Egypt: Offering Formula and Ritual, A Feature Tour Egypt Story

Offering Formula and Ritual

By Marie Parsons


Walk through a cemetery today and take note that on this grave or that, flowers, cards, and other tokens of memory lie placed by some loving hand. In some places, some graves might even have food or drink offerings lovingly placed thereon.


If this is our custom, then we are truly akin to the ancient Egyptians. In the pre-mummification days of the predynastic period, the deceased members of the community were carefully placed in pits in the hot dry desert sand. The bodies would desiccate but would otherwise be reasonably preserved. Somehow, in someway, the ancient Egyptians conceived the idea that, as the body was preserved, so too would be the style of living, and the need for sustenance, just as in life.


Flinders Petrie discovered such funerary goods. He wrote down his observations: "In the prehistoric graves there is a full supply for the requirements of the dead. The food offerings were burnt to ashes at a burning place in the mouth of the cemetery valley; a dozen or sometimes fifty large jars of the ashes were deposited in the grave. Jars of beer and of water were also placed, a lesser jar of ointment, cakes of bread and other food. Toilet objects were providedas a palette for eye paint, a stock of malachite, combs and hairpins. There were weapons such as large knives, forked flint lances, copper or flint daggers, stone maces and flaying knives.


 Offering hetep



The simplest form of offering was found in position at one site: it was a reed mat laid before the false door of the tomb, with a conical dish on it to hold a pile of flour. The coloring of the hetep sign in the earliest glyphs at Meidum shows the rush mat and binding strings and pot exactly like what is found. On the top of a large 6th Dynasty mastaba at Dendera, the pottery offering dishes and jars were still in place, lying undisturbed after thousands of years."


It should be noted that what Petrie referred to by the hetep hieroglyph is represented as a loaf of bread placed as an offering on such a mat, and this sign was used in words such as "offering" or "altar". Even when the simple mat was replaced by more permanent stone altars at the beginning of the Old Kingdom, the altar often had the offering hieroglyph carved on the top, or was made in the form of the offering sign. The upper surfaces of the tables were often carved with images of loaves, trussed ducks, and libation or other vessels required. These images would then serve as magical substitutes for the real food offerings, backed-up by the offering formula and lists of specific offerings. Often, there were cups, grooves or channels cut into the surface so that beer, water or wine could be poured onto the table.


The ancient Egyptians believed early on that to obtain eternal life, the individual must join the gods after death. Since to ancient Egyptians, death was thus merely a continuation on a different plane of existence of the life they had known, shelter and material goods were considered necessary for the deceaseds well-being. A tomb equipped with clothing and everyday utensils as well as food and drink would supply those needs. Just as offerings were also presented to the images of gods in order to nourish and sustain them, so also were food and other offerings made to the deceaseds ka (soul) to nourish and sustain it. The food was brought into the tomb-chapel, where it was offered to the deceased at the false door, from which his ka would emerge to partake of the items spiritually.


From predynastic times as Petrie discovered, and probably earlier still, offerings were made to the gods and to deceased person on small rats of woven reeds. This sustenance might be supplied for a dead person by the family, generation after generation, or an officiant might be paid to maintain the necessary daily care. In the latter case, tomb owners and the priesthood of the local temple contracted to ensure future sustenance be made as offerings to the deceased individuals ka during the generations to come.


Yet family lines could come to an end, economic and other situations change. To safeguard against the cessation of sustenance within the tomb, the magical power of the written and spoken word was also employed, to ensure a continual supply of offerings. So hieroglyphs and canonical art were used to substitute for the actual offerings by providing a ritual guarantee of eternal sustenance, texts and images creating directly and perfectly the necessary food and drink for the dead forever.


Despite the overabundance of offerings, the material offering was not the essential thing. The act of devotion was more important than the material gift, as was attested by the substitute offerings. If actual food offerings stopped for any reason, the offering formula would guarantee an eternal supply of food and enable the deceased to dispense with the assistance of the funerary priests for his continued sustenance. Reciting the offering formula was an adequate substitute for the actual offering. Tomb-owners often are depicted in text as addressing themselves to passers-by demanding that the offering formula be read on their behalf. As the owners name is read in the formula, the author, the tomb-owner, is made to leave on in the memory of posterity.



Depiction of an offering



The hetep-di-nisu, or "a gift which the king gives", is the offering formula or prayer asking for offerings to be given to the deceased. It first appears as the principal inscription on the False Door stelae of the Early Dynastic period, which formed the focus of food offerings in early private tombs, but it continued to be used on funerary stelae ad coffins through to the Graeco-Roman period. From at least the 4th dynasty, the deceased was often depicted sitting or standing before an offering table, beside which was an inscription enumerating all that was offered. Later on, in the 18th Dynasty, the tombs of the Theban necropolis portrayed the offerings as a banquet scene with guests, servants and entertaining musicians. As shown below, the offering formula was still used far into the Late Period.


Hetep also means to be pleased, happy, gracious, to be peaceful, to become calm, to satisfy, to pacify. Hetep had to do with gifts in a perspective of communication between the worlds, given in gratitude, received in happiness and grace, and leading to contentment, graciousness, mercy and peace. Because the word hetep could signify the concept of rest, peace or satisfaction, the sign also appears in the design of jewelry and other small items made to convey such messages such as "The heart of the gods is satisfied."


One early example of the "gift [or boon] which the king gives" comes from the Old Kingdom period, specifically an Inscription in the Giza Mastaba of Princess Ni-Sedjer-Kai, early 5th Dynasty:


"An offering which the king gives and Anubis, lord of the necropolis, first of the gods hall: May she be buried in the western necropolis at great old age. May she travel on the good ways on which a revered one travels well. May offerings be given to her on New Years feast, the Thoth feast, the First of the Year feast, the wag-feast, the Sokar feast, the Great Flame feast, the Brazier feast, the Procession-of-Min feast, the monthly sadj-feast, the Beginning of the Month feast, the Beginning of the Half-Month feast, every feast, every day, to the royal daughter, the royal ornament, priestess of Hathor, priestess of Khufu, Ni-Sedjer-Kai".


So the offering formula employed in the funerary cult and often inscribed on offering tables usually began with the phrase "Hetep di nisu:" an "offering which the king grants"denoting the concept of requisite royal license. The formulae then continue to name deities such as Osiris and Anubis, through whom the kings grant would be administered, and to list choice offerings such as beer, bread, oxen, fowl, incense and clothing, a list of the various quantities of items of food and drink that the ka of the deceased requires, which were supplied magically by the ritual inscription even if not actually present.


An offering formula


An offering Formula



Typically the first line of the offering formula asks for the king to make gifts to the gods Osiris or Anubis. But why is the king named herein? After all, arent the offerings being made by the family in many cases, as said above? This has to do with the religious practice and procedure of the Egyptian people. The text of the formula indicates that the sustenance of the ka of the deceased was not simply the responsibility of the surviving relatives, but that it was necessary for the king, seen as THE priest or intermediary between the Gods and the people, to intercede on behalf of the deceased.


Since the king was the main priest, the only actual priest in Egypt, it was only the king who was evershown making offerings to the gods in the temples. This idea was carried over into the giving of offerings in the tombs, where the king was also named as the giver. The formula begins: "An offering that the king gives". The essential role of the king as intermediary between the gods and mankind required that he should strike a bargain with the gods, whereby he offered goods to them in exchange for prosperity and harmony in the land, and also, he would intercede on behalf of the dead to ensure them a prosperous afterlife. The dead were given offerings on the occasion of the burial, and their offerings were to be renewed forever, on principle, at certain named festivals such as the New Year festival, the Thoth festival, the Wag festival, the Sokar festival and others.


The reason for this was that offerings went from the temple to the necropolis. Since the Old Kingdom, the practice was that offerings presented to the main god of the temple were carried out of the sanctuary, presented to gods having subsidiary cults in the temple, then to statues of kings and private persons placed in the temple courts, and finally to the necropolis. The offerings were then distributed to the priests and all the staff involved in the rituals as a reward, or salary, for their work.

The Pyramid Texts contain examples of the hetep di nisu as well:


Utterance 172: A boon which the king and Geb grant to this King; there is given to you every offering and every oblation which you can desire, whereby It will be well with you before the god for ever and ever.


Utterance 437: A boon which the King grants, a boon which Anubis grants, your thousand of bread, your thousand of beer, your thousand of t-wr-bread which came forth from the Broad Hall, your thousand of all sweet things, your thousand of oxen, your thousand of everything which you eat and on which you set your heart


Utterance 599: A boon which the King grants and Geb grants of these choice joints, invocation offerings for all gods who shall bring into being all good things for the King and who shall cause to endure this construction and this pyramid of the King, in accordance with what the King wishes in the matter, for ever and ever. O all you gods who shall cause this pyramid and this construction of the King to be fair and endure: You shall be effective, you shall be strong, you shall have your souls, you shall have power, you shall have given to you a boon which the king grants of bread and beer, oxen and fowl, clothing and alabaster; you shall receive your gods-offerings, you shall choose for yourselves your choice joints, you shall have your oblations made to you, you shall take possession of the Wrrt-crown in the midst of the Two Enneads.


On stelae, the formula phrase is usually accompanied by a depiction of the deceased sitting in front of an offering table heaped with food. Some tomb paintings also show Horus, son and heir of Osiris, as the donor, standing with arm upraised in the attitude of invocation before the shrine, statue or stela of the god, or deceased, and he pronounces the offering formula. The table was generally physically placed in the tomb chapel or other accessible place so that physical offerings could be brought in by the funerary priests, if it was a royal mortuary offering, or by relatives of the deceased.


The earliest examples come from the fourth dynasty at Meidum. These do not mention the king, but only Anubis. The opening phrases in the Old Kingdom read "An offering which the king gives and an offering that Osiris gives" introducing the kind and the god as equal donors. The gifts are not limited to food offerings, but include a good burial, admission to the realm of the spirits, and even a list of festivals at which the offerings are to be made. The recitation of the formula is illustrated in tombs by a man with his right arm outstretched, and in fact the hieroglyph for "to offer" is the outstretched arm with the hand holding out a loaf. Other men are often also shown offering poured water, burning incense, kneeling at the offering table and reading the ritual from a scroll.


By the First Intermediate Period the phrase read "An offering that the king gives TO Osiris, that he may in turn give invocation offerings." An example of this development comes from the Stela of Sahathor, whose career began under Amenemhat II in the 12th Dynasty. He and his wife are shown on the funerary stela beside a pile of offerings. Captions on either side of the statue-niche describe how many expeditions Sahathor undertook for the king, and how he supervised work on sixteen statues for the royal funerary complex.


The offering formula from this stela is translated thus:


An offering-which-the-king-gives to Osiris, lord of Busiris, the great god, lord of Abydos, an invocation offering of bread and beer, flesh and fowl, alabaster and linen, incense and unguent, at the Wag festival, at the festival of Thoth, at the procession of Min(?), at the Burnt Offerings. O you living who are upon earth, who shall pass by this chapel in the necropolis, going north, going south, may you say "It is pure! A thousand of bread, a thousand of beer, a thousand of flesh and fowl, oryx and gazelle, and everything on which a god lives, for the spirit of the blessed one, the assistant treasurer Sahathor, true of voice."


As time went on, other gods would also be named in the offering formula. An example of the offering formula from the New Kingdom period comes from Tomb of Paheri at el-Kab:



An offering given by the King to Amun, Lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands, King of eternity, lord of everlastingness.and Nekhbet, the White one of Nekhenand Osiris Khentamentiu, Lord of Thinis, great in Abydos, and Hathor, mistress of the desert.and Ptah-Sokar, lord of Shetyt, Anubis, lord of Rostau, and the Enneads great and small, May they give a thousand of bread, beer, beef and fowl, a thousand of food-offerings, a thousand of drink-offerings, all the plants that sprout from earth, a thousand of all things good and pure, that are offered to the eternal lord.


And from the Late Period comes an example from the Statue Inscription of Harwa:


An offering that the King gives to Montu, lord of Thebes, that he may give provisions of bread, beer, cakes, oxen, fowl, alabaster and clothing, incense and unguent, all things good and pure whereon a god lives, which heaven gives, earth produces, and Hapy brings forth, from the table of the Lord of Eternity, on the monthly feast, the half-monthly feast, on the Thoth feast, and on every feast, every day, to the ka of the one honored by Montu, Lord of Thebes, the true, beloved Kings friend, Harwa.


May we today treat our honored dead with at least the same constant memorials that the Egyptians did.



See Also:





  • Hieroglyphs and the Afterlife by Werner Foreman and Stephen Quirke
  • The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt ed. By Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
  • Religious Life in Ancient Egypt by Flinders Petrie
  • Ancient Egyptian Literature translated by Miriam Lichtheim
  • Reading Egyptian Art by Richard Wilkinson
  • Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
  • Voices from Ancient Egypt: Anthology of Middle Kingdom Writings by R.B. Parkinson
  • Pyramid Texts translated by Raymond O. Faulkner