Grand Festivals in Ancient Egypt
by Ilene Springer and Jimmy Dunn
to put away their cares for a day or two, and sometimes longer, to celebrate the best of ancient Egypt.
From extant data we can reconstruct a cultic calendar for the major deities of Egypt, such as Amun at Thebes, Hathor of Dendera, Horus of Edfu and others. Frequently, inscribed on the walls of such temples are detailed lists of feasts, all presented in a systematic manner. Such festival calendars were also copied and kept in the scrolls of the temple archives. From these, we can often determine whether a feast took place within the civil calendar or according to the moon.
However, festival calendars tend to list the details of these celebrations, such as their date, the deity honored and perhaps a sentence concerning the involvement of a specific priest in a rather terse fashion. There in fact existed comprehensive records connected to such celebrations, but ordinarily we possess only a fraction of these original texts today. Fortunately, the walls of the the Greco-Roman temples at Dendera, Edfu, Esna, Kom Ombo and Philae provide additional information not included in the festival calendars, which allow us to reconstruct the events in greater detail. Furthermore, papyri scrolls and fragmentary biographical texts reveal intriguing and often hidden details such as processions, morning, noon and evening ablutions of the deity; chants; and speeches.
There was also the endowments required for the performance of these feasts. From the Old Kingdom onward, festival calendars also contained explicit references to the offerings that were required by the deities associated with these events. Particularly for major events, the economic support of the king was required. Much of our knowledge about this function of festivals is found at Medinet Habu, which presents remarkable details, such as the exact number of bread loaves, cakes, beer containers, meat, fowl, incense, cultic charcoal and such, which is listed beside each event. Even the amount of grain that went into making a certain type of loaf, or a specific type of beer can be determined by a specific integer that refers tot he cooking or brewing that was undertaken. This is called the "cooking ratio".
Frequently in the introduction of segments of the temple calendars, or placed next to the respective religious celebrations, are details of the provenance of such offerings, together with the amount of grain that went into producing a certain number of beer jugs or loaves of bread. In conjunction with the cooking ratio, we can therefore determine the exact amount of grain that was needed for these festivals. Hence, we can add up the total amount of grain that was needed for the subsistence of a cult, at least for the major ceremonies.
From this data, scholars have been able to determine quantitatively how wealthy a specific major temple was and approximately how many priests were necessary for the preservation of the .
Most of the festivals that we know of from ancient Egypt are cultic, rather than civil. There were probably plenty of civil celebrations, but our sources are mostly religious. For example we know that an annual celebration was established by Ramesses III to honor his victory over the Libyans (Meshwesh), who had unsuccessfully invaded Egypt, and another secular occasion was the coronation of kings, the date of which was frequently included in religious calendars. Since Sothis had no specific cult, the heliacal Rising of Sothis (the star Sirius) might be considered a secular celebration. This event was recognized as being very important because the reappearance of Sothis after a period of seventy days' invisibility originally marked the emergence of the New Year and later was thought of as the ideal rebirth of the land.
Most of the festivals took place were fixed within the civil calendar. They either took place on a specific date, or were spread out through a number of days. Such festivals are typically called "annual festivals" by scholars.
Although festivals were a very important part of the lives of the ancient people throughout Upper and Lower Egypt (many nomes or districts had their own local festivals), there were a few festivals that were known throughout the land.
New Year's Day (Wep-renpet)
The first celebration of the year was, of course, the New Year's festival. For the ancient Egyptians, this was not only the first day of the year, but also the time when rejuvenation and rebirth ideally took place.
Feast of Wagy
Seventeen days after New Year's day, there was also the more somber feast of Wagy, which eventually became associated with the festival of Thoth on the nineteenth day of the year. This event was connected with the mortuary rituals of ancient Egypt and was celebrated by private individuals outside of official religious circles as well as within the precincts of the major temples in Egypt. Our first evidence of this celebration is from the 4th Dynasty, making it one of the oldest in ancient Egypt. The original date of the festival was set according to the lunar basis and this was never discarded. Hence, during the historical period, there were actually two separate Wagy feasts, one set according to the cycle of the moon and a later one firmly placed at day eighteen of the first civil month.
The Festival of Opet
Centered in Thebes, this boisterous festival, known as the Beautiful Feast of the Opet, held in the second civil month and was set according to a lunar calendar. It was perhaps not as old a celebration as some of the other feasts, though during the New Kingdom particularly, the celebration of Opet was predominate. Its duration of twenty-seven days in the 20th Dynasty shows how significant the celebration became. However, we know virtually nothing about the celebration prior to the 18th Dynasty and the rise of Thebes.
Theban citizens and their guests from afar celebrated the fruitful link between their pharaoh and the almighty god, Amun, who in the New Kingdom became a state god. During the celebration it was thought that the might and power of Amun were ritually bequeathed to his living son, the king. Therefore, the celebration belonged to the official royal ideology of the state and, not surprisingly, witnessed the personal involvement of the pharaoh.
Because of the flooding, work was temporarily suspended in fields. The people joined in a dramatic procession honoring Amun that began at the Temple of Amun in Karnak and ended at Luxor Temple one and a half miles away at the south end of the city.
At Karnak, the people watched the high priests disappear in the temple. Inside, the priests bathed the image of the god and dressed him in colorful linen and adorned him with jewelry from the temple treasury including magnificent necklaces, bracelets, scepters, amulets and trinkets of gold or silver encrusted with lapis lazuli, enamel, glass and semi-precious gems. The priests then enclosed the god in a shrine and then placed the shrine on top of a ceremonial barque or boat, often supported by poles for carrying.
When the priests emerged from the temple, they carried the barque on their shoulders throughout the pillared halls and courtyards of Karnak. Then they moved into the crowded streets where people elbowed each other to catch a glimpse of the sacred vessel. Many a small Egyptian child was lucky to be placed on his or her parents shoulder to be able to see.
In Hatshepsuts time, the complete journey was accomplished on foot, while stopping at different resting stations. Later, the boat was carried to the Nile and then towed upriver to Luxor Temple by high government officials who vied for the enviable honor.
The pharaoh himself was there to greet Amun and escort him to Luxor Temple. The people heard the steady beat of soldiers drums and watched as men from Nubia danced to songs of devotion sung by the priests.
After reaching Luxor, the pharaoh and priests left the crowd behind and maneuvered the boat into the dark recesses of the temple. Incense filled the air. There was a ceremony communing with another holy image of Amun, Amun-Min, who inseminated the earth, according to the ancient beliefs of creation, and brought about plentiful harvests.
Now the pharaoh emerged from the sanctuary. The citizens greeted him wildly and praised his accomplishments; any wrongs he had committed were automatically forgiven. "He was once more the embodiment of divine strength and generosity, the source of bounty and well-being for Egypt."
During the Festival of Opet, Thebans could ask the god questions (oracles) that could be answered by a simple yes or no. A man might ask if his brother in another town was in good health, If the barge dipped forward, the answer was yes; if it backed away, the reply was no. Commoners were also allowed to put questions to a god in his temple. For these exceptional times, the fortunate citizens who were allowed into the temple were escorted to special audience rooms. The priests would convey the answers either through a concealed window high up in the wall or from inside a hollow statue.
More than anything, the ancient Egyptian population enjoyed the generosity of the gods during these festivals. During one Opet festival in the 12th century BC, it is recorded that temple officials distributed 11,341 loaves of bread and 385 jars of beer to the citizens.
The Festival of Choiak or Sokar
The festival of Choiak or Sokar rivaled that of Opet during the New Kingdom, but was a much older celebration. It was celebrated in the fourth month of the Egyptian civil calendar, lasting for six days during the interval of days 25 through 30, though by the Late Period, the festival grew to be much longer. Its importance is derived from its connection with the ancient importance of the god of the underworld, Osiris, and his link with the archaic powers of Memphis.
This festival is known from the Old Kingdom and it grew in importance due to the establishment of Egypt's capital at Memphis during the dawn of Egyptian history. We find it first mentioned in private feast lists of the Old Kingdom. However, it is also clear that the deity, Sokar predates the unification of Egypt and thus, Egyptian history itself.
The Sokar festival was indeed a somber celebration, completing the first season. The last days of the feast were in fact observed with no small amount of agony and sadness. This part of the festival soon came to be associated with Osiris, who was considered to be dead by the central date of the Sokar feast (day 26).
The Rebirth Celebration of Nehebkau
After the Festival of Sokar, it is not surprising that day one of month five had its own New Year's day of rebirth, occurring just five days after the death of Osiris. The intervening days were left for the eventual rebirth of the god and later connected to the rebirth of the king as the living Horus. Hence, the celebration of Nehebkau paralleled the New Year of the first day of month one, and evidently almost the same rituals and performances took place on both occasions.
The Festival of the Fertility god Min
This festival also opened a new season and was carried out in the ninth civil month, although its date was set according to the moon. It is perhaps not surprising that this fertility ritual is also known from Egypt's most distant past, though most of what we know of the festival is from sources that date from the New Kingdom onward.
In this celebration, the king cut the first sheaf of grain, which symbolically supported his role as life-sustainer of his people. It should be noted that this festival, associated with Min, was clearly one of fecundity and the virility of rebirth, and therefore the third festival of the year focusing on birth, with the agricultural aspect predominating.
The Beautiful Feast of the Valley
Another annual event for Egyptians to look forward to was again centered in Thebes, allowed the living to commune with their loved ones in the afterworld. It was held in the tenth civil month. Though the celebration can be traced back to the Middle Kingdom, it became important during the New Kingdom.
The festivities began at Karnak temple on the east bank where the sacred image of the god Amun was placed atop a ceremonial boat and carried down to the Nile by the priests, very similarly to how it occurred in the Opet Festival. Eventually, the image of the god Amun was accompanied by the images of his wife Mut and their child, Khonsu.
At the riverside, the shrines were loaded onto barges and towed across the Nile to the west to visit the pharaohs mortuary temple and the temples of other gods. This journey was attended by a very joyous and colorful procession of Egypts citizens. Acrobats and musicians entertained the masses of people who participated, while women played sistrumsa kind of rattle instrument that made a soft jangling sound like the breeze blowing through papyrus reeds. This sound was said to soothe the gods and goddesses.
The procession ended at the necropolis that was filled with tomb chapels where the ancient people honored their dead relatives by performing various rituals for them. Every family wealthy enough to afford a chapel entered the sanctuary and made offerings of food and drink for their dead. (Archaeologists have uncovered many offering tables and bowls that you can see in any major museum collection.) The celebrants themselves ate heartily and drank a lot of wine until they entered what was believed to be an altered state (including intoxication) that made them feel closer to their departed loved ones.
Though certainly different in many ways, these private affairs parallel some present customs of modern Egypt and other cultures in which people celebrate a holiday on the grass of cemeteries in which their dead ancestors are buried.
One of the most significant aspects of this festival is that it was probably witnessed by citizens only once in a lifetime. The Heb-Sed Festival was usually celebrated 30 years after a kings rule and thereafter, every three years. This very important ritual symbolized regeneration and was meant to assure a long reign in the pharaohs afterlife. The rituals were meant to bring back the harmony between the king and the universe and in the case of illness or just old age of the king. The official rituals were supposed to be performed after 30 years of a kings reign, but there is evidence that the festival was sometimes scheduled earlier. It usually began on New Years Dayday one of the peret seasonand started with an imposing procession, as did all ancient Egyptian festivals.
Many of the Sed ceremonies, dating from predynastic times, were performed in front of officials and commoners who were lucky enough to be a part of the festival. For this purpose, special courtyards were often built or reconstructed for the Sed Festival, with the throne at one end and the audience at the other end. The open court of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara seems to have been used for the function of Djosers Heb-Sed Festival. Sculptors also reproduced shrines of local deities for the Sed Festival to show the extent of the kings power over all of Egypt.
Those who were privy to participate in this festival of the kings revitalization witnessed several different rituals. One was the king giving offerings to the goddess Sechat-Hor, who had fed Horus (the king) with her holy milkthe drink of immortality. After that the nobles would come before the king and offer their services and rededicate their devotion to him.
What followed next was the most famous and important ritual to show the kings continued potency, according to La Civilisation de LEgypte Pharonique: the king would run around the field (or within the Sed courtyard) while carrying several ritual articles in his handsthe imyt-pera list of possessions that basically gave the king the right to possess Egypt.
In the course of the festival, priests led the king into two pavilions where he received the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, symbolically renewing the crowning ceremony. In later times the king shot four arrows into the four directions to frighten off evil powers and to enforce the right of Egypt to rule over the world.
We can imagine that this most significant festival was accompanied by the usual feasts including lavish food, drink, music and dance. For now matter how serious the meaning or the nature of the festival, the ancient Egyptians knew how to celebrate with gusto.
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Ilene Springer lives in Boston and writes on ancient Egypt. She is studying for her degree in museum studies at Harvard University.
Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011
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