Opening the Mouths of the Dead

In Lament of the Dead, two notable writers/scholars reacted to Dr. Carl Jung’ The Red Book. The late Dr. James Hillman commented that Jung was attempting to “open the mouths of the dead”.Dr. Jung conversed with notable figures from history and mythology and offered sermons to dead ancestors who were struggling to find workable forms of spirituality. Both were recorded at length in The Red Book.

My foray into the ancient Egyptian custom of opening mouths of the dead has led me to some unusual conclusions. First, a summary of the literature: While there are citings of this practice in several countries, Summarian, Mesopotamian and Egyptian descriptions are more commonly noted, including instructions and illustrations; e.g., bas reliefs. The custom appears to mimic the clearing of the mouth of newborns with little fingers of the priest, midwife or parent. In mythology, Horus opened the mouths of his father and his son, Osiris and the four sons of Horus opened the mouth of their grandfather, Osiris. Thus one such rite appears to be familial. Apparently, the still soft mouths of mummies were opened with fingers, but when skulls were modeled in plaster, sharp instruments began to be used to make slits. Some of these instruments included adzes attached to ntrwj, finger shaped blades often made of meteoric (starlike), carved wooden, flint or obsidian blades. These ceremonies were carried out daily in some cases, including washing out the mouths of the dead, incantations to vivify the dead (rebirth), and feeding them various liquids. Sometimes the opening of the eyes accompanied this ceremony.

Related to this practice was the opening of the mouths and eyes of statues. Usually this was accomplished by the sculptor before transporting the statue to the temple, but was sometimes repeated. The purpose of this ceremony was to allow the deity to enter the form so that he could see, speak and eat.

These are the basics. There are plenty of studies of this practice as well a plethora of explanations and theories elsewhere. Jung’s trip to the underworld had strong guardrails; he was fully in touch with his family and professional life as he descended and returned each day. The Red Book is phenomenal; the art amazing.

But, where does this leave us ordinary folk? Active imagination, dream work and expressive arts are truly godsends in our journey. Dialogue with our inner characters as described in Drs. Robert Johnson and Jerry Ruhl’s book, Living Your Unlived Life, can be quite helpful. Dr. James Hollis’ Hauntings: Dispelling the Ghosts that Run Our Lives is another practical treatise.

But, how, pray tell, do we relate to the dead? What tools do we need to open their mouths? Do they speak to us? Do we ‘feed’ them? Shall we expect our ancestors to float down from the eaves of our homes into our living rooms to commune with us? Shall we teach them about what form of spirituality works for us and might be useful to them since theirs did not satisfy them (or us)? Shall we endeavor to proselytize psychologically? By “the dead”, Jung included heroes, mythological figures, creatures, and other beings. Shall we be all inclusive or focus on our families (sociobiology)? While I have worked hard in healing family wounds, conducted a sort of Mormon baptizing for the dead, I confess that I do not know how to relate  to dead people. Jung contended that is necessary to be truly alive.