by Wim van den Dungen


model of a carpentry workshop in painted wood - XIth Dynasty (ca. 2134 - 1994 BCE - Deir El-Bhari/TT280)


The Place Where Ptah Is Pleased

As this 4000-years-old model suggests, wealthy Ancient Egyptian estates & temples also had a workshop for laborers skilled in carpentry. Here we see an dozen carpenters working in a small workshop, in the left corner of which is a doorway. On the large, white chest a number of tools, very similar to those still used today, are displayed : chisels, axes, saws & blades of various sizes. In the centre of the workshop, a carpenter is sawing a piece of wood fixed to a vertical post. We see workers finishing planks and, in the right corner, kneeling figures tempering tools in a hearth.

Since Imhotep, working under king Djoser (ca. 2654 - 2635), the canon of Egyptian Art never changed, nevertheless allowing, not unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs, for creative variation & accommodation.

from left to right : Ur Hekau - Seb Ur - Netjerui - Pesheskef - Hedj



The Palette of Narmer holding a Hedj
First Dynasty - ca. 3000 BCE

Hedj : Pine Wood - H.37.5 cm

"HD" or Hedj - T3, mace

"skr" or Seker - T2, mace in the act of smiting

The HEDJ or Ritual Mace, associated with the act of smiting an enemy, has been represented numerous times. It is a potent symbol of power and protection against negativity. Egyptian rituals (except for festivals and other public ceremonies) were private and very well protected. The most sacred of ceremonies (the Morning Ritual, involving meeting the deity "face to face" and offering it Maat, truth & justice), took place in the "naos" in the darkest part of the temple, and could only be performed by the king or his representative (the officiating high priest).

or Ceremonial Dagger

It is clear the Egyptians used daggers for self-protection, close combat & warfare. They were also pieces of adornment. The ceremonial meaning of daggers is unclear. Their use to "close" and "open" magical circles was, as far as I know, not part of the Egyptian ritual. However, as a dagger was found on the mummy of Tutankhamun (ca. 1333 - 1323 BCE), we may at least speculate a funerary function in the Duat, reflective of a this-life symbol of direct protection & the mastery of dangerous power.

Ceremonial Dagger : Blank Ramin Wood - H.36 cm

dagger found on Tutankhamun - golden cloisonné with precious stones & paste of glass

On the active side of the Ceremonial Dagger, a Lotus is represented with its top pointing outward (on the dagger of king Tut, the Lotus points inward, toward the hand). This to indicate the use of the Dagger is only permitted to protect Life, Light and Love, symbolized by the Blue Lotus, never to operate death, darkness and hatred.


Except for the Ritual Mace, this first set of ritual tools is used in the ceremony known as the "Opening of the Mouth".

In the Old Kingdom (ca. 2670 - 2205 BCE), this ritual was likely carried out on the statues of the divine king. The latter were placed in the Valley Temple of his pyramid. A short version is part of the earliest ritual compendium, the Pyramid Text of Unas. There, it introduces the long Offering Liturgy inscribed in the burial chamber :

"O King Unas, I have fastened your jaws spread for You.
-the Peseshkef-

O Osiris King Unas, I split open your mouth for You.
-divine iron of Upper Egypt, 1 ingot ; divine iron of Lower Egypt, 1 ingot-

King Unas !
Take the Eye of Horus which went away :
I have brought it to You that I might put it in your mouth.
-Zeru-salt of Upper Egypt and Zeru-salt of Lower Egypt-

O King Unas, take the Shiku-mineral of Osiris !

Take the tip of Horus' own breast !
Take what is for your mouth !
-milk, 1 jar-"

Pyramid Texts of Unas, utterance 37 - 41.

In the New Kingdom (ca. 1539 - 1075 BCE), the ceremony was codified in seventy-five separate acts, the earliest full copy being that of vizier Rekhmira (TT100 - cf. Budge, 1972). The ritual was usually performed by the son and heir of the deceased as a final act of piety.


The Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead) - Papyrus of Ani - in cursive hieroglyphs - XIXth Dynasty  - plate XV

My mouth is opened, my mouth is split open by Shu with that iron harpoon of his with which he split open the mouths of the gods.

I am Sekhmet, and I sit beside Her who is in the great wind of the sky.

I am Orion the Great who dwells with the souls of Heliopolis.

As for any magic spell or any words which may be uttered against me, the gods will rise up against it, even the entire Ennead."

The vignette shows a Sem (funerary) priest, in  a ritual garb made from panther or leopard skin, transmitting the Sa, the fluid of life, by touching the statue of the departed with the UR HEKAU, the scepter "Great of Enchantments".

Above the box are drawn the PESHESKEF, or birthing blade, and the SEB UR, or "Great Iron Tool".

"23. Chapter for opening the mouth of Ani : My mouth is opened by Ptah and what was on my mouth has been loosened by my local god. Thoth comes indeed, filled and equipped with magic, and the bonds of Seth which restricted my mouth have been loosened. Atum has warded them off and has cast away the restrictions of Seth.


The Sem priests were usually not associated with any temple. These mortuary priests  oversaw and conducted the long & complicated funerary rituals. The deities associated with this priesthood were Osiris, Anubis, Sokar & Ptah (Sauneron,  1960). Besides the ritual garb of a leopard skin worn over their white shift, they also wore the side-lock of youth as opposed to being completely shaved.

As part of the mortuary rites, the Sem priest would be wrapped in cloth and placed on a sledge drawn to the opening of the tomb. As such he was known as a "Tekenu". Indeed, during this particular phase of the ceremony, the Sem entered a trance state and visited the deceased, forging, as a shaman, the link between the visible world and the Duat or netherworld into which the deceased had passed. The priest then emerged from the wrappings, proclaiming his communication with the deceased and then continued with the ceremony (Reeder, 1995).

The Ceremony of Opening the Mouth is performed by the Sem priest. The ritual combined Solar "heka" & Lunar witchcraft. On the one hand, it calls for magic based on understanding ("Sia") & authorative utterances ("Hu"), as in Pharaoh's Great Speech & divine words, and, on the other hand, involves the art of transmitting the forces of life. This funerary rite derived from temple ritualism, were it was used in the ritual of bringing statues to life. This was extended to royal mummies and then to the dead in general.

To "open the mouth" is to embody the invisible energies of life (or Kas) by forming a channel between the four-dimensional material plane and the higher-dimensional planes represented by the (Lunar) Duat and the (Solar) sky of Re.

Such an opening may be created for various purposes :

(1) to empower the sick by restoring their vital energies, connecting the depleted recipient with cosmic ("neheh") and everlasting ("djedet") sources ;
(2) to inaugurate new powers ;
(3) to embody specific energy-vibrations in statues, temples & places ;
(4) to initiate and make magic operative ;
(5) to restore the magical senses of the mummy, allowing it to speak the words of power ;
(6) to establish a permanent interface between this world and the other worlds (as in the case of the False Door) ;

"The ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth is a renewal, a rebirth, and a restoration in one event. It is an act of creation and the supreme act of reaffirming life."
Clark, 2003, p.331.


Neterui : Pine Wood - L.18 cm x 13,5 cm


Pesheskef : Pine Wood - H.7 cm



Left : Book of Opening the Mouth, 24th Ceremony (Budge, 197, p.90).
Right : Seb Ur and 7 Sacred Oils

Seb Ur : Pine Wood - L.38,5 cm

Like the NETRUI & the PESHESKEF, the SEB UR was originally made out of iron, although wood replicas have been found. This ceremonial adze, also known as Meshtiu (a name of Ursa Major), was taken by Horus from Set to restore Osiris.


Ur Hekau : Pine Wood - L.35 cm

The UR HEKAU was also the master of powerful words and gestures. With his great speech ("djedet uret"), he uttered the sacred names of the deities and knew the words of power needed to invoke them. The patron of the UR HEKAU was Isis, the embodiment of magic, and the most powerful goddess of the pantheon.



Seti I consecrating the offerings
XIXth Dynasty - ca. 1285 BCE

The offering formula "hetep-di-nesut" or "An offering which the king gives" (to the gods) is an ubiquitous feature of the monuments.

Its purpose was to allow the deceased to partake of the offerings presented to the deities in the temples in the name of the king.

To offer is a magical procedure allowing the "effective power" or Ba of the deities to be gratified by the subtle power (Ka) of the material stuff and/or the sacred words ("voice-offerings").

In return, the gods were expected to transmit the fluid of life (Sa), increase vital energy (Ka) & operate efficient changes (Ba).

During the Morning Ritual, the king & his high priests offered Maat to Re. Thus pleasing his father by this supreme act of devotion, the magic (heka) of the king was empowered, effectuating a "good Nile", i.e. a Nile flood which was neither too much or too little, causing Egypt to prosper.

All other offerings, involving bread, beer, incense, oxen, fowl, alabaster, clothing, etc. were linked with the Eye of Horus, which had been destroyed by Set, restored by Thoth and offered by Horus to complete the resurrection of Osiris. Hence, every act of offering was compared with what Horus had done for his father. The ceremonial censer, the AN HERU, depicts this act as the offering of incense.

To consecrate the offerings, and effectuate the transfer of its vital power (Ka), allowing the Ba of the deities to be gratified, the SEKHEM or KHEREP was used.

The Egyptians believed the Ka of the offerings was absorbed by the deity. Because, after having been in contact with divinity, the nature of the offerings changed, to partake of this was deemed a great privilege. The offerings are distributed in the form of a rite of communion, the "djefau", or the "reversion of offerings". This happened when the ceremony was only half completed, to refresh the participants and "ground" them.


SEKHEM or "power"
KHEREP or "stand at the head"


Kherep/Sekhem : Pine Wood - H.90 cm


offering libations & incense
Pharaoh Ramses III (ca. 1186 - 1155 BCE)
- XXth Dynasty

An Heru : Pine Wood - L.62 cm



Left : Reign of Amenhotep II - mid XVIIIth Dynasty - ca. 1427 - 1400 BCE
Right : Ankh - Oak Wood - H.24 cm


Miniature shrine - XVIIIth Dynasty - ca. 1325 BCE.
The darkness of the naos hiding the deity.

Shrine - H.43cm - L.50 cm
blank Pine Wood, Canadian Pine, Willow & Poplar



The "naos" is a Greek word denoting a small shrine or sanctuary intended to house the cult statue of the Temple. It was made out of stone or wood and not open to general worship.

Shrine - H.43cm - L.50 cm
Pine Wood, Canadian Pine, Willow & Poplar - Red Cherry finishing

The shrine was rectangular in shape and could also be used for mortuary statues, mummified remains of theophanic creatures and symbols associated with the particular deity. Only high-ranking priests could enter the sacred precincts and worship the deity face-to-face (cf. the Morning Ritual).


Head of Tutankhamun emerging out of a Lotus
XVIIIth Dynasty - ca. 1330 BCE - painted wood - H.30cm

"I am the pure lotus coming forth from the god of light, the guardian of the nostril of Re, the guardian of the nose of Hathor. I make my journey. I run after him who is Horus. I am the pure one coming forth from the field."
Book of the Dead, chapter 81.


Lotus Staff : Gold Leafed Pine Wood - H.110 cm

The Blue Lotus or Nymphaea caerulae has pointed petals and is most frequently depicted in art, often held to the noses of banqueters in tomb scenes. Herodotus, the Greek historian, tells us parts of the plant were sometimes eaten. Recent study suggests the lotus had hallucinogenic properties.

"Lotus" is a botanical term used to refer to the water lily or "seshen", the emblem of Upper Egypt as a whole (while the papyrus exemplified Lower Egypt).

As in the East, the Lotus was a symbol of rebirth, for in the creation myths the newborn Sun rose out of a lotus floating on the waters of Nun. The buds form under water, break the surface before opening suddenly a few days later. Lasting a single day and no more than four, the blooms close and sink beneath the water. The Blue Lotus was also the emblem of Nefertem, the "Lord of Perfumes".


The WAS is depicted in the hands of nearly every god. It has a straight shaft topped by the head of a canine animal and a base ending in two prongs. Its primary function was to ensure the continued welfare of the bearer, his power and dominion. Later, it became associated with prosperity and well-being.

In the small New Kingdom stone temple excavated at Naqada dedicated to Set, a huge blue ceramic WAS scepter was found.  Two WAS scepters together formed the emblem of the Oxyrhynchus province, a Setian district. Indeed, in remote times, before the golden age of Osiris, Set ruled over Egypt, and in the Pyramid Texts he helps the divine king to reach heaven. In the Old Kingdom, Set was not yet a complete outcast. Especially in the Early Dynastic, the divine kings welcomed to be associated with Set, the strongest of the gods. He represented a force no other god, Re-Atum excepted, could oppose.

Left : Is the totemic animal topping the Was the mysterious Set-animal ?
Right : Was in wood found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Until the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1938 - 1759 BCE), the WAS scepter was represented in wood alongside the mummified body. Rows of WAS-scepters were used in the decorative friezes on coffins and in tombs. It may also have been used as a gnomon (the upright section of a Sundial), symbolizing the divine measurement of time. Adorned with streamer & feather, the WAS became the emblem of the Theban province of Waset.

As such, its image conveys dominion & power (Set) combined with prosperity & well-being (Amun).


Djam & Was : Pine Wood - H.158 cm

Unlike the straight WAS, the DJAM has a spiral or twisting shaft. Its image is rarely seen. With the integration of Osirian faith in the royal ritual as early as the Vth Dynasty, all Setian icons were avoided. In the New Kingdom text called The Contending of Horus and Set, an angry Set threatens the deities to take his heavy DJAM-sceptre and kill one of them each day ! The DJAM is used to destroy. The WAS is used to construct and uphold (the sky).

Preluding the two Pillars in Qabalah, they represent complementary forces kept in balance by a third factor. This "tertium comparationis" is the state of harmony leading to rebirth (cf. the LOTUS staff).

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initated : 30 IX 2007 - last update : 09 XII 2009

© Wim van den Dungen