Ep. 4: MYth & Mummies


Ancient Egyptians were pretty much the kings of immortality. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs were literally the kings of immortality. The death of a pharaoh was also his birth into the afterlife. And the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony was the best way to make sure that birth went smoothly. I also indulge my inner storyteller and find time for a Kardashian reference.



So you’re looking for more information on this whole burying-your-pharaoh situation. Let’s start with a couple of general overviews of Egyptian mythology.

I also cannot recommend enough that you check out the History of Egypt podcast, hosted by Dominic Perry, who I interviewed in this episode. His episodes are always extremely well researched and absolutely fascinating. His episode on the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony is 56c. You can listen on his website, or whatever podcasting platform you’re using to listen to Ritual.

The analysis I presented of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony relies a lot on the work of Professor Ann Macy Roth from NYU. She’s sort of the expert on the thing, and she wrote the entry on the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony in the Oxford Encyclopedia. She has two papers in particular that I relied on, although, fair warning, this is full on academia. There’s a lot of prior knowledge assumed and things get very complicated.

  • Roth, Ann Macy. “The Pss-kf and the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ Ceremony: a Ritual of Birth and Rebirth,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 78 (1992), pp. 113-147.

  • Roth, Ann Macy. “Fingers, Stars, and the Opening of the Mouth: The Nature and Function of the Ntrwj Blades,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 79 (1993), pp. 57-79.

In the center is a bust of the deceased Osiris. On the right is his sister-wife Isis, with the horns of a cow. She is also shown with a headdress shaped like a throne. On the left is Horus, Osiris and Isis’s son, who has the head of a falcon.
This is an image of the opening of the Mouth ceremony being performed. The mummified pharaoh is the figure wrapped in white linens. The jackal headed god behind him is Anubis, who often helps with funerary rites. In front of him are mourners, actually performing the ceremony. In their hands they hold the many specific implements necessary to complete the ceremony.

Of course, you don’t have to take my word for anything. If you want to take a look at the Pyramid Texts themselves, you can find an English translation here. The Pyramid Texts are on the wall of a the tomb of an Old Kingdom pharaoh named Unas. This is quite an early variant of the ceremony, and the certainly evolves as time goes on. The Pyramid Texts actually contain a lot of text relating to a many different things, but the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony is recorded on the north wall of the sarcophagus room.  

laying the wreath.jpg
This is what an upwrapped Egyptian mummy looks like, in case you were wondering. As you can tell, the body is preserved, but not exactly in pristine condition. I can only hope it’s good enough to help the ka get by.

I cannot express to you how much I enjoyed looking into different Osiris and Isis myths. It’s a really interesting situation because we don’t get really comprehensive narratives of it until much later. Early references, like the Pyramid Texts, don’t tell the whole story. They more make these little allusions that people have reconstructed into a story. Another interesting thing about Egyptian mythology is that its believers were totally unbothered by contradictory information. There are no efforts to make the canon of myths comprehensive. So, in some stories about Horus, he and Set are brothers. Sometimes there’s a Horus the Younger and a Horus the Elder. The version I wrote is kind of an amalgamation of different versions, with a lot of references to other gods cut out to make it more understandable.

If you want to read a few different versions, there are a few below.

  • Plutarch, writing in the Roman period, gives one of the best known tellings of the Osiris myth. But he’s not actually Egyptian, and the worship of the gods has changed quite a bit, with cults of Isis gaining a lot more influence. I relied pretty heavily on his version because it’s easy to work with, and because I think Isis is awesome.

  • Here’s another version of the story that gives more information about the Set and Horus part of the myth.

  • Honestly, the Wikipedia page gives a great discussion of the Osiris myth’s different form and history. Surprise.

  • Something I left out pretty much entirely is the story of the competition between Set and Horus for the throne. It’s referred to as the Contendings of Set and Horus. There’s mutilation, an incestuous homosexual virility competition, and jury duty. What’s not to love?

In Unas’s tomb at Sakkara, text covers the walls. This is a portion of the Pyramid Texts from the burial chamber.  

Fun, Off-Topic Fact: The Opening of the Mouth Ceremony has also found new life among some neo-pagan groups, which use a variant of the ceremony to animate their own cult statues. I love how meta that is.

Okay, for my final note, that story about Cleopatra dressing up at Aphrodite. She was going to meet Antony (of Antony and Cleopatra fame) for the first time. He was basically drunk, but tried to make it cute by dressing up like Dionysius, the god of wine. She took things one step further by floating up on her barge dressed like Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. The encounter is recorded in Plutarch’s Life of Antony. In this version the story of Antony and Cleopatra starts at paragraph 25. I want to reiterate to you: Cleopatra was going to meet the guy who was basically going to decide if she stayed ruler of Egypt, and she showed up dressed like a goddess. Next time you’re asking yourself if your outfit is too much before you go out, remember this.

An artist's rendering of Cleopatra on her barge, draped in leopard skins and listening to what appears to be an underwhelming flute player. Antony approaches in the back ground. He appears intimidated. As he should.