Tag Archives: weeping

Mourning Women and Mourning Hair in Ancient Egypt Funeral.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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S3mt: Hair and Mourning, Evil and Udjat Eye.


The word s3mt appears repeatedly in the Egyptian funerary texts. It can be translated as lock of hair or mourning and it is closely linked to the idea of destruction of evil, the healing of the lunar eye and finally recovering the Udjat eye.

S3mt seems to refer to something related to the  mourning ritual and focused on the mourner’s hair. It could probably be considered as the hair that during the mourning rite women manipulated with a symbolic meaning, shaking it forwards (nwn sm3) or pulling it (nwn m swt).

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

Mourner making nwn m gesture of pulling her front lock of hair. Relief from the mastaba of Mereruka. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Two women shaking their hairs. Relief from the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut in Karnak. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Two women shaking their hair. Relief from the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut in Karnak. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

The funerary texts communicate that this s3mt was cut, using the Egyptian word Hsq, which meant “cut”, but also “behead”. And also we find evidence that the mourners were shaved at the end of the mourning rite.

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 with short hair to the four pools. Relief from the tomb of Pahery in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

Many documents assimilate the hair s3mt with the s3bwt snakes. These were malign animals that in Egyptian mythology beheaded the gods, so they were an image of the enemy and responsible of the death.

Beheading the snake as an image of the evil. The cat of Heliopolis killing the snake Apohis, enemy of Re. Painting from the tomb of Inerkha in Deir el-Medina. XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Beheading the snake as an image of the evil. The cat of Heliopolis killing the snake Apohis, enemy of Re. Painting from the tomb of Inerkha in Deir el-Medina. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net

In Egyptian funerary belief, it is necessary to restore the head for living again and annihilate those s3bwt. Making that the adversary is wiped out; the gods recover their heads and also their faculties for seeing, breathing and knowing.  In the funerary ambit, this will benefit the deceased, since cutting the s3mt will have the same effects on him: to recover the faculties that give him access to the new life.

Tekenu wrapped in a shroud and in foetal position over a sledge. Painting from the tomb of Ramose in Gourna.XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Tekenu wrapped in a shroud and in foetal position over a sledge. Painting from the tomb of Ramose in Gourna.XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Cutting the s3mt is also closely related to the sacrifice and the figure of tekenu. This human victim, who goes back to ancient times in Egyptian history, has a double value, expiatory and propitiatory. In the first documents, one of the remarkable elements of the human victim is a front lock of hair. Once the human victim is replaced by an ox in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony again the lock of hair is one of the most important elements. So, this last one seems to be related with the evil elimination.

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

As cutting the s3mt is a way of removing the bad, it is also a way of recovering the Udjat eye as symbol of the final resurrection. Firstly Thoth spits on the damaged eye of Horus and this action is narrated in sacred texts as Thoth spitting on the hair sm3, afterwards the mourners are shaved or the s3mt is cut and the Udjat eye is offered to the deceased.

Eye of Horus, the falcon god. Detail from an image of Horus in the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Eye of Horus, the falcon god. Detail from an image of Horus in the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Summing up, to cut the s3mt supposes annihilate the enemy, the evil but also recover the Udjat eye and allow the final resurrection.

The meaning of the word swt


There is another chapter referring to swt; although it is a confusing text, we can make some deductions examining consciously the words. In the chapter 332 of the Coffin Texts the dead is being guided by a powerful goddess who is

“…the lady of the power, who guides to those ones in the caverns. I am Hathor, Lady of the northern sky, who maintains the ropes kAsw of those awaken…the earth trembles because of the jubilation, while the locks of hair are in the mourning…

locks of hair in the mourning

Sw is a verb, whose meaning is “to be something harmful for someone”[1], maybe it could be translated as “hurt “or “wound”. The substantive would then be swt (“damage”, “hurt”)[2].  We already find this verb in the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom:

The two armas over the head is a very normal posture among mourners in Ancient Egypt. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

The two arms over the head is a very normal posture among mourners in Ancient Egypt. Painting from the tomb of Roy in Dra Abu el-Naga. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

“The deceased is the Lord of his enemies, which have been beaten by Horus for him. Go up! Sit over him! You are stronger than him, hurt him…!” (di ir.k swt ir.f)[3]Isis is sitting, her arms over her head. Nephtys, holds her breasts because of the death of her brother, Anubis is bended over his stomach, Osiris is in his damage » (Wsir m swt.f) [4].

We could maybe consider the word swt as a passive participle of the verb sw, so the translation would be something as: “the damaged ones” or “the hurt ones”, the ones who have been damaged, that is, the mourners Isis and Nephtys; they were hurt by the death of Osiris and that is why they are in mourning.  This would also explain the use of the hieroglyph of hair as determinative in so many words that refer to mourners and mourning.This passage is clearly describing the typical funerary scene in which the mummy is laying while Anubis makes his embalming process and the two mourners Isis and Nephtys regret the death of her husband/brother.

We should also notice a kind of word game with the “locks of hair” (swt) in chapter 531 and the “hurt ones” (swt) in chapter 332, in both cases applied to the mourners who dishevel their hair as a sign of mourning.  It is as well interesting how each mourner is indentified with a lock of hair; so mourners and hair go together. That is what we call a metonymy; the whole (the mourners) is designated using its most significant part (the hair).

But we wanted to go on searching more on the verb swverb sw  and we found that it also could be translated as “to increase the strength” or “to get the strength back” [5]. We can read this verb in the Pyramid Texts[6] and also in the Coffin Texts:

“…I came and I recovered the strength back in nsrsr island”[7].isla nsrsr

In both texts the dead, after drinking milk or beer (both considered revitalising drinks), recover his force and comes back to life. It makes sense the use of the hair as determinative ; if the hair is an energy source and the nwn/nwn m gesture pretend the resurrection of the corpse, it is normal here to find it related with a verb meaning « fortify ». On the other hand, swt is a causative verb that derives from wt, whose translation is “be powerful” or “be big” [8]. In addition, wt also means « to embalm » [9] and there is direct relationship between embalming and the deceased’s resurrection. One of the main goals of embalming was to reconstruct the whole body, the physical reconstruction as getting the soul’s support, and this consolidation is connected with the hair element.


[1]   Wb IV, 59, 16

[2]   Wb IV, 59, 18

[3] Pyr., 652.

[4] Pyr., 1281-1282.

[5] D. Meeks, 1977-1979, II, p. 311, nº 78.3367; D. Meeks, 1976, p. 88, n. 14.

[6] Pyr., 1282 b.

[7]CT VII, 1013. Translation of P. Barguet (P. Barguet, 1986, p. 417).

[8] Wb IV, 77, 9.

[9] Wb I, 378, 8.

When did the mourners pull or shake hair in the Egyptian funerary ceremony?


During these days we have seen how iconography and texts proof the existence of a gesture, posture or movement made by mourners in Ancient Egypt funerals. Sometimes they pulled their front lock of hair (nwn m) and sometimes they shook their mane onwards covering their faces with it (nwn). In both cases there was always an implicit symbolism, mostly related to the Osiris legend and the resurrection of the dead.

But now many questions come to mind: when did these women do that gesture during the funerary ceremony? Was the mourning rite constant during the whole ceremony or was just for some special moments? Were the normal mourners and the representatives of Isis and Nephtys making it together and/or at the same time?

Firstly we should distinguish the common mourners from the two women in the role of Isis and Nephtys. It makes sense to think about two different kind of performance. The iconography has several examples of mourners “outdoors” making the nwn m or nwn gesture. They would be part of the group of women accompanying the coffin in the funerary procession, we see them in movement in the reliefs from the tombs of Mereruka and Idu or in the Middle Kingdom coffin from Abydos; but also we see them in a more static moment, when some mourners are sit while others are making the nwn gesture, as in the tombs of Amenemhat, Miankht or Rekhmire.

Mourners in the tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Mourners in the tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

From the iconography we could deduce that the nwn gesture made by common mourners could take place:

-During the procession, while the coffin was transported.

-In necropolis, when the retinue has already close to the burial.

-Both, first during the procession and second once the retinue were in the necropolis, while the body was being buried.

Mourners. Painting from the tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Mourners. Painting from the tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

However we only have Isis and Nephtys in iconography making the nwn gesture in the stele C15 from the Middle Kingdom (the whole scene represents the Osiris Festivity) and the funerary temple of Seti I in Dra Abu el-Naga and also pulling their front lock of hair (nwn m) in the coffin of Ramses IV and the one of dwarf Djedhor. Religious texts mention how the goddesses make the nwn gesture and show or give the hair sema to the deceased. It does not seem to be a public moment, but a more secret practice and closely linked to the corpse and the resurrection of the dead. If so, the two mourners representing Isis and Nephtys would be two selected women for representing a divine role. And maybe their mourn ritual with their hair was a part of the group of practices made for the resurrection of the dead.

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 (stele C15). XI Dynasty. Photo: http://www.commons-wikimedia.org

In Ancient Egyptian funerals there was a ceremony for restoring the deceased’s faculties: the ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth, which ended with the final resurrection of the dead. Was it maybe during that ritual when the two mourners made their mourning gesture with their hair? As we will see further in this work, the Ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth was not a public ceremony, but a rite reserved for those who accomplished it, as they were the sem priest, the lector priest and the two mourners. It consisted of a group of practices in favour of the deceased; the goal was to restore all the faculties he needed for his resurrection and his new life in the Herefater: breathing, eyesight, mobility, sexuality… Those practises were made over the mummy or the statue of the deceased and it seems reasonable to think that the mourners in the role of Isis and Nephtys did their nwn gesture near the body in some moment during the Ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth. In fact it is usual to find in the Egyptian iconography many scenes of that ceremony with the presence of mourners; maybe the most explicit one would be the one in the tomb of Renni, where we can see how priest is making the ritual over the corpse and the statue, while a mourner is making the nwn gesture.

Opening of the Mouth with mourner in nwn gesture on the right. Tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.oisplendorsofthenile.blogspot.com.es

Summing up, the nwn and nwn m gesture had two dimensions, with different meanings and in different moments of the funerary ceremony. The public one made by common mourners outdoors during the procession or out of the tomb in the necropolis; and the private one, made by the two women in the divine role of Isis and Nephtys for the resurrection of the dead. In the first case the nwn/nwn m gesture is related to the chaos, the darkness of the death and is a sign of despair. In the second one those same practices had a revivifying goal.

The sexual Meaning of Hair in Ancient Egypt Funerals. Part II.


In Egyptian religion, Osiris is the god of death, but also of vegetation and his myth has an erotic component. According to M. Eliade “moments of cosmic crisis are a pretext for the unleashing of an orgy. The earth needs to be revived and the sky needs to be excited, to make the good conditions for the cosmic Hierogamy; this way cereal grows up, women engender children, animals reproduce and dead ones full their vacuum with vital power[1].

From the basis of the Eliade’s theory, orgy is an act of renovation and regeneration; it is a way of coming back to the first moment just before the final creation, when still chaos and confusion dominate the existence.  After the orgy a new life starts and with it the chaos disappears and the world is reorganised; the orgy is the experience of the original state[2].

Orgy is even the image of chaos. Orgiastic festivities allude to the chaotic moment in which the world is lost and from where the new power comes out for reorganising and restoring the cosmic order. As J. E. Cirlot says “the goal is not to obtain physical pleasure, but to help the world dissoluteness; a temporary breaking-off for the following restoration of the original “illud tempus[3]. Orgy is, then, according to scholars, an act which generates life.

The connexion of orgy with life could make us think of the relationship also with the moon, because it is a star which remakes and renews itself. The moon is also the night star, when chaos and darkness reign. And it is in the same way related to vegetation, since agricultural rites are also lunar rites due to their regeneration nature. In fact, from prehistoric times, lunar symbols have erotic connotations thanks to the analogy between vulva and shell; for instance, the spiral is a sign that derivates from the snail shell; and this animal, which appears and disappears, is usually assimilated to the moon, and also for that same analogy the spiral has an erotic nuance[4].

We can guess that in Ancient Egypt funerary ceremony, mourners representing Isis and Nepthtys and the gesture nwn of shaking hair smA onwards could also have an erotic nature, whose goal was to help the dead come back to life. For some scholars “the spreading through sexual act could be considered according to primitive thought, as an alternative to the eternal life”[5]. The fertilizing nature of copulation seems to be united to resurrection as a regenerating element. It is the union of the two principles, masculine and feminine, the union that in the Creation myth produces the first manifestation of life.

In this regard, we cannot forget to mention chapter 17 of Book of the Dead, which captures perfectly all we have been talking about[6]:

“I am Isis, you found me when[7] I had my hair disordered[8]  over my face, and my crown[9] was dishevelled[10]. I have conceived[11] as Isis, I have procreated as Nephtys.

Isis dispels my bothers (?)[12]. My crown is dishevelled; Isis has been over her secret, she has stood up[13] and has cleaned[14] her hair”[15]Chapter 17 BD

H. Goedicke states that the chapter is describing clearly the copulation of Isis and Osiris[16]. Isis, making the nwn gesture put herself over the body of her husband Osiris, who lies face up; she gets pregnant and protects the dead. All that practice is her secret; afterwards she stands up and does her hair. It is also interesting to point out that in Papyrus Turin, just before that we read: “…both sisters are given to me for pleasure…”[17]

It seems clear the relationship between the dishevelled hair and the sexual act; especially if we consider that the verb “dishevel” (txtx) has the same root as « inebriation » (txi).

According to A. Gutbub, the festivity of inebriation in honour of Hathor which was a part of the Festival of the Valley maybe was also celebrated in funerals in honour of the deceased[18]. The scholar considers also that the ritual wpi hn made in the Sed Festival could be interpreted as the union of Hathor with the king during an inebriation celebration[19]. That being the case, the sexual element would be a part of funerary-initiation rites; in them the goal is the change of status of the initiated one by means of returning to the primeval moment and the subsequent rebirth.

The Osiris legend tells that Isis invented during the mummification the remedy for getting the immortality, but it was not enough. She had to assure a descendent of the deceased, because the earth needed an heir for the throne, who also had to help in his father’s resurrection. Isis became a kite, flapped her wings and revived her husband; with this gesture she could also conceive her son Horus, but this “is something that needs to be hidden, it is not allowed that a man or a woman divulges it aloud[20]. Maybe that is the reason of describing the act as « secret » and could also explain the shortage of documents.

It is important for that matter to mention one scene of resurrection in the tomb of Petosiris. The deceased, assimilated with Osiris and represented as a scarab with the atef crown, has the goddess Isis on both sides.

Scene from the tomb of Petosiris in Tuna el-Gebel. The deceased in the middle, as ascarab with atef crown, is flanked by Nekhbet and Uadyet and by two late versions of Isis. Late Period.

Scene from the tomb of Petosiris in Tuna el-Gebel. The deceased in the middle, as ascarab with atef crown, is flanked by Nekhbet and Uadyet and by two late versions of Isis. Late Period.

The Isis in the right hand is represented with the sign of the full sail, symbol of breath and wind; in this scene the goddess is called the Lady of the North, the Lady of vivifying wind, while Osiris is on copulation:

Words said by Isis, Lady of the red crown: the north wind is destined to your nose…I made your throat breath. The divine mother, she joined the limbs of her brother in the palace. They look for Osiris…he is in copulation[21].

In this passage we read about the breath of life and the sexual act, both apparently evoked by the nwn gesture. This posture would recall the Osiris legend, when Isis as a kite lands over her husband, she flaps her wings for giving him the breath of life and put herself over his phallus for giving him back his virility and conceive Horus. The birth of the son means the victory over the temporality by means of perpetuity of the lineage; the second element is result and image of the former one[22]. The son is the image of eternity and balance in the same person, as result of the creation.

Isis as a kite flaps wings and put herself over her husband.  Relief from the temple of Seti I in Abydos.  XIX Dynasty. Photo: www.passion-egyptienne.fr

Isis as a kite flaps wings and put herself over her husband. Relief from the temple of Seti I in Abydos. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.passion-egyptienne.fr

It makes sense then to think about the nwn gesture in funerals made for the mourners representing Isis and Nephtys (by extension) as a way of remembering the sexual episode of the Osiris myth, but in the most human version.

Tomb of Renni in el-Kab. Photo: www.egyptraveluxe.blogspot.com.es

The mourner is making the nwn gesture to the deceased. Tomb of Renni in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.egyptraveluxe.blogspot.com.es


[1] Eliade, 1970, p. 301.

[2] Durand, 1979, p. 297.

[3] Cirlot, 1991, p. 341.

[4] Elíade, 1970, p. 140.

[5] Briffault, 1974, p. 313.

[6] Urk.V, 87, 1-7; Urk. V, 89, 1-3.

[7] sDm.n.f expressing past tense.

[8] The verb psx can be transitive: “dishevel the hair” or intransitive: “be crazy”, “despair”. It could also refer to the disorder of the hair or of the heart because of fear (Wb I, 550, 16).

[9] Wpt can be translated as “crown” or the top of the head. RA can be “the beginning”, as the origin of the scalp, where the hair starts, so the “crown”; or also the beginning of the hair from the face, so, the forehead.

[10] txtx is to dishevel the hair (Wb V, 328, 8).

[11] The verb iwr means “conceive”, “be pregnant” (Wb I, 56, 1).

[12] According to Erman and Grapow, sAwt means “safe-keeping” (Wb III, 418, 5); but if we apply this translation, the sentence makes no sense.  In another version of chapter 17 of Book of the Dead, with Dr.s  sAwt.i, we read: Nb-Hwt  bHn.s  Xnnw.i (Junker, 1917, p. 157). BHn means “cut” or “eliminate” (Wb I, 468, 10; Faulkner, 1988, p. 83), as a parallel with Dr; and Xnnw means “disturbance”, “disorder” (Wb III, 383, 15; Faulkner, 1988, p. 203), so sAwt maybe has a similar meaning.

[13] aha.n sDm.n.f can be a narrative tense, so it could be translated as “then”. But if we consider aha as a verb, the translation should be “she stood up”.

[14] sin means “clean”, “scrub” (Wb III, 425, 8; Faulkner, 1988, p. 213). It would be possible to think of Isis standing up and doing her hair after dishevel. (txtx).

[15] Urk. V, 87, 1-4 y Urk. 88, 17- 89,3.

[16] Goedicke, 1970, p. 25. He also thinks that there is a passage in Pap. Chester Beatty I, 16, 10-11 and in Pap. Westcar 2, 1.

[17] Rachewiltz, 1989, p. 59.

[18] Gutbub, 1961, p. 50.

[19] Gutbub, 1961, p. 60.

[20] Books of Breathing cf. Desroches-Noblecourt, 1968.

[21] Daumas, 1960, p. 68, pl. I.

[22] Durand, 1979, p. 290.

Hair and Maternity in Ancient Egypt.


We already read in Old Kingdom how Isis and Nephtys were considered the responsible ones of the dead resurrection: “Ounas goes up through the two thighs of Isis. Ounas rises through the two thighs of Nepthys” [1]. Both goddesses were the two women who conceived and who gave birth to the Pharaoh, this one rose to heaven after his night travel (death). In the funerary context, the dead Osiris had to be reborn as the son of Geb and Nut: “he is the first-born of Geb, the first-born son of Nut, the one who gone out from the womb with the ureus…”[2]. Also, the resurrection of the deceased had a lunar nature and there is another explanation of the lunar cycle, in which the star was born from the womb of the sky goddess Nut and was then swallowed by her at the end of the cycle[3]. Taking into consideration these three points, we could consider that the two women representing Isis and Nephtys in the symbolic sphere engendered the newborn (the dead) and in somehow made also the role of mothers of the deceased. For that reason we read in the Pyramid Texts “Isis has conceived him and Nephtys has nursed him” [4]. From the Old Kingdom there was a relationship between the goddess Nut and the hair: « Nut gives you her two arms, she with the long hair, whose breasts are suspended »[5]. Nut-nwn  Also in the Middle and the New Kingdoms we read: “…this N. goes up to Busiris for seeing Osiris… Nut shakes her hair when she sees me…[6] So, from those quotes we could imagine the goddess Nut making the nwn gesture of shaking hair onwards. The following step was to search on the multiples images in Ancient Egyptian art of Nut and to see if that could have an iconographical basis. The best example is the funerary stele of the Lady Taperet from XXII Dynasty. It is a small wooden stele with painted decoration in both sides with Taperet praying Ra and Atum. On both sides the upper part is decorated with the body of Nut as the vault of heaven, interesting is the scene with Atum where Nut is the firmament and her hair is falling onwards.

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

This image of Nut and the fact that she is the mother of Osiris in the Ancient Egyptian cosmogony lead us to the conclusion that passages from Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts and  Book of the Dead allude to the birth of the dead. Nut, bended and with her face looking at her pubis sees how his son (the dead) is coming to life. For that reason it is said that Nut shakes her hair when she sees Osiris; in that moment she is making the nwn gesture. This posture has then a very strong symbolic meaning: it is an image of maternity and very close to the rebirth of Osiris as a newborn/resurrected. There is also similar example in a coffin of Uresh-Unefer from the Late Period. We see in it a relief with late version of the same scene with Nut onwards and with a suspended lock of hair. Thinking about coffin as the receptacle of the mummy we need to look on how could be Nut represented on it.

Relief on the coffin of Uresh-Nefer. Late Period. Metropolitan Museum of New York. Photo: www.egiptologia.net

Relief on the coffin of Uresh-Nefer. Late Period. Metropolitan Museum of New York. Photo: http://www.egiptologia.net

There are many examples of coffins from the Late Period with representations of Nut on the internal side of the cover. In them the goddess is frontally extended all over the surface with hair standing up. In this case we are facing just a different perspective of the same posture. Nut in the cover would be making also the nwn gesture of shaking the hair onwards. The goddess as the sky vault swallows the evening sun and gives birth the morning sun; also many times Nut is the night sky, so she swallows the evening sun and gives birth the full moon.

Coffin of Khenstefnakht from the Late Period. Inside the cover, the goddess Nut with her hair standing up. She swallows the evening sun and gives birth the morning sun. Musée Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire (Brussels). Photo: www.vroma.org

Coffin of Khenstefnakht from the Late Period. Inside the cover, the goddess Nut with her hair standing up. She swallows the evening sun and gives birth the morning sun. Musée Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire (Brussels). Photo: http://www.vroma.org

Internal side of the cover of the Coffin of Peftjauneith. Nut in black is an image of the night sky vault. The goddess with her mane standing up is swallowing the evening sun and giving birth the full moon. Rijsmuseum. Photo: www.rmo.nl

Internal side of the cover of the Coffin of Peftjauneith. Nut in black is an image of the night sky vault. The goddess with her mane standing up is swallowing the evening sun and giving birth the full moon. Rijsmuseum. Photo: http://www.rmo.nl

Inside the coffin takes place the conception and rebirth of the dead, Nut bended, with the hair onwards, will give birth his son Osiris and will put her arms around him: “…Geb is there protecting you; he is your father, you have been put on the world by him; the arms of Nut are around you, she has brought you to life, she brings your beauty…[7].


[1] Pyr., 379c y  996c.
[2] Mariette, 1875, 152-153, 3; Derchain, 1963, p. 22.
[3] Derchain, 1962, p. 27.
[4] Pyr. 1154.
[5] Pyr.2171 a.
[6] CT I, 312 y LdM, 78.
[7]CT I, 60. Translated by Barguet, 1986, p. 198).

Pulling and shaking hair in Ancient Egyptian iconography.


In the former post we have seen mainly those interesting references taken from chapters of the Coffin Texts. However they are not the only documents where we can find the proof of the importance of the mourner’s hair in the funerary ceremony of Ancient Egypt. Reliefs and paintings show us how mourners effectively pulled and shook their hairs in the funeral.

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

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

Old Kingdom.

Thanks to the Pyramid Texts we also know that the gesture of covering the face with the hair existed already in the Old Kingdom. Some tombs of that period offer us scenes with mourning women pulling their lock of hair (nwn m). The tomb of Mereruka in Saqqara and the tomb of Idu in Guiza, both from VI Dynasty, have reliefs of mourning women some of them are just crying, rocking, beating their arms and heads, but we can see some women pulling their front lock of hair.

Relief of mourners, one of them pulling her frontal lock of hair. Tomb of Mereruka in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Relief of mourners, one of them pulling her front lock of hair. Tomb of Mereruka in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín.

Drawing of mourning women. Tomb of Idu in Guiza. VI Dynasty.

Drawing of mourning women. Tomb of Idu in Guiza. VI Dynasty.

I want to emphasize in the tomb of Idu two reliefs representing mourning men who are also pulling their hair. It is not so usual to find scenes of mourning men in Ancient Egypt funerals and less shaking their hair or pulling from it. Here there is another open subject for a future research.

This same gesture we find it in the tomb of Inti in Dishasha (near Bahr el-Yusuf) from the VI Dynasty. In this case we are not in a funerary scene, but a war moment, in it the major of the city and a woman in front of him are pulling their front lock of hair. Although it is not a mourning scene, the gesture happens in a moment of desperation and suffering, the same feelings had to show mourners in funerals.

Drawing of the relief in the tomb of Inti. Inside the fortress we can see the major and a woman, both pulling their lock of hair. Dishasha. VI Dynasty.

Drawing of the relief in the tomb of Inti. Inside the fortress we can see the major and a woman, both pulling their lock of hair. Dishasha. VI Dynasty.

Middle Kingdom.

The stele of Abkaou from Abydos in the Louvre Museum dates from the XI Dynasty and it  is one of the best documents for us coming from the Middle Kingdom. In it the artist represented the ceremonies of the Osiris festivity, one of the scenes shows two women shaking hair forwards the mummy.

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 Akbaou (stele C15) from Abydos. Musée du Louvre. XI Dynasty. Photo (stele): http://www.cartelfr.louvre.fr; photo (detail): http://www.commons.wikimedia.org

From Middle Kingdom comes a fragment of a coffin found in Abydos with rests of painting on one side. It shows a funerary procession where a mourning woman with tears falling on her cheek is bent and with the hair over her face. It seems that she would walk mourning besides the coffin, which would be carried by some men.

Mourning woman beside the coffin. Image in a coffin of the Middle Kingdom from Abydos.

Mourning woman beside the coffin. Image in a coffin of the Middle Kingdom from Abydos.

New Kingdom.

The main part of the figurative examples comes from the New Kingdom:

The tomb of Amenemhat (TT82) in Gourna, dates from the XVIII Dynasty and over the door there is scene in which the mummy of Amenemhat lies on a canopy, a priest in front of the dead is making a libation and burning incense; four mourning women are crying for the deceased and two of them are making the nwn gesture of shaking their hairs and covering their faces with it.

Relief from the tomb of Amenemhat (TT 82)

Drawing of the relief from the tomb of Amenemhat (TT 82) in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty.

A very similar scene is on the tomb of Ineni (TT81), also in Gourna and also from XVIII Dynasty. In front of a group of mourners there is one with the body bent, although the head is not preserved it is obvious that this woman was making the nwn gesture.

The same scene is in the tomb of Minnakht (TT87), also in Gourna and also dating from XVIII Dynasty. The only difference here is that she is making the nwn gesture and facing the rest of mourners.

Mourning woman. Tomb of Minnakht. www.1st-art-gallery.com

Mourning woman. Painting in the tomb of Minnakht in Gourna. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.1st-art-gallery.com

The tomb of Renni in el-Kab dates from the reign of Amenhotep I and it is very noticeable how a mourning woman is making the nwn gesture just in front of the dead.

The mourner on the right shows the hair to the deceased. Relief from Renni's Tomb in el-Kab. Photo: www.egyptraveluxe.blogspot.com

The mourner on the right shakes the hair to the deceased. Relief from the tomb of Renni in el-Kab.  XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.egyptraveluxe.blogspot.com

A very similar scene is still visible in a relief in the funerary temple of Seti I in Dra Abu el-Naga, where both mourners are making the gesture nwn on both extremes of the body of the dead pharaoh.

The tomb of Rekhmire in Gourna (TT100) shows to us also an image of mourning in the north wall of the corridor, in which a group of women are mourning, two of them making the nwn gesture. According to the whole scene, this could be happening while inside the tomb or inside a construction was taking place the ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth. But there is something that makes this image different from the rest we have seen: a totally lack of dynamism. While in the former examples women shake their hair forward with energy and with signs of movement, Rekhmire’s mourners have the body straight and their arms are crossed over their chests, showing a passive attitude.

Mourning women in the tomb of Rekhmire. Gourna, XVIII Dynasty. Photo. Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

Mourning women in the tomb of Rekhmire. Gourna, XVIII Dynasty. Photo. Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín

This stillness and the fact that it maybe could be happening apart from the Opening of the Mouth, could make us think that, while in some place are taking place the practises for the resurrection of the dead, in other place these mourners would be making the nwn gesture with a negative connotation, I mean, like a real exhibition of pain and sadness that dives the mourner in the darkness of the chaos that brings about the death.

Texts and iconography show that mourners made two gestures: nwn m (pull the front lock of hair) and nwn (shake hair and cover the face).

In which moment of the funerary ceremony would take place this nwn m/nwn gesture? According to Davies and Gardiner, it could happen some when between the embalming rites and the final celebrations of the funeral.

We will treat that point later. Before we need to know why the hair became such an important element in the funerary rite.