The Beautiful Feast of the Opet (The Opet Festival) - Part II: The Path to Renewal

The Beautiful Feast of the Opet (The Opet Festival)
Part II: The Path to Renewal

by John Watson

Bulls being led to their sacrifice during the Opet Festival

It is actually somewhat difficult for us to imagine all the events that surrounded the Opet Festival. The route between Karnak and the Luxor Temple at Thebes (modern Luxor) is not really a long one, and would certainly not require the twenty plus days that the festival lasted in later periods, nor even the eleven days during earlier times. Hence, many of the events surrounding the festival can only be imagined. In fact, we suspect that the festival as a whole may not have begun or ended with the actual procession for which it is best known.

The land route of the Opet Festival heading to Luxor Temple

The Temple of Mut at Karnak

In the record at Luxor Temple, the first scenes depict the king, accompanied by the royal barque, making offerings to the barques of Amun-Re, Mut and Khonsu, the Theban triad. The barques rest on pedestals in an open court at Karnak. Afterwards, the barques of the gods and king are carried on the shoulders of priests with shaved heads. They are surrounded by bright feather plumes and fans. During the procession, the cult images are veiled. Four other priests with shaved heads, wearing leopard skin mantels, walk astride of each barque, attending to the deities needs. The gods are presented with incense and fresh water with great pomp and fanfare, while the fans and plumes are dipped in homage to the gods. Passing through a pylon, the procession moves beyond Karnak to the bank of the Nile, where the barques are loaded onto barges for transport to the Temple of Luxor.

However, in Temples of Ancient Egypt, Byron Shafer suggests that the events of the procession are somewhat more complex. He believes that the procession began in the Akhmenu, a Festival Hall of Tuthmosis III at the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak with a function similar to that Luxor Temple. Shafer tells us that it is located behind the main sanctuary of Amun-Re, but was a separate cult complex where the theme of regeneration was expressed especially strongly and the barque of the divine living king probably resided. From there, he believes the king and a small party carrying the barque that housed his ka-statue moved westward into the main sanctuary of Amun-Re, where the barque sanctuary was located.

Picking up Amun-Re's barque and its priestly attendants, the king and his party exited into the open court where Karnak's two axes intersected and turned southward onto the secondary axis. Consistent with this hypothesis, Amenhotep III depicted the Opet-festival procession on the east face (back) of his Third Pylon, where it would have faced the exiting party at the spot the axes crossed. Having turned south, the procession followed the Luxor axis through the Eighth Pylon, and made a short detour to the Khonsu Temple. There, Khonsu's ka-statue joined the parade, after the king had made offerings to him. Returning to the Luxor axis, the marchers followed the avenue of Ram-headed sphinxes to the Temple of Mut. There, Mut's ka-statue joined the procession, after the king had made offerings to her. Perhaps before the sojourn at Mut's temple, perhaps after it, the barque of Amun-Re halted at the sanctuary of the god Kamutef and also rested at Hatshepsut's northernmost way station, where the king made offerings to Amun-Re. From there the procession went on to Luxor by one of two routes, river or land.

Shafer believes that the barques of the king and gods probably traveled overland from the Temple of Mut westward to the Nile landing, where they boarded their barques for Luxor, because the Luxor colonnade depicts the river scenes explicitly. Gangs of men on the banks of the Nile would tow the barques along the river while, nearby, large crowds gathered to watch the procession. Meanwhile, Egyptian and foreign elements of the army, some sporting feathers and all in full battle gear, marched behind standards adorned with brilliant plumes and streamers, would keep pace with the barques along the bank, along with similarly decorated horse drawn chariots. It must have been a grand scene, with people chanting, clapping and cheering while musicians performed and trumpets sounded.

As this grand procession arrived at the Luxor landing, it was met by literally throngs of princes, princesses and high officials who would then lead the procession overland, carrying bouquets and other offerings while leading fattened, festooned cattle destined for sacrifice. Finally, the procession would arrive at Luxor Temple.

However, Shafer is quick to point out that the procession from the Temple of Mut to Luxor sometimes followed the land route, rather than using the river. At these times, the barques of the kings and gods were carried straight through along the sphinx-lined road, resting in route at Hatshepsut's six way stations.

In fact, during the reign of Hatshepsut, evidence suggests that the land route was employed from Karnak to Luxor, but on the return route the barques were floated down the Nile. Hence, Amun-Re, having been rejuvenated in Luxor, returned to Karnak in triumph. During the reigns of Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep III, evidence at Karnak suggests that the procession took the river route to Luxor. Then, by the time of Tutankhamun, the river route was apparently used for both legs of the procession.

The triple barque Shrine built by Ramesses II at Luxor Temple

We really have very little knowledge of why the processional route was changed as much as it was. Perhaps specific kings favored one route to another for various reasons. For example Amenhotep III built a new barque and perhaps wanted to make a display of it to the populous. Another factor might have been the height of the Nile. The land route might have been preferable if the flood was late or too low to permit convenient navigation. On the other hand, the Nile route might have been preferable when the flood was at optimal levels, demonstrating the king's performance in his capacity as an earthly god. By the time of Ramesses II, and thereafter, when the festival procession reached the Luxor Temple, the barques entered the peristyle courtyard by one of two ceremonial entrances. When the barques were moved overland, the great pylon was employed, but when they were moved over the Nile, they used the much smaller gateway opposite the quay in the court's western wall. We believe though that Ramesses II probably used the river route considerably more than the land route, considering that his triple barque shrine is oriented to the south (at a right angle to the river route) rather than to the east (at a right angle to the land route).

After entering the peristyle court, the procession turned toward the triple shrine for the offerings, sacrifices and other rituals that signaled their arrival. Here, representatives of the common populace were admitted for the occasion of the festival. This was the courtyard that Ramesses II built

The pa'et People

This must have been a high honor. Here, they could experience the oracles and other manifestations of royal and divine power. Here, both rekhyet and pa'et people are depicted adoring Amun Re. According to Shafer, the word rekhyet may be translated as "common people", while the term pa'et was apparently a more elite mythological component of the population who may have originally even been members of the royal clan. Hatshepsut's decorations included at least three series of kneeling humans (the pa'et folk) and standing birds (the rekhyet folk). We know that Ramesses II gave access to the peristyle court during the Opet Festival to certain common people because of the rekhyet figures carved on the large sandstone columns erected around his court. These figures are drawn as small lapwing birds with human arms and hands upraised in adoration, who sit atop small baskets. This sort of depiction of rekhyet seems to bestow mythological significance on the king's subjects.

A rekhyet effectively adoring the name of Ramesses II

Within this court, the rekhyet are found in a frieze at about eye level, but only on the columns of the eastern half of the court, where they are oriented toward the north-south axis. This was deliberate, as is evidenced by the reliefs and inscriptions associated with the eastern doorway of the court. There, on the exterior of the court's eastern wall, both rekhyet people and pa'et people kneel with arms raised in adoration. They are completely anthropomorphic. The full name of this doorway was "The Great Gateway of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Ramesses II, Whom All the Rekhyet Adore That They Might Live". We believe that this doorway was effectively the "people's gate," through which selected townspeople and officials were admitted and allowed to stand in the eastern half of the courtyard to observe the Opet Festival. The western half of the court would therefore be free for the procession to move through in an orderly fashion.

After a brief rest the procession then would have resumed its journey toward the inner barque sanctuary, disappearing into the darkened colonnade. This is evidenced by the wall reliefs in the western half of the court. In formal Egyptian art, the god is depicted looking out from the shrine in which he resides during a ritual, and here the king is shown facing the deity and, therefore, that shrine. The large reliefs in the upper register of the panels north of the western gateway pose the god in association with the triple barque shrine, while those south of the gateway reverse the orientation and associate the god with the inner barque sanctuary at the south end of the temple.

The Sun Court at Luxor Temple

Soon, the procession would have emerged from the darkness of the colonnade into the brightness of Amenhotep III's so called Sun Court. There, it would appear that an even more elite selection of common people may have been allowed to witness the continuation of the procession. The rekhyet are depicted here, once again as lapwing birds with human arms and hands upraised in adoration. The people probably were given access to the court not by the colonnade but through a small doorway near the court's northeast corner.

The Sixth Barque rest station built by Hatshepsut and represented on a block from her barque shrine at Karnak

However, no commoners were allowed past this point. From here, the king, gods and priests passed through into the secluded core temple and disappeared from their view. The actual disposition of the barques is thought to have changed somewhat between the reigns of Amenhotep III and Ramesses II, but from the latter king's reign, it was probably consistent. The barques of Mut and Khonsu were rested in their respective chapels before the Chamber of the Divine King and immediately south of the hypostyle portico. However, the barques of Amun-Re and the divine king continued. The King's barque would have been installed in the chapel opening off the southeast corner of the Chamber of the Divine King, but the king and his portable ka statue would have probably accompanied the barque of Amun-Re to the terminus of the processional way.

The area of the Chamber of the Divine King at Luxor Temple

Evidence suggests that the Chamber of the Divine King, the room in which the divinity of the king was most prominently portrayed, was a real power point in the Luxor Temple. It was in this chamber, we believe, that the king's purification by water, ritual introduction to Amun-Re and the coronation rites were repeated. A priest, acting on behalf of the god, placed the various forms of the royal crown, one by one, on the king's head, and verified that each fit, and that the king was ready to assume the duties of kingship on earth. During each separate crowning, the king knelt before Amun-Re. His back faced the god, and the priest acting for the god placed his hands on the king's head or crown in the protective gesture characteristic of the royal ka. Through this ritual, the royal ka was transmitted magically from Father to Son. Thus, the king was rejuvenated, as evidenced by a small suckling scene within the chamber, and the divine kingship was reborn.

And yet, the climatic event of the King's Opet transformation was yet to come. From here, along with the barque of Amun-Re, his own ka-statue and the highest of ranking priests, the king proceeded into the most inner of the sanctuary chambers.

Amenhotep III kneels before Amun-Re to be crowned, as depicted on the barque sanctuary at Luxore temple

Within this final chamber, as the priests recited sacred texts, the king made offerings of highly significant items to Amun-Re, who remained hidden in his barque. Each of the offerings were meant to revitalize the god, and in response, the god revitalized the king. After the offerings and their effect, the king approached the naos of the barque and came directly before Amun-Re, whose glory reflected back on the king, making the pharaoh a god himself, with a renewed persona and additional names. The king knelt before Amun-Re, this time facing the god, and the deity crowned him, definitively.

Shafer speculates about what occurred next: "I can easily imagine that after the king had accompanied the barque of Amun-Re to its sanctuary he immediately went through the Coronation Room and into the Opet-sanctuary, the divine residence of Amenemopet. There the king would have set in motion the new creation cycle that the Opet-festival and the rebirth of divine kingship were to energize. He probably did this by performing an Opening of the Mouth ceremony on Amenemopet the Creator, touching an adze-like implement to the lips of his cultic statue, thereby reawakening end recharging him. The symbolic blade of this tool was a small bit of meteoric iron - a magical metal, associated with the heavens that had provided the 'spark' or 'lightning strike' that brought the first generation of beings into existence. Following the opening of Amenemopet's mouth, the king would have returned to the barque sanctuary carrying the life force of the regenerated god to the still moribund Amun-Re of Karnak. There, the life force would have been passed from Amenemopet to Amun-Re by a ritual merging of the gods. Both gods having been rejuvenated, the institution of divine kingship and the creation of the world could once more occur."

We can only think that the procession back to Karnak must have been somewhat muted, after the peak of excitement achieved in the process of rejuvenating the king and gods. They would have reentered Karnak through the monumental Third Pylon and afterwards, the divine beings would have disappeared into the private part of the temple, bringing the festival to an end.

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011