Tag Archives: water

Hair is Water in Ancient Egypt.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hair as a Symbol of Water in Ancient Egypt: The Hair is the Primeval Water.


In 1964 D. Bonneau assimilated the hair of Isis with the rise of the Nile due to the bushes of papyrus floating on it[1]. According to her, “in the ancient Egyptian tradition the manes of the gods were bushes of papyrus”[2] and the locks of hair are the vegetable fibres that content the first rise and announce the flooding of the river. For that reason D. Bonneau assured that usually the hair was united to gods related to the flood of the Nile[3]. That also would explain why in decoration the water was always coloured in green with black waves or why the hieroglyph of water were usually in black colour.

A boat is on a green water with black waves. Relief from the mastaba of Ti in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

A boat is on a green water with black waves. Relief from the mastaba of Ti in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Hieroglyph of water in black colour. Coffin of the Middle Kingdom. Bahr el-Yussef Museum. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Hieroglyph of water in black colour. Coffin of the Middle Kingdom. Bahr el-Yussef Museum. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

From the Old Kingdom we can see this relationship between hair and water. In the Pyramid texts of Pepi I we read that “…the hair of Pepi is the Nun…”[4] In fact, the hair is inseparable from the aquatic element, since in those parts where there were no papyri, Egyptians called “the hair of Isis” to coralline formations in the shores of Red Sea and the Indic Ocean[5].

We could then think of the hair as the water having the principles of the Creation and Renewing. The water of the flood has a magic power itself, as we can read in the magical Papyrus from Paris I, line 29. It is said how, for ensuring the effectiveness of the sacrifice of a cock, it was necessary “to go to a place where the Nile has already retired its water before nobody has step on it, or to a place dipped completely by the water of the Nile, or to a place flooded by the Nile in an accidental way [6]. According to these words it had to be a place soaked by those regenerating principles, which improved the magic. If the water had this magical power and was assimilated to the hair, it makes sense to think about a magical attribute of the hair.

It seems obvious the relationship in Ancient Egypt between the renovating rituals and the flooding, which was announced by Sothis, the brightest star that appeared  in the morning sky with the sun between the seventeenth and the nineteenth of July[7]. Sothis was for Egyptians «  the one who renovates the vegetation »[8] and she was assimilated to Isis: “Your sister Isis comes to you, happy with your love, you put her over your phallus, your semen goes up to her, sharp as Sothis, (like) Horus equipped coming out from you, like Horus who is in Sothis » [9]. The sexual aspect is very important and we consider it later.

Isis, assimilated to Sothis, announces with her hair the rise of the Nile, like the second one does appearing in the firmament. Isis is “the one who makes the Nile to increase and flow, the one who makes the Nile to get bigger in this season [10]. So, the mane of Isis would be a promise of resurrection, because would be the image of the water that creates and renovates. In the funerary rite it would emanate to the dead by means of the nwn gesture next to the corpse.  That would suppose a return to the Nun, the primeval waters where the first living went out from as the Nile permits the constant renovation of the Egyptian life. To shake the hair onwards would be then the announcement of a new creation, like the presence of Sothis means the beginning of the flood and the New Year.

Nile fertilising the land of Egypt near of Al-Minya. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Nile fertilising the land of Egypt near Al-Minya. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Many years ago S. Mayassis already studied the meaning of hair in Egyptian believing[11]. According to him, the hair was a synonym of power[12] and Isis covered her face with her mane to get profit of its own force and allow also the others to do the same thing[13]. S. Mayassis considered also to untie the hair was a way of putting the magical power of the knot aside[14], so the force of the hair was set out and joined the person[15].

Certainly the hair constitutes an element of power and vigour, but Mayassis did not mention that the power of the Isis’ mane is because its assimilation with the renovating water of the flood. That would explain the nwn gesture done by mourners in funerals was a revitalising gesture, that brings backs the dead to the Nun, for bringing him back to life, since he is “the one who has been created in the Nun [16].

In the month of Khoiak, the fourth month of the season Akhet (Inundation), took place the Mysteries of Osiris, a group of rites recalling the Osiris Myth[17]. In all these rites the mourning had a relevant place; women representing Isis and Nephtys were mourning at the moment of making the figurine of Osiris with earth and cereal[18], which grow up as a symbol of life and resurrection.  In the festivity of Osiris, the two representatives of Isis and Nephtys recited aloud a sacred song of mourning the twenty-fifth day of the Khoiak month just before the Osiris resurrection[19]. Lamentation would be the prelude of the new life for Osiris, also evident with the rise of the Nile[20]; in the funeral the meaning of that mourning would be the same.

On the other hand, Pausanias said how the tears of Isis were considered as the flood of the Nile: “Egyptians say that Isis weeps for Osiris when the river starts increasing; and when it floods the fields, they say that it is Isis’ tears[21]. Once the Nile started its rise, Egyptians celebrated the Festival of Isis; she, as mourner of Osiris, caused with her tears the increase of the water level of the Nile[22]. In fact, in the Songs of Isis and Nephtys, when they mourn we read: “I am Isis I flood the land in that day[23].

Tears (in Ancient Egyptian rmit) had in Egyptian mythology a strong creation power, because mankind (rmT) issued from tears[24].  According to a legend dating from XII Dynasty, the god Re sent one of their two eyes for fighting against his enemy Apophis. That eye was taking a long time to come back, so it was replaced by another one.  When the eye of Re came back from the battle and saw another one in his place he became very upset. This eye started crying and people came from its tears. For consoling the sorrow Re turned it into the ureus and put it on his forehead.

Amehotep I with the ureus in his forehead. Painting from the tomb of Inerkha in Deir el-Medina. Altes Museum of Berlin. XX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Amehotep I with the ureus in his forehead. Painting from the tomb of Inerkha in Deir el-Medina. Altes Museum of Berlin. XX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

According to B. Mathieu “to come out from the eye” (pr m irt) is an Egyptian expression for referring to the weeping and he emphasizes the fact that mankind appears from a sorrow[25]. The eye and the humidity coming out from it (tears) have the power of giving life: “He has opened his eyes in the moment he was going out from the Nun. All these things have come to existence from his eyes”[26]. That would explain such an important role of the mourners during the funerary rite; they shed their tears with regenerating power that will help in the resurrection of the dead. We need also to notice the importance of the eye as a beneficial organ for the regeneration of the deceased (we will see it in another post).

In chapter 674 of the Coffin texts we could already read how “the water is the hair sema of Mht over you”. Water and Inundation are vital elements par excellence in Egyptian mythology. Water has always a negative and a positive aspect, because for renovating it is needed first a destruction. If the hair sema is like the water, that one will also have a double value: it will be at the same time image of chaos and of new life.

For that reason, we could think that the nwn gesture, depending on in which moment of the funeral it would be made, it could refer on one hand to the sorrow for the dead and the chaos of the death, and on the other hand to the rebirth and a the new creation. Mourners could shake their hair onwards as a sign of despair but also as an image of the primeval and chaotic water, which have the power of giving life and create.


[1] Bonneau, 1964, p. 259.

[2] Bonneau, 1964, p. 260.

[3] Bonneau, 1964, p. 260, n. 9.

[4] Budge,  1969, p. 109. This same assimilation of hair and Nun appears in the papyri of Ani and Un.

[5] “Juba relates that near of Trogloditas Islands a brush grew up in deep down in the sea called “hair of Isis”, without leaves and similar to coral” (Pliny the Elder, Natural History,  XIII, 51)

[6] Bonneau, 1964, p. 285.

[7] Bonneau, 1964, p. 263.

[8] Pyr. 477.

[9] Pyr. 632.

[10] Budge, 1973, p. 278.

[11] Mayassis, 1955.

[12] Mayassis, 1955, p. 354.

[13] Mayassis, 1955, pp. 354 y 362.

[14] Mayassis, 1955, p. 356.

[15] Mayassis, 1955, p. 362.

[16] CT, 544.

[17] That also shows the relationship between Osiris and the water.

[18] Guglielmi, 1980, p.80.

[19] Gaballa and Kitchen, 1969, p.45.

[20] Kees, 1956, p. 354.

[21] Pausanias, De Phocicis,  X, 32,10.

[22] Frazer, 1914, Third Ed., p. 33.

[23] Canciones…,3,16.

[24] Guglielmi, 1980, p. 82.

[25] Mathieu, 1986, p. 500.

[26] Fragment on the South facade of the temple of Hathor in Dendera (el-Kordy, 1982, p. 203).

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


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

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

Nwn gesture in Sed Festival.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] V, col. 785.

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

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

[6] Cervelló Autuori, 1996, p. 210.

[7] V, col. 786.

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

[9] V, col. 786.

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

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

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

[13] AH 1, p. 58.

[14] Mayassis, 1957, p. 226.

[15] Mayassis, 1957, p. 68.

The hair was a symbol of chaos in Ancient Egypt.


For understanding why the hair becomes such an important element, we have to get into its symbolic meanings. According to what we have read in religious texts, mourning, hair and resurrection are the three pillars of the believing.

The mourner gives the hair sema while she cries, weeps and regrets the death. The weeping and the mourning happen when there is disorder. In the Osiris legend, when the god died, the world, with no governor, was in a big chaos; the death of Osiris meant confusion, darkness and disaster.

In this context we could think that the nwn gesture of shaking the hair and covering the face with it would symbolize the chaos and darkness produced by the death; mourners hide their faces and cannot see in the same way that Osiris is blind because he is dead. The death reaches through the head; the lack of head means the lack of life, because it is impossible to see and breathe.

Detail of the mourners icovering their faces with the hair. Tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo

Detail of the mourners covering their faces with the hair. Tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

The hair over the face is a gesture with a deep symbolic meaning, it dives the mourner in the same blindness of the dead one, so to put that hair away from the face allows the mourner see and pass from the shadows of the decease to the brightness of the resurrection.

In Ancient Egypt the death was not the end of a human being. To die took part of the life. A dead person was not a disappeared person, but a transformed one. Dying was another step in life cycle, as it was in the other natural events: lunar and solar cycles, the annual flood, vegetation cycle…So, the burial was just a transition, the dead person was changing his condition. In funerals mourning women would cover their faces with their hair sema, reproducing the shadow in which was the deceased, but in the moment of the resurrection they would uncover them recreating the coming back to light.

Because the chaos is a « personification of the primitive vacuum, before the creation”[1] and it becomes necessary to come back to it for finding the first manifestation of life, that in the funerary context will crystallize in the resurrection of the dead. The death is a return to the first moment of the creation, and in this new creation of revitalizing the deceased was crucial the life-giving gesture of shaking the hair.


[1] Chevalier et Gheerbrandt, 1969, p. 325.