The 'Opening of the Mouth' ritual
Outline and concept
The 'Opening of the Mouth and Eyes' (generally abbreviated to 'Opening of the Mouth') is the ancient Egyptian title of a ritual attested from the Old Kingdom to the Roman Period. In essence it might be described as a consecration ritual for images in human form. It is known to have been performed on statues and, from the New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC) at least, coffins. In the ritual, specially designated persons used special ritual tools to touch the mouth and eyes of the image to enable a spirit to receive food and drink, to breathe, and to see. Sustenance and light are the two key aspects of life desired for the person for eternity.
The ritual illustrates a concept of sculpture as birth. This concept also finds expression in the Egyptian language, in its vocabulary for sculpture: the fashioning of the image is 'giving birth', the sculptor is 'the one who causes to live'. In the 'Opening of the Mouth', the special ritual implements for consecration may derive from blades used in childbirth (such as the peseshkaf to cut the umbilical cord?), and the accompanying meat offerings would have involved an outpouring of blood that evokes implicitly the blood of childbirth and of life. This underlying motif has been explored and brought to light above all by Ann Macy Roth (Roth 1992; Roth 1993).
A fragment from a late 18th dynasty tomb-chapel, unprovenanced, depicts a scene of meat offering, perhaps in association with the 'Opening of the Mouth'..
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The ritual implements from the Opening of the Mouth as amulets for the afterlife
Sets of stone versions of the ritual tools were made as parts of burial equipment for officials, priests and their families in the late Old Kingdom, at the cemeteries of Memphis. In the New Kingdom, and more often in the Late Period, models of the tools are found in the large sets of amulets placed on the wrapped mummified body, at cemeteries throughout Egypt.
1. the forked blade, named in the Opening of the Mouth ritual as peseshkaf, a word of uncertain original meaning, perhaps reinterpreted in later periods as 'splitter of his ka-spirit' - favoured materials include obsidian (UC 38630, 38632) and other black to green stones, glass and metal; the form seems to derive from the forked flint blades found as early as the Badarian Period (such as UC 10244)
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2. the serpent blade, named in the Opening of the Mouth ritual Episode 27 werhekau meaning 'Great of Power': serpent-head blades are found in New Kingdom burials, sometimes inscribed with the title and name of the deceased, and tend to be made of red jasper or carnelian, another red semi-precious stone (UC 30337, 52118) - earlier examples are known in flint (UC 15171, acquired at Koptos - precise date and relationship to the ritual remain uncertain)
3. adze-shaped blades, named in the Opening of the Mouth ritual Episode 26 meskhetyu and nua - an inscribed example from a Deir el-Bahri temple foundation deposit may evoke the ritual indirectly.
Another Late Period amulet echoing the Opening the Mouth ritual is the double finger, generally made in dark stones (UC 2413 - UC 2415) and glass, sometimes gilt (as UC 2412).
The written and pictorial sources range in date from Old Kingdom to Roman Period: E. Otto published a synoptic edition and commentary (Otto1960). The seven sources with the longest series of scenes and/or written passages are the following (1-3 New Kingdom, 4 Twenty-first Dynasty, 5-6 Twenty-fifth to Twenty-sixth Dynasties, 7 early Roman Period):
In combination those seven fullest versions, supported by the eighty additional shorter sources used by Otto, present an extended ritual of some seventy-five episodes:
The sources come mainly from tombs, and so the longest versions include elements such as the funerary meal: the 'Opening of the Mouth' proper consists of the rites of animation and the sequence of meat offerings.
The following table presents the presence of episodes in the seven fullest versions (from Otto 1960, volume 2, 189-190); for each source (vertical columns), each episode is marked as either (1) present or (2) in an area destroyed on that source, or (3) left blank, meaning that the episode was not included in that source. For the destroyed areas, the episode may not have been present originally, depending on the amount of space taken up by adjacent episodes in the destroyed area. The various sources give different sequences of episodes, and in some instances a single episode is divided into separate parts; these are not covered in the table below - for the details, see Otto1960.
As this table demonstrates, the '75 episode-ritual' is a modern Egyptological 'translation' from a series of sources, each of which provides its own reflection of the ritual, and none of which is comprehensive. Even the 75 episodes together would not provide enough information to act as a full step-by-step guide to all of the procedures carried out for the conception, creation and consecration of human-form images; sculpting stone statues and wooden coffins required many weeks of skilled labour, and the preserved versions of the ritual provide no timings, and only few instances of repeated episodes. In the original procedures, there must have been a far greater number of ritual actions and words than that provided in these selections. These doubtless changed over time: the earliest long version (Rekhmira, about 1425 BC) is a thousand years later than the first references to the ritual, in the Old Kingdom.
The version of the Opening of the Mouth ritual on the north wall of the rear chamber in the tomb-chapel of the vizier Rekhmira at Thebes ('Theban Tomb 100') is one of the earliest and the longest, with 51 of the 75 attested episodes, and one of the best-preserved and best-published.
1. The title introduces the setting and purpose of the ritual: a statue is to be placed in the 'House of Gold' on a bed of sand, with the face oriented to the south
2. In Episodes 2-7 the area is purified
3. In Episodes 8-10 specific priestly officials conduct the fundamental part of the ritual for conceiving the statue to be created, in a chamber named by an Egyptian word 'is'; Episode 11, absent from the Rekhmira version, presents one key participant, the sem-priest, in new costume, marking a transition to a new phase
4. Episodes 12-18 involve the sculpting of the unfinished block into a finished statue; in epsiodes 19-22 the key participants change clothing and the setting moves from the is-chamber to an outer (open air?) space
5. Episodes 23-25 cover the sacrifice of a bull and offering of select parts to the statue; Episodes 26-27 present core rites of 'Opening the Mouth' by touching the statue with special instruments; Episodes 28-30 repeat the procedures of Episodes 16-18, followed by the introduction of the 'son' for 'Opening the Mouth' in Episodes 31-32, 'Opening the Mouth' with the small finger in Episode 33, and the presentation of instruments including the peseshkaf-blade in Episodes 34-41 (not all present in the Rekhmira version)
6. Episodes 42-47 repeat the bull-sacrifice theme of Episodes 23-25 (of these Episode 42 is absent from the Rekhmira version), followed by a robing and anointing ritual of which the Rekhmira version includes only Episode 50
7. Libations to all deities and the purification of an offering (in the Rekhmira version only Episodes 59 and 65 part), followed by the concluding phase in which the image is set up in its final position, and the person conducting the ritual moves backwards out of the sacred space, brushing away any footprints (Episodes 70-75).
Click here for a transliteration and translation of the ritual as presented in the tomb-chapel of the vizier Rekhmira
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