Egypt: Opening of the Mouth Ritual, A Feature Tour Egypt Story

The Opening of the Mouth Ritual
By Marie Parsons

When an ancient Egyptian died, he was not buried into the ground, mourned and then forgotten. Nor was his grave simply visited at certain times and some token words spoken over it, so that once again he is forgotten until next visit. The ancient Egyptians believed that ritual existed which would bring sensory life back to the deceaseds form, enabling it to see, smell, breathe, hear, and eat, and thus partake of the offering foods and drinks brought to the tomb each day.

Priests would recite hymns such as this one, for Pa-nefer:

"Awake!..May you be alert as a living one, rejuvenated every day, healthy in millions of occasions of god sleep, while the gods protect you, protection being around you every day."

Once the deceased was rejuvenated back with all his senses, he could also interact and watch over the family members, affecting their lives. Letters have been found attesting to the continued contact, or at least, belief in the continued contact, between deceased and living. Letters such as this one, from the scribe Butehamun to his deceased wife Ikhtay, where he asks her to intercede with the Lords of Eternity on his behalf. "If you can hear me in the place where you areit is you who will speak with a good speech in the necropolis. Indeed I did not commit an abomination against you while you were on earth, and I hold to my behavior."

The ritual that would re-animate the deceased was called The Opening of the Mouth ceremony. It was an important ritual in both funerary and in temple practice. The Opening of the Mouth originated as a ritual to endow statues with the capacity to support the living ka, and to receive offerings. It was performed on cult statues of gods, kings, and private individuals, as well as on the mummies of both humans and Apis bulls. It was even performed on the individual rooms of temples and on the entire temple structure.

The Opening of the Mouth Ritual

The effect of the ritual was to animate the recipient (or, in the case of a deceased individual, to re-animate it). The ritual allowed the mummy, statue, or temple, to eat, breathe, see, hear and enjoy the offerings and provisions performed by the priests and officiants, thus to sustain the ka. .

The Egyptian terms for the ceremony are wpt-r and wn-r, both translating literally to "opening of the mouth." The verb wpi denotes an opening that entails splitting, dividing or separating, and is used to describe the separation of two combatants, the dividing of time or even a determination of the truth. The verb wn emphasizes accessibility and exposure, used in contexts such as wn-hr, literally "open the face", but more correctly meaning "see" or "be seen".

The earliest Old Kingdom textual references to the ceremony date to the early 4th dynasty, to the Palermo stone and the decoration of the tomb of the royal official Metjen. At this time, the ritual seems to have been performed solely to animate statues, rather than to re-animate the deceased. The Palermo stone states that the ritual takes place in the hwt nbw, in the goldsmiths quarter, sometimes translated as "Castle of Gold, (or perhaps referring to the quarry of Hatnub). The textual formula for the ritual reference is written as "the fashioning and opening of the mouth of (a statue of god X) in the goldsmiths quarter/Hatnub."

The captions of the scenes in Metjens tomb mention that the ritual is performed four times, in conjunction with censing and transforming the deceased into an akh. In the Pyramid Texts and later funerary texts and captions, the rites are also said to be performed four times. The spells are repeated four times, for Horus, Set, Thoth, and Dwn-anwy.

It was probably not until the sixth dynasty that the statue ritual was incorporated into an Opening of the Mouth ceremony already developed independently as part of the funerary ritual. This ritual itself may have been a symbolic re-enactment of the clearing of a babys mouth at birth. The earliest implements used were probably the priests fingers, later replaced by finger-shaped iron blades. In many texts, reference is made to the fingers of Horus

Earliest references to the ritual comes from the Pyramid Texts, inscribed on the burial chamber of the pyramid of Unas, dating to the end of the 5th dynasty. One set of Pyramid Texts referring to the use of the fingers to open the mouth are PT 1329-1330, translated by Faulkner as "your mouth is split open by Horus with this little finger of his with which he split open the mouth of his father Osiris."

The Opening of the Mouth Ritual

Other implements besides fingers were added, as indicated by Spells 11-15 of the Pyramid Texts. They describe the Opening of the Mouth ceremony using the foreleg of a bull and an iron wood-working adze. Other inscriptions give an offering ritual in which two blades of meteoric iron, called the ntjrwy, are said to open the mouth. Faulkner translates this spell as "O Osiris the King, I split open your mouth for you gods iron of Upper Egypt, 1 ingot; gods iron of Lower Egypt, 1 ingot."

The ritual was thus be performed with various implements, most commonly a wood-carving adze, which were touched to the lips by the officiating priest. An adze was an arched metal blade fasted across the top of a wooden handle with leather thongs, used in woodworking. The ceremonial adze was made from the metal of heaven, bi3 n pt, meteoric iron. The adze mimicked carving and sculpture, logical if the Funerary ceremony evolved from the ritual performed on a statue.

Another implement often depicted in the ceremony was the psh-kef knife. The psh-kef knife is first attested in prehistoric tombs as early as the Naqada I period.

Psh-kf sets were limestone platters with recesses that usually hold the two ntjrwy blades, a blunt psh-kf knife, two tiny bottles and four tiny cups. The bottles and cups are half of light-color and half of black. The same set of implements is listed together in the inventories of temple equipment found at the mortuary temple of Neferirkare at Abusir.

The implements used in the Pyramid Text ritual continue to appear in private tombs of the Middle Kingdom, but a rather different version of the ritual also appears in the Coffin Texts. Now Ptah joins Horus to open the deceaseds mouth, then Ptah and Thoth transform the deceased into an akh, and Thoth replaces the heart in the body, so that the deceased remembers what has been forgotten and can eat bread as desired.

In the New Kingdom, Chapter 23 of the Book of Dead says "my mouth is opened by Ptah; the bonds that gag my mouth have been loosed by my city-god. Thoth comes fully equipped with magicmy mouth has been parted by Ptah with this metal chisel of his with which he parted the mouths of the gods." Here, instead of Horus, the gods Ptah and Thoth are mentioned. And although in the Pyramid Texts the god Set is associated with the iron of the adze used to open the mouth, here in the New Kingdom texts associate the bonds obstructing the mouth with Set. But the adze, the dw3-wr, the fingers and psh-kf are all included with other older elements.

The earliest complete account of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony dates to the 19th dynasty, embodied in a long ceremony performed at funerals in or before the tomb. King Seti I had such scenes depicted on his tomb, and so did the vizier Rekhmire. He held office under both Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep II. The scenes are among the best sources on the subject. The stm and lector-priests played central roles, the former representing the son who was closest to the father, the latter making the correct recitations.

The ceremony should be carried out in the House of Gold. Once the deceased had arrived at his tomb, the akhu rituals were performed to bring about his transfiguration The rite consisted of many acts, the opening of the mouth being just one, but central. The first part was the lustration or washing. The deceaseds mummy was first set up on a clean mound of sand, facing south. He should be purified with water poured from nmst and dshrt jars, and his mouth especially purified with balls of natron from Upper and Lower Egypt.

The deceased should then be fumigated by incense. This part of the purification harks back to the Pyramid Texts, such as spells 16-29, where perfume is used. The stm priest should be awakened. After he is dressed in his panther-skin garb. The stm-priest identifies himself with Horus and opens the mouth of the statue with his fingers rather than with the adze.

The ox/bull is butchered and the heart presented to the deceased, its foreleg is severed and pointed towards the deceased. The hieroglyph for foreleg denoted strength, and perhaps it was considered that the foreleg transferred the life-force of the bull to the recipient of the Opening of the mouth (alternately, the bull may have had to do with reviving sexual powers).

Then the mouth is opened with the ntjrwy tool, and the mummy is presented to the son "who loves him." More scenes depict the son coming to the House of Gold, opening the mouth with the mdjdft-tool, and touching the mummys mouth with the little finger again.

An ostrich feather is presented, the psh-kef knife is presented, and more aromatics are burned. Grapes and other foods are offered. Then the newly animated mummy is brought to his place. The ceremony is done.


Village Life in Ancient Egypt by A.G. McDowell

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt

The Pyramid Texts translated by Raymond O. Faulkner

Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt by John H. Taylor

The House of Horus at Edfu by Barbara Watterson

Ancient Egyptian Religion by Jaroslav Czerny

Life and Death in Ancient Egypt by Sigrid Hodel-Hoenes translated