Once more, and still, we are feeling sorrow as we look out upon the world. Our hearts break. Again. And again. Often, we are told to just suck it up and get on with things. We do not allow time for the pain. But we should. For there is magic in it.
As you might imagine, understanding the magic of lamentation was well known in ancient Egypt.
In many societies, lamentation—the sorrowful bewailing of death or tragedy, often public—is the job of women. This is because, stereotypically, women are more comfortable expressing sorrow with tears than are men who, stereotypically, tend to express their strong emotions with anger.
This was true in ancient Egypt, too, but as was so often the case, Egypt was also a little bit different. The Greek historian Herodotus reports that both men and women offered dramatic demonstrations of grief. He writes that when someone in the household died, men, like women, would go out into the streets, beat their chests in grief, and throw mud or dust upon their heads. Men wouldn’t shave; women would tear at their clothing and wail.
Osiris, of course, is the archetypal Egyptian dead and Horus models male grief in bewailing the death of His father in several ancient texts that deal with the subject. In a text known as the Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus—which has been identified as part of the ceremonies of the ascension to the throne and is the script (more or less) for a dramatic enactment of the death of Osiris and the triumph of Horus—Horus laments: “I have embraced this my father who had grown weary, until he regained health.”
So, Horus’ lamentation does not merely express grief. It is part of Osiris regaining health.
The sorrow of Horus for His father is powerful, yet the sorrow of Isis and Nephthys—and particularly of His Beloved Isis—is even more so. From time immemorial, two women take the vital roles of lead mourners in royal funerals: the Big Wailing Woman and the Little Wailing Woman. They are the Two Kites, the Djereti, and from a very early time, they are identified with Isis and Nephthys.
The Wailing Women, the Kites, lament the deceased just as the Goddesses lament the God, expressing grief and love and loss. I’ve written a bit about the ritual lamentations of the Goddesses here. The purpose of Their lamentation is stated in one of the ritual texts that “must be recited in every place belonging to Osiris, at each of his festivals, to delight his soul, to preserve his body, to lend breath to the nostrils of him whose throat has been throttled, and to bestow life, eternity, and prosperity on the Osiris [so-and-so; the deceased’s personal name].”
Thus the lamentations themselves are beneficial. The lamentations, in a way, take care of Osiris. This is expressed in another of the names of Isis and Nephthys: the Two Female Attendants, a designation that more properly means the Two Nurses. Like a baby at birth, Osiris at His rebirth needs the services of two Divine Nurses. Yet another of the Goddesses’ titles explains even more about the magic They’re working. They are also called the Two Eulogists Who Praise Osiris, a title usually given to a priestess worshiping her Deity. Thus here, Isis and Nephthys are Divine Priestesses Who are calling to Osiris. Their songs of lamentation call the God back to life by “glorifying” Him, a word that in Egyptian contains the meaning of making Him an Akh, a Shining One, a Glorified Spirit.
There are several gestures of lamentation seen in ancient Egyptian art that, I believe, refer to another aspect of the magic Isis and Nephthys work to revive Osiris. The Two Goddesses fold their wings (remember that They are Bird Goddesses—Two Kites) over Osiris. Their power magically protects Him, but it also enables Isis to fan the Breath of Life into Him. “I restored wind to his nostrils so that he would live,” says Isis. “Isis provides thee with life,” reads the text.
In imitation of the Goddesses, Egyptian women in mourning can be seen making gestures that look like the folding of wings. The hands might be crossed over the heart, below the waist, or with one hand gripping the wrist of the other. All three are gestures that surround and protect with the arms, arms that in the Two Djereti would be winged and imbued with the magic of Life.
Just as the laments of the Two Goddesses are magically powerful, so our own human lamentation is both powerful and needful. When death or tragedy strikes, we must express our pain and allow ourselves the time to simply be in pain. The pain is real; there is no need to deny it. Yet at the same time, our lamentation, like that of Isis and Nephthys, eventually calls us back to life—which does indeed go on no matter how utterly impossible that may seem.
Lamentation is not the end of our work. It is the beginning. We gather our magic. We invoke our lifeforce. And we help makes things better however we can.