For the ancient Egyptians death was not the end of the journey but a break along the way for an intricate, demanding, sometimes dangerous trip to the afterlife. One of the important events occurring throughout such a trip was a ritual called “Opening of the Mouth Ceremony”: during this, the dead, through the form of an unanimated object like a statue or a painting and in a later epoch the mummy itself, was symbolically brought back to life by a high priest.

The Opening of the Mouth Ceremony

The ceremony would expect the symbolical animation of a statue or mummy which was magically opening its mouth in order to breathe and talk. The archaeological evidence shows how such a ritual was practiced from the Old Kingdom all the way to the Roman period.

The ancient Egyptians believed that, in order to guarantee the survival of the soul through the afterlife, the dead needed food and water. The Opening of the Mouth Ceremony was therefore performed so that the dead could eat and drink one more time.

The ceremony consisted of 75 phases and, in its most complete form, they were:

  • Episodi 1–9 Preliminary rites
  • Episodi 10–22 Animation of the statue
  • Episodi 23–42 Meat offerings aligned with upper Egypt
  • Episodi 43–46 Meat offerings aligned with lower Egypt
  • Episodi 47–71 Funerary meal
  • Episodi 72–75 Closing rites

The ceremony is represented in numerous solemn paintings but it is interesting to spot it also in a fragment of terracotta, called ostrakon, discovered at the end of 19th century by the archaeologist Flinders Petrie in an area identified as a school of artists behind the Ramesseum, big memorial temple on the bank of the Nile river of the ancient Thebes.

The painting dates back to beyond 3,0000 years ago 1295-1069 BC) and shows a girl in profile whose mouth gets opened by a monkey.

Despite today it may look like a solemn painting, the artwork is a caricature of the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony

The ostrakon were cheap and mostly available all over the ancient world, used instead of our modern paper. According to the Egyptologist Stephen Quirke from the University College of London, by adding the monkey to the scene, the student might have attempted to caricature the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, a playful way to exorcise a popular and complex funeral practice.

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Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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