishevelled over you…”.

We can then visualize the nwn gesture over the corpse for his benefit. Because after that the chapter follows: “…your soul gets happy, your body becomes glorious…” It describes the resurrection of the mummy, process in which was important that rite of mourning.

At this point we need to mention three relevant documents that refer to the role of mourning women in front of the body.

1)      The tomb of Ramses IX. On the left wall of the funerary chamber there is a unique scene of resurrection. The dead as a mummy inside an oval, over the corpse four women are making the nwn m gesture of pulling their locks of hair.

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.

In the following scene the dead is not a mummy anymore, but now his legs and arms have movement. That makes us think about the nwn m gesture as something made for revitalising the body. The text accompanying the image is a fragment of the Book of Caverns in which we read about the resurrection of the dead and in that context it says:

“Those Goddesses are so, they are mourning over the secret place of Osiris…they are together, screaming and crying over the secret place of the ceremony…their secret is in their fingers…”

It is clear the relationship between mourning and the resurrection of the dead, to whom the women are pulling their locks of hair. On the other hand it is interesting to pay attention to the expression “…their secret is in their fingers…”, because with those fingers they are holding their hair. Which one is the secret? Is the resurrection or the way for reaching that resurrection?

2)      The coffin of Ramses IV. In the head piece there is a representation of Isis and Nephtys making the same nwn m gesture.

Isis and Nephtys pulling their locks of hair. This image is the head piece of the coffin of Ramses IV.

Isis and Nephtys pulling their locks of hair. This image is on the head piece of the coffin of Ramses IV.

Both goddesses are facing the head of the dead and the image is accompanied by an inscription where we read:

 “They move their faces during the moan; they mourn over the secret corpse of …

Both goddesses are holding their locks swt, the water is dropping from the eyes of these goddesses…the breath comes from them (the goddesses)…”

In some moment of his resurrection the dead finds Isis and Nephtys, which leaning their faces, holding their locks of hair swt and crying over the corpse, allow the dead to breathe and revive.

There is a very similar example in the coffin of the dwarf Dyedhor, who was dancer in the Serapeum. This coffin was found in Saqqara and belongs to the Persian period. The coffin of Dyedhor shows also Isis and Nephtys pulling their frontal locks of hair (Cairo Museum, nº cat. 1294).

3)      The stele C15 in Louvre Museum is another important document for this subject. It was found in Abydos and dates from XI Dynasty. His owner was Abkaou, chief of the cattle. In the Middle Kingdom became very popular to put a stele in Abydos in the memory of the deceased god Osiris. In this stele the lower register shows Abkaou receiving the offerings while in an upper register there is an image of the ceremonies that took place during the Osiris festivity. Two mourners are over the lying corpse and both cover their face with the hair; in fact it remembers what it is said in chapter 180 of Book of the Dead.

Two mourners making nwn gesture over the corpse. Detail of the stele of Akbaou (stele C15) from Abydos. Musée du Louvre. XI Dynasty. Photo (stele): www.cartelfr.louvre.fr; photo (detail): www.commons.wikimedia.org

Two mourners making nwn gesture over the corpse. Detail of the stele of Abkaou (stele C15) from Abydos. Louvre Museum. XI Dynasty. Photo (stele): http://www.cartelfr.louvre.fr; photo (detail): http://www.commons.wikimedia.org

The inscription is much reduced: once hieroglyph tm and twice the hieroglyph nwi.   niw tm

The verb tm in ancient Egyptian means “complete”, “be completed”, “join the different parts of the body” (Wb V, 303), especially when it is about the parts of the dead (Wb V, 305, 1) and nwi means “to be in charge of” (Wb II, 220);  the whole could be translated as “to be in charge of completing”. In the Myth of Osiris Isis with the help of Nephtys are the ones who collect the different parts of the body of Osiris, so these two mourners of the image would also be in charge of mending the body of the dead. The nwn gesture they are doing over the body would be one of the practises for revitalizing the deceased.

Suming up, mourners in Ancient Egypt made a kind of rite with their hair during the funerals. It could be to cover the face with the hair (nwn) or pull the frontal lock of hair (nwn m). In both cases we have proofs of this practise over the corpse and always with a revitalising goal.

For understanding better the meaning of this practise we have to know more about the symbolism of hair.