Funeral Dances

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Funeral Dances

Long Tradition.

The tradition of a funeral dance in Egypt probably began in the Nagada II Period, as early as 3500 b.c.e. Evidence of funeral dances continued into the Thirtieth Dynasty more than 3,000 years later. Yet these dances are not well understood today. Many problems in understanding the dances stem from the way that the evidence is preserved. The evidence comes mostly from paintings and relief sculptures that have severely abbreviated the dance steps in order to fit a representative number of steps on the limited wall space in a tomb. The liturgy of the funeral service can supplement modern understanding of the dances, but the best way to understand the dances is to see how they fit with the parts of the funeral service, a ritual which lasted for many days.

Funeral Ritual.

The funeral dance portrayed the five major parts of an Egyptian funeral. The separate sections included:

  1. The deceased's journey from East to West across the sky with the sun god Re,
  2. The deceased's arrival in the West under the protection of the matjerut -priestess,
  3. The deceased's rebirth and washing the newborn in the House of Purification,
  4. Animating the newborn through a ritual called "opening the mouth," led by a panther-skin clad priest, and judging the deceased's previous life in the House of Embalmment,
  5. Depositing the mummy in the tomb, called "reception in the West."

Dancers portrayed each segment of the funeral, but not every tomb included every part of the dance on its walls. During the Old Kingdom, for example, there are 76 tombs that illustrate some part of the funeral dance, either with the depiction of the funeral procession or as part of the funeral meal. The fullest depiction of the dance comes from the tomb of Princess Watetkhethor, daughter of King Teti (2350–2338 b.c.e.) and wife of his prime minister, Mereruka. In this very large tomb comprising six separate rooms, the princess commissioned one wall depicting the funeral dance. This large amount of space contrasts greatly with the usual amount of space allotted to dance scenes in other tombs. In the princess's tomb, 31 figures comprise the fullest known illustration of the funeral dance. Yet other tomb reliefs concentrated on and expanded particular parts of the dance found in this tomb. Thus scholars can only achieve a full understanding of the dance by combining information from various tombs.

Couples Dance.

Two couples perform the funeral dance. In eight different Old Kingdom tombs belonging to men, two groups of men impersonate the deceased while female dancers simultaneously perform the iba -dance. In Princess Watetkhethor's tomb, however, the two couples are women, indicating that the gender of the dancers in the couples dance is determined by the gender of the deceased. In the tombs belonging to men, the tomb owner sits at an offering table while the performers execute the steps. In the princess's tomb, she sits in a carrying chair and observes it.


Artists depicted the dance scene in the Tomb of Watetkhethor using registers, a device for organizing the space in a picture by creating a series of parallel groundlines within the picture. The dancers in the first register of Watetkhethor's tjeref dance perform the opening movements of the dance. These movements were called the muu -dance. Artists in other tombs expanded this section with more detail, allowing scholars to determine that the muu-dance represented the beginning of the funeral where the deceased symbolically crossed the heavens in the sun-god's boat. The dancers who performed the muu-dance impersonated the guardians at the entrance to the land of the dead and the ferrymen who conducted the boat carrying the sarcophagus to the land of the dead. The muu-dance further represented the symbolic journey to Buto, a city associated with Osiris, the god of the Afterlife. The Egyptians believed that a pilgrimage to Buto was the first stage of the journey to the land of the dead. Finally, the muu-dancers pulled the sledge—a sled that travels on sand—containing the mummy, the canopic jars used to store the mummified organs, and the tekenu—the placenta of the deceased. The text of the first register refers to the Egyptians' wish for a quick passage across the sky, the hidden movements of the funeral, and the pulling of the sledge. The text also alludes to gold at this point, which probably refers to the sun and its journey across the sky, which the deceased joined. The Egyptologist Jonathan Van Lepp suggests convincingly that the movement accompanying this caption is a gesture that allows the dancers to form the hieroglyphic sign for gold. This attempt to imitate writing through movement is also used in modern Egyptian folk dance where the dancers imitate Arabic calligraphy in their poses. The dancers use this technique in other parts of the dance.


Register two symbolizes the deceased arriving on the west bank of the Nile river, the land traditionally viewed as the necropolis or "city of the dead." Here the text asks the funeral priestess called the matjerut to protect the ka statue that will act as a home for the soul. The dancers form a circle that represents the circuit the sun follows through the sky of the living and under the earth in the land of the dead.


introduction: These captions add an abbreviated explanation to the drawing of 31 figures executing the tjeref dance in the Tomb of Watetkhethor in Saqqara. Watetkhethor was a royal princess, daughter of King Teti (2350–2338 b.c.e.) and wife of the prime minister, Mereruka. Watetkhethor was also a priestess of Hathor—a goddess associated with dance—which might explain why she devoted one whole wall of her tomb to a dance scene. The khener, a professional music and dance troupe, performed the tjeref dance at the end of the funeral. The dance recapitulated the major components of the funeral. The captions give some clues as to the relationship between the dance and a funeral, but are very abbreviated due to the limitations of space on the wall. They are divided by horizontal lines into five spaces called registers.

Register One

"I am clapping; I am clapping; Hey! A quick crossing; Hey! The movement is hidden; Hey! The movement is golden."

Register Two

Hey! The matjerut -priestess is in charge of it; She comes, she comes; Tenet is the matjerut -priestess. Hey! The beautiful one is taken … by?; Hey! I unite (with you); Hey! All pavilions (of/and) the audience hall;"

Register Three

"Hey! You praise the Festival of Birth; Quick, quick; It is the same thing; O, Quartet, come and pull; Hey, the secrets of the harem; Hey, recitation of the private rooms; Hey, a gesture of supplication."

Register Five

"May she give the arm … may she give the secret … tomb; Go people of …"

source: Jonathan Van Lepp, "The Dance Scene of Watetkhethor: An Art Historical Approach to the Role of Dance in Old Kingdom Funerary Ritual" (master's thesis, University of California at Los Angeles, 1987): 44. Text modified by Edward Bleiberg.


Register three depicts the festival of re-birth that priests celebrated at the House of Purification. They probably recited "The Lamentations of Isis and Nepthys" at this point in the funeral, a secret text mourning the death and anticipating the rebirth of Osiris, god of the dead. The inscription suggests that this portion of the funeral was kept secret from the majority of the participants. Only the priests were admitted to the House of Purification. The ceremony consisted of symbolically washing the newly born spirit with water. Pyramid Texts 2063a to 2067b, a liturgy of washing, seems to describe this process. In this part of the ceremony, the Egyptians expressed their belief that birth and death are nearly equivalent. The inscription calls this the "secrets of the harem" or the women's quarters. These secrets include the mystery of birth and thus also the mystery of rebirth into the next world. The Egyptians viewed this part of the ceremony as the re-birth into the afterlife and thus an intimate part of the world of women. The dancers form the hieroglyph for akhet, the "horizon," which symbolizes the daily rebirth and death of the sun. The greeting to the "quartet," which follows in the inscription, refers to the four sons of Horus, the demi-gods that convey the reborn from the House of Purification to the House of Embalmment. The inscription asks them to come and pull, explicit directions to take the funeral procession and the mummy to the next stop in the funeral: the House of Embalmment.

House of Embalmment.

Register four depicts in movement the time that the funeral procession spent in the House of Embalmment. Now that the deceased was reborn, the priests performed the ritual that protected the mummy so that it had the potential to live forever. The setem -priest performing this ritual wore a panther skin so the inscription refers to seeing a panther, a direct reference to the priest performing the ritual. Then the judges of the afterlife gave their verdict, judging that the deceased had lived a just life and would be admitted to the afterlife. The dancers in the relief make quiet, respectful gestures to the judges of the dead and speak of maat, the standard of justice the judges use to reach a verdict about the dead. The inscription speaks of granting millions of years to the deceased, a standard phrase for awarding eternal life. The mystery of birth was now complete. The dancers then enacted a pulling gesture according to the instructions of the inscription. These words and actions represent the conducting of the deceased into the tomb.


introduction: Scholars have associated "The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys" with the secret rituals mentioned in the captions of Princess Watetkhethor's funerary dance. This text consists of a series of prayers for the rebirth of the Osiris, the god of the dead. Since each deceased person was equated with Osiris, praying for his revival was the same as directly praying for an individual. The following extract describes how the text should be recited. These directions also inform us about the dancers' movements.

Now when this is recited the place is to be completely secluded, not seen and not heard by anyone except the chief lector-priest and the setem -priest. One shall bring two women with beautiful bodies. They shall be made to sit on the ground at the main portal of the Hall of Appearings. On their arms shall be written the names of Isis and Nephthys. Jars of faience filled with water shall be placed in their right hands, offering loaves made in Memphis in their left hands, and their faces shall be bowed. To be done in the third hour of the day, also in the eighth hour of the day. You shall not be slack in reciting this book in the hour of festival.

source: Miriam Lichtheim, The Late Period. Vol. 3 of Ancient Egyptian Literature (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976): 120.


introduction: The Egyptians believed that the funeral service led to rebirth in the next world. Thus they thought both birth and death required the same washing ritual. The following liturgy comes from the Pyramid Texts, the royal funeral liturgy. It describes washing the "newly reborn" deceased. In this translation, the term "NN" refers to the places where the priest would insert the name of the deceased. These words would be ritually enacted through the dance.

The Water of Life which is in heaven comes,
The Water of Life which is on earth comes.
Heaven burns for you,
Earth trembles for you before the god's birth.
It seizes the body of NN.
Oh NN, pure water kisses your feet.
It is from Atum,
Which the phallus of Shu made,
Brought forth from the vulva of Tefenet.
They have arrived and brought to you pure water from their father.
It purifies you, you are incensed …
The libation is poured to the outside of this NN.

source: Jonathan Van Lepp, "The Dance Scene of Watetkhethor: An Art Historical Approach to the Role of Dance in Old Kingdom Funerary Ritual" (master's thesis, University of California at Los Angeles, 1987): 61.

At the Tomb.

Register five depicts the final transformation of the deceased into a ba -soul. According to Egyptian belief, the ba traveled between the land of the dead and the tomb in this world. The ba delivered the food offered at the tomb to the deceased in the next world. One dancer represented the transformation into the ba by gestures while the second dancer performed the adoration gesture, celebrating that the deceased now existed as an ethereal being in the next world. The next dancers form the hewet hieroglyph, used to write the name of the tomb and indicating the resting place for the mummy. Finally, dancers offered their arms, impersonating the Goddess of the West who "extends her arms toward the deceased in peace" according to the funerary wishes found in many tombs. The dancers have now reenacted the entire funeral in movement.


Both men and women wore very similar costumes while performing this dance: a short kilt cut at an angle with a long belt hanging down in front. Both men and women wore a band of cloth wrapped across the chest without any other shirt or blouse. Men wore their hair close-cropped, but women wore a long ponytail with a red disk attached at the end. The color of the disk, sometimes called a ball, associated it with the disk of the sun. The dance thus has some association with cult of Re.


The tjeref-dance thus recapitulated the entire funeral. Scholars believe that the dancers performed it at the entrance to the tomb at the conclusion of the funeral. Such a performance would reflect the Egyptians' use of magical redundancy. The Egyptians performed the ritual, performed it again through the dance, and performed it a third time by representing it on the walls of the tomb. Thus they could guarantee that the proper rituals were celebrated and the deceased would continue to live in the next life.


Else Baumgartel, The Cultures of Prehistoric Egypt (London: Oxford University Press, 1955): 65–66.

Jonathan Van Lepp, "The Dance Scene of Watetkhethor: An Art Historical Approach to the Role of Dance in the Old Kingdom Funerary Ritual." Unpublished master's thesis (Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, 1987).

see also Religion: Funerary Beliefs and Practices