The Opening of the Mouth ceremony is arguably the most important ancient Egyptian ritual. It was performed on cult statues of gods, kings, and private individuals, as well as on the mummies of humans and Apis bulls; it could even be performed on entire temples. The effect of the ritual was to animate its recipient, or, in the case of the dead, to reanimate it. It allowed the mummy, statue, or temple to eat, breathe, see, hear, and otherwise enjoy the provisions offered by the cult. (It was sometimes accompanied by secondary ritual gestures said to open the eyes.) The ritual could be performed with various implements (most commonly a wood-carving adze), which were touched to the lips by a cult functionary.
The Egyptian terms for the ritual are wpt-r and wn-r, both of which translate literally as “opening of the mouth.” The verb wpἰ seems to predominate, although wn often occurs in parallel with it. The two verbs are not exact synonyms. The verb wpἰ seems to connote an opening that entails splitting, dividing, or separating; it can be used, for example, to describe the separation of two combatants, the dividing of time, or even an analysis or determination of the truth. The verb wn seems to give more emphasis to accessibility and exposure and is used in contexts such as wn-ḥr, literally “open the face,” but in fact meaning “see or be seen.” It has been suggested that the use of the verb wpἰ points to the ritual's origin in statue carving, because the woodcarver's adze is more likely to split than to open up, and because the verb implies greater force. However, other uses of wpἰ are nonviolent, and the adze is normally used not to cleave but to shave wood. Wpἰ is more probably favored because the opening of the mouth entails the parting of the lips.
The ritual clearly changed and evolved over the centuries of its use. The principal study on the subject is that of Otto (1960), who published an extensive translation, commentary, and analysis of the New Kingdom version of the ritual. He argues that the Opening of the Mouth was a confused amalgamation of many different rituals, some originally unrelated, and that the cult functionaries who performed it were often entirely ignorant of the origins and meanings of the implements and words they employed. In the New Kingdom redaction of the ritual, he sees traces of a statue ritual, an offering ritual, an embalming ritual, a burial ritual, a butchering ritual, and a temple ritual. Because of the centrality of the adze in the New Kingdom depictions of the ritual, he argues that the preparation of cult statues was the earliest context in which the ritual was used, and in which it developed.
A different reconstruction of the ritual's origins has been proposed by Roth (1993), based on her analysis of its Old Kingdom version. She argues that it was not until the sixth dynasty that the statue ritual was incorporated into an Opening of the Mouth ceremony that had already developed independently as part of the funerary ritual. Based on the fact that the earliest funerary implements seem to have been the little fingers of the priest (later supplanted by finger-shaped blades of meteoric iron), and on the context in which the earliest redaction of the Opening of the Mouth occurs, she proposes that the funerary ritual was a metaphorical reenactment of the clearing of a baby's mouth at birth, and that the statue ritual may have developed independently from the same metaphor. She concludes that the New Kingdom redaction was an intentionally complex and redundant combination of new forms with the old.
The earliest Old Kingdom textual references to the Opening of the Mouth (pace Brovarski, Serapis 4[1977–1978], 1–2) date to the early fourth dynasty, when references to the statue ritual can be found both in the Palermo stone and in the decoration of the tomb of the royal official Metjen. The Palermo stone tells us that the ritual takes place in the ḥwt nbw, the quarter of the goldsmiths (or possibly the similarly written quarry of Hatnub). The Palermo stone and similar historical notations use the formula [god X] mst wpt-r m ḥwt-nbw, “the fashioning (literally, the birth) and opening of the mouth of (a statue of) god X in the goldsmiths’ quarter/Hatnub.” Examples of this formula prior to the fourth dynasty use only the form [god X] mst, “the fashioning of god X,” which suggests that the opening of the mouths of statues was introduced only in the fourth dynasty. The captions of the Metjen scenes mention that the ritual is performed four times, and a fourfold repetition may also be mentioned in a fragment from the mortuary temple of Sneferu. Metjen's Opening of the Mouth ritual occurs in conjunction with censing and the ritual of transforming the deceased into a ʒḫ (or sʒḫt). In none of these references to the ritual is the ritual action represented.
The next clear textual mention of the ritual is in the Pyramid Texts of Unas, dating to the end of the fifth dynasty. On the north wall of Unas's burial chamber is inscribed an offering ritual in which two blades of meteoric iron, called the nṯrwy, are said to open the mouth (Spell 30b). One blade is described as Lower Egyptian and the other as Upper Egyptian. Van Walsem (1978) argues that the ritual sequence preserved in this part of the offering ritual was already badly confused, and in fact represented a ritual of embalming entirely unrelated to the ritual of the Opening of the Mouth. Opposing this, Roth (1993) observes that this entire ritual sequence mimics the birth and maturation of a child, and that the nṯrwy blades represent the pair of little fingers that would have cleared a newborn baby's mouth. In later collections of Pyramid Texts, there are references to Horus's opening the mouth of Osiris with his little fingers (in Spells 1329–1330) and to the sons of Horus opening the mouth with little fingers of meteoric iron (in Spells 1983). Other elements in the sequence following the nṯrwy blades are milk jars (one empty, one holding milk), described as the breasts of Isis and Horus, and five cloves of garlic described as teeth. The implement preceding the nṯrwy blades was the pšs-kf knife, which Roth believes was used to cut the umbilical cord.
Actual nṯrwy blades are not preserved archaeologically; however, models are occasionally found in “psš-kf sets,” limestone platters with recesses that hold (usually) the two nṯrwy blades, a blunt psš-kf knife, two tiny bottles, and four tiny cups. The bottles and cups are half of light-colored stone and half of black stone. These implements represent all the nonperishable requirements for the first row of the offering ritual given in the Pyramid Texts of Unas, and are therefore also known as “Opening of the Mouth sets.” The same set of implements is listed together in the inventories of temple equipment found at the mortuary temple of Neferirkare at Abusir.
This ritual may be older than its earliest surviving appearance, at the end of the fifth dynasty. Elements of the same sequence of implements and offerings listed in the Pyramid Texts occur in royal offering lists as early as the reign of Sahure, the second king of the fifth dynasty. The pšs-kf knife is attested archaeologically even earlier; it was buried in prehistoric tombs as early as the Naqada I period. Since this knife is otherwise known only in connection with the Opening of the Mouth ritual, its presence suggests that some form of the ritual dates back to prehistoric times.
Only in the sixth dynasty was a second new sequence added to the beginning of the Pyramid Text ritual (Spells 11–15). These new spells describe the Opening of the Mouth using the foreleg of a bull and an iron wood-working adze, both of which can be related to the constellation Ursa Major. These spells are clearly related to the statue ritual, since the foreleg is said to be offered four times. In addition to the little fingers and the little fingers of meteoric iron, the other implements mentioned in these later Pyramid Texts include the dwʒ-wr, probably a chisel (Spell 1329c), and the sšʒ, a mysterious implement not attested elsewhere (Spell 1329b). The rite with the dwʒ-wr was again said to occur in the ḥwt-nbw, so it is clearly part of the statue ritual. That these are later additions to the mortuary ritual can also be demonstrated by the fact that no adzes or chisels seem to be mentioned in the inventories of temple equipment from the mortuary temple of Neferirkare at Abusir.
The implements used in both the original and the later redactions of the Opening of the Mouth ritual in the Pyramid Texts continue to appear in private tombs of the Middle Kingdom, in both offering lists and friezes of objects. A rather different version of the ritual also appears in the Coffin Texts (CT I,65), in which Horus and Ptah open the mouth of the deceased, Ptah and Thoth do the ritual of transfiguration, and Thoth replaces the heart in the body “so that you remember what you have forgotten, and can eat bread as you desire.” The importance of Ptah and Thoth points to new developments, since neither is mentioned in earlier versions; however, there is little further evidence for the development of the ritual during the Middle Kingdom period.
The New Kingdom Opening of the Mouth ritual shows two different traditions. The tradition of the Coffin Text spell has developed into chapter 23 of the Book of Going Forth by Day (the Book of the Dead). In this chapter, the mouth is opened by Ptah and the local god of the deceased, while Thoth stands by, equipped with magic. The bonds that had been obstructing the mouth and preventing it from functioning are associated with the god Seth. The mouth is also said to be opened by the god Shu with a harpoon of iron, and the deceased is identified with the goddess Sakhmet and the constellation Orion. The conclusion of the spell invokes the entire Ennead of gods to protect the deceased from any negative spell.
This tradition is clearly different from the conception of the Opening of the Mouth developed in the Pyramid Texts ritual and the related offering list sequence. Not only are different gods involved (Ptah is mentioned in only three spells altogether in the Pyramid Texts, none of them connected with opening the mouth); in addition, the protective purpose seems entirely different. The identification of Seth with the bonds restricting the mouth is in direct contradiction to Pyramid Texts Spell 14, in which the iron of the adze that opens the mouth is said to have come forth from Seth. The second New Kingdom version of the opening of the mouth is, however, clearly descended from the Old Kingdom version. The adze, the dwʒ-wr, the fingers, and the psš-kf are all included, together with several other elements.
Otto (1960) distinguishes seventy-five scenes in the New Kingdom version of the ritual. In most cases the ritual is given a title, normally “the Performance of the Opening of the Mouth for the Statue in the Ḥwt-nbw.” In the first scene, the mummy is placed on the sand, naked, with his face to the south, his clothes (wrappings?) behind him. In scenes 2 through 7, he is purified with poured libations, incense, and natron. These scenes are reminiscent of the first spells in the earliest Pyramid Text sequence (Spells 16–29). The similarities include not only the offerings but also the repetition of purification spells four times—once for each of four gods (Horus, Seth, Thoth, and Dewen-ʿanwy), each of whom represents one of the cardinal directions.
Scenes 8 through 22 are the scenes that are most clearly associated with the statue ritual, involving as they do craftsmen as well as priests. In scene 8, the lector-priest and the ἰmy-ḫnt-priests go to the workshop (ἰs); in scene 9 they wake the stm-priest, who is sleeping there; and in scene 10 they converse with him about a dream or vision he has had regarding the statue. The stm-priest dresses (scene 11) and instructs the craftsmen about the statue (scene 12), with special instructions for the specialized workers (scene 13). In scene 14, however, the mouth of the statue is opened with the little fingers by the stm-priest, who identifies himself as Horus. This use of the fingers, rather than the more usual wood-carving tool, may be intended to emphasize the humanity of the statue. In scene 15 the workers are instructed to continue their work, while in scene 16 the priest denies Seth's ability to whiten the head of the statue. Scenes 17 and 18 are interpreted by Otto as the completion and delivery of the statue. The texts make reference to Horus's search for his father. In scenes 19 through 21, the apparel of the stm-priest is augmented, and scene 22 is a procession of priests to the next group of rituals.
Scenes 23 through 27 involve the butchering of a bull and the presentation of its heart and foreleg, followed by Opening of the Mouth rituals using other implements—in scene 26, the nṯrty, here pictured as an adze. In scene 27, another adze called the wr-ḥkʒw (“great of magic”) opens the eyes, and the statue is delivered to the ἰry-pʿt in scene 28. Scenes 29 and 30 are repetitions of scenes 17 and 16 from the statue ritual, with some variations in the latter.
Scene 31 introduces the “son whom he loves,” a priest who will carry out the next series of mouth-opening rituals. This series again includes several elements of the Old Kingdom sequence, interspersed with newer implements. In scene 32 the “son whom he loves” opens the mouth with the ebony mḏdft-tool and a finger of gold, while in scene 33 the little finger is again used. In scene 34 the nms is offered in a jar, and in scenes 35 and 36 the four ʿbt are offered; neither of these offerings has been identified. Scene 37 shows the offering of the psš-kf, with the same accompanying speech that was used in the Pyramid Texts. In scene 38 grapes are offered, and in scene 39, an ostrich feather. Scene 39 is derived from Pyramid Texts Spell 32b, where an empty mnsʒ jar is offered; the feather used to write šw, “empty,” has mistakenly been read as a separate offering. Scene 40 is a repetition of scenes 20/21 and scene 36. In scene 41 a basin of water is offered, and in scene 42 the “son whom he loves” departs, marking the end of the sequence.
Scenes 43, 44, and 45 repeat the butchering of a bull and the offering of its heart and foreleg. In scene 45, the mouth is opened with a chisel, and in scene 46, incense is burnt. In scenes 48 through 54, a sequence of cloth strips and clothing is presented (perhaps derived from the cloth offerings in Pyramid Texts Spells 60–61 and 81). Scene 55 depicts the anointing of the statue, in some examples with the seven sacred oils known from the Old Kingdom ritual (Spells 72–78), where they appear immediately after the “B sequence.” As in the Pyramid Texts (Spells 79–80), the anointing is directly followed by the offering of green and black eye paint in scene 56. Scene 57 shows the presentation of scepters (perhaps a distillation of the weapons and scepters presented in Pyramid Texts Spells 57–59 and 62–71), while scenes 58 through 61 describe censing the statue in various ways.
Scene 62 begins a sequence that may have had its origin in temple rituals. It depicts an act of homage with nmst jars. It is followed by libation (scene 63) and censing (scene 64). Scenes 65–72 deal with the preparation and presentation of the food offering, interspersed with censing and libation. The ḥtp-dἰ-nswt offering formula is recited and the footprints of the priests are wiped away in scene 70. After an offering of incense to Re-Harakhti (scene 71), the offering concludes (scene 72).
The last three scenes deal with the final placement of the statue or the mummy, and the conclusion of the ceremony. While it is clear that many elements have been added to the Old Kingdom version of the ritual as given in the Pyramid Texts of Unas and later kings, many of the basic elements remain, in an order surprisingly close to the original sequence.
The Late period redactions of the Opening of the Mouth ritual continue the traditions of the earlier periods. A group of mortuary rituals in this tradition from as late as the first century CE are known (Smith 1993). These late rituals retain many elements of the New Kingdom ritual, including the variety of officiants. The later texts, however, are specifically said to allow the dead person to breathe, and as such they seem to have taken on some of the characteristics of the “letters of breathing” known from this period. In addition to being performed as part of the funeral, it is possible that, like the letters of breathing, they were placed in the tomb for the use of the deceased. This development illustrates again the tendency of this ritual to incorporate new elements with the passage of time.
Peculiar to this period is the depiction of the ritual in temple dedication ceremonies. (The rituals may have been performed on temples from a much earlier period, of course.) The dedication ceremonies at the Ptolemaic temple of Edfu seem to combine elements of the tradition from the Coffin Texts and the Book of Going Forth by Day with the separate New Kingdom ritual derived from the Pyramid Texts. As summarized by Blackman (1946), the ritual contains many elements of the New Kingdom mortuary rite—for example, the use of multiple tools (an adze, a chisel, and a finger of gold) and the butchering of offerings. Yet several of the acts are said to be performed by Ptah, and Thoth is also involved; such an involvement of the gods is more typical of the Coffin Texts tradition. Like the mortuary tradition, the temple ritual would have been a complex series of actions selected from several different traditions.
- Blackman, A. M., and H. W. Fairman. “The Consecration of an Egyptian Temple According to the Use of Edfu,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 32 (1946), 75–91. Gives a translation of the temple ceremony at Edfu and attempts to relate it to episodes of the New Kingdom rite.
- Budge, E. A. W. The Book of the Opening of the Mouth. London, 1909. Long out of date, this was one of the earliest attempts to analyze the ritual.
- Otto, Eberhard. Das Ägyptische Mundöffnungsritual. Ägyptologische Abhandlungen, 3. Wiesbaden, 1960. The basic edition and translation of the New Kingdom ritual, with full commentary.
- Roth, Ann Macy. “Fingers, Stars, and the Opening of the Mouth: The Nature and Function of the Nṯrwj Blades.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 79 (1993), 57–79. An argument for the origin of the ritual as an imitation of a child's birth and maturation.
- Smith, Mark. The Liturgy of Opening the Mouth for Breathing. Oxford, 1993. Publication of several Demotic versions of the ritual.
- van Walsem, Rene. “The Psš-kf: An investigation of an ancient Egyptian funerary instrument.” Oudheidkundige Mededelingen uit het Rijksmuseum van Oudheden te Leiden 59 (1978), 193–249. Argues that the psš-kf knife and the nṯrwy blades, usually taken as early elements of the ritual, were instead part of a ritual of mummification.
Ann Macy Roth