The ancient Egyptian calendar – a civil calendar – was a solar calendar with a 365-day year. The year consisted of three seasons of 120 days each, plus an intercalary month of five epagomenal days treated as outside the year proper, and each season included four months of 30 days. These twelve months were initially numbered within each season. However, these months also became known by their principal festivals, each month composed of three 10-day periods known as Decans or decades. During the Nineteenth Dynasty and the Twentieth Dynasty, the last two days of each decan were usually treated as a kind of weekend for the royal artisans, with royal artisans free from work.
- Months and Seasons in Ancient Egypt Calendar
- List of Major Holidays
- Festivals according to Ancient Egyptian Calendar
- Coptic Calendar
The ancient Egyptian calendar was by no means a comprehensive calendar for all of ancient Egypt. This calendar is rich with cultic and non-cultic festivals and holidays. However, many celebrations were very obscure and local. In addition, some of these festivals were changed over time, merging with other festivals or changing the celebrated gods and events. Below are most of the best-documented and most widely celebrated festivals from Pharaonic times, enough for almost every month of the year.
Months and Seasons in Ancient Egypt Calendar
The official year (365 days) was just short of the solar year (the time the earth takes to go around the sun, 365. As a result, the official year gradually moved back, with the official winter months and their festivals falling into the summer.
Ancient Egyptians were the first to realise the need for a leap day. The Egyptians discovered that the star Sirius lined up with the rising sun around the time of flooding every year. They also noticed that Sirius lined up with the sun for about six hours (a ¼ a day) different yearly. They inserted a leap day into their calendar but then abandoned it. Thus, their calendar would slip a day every four years and an entire month every 120 years.
Archaeologists found a trilingual description of changes to the Egyptian calendar at the temple of Bubastis, the 8th-century capital of Egypt. The 2,200-year-old stellate described planned changes for the Egyptian calendar that Julius Caesar implemented d250 years later.
Twenty-Four Hour Day
The Egyptians invented the 24-hour day and helped pioneer the concept of time as an entity. They divided the day into two cycles of 12 hours each. The origin of the 12-hour division might come from star patterns in the sky or the Sumerian number system, based on the number 12.
The Egyptians devised the solar calendar by recording the yearly reappearance of Sirius (the Dog Star) in the eastern sky. It was a fixed point that coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile. Their calendar had 365 days and 12 months, with 30 days each month and additional five festival days at the end of the year. However, they did not account for the extra fraction of a day, and their calendar gradually became incorrect. Eventually, Ptolemy III added one day to the 365 days every four years.
Beginning of the Year
Ancient Egyptians marked the beginning of the year, also called “the opening of the year”, with the emergence of the star Sirius in the constellation of Canis Major. The constellation emerged roughly on June 21. The star was visible just before sunrise and is still one of the brightest stars in the sky, located to the lower left of Orion and taking the form of the dog’s nose in the constellation Canis Major. Ancients called this phenomenon “the going up of the goddess Sothis”.
Though the Egyptians did have a 360-day calendar, in a literal sense, they did have a 365-day calendar system. They marked the beginning of the year with five additional days, known as “the yearly five days”. These additional five days were great feasting and celebration for the Egyptians. It was common for the Egyptians to do rituals and other celebratory dealings these days. The Egyptian calendar also took on other essential functions within Egyptian life, explicitly dealing with the people’s astrology.
For the ancient Egyptian calendar to make sense, it helps to understand how they divided their year into seasons. Unlike our four seasons, they had only three: Akhet (Flood), Peret (Emergence) and Shomu (Summer). Each lasted four months. Akhet lasted from mid-July to mid-November on our calendar, Peret from mid-November to mid-March, and Shomu from mid-March until mid-July again. Here is a breakdown of the months in each season:
Akhet – Flood Season
- Djehutet – Akhet 1
- Pa’en-Opet – Akhet 2
- Hat-Hor – Akhet 3
- Ka-Hor-Ka – Akhet 4
Peret – Emergence
- Ta-ib – Peret 1
- Makhir – Peret 2
- Pa’en-Amunhotepu – Peret 3
- Pa’en-Renenutet- Peret 4
Shomu – Summer
- Pa-Khonsu – Shomu 1
- Pa’en-Inet – Shomu 2
- Apip – Shomu 3
- Mosu-Ra – Shomu 4
List of Major Holidays
- July 13-17, Heru Diu Her Ronpet (Intercalary), Days Upon the Year (see New Year)
- July 18 (note, some groups use August 1), 1st Djehutet (Akhet 1), Egyptian New Year
- August 3 – 5, 17-19th Djehutet (Akhet 1), Wag and Djehutet Feasts
- August 31 (roughly), 15th Pa’en-Opet (Akhet 2), Feast of Opet
- October 16, 30th Hat-Hor (Akhet 3), Khenut Hat-Hor (Sailing of Hathor)
- October 27- November 14, 17-30th Ka-Hor-Ka (Akhet 4), Haker Feast of Osiris, Feast of Sokar
- November 15, 1st Ta’ib (Peret 1), Hab Sed, Coronation of the Falcon
- December 14, 30th Ta’ib (Peret 1), Khenut Mut (Sailing of Mut)
- January 4-8, 21-26 Makhir (Peret 2), Feast of Victory
- January 13, 30th Makhir (Peret 2), Feast of Lifting the Sky
- March 21, 1st Pa-Khonsu (Shomu 1), Feast of Min, Feast of Renenutet
- April 28, 15th Pa’en-Inet (Shomu 2), Beautiful Feast of the Valley
- May 20, 7th Apip (Shomu 3), Hab Nefer en Sekhen (Reunion Feast)
- June 12, 30th Apip (Shomu 3), Feast of Apip
- July 12, 30th Mosu-Ra (Shomu 4), Day of Mosyt (New Year’s Eve)
Festivals according to Ancient Egyptian Calendar
The names of months indicated the role of festivals in daily life; these derive from names of festivals, often with the prefix ‘Paen-‘ meaning the (festival/month of). Copts kept these names in use even after the conversion of Egypt to Christianity in the early centuries AD. Ancient Egyptian festivals centred on a procession by land and river. Ancient Egyptians celebrated these festivals on a particular day or series of days in the official year.
There seems to be no attempt to move the festivals, even those relating to agricultural events in the solar year, such as floods or the low-river sowing season. Such fixed reference to the official year demonstrates the remarkable power of the centralised kingship in determining the timing of festivals that large numbers across the country would have celebrated.
The evidence for festivals is uneven; are more inscriptions recording funerary and royal festivals and far more evidence from Thebes than from the rest of Egypt. One of the most important sources is the hieroglyphic inscription recording a great festival list in the temple for Ramesses III at Medinet Habu.
Wag and Djehutet Feasts
Wag and Djehutet Feasts, the Wag (or Wagy) Feast, was a dead festival early in Egyptian. Translated as the “Supply Feast”, it honoured Osiris and focused on offerings to loved ones and ancestors; inscriptions of the brothers Suti and Hor refer to garlands placed on memorial statues during the Wag observance. Many funerary inscriptions ask to remember the dead with prayers and food and drink offerings on the Wag Feast.
The Djehutet Feast, or Feast of Thoth, took place the day after the Wag Feast every few years. This holiday was connected to the lunar calendar, ten to twelve days shorter than the solar (or sidereal) ancient Egyptian calendar; as with the modern Jewish calendar, it created an extra 13th month about every three years. Egyptians celebrated the Djehutet Feast during this extra month, consecutively associated with the Wag Feast.
Feast of Sokar
Feast of Sokar was a planting festival coinciding with the Haker Feast, honouring the falcon deity Sokar (often syncretised with Ra, Ptah or Osiris). Before the sowing of crops could begin, the pharaoh performed a ritual hoe-ing, not unlike today’s ceremonial groundbreaking. There was also a ritual driving of cattle and a procession of Sokar’s statue on a model boat called the Henu barque that circled the walls of Memphis.
Coronation of the Sacred Falcon
Coronation of the Sacred Falcon was this very solemn holiday, observed in the temple of Horus at Nekhen, later Edfu, during the exact dates as the Hab Sed. The ceremony was meant to honour Horus‘ role as the embodiment of kingship. A live falcon that bore the markings of Horus was selected and then taken in a silent procession along with the temple statue of the god to a particular area. Four priests carried Horus’ statue, two with falcon masks representing the “Souls of Nekhen” and two with jackal masks representing the “Souls of Pe”. Ancients ceremonially crowned the live bird. Then they were kept in a sanctuary with other sacred falcons crowned in previous years.
Feast of Min
The Feast of Min came at the beginning of the harvest. The pharaoh, on ceremony occasion, cut the first sheaf of grain amidst ritual mourning and offered it to Min’s ithyphallic god of fertility. However, after the initial expression of sorrow, the rest of the feast celebrated fertility and bounty in the crops, livestock, and humanity. The main centre of Min’s worship existed in Akhmim, called Panopolis or Coptos in Greek.
The modern Coptic Orthodox Church still uses the same ancient Egyptian calendar as their ancestors did. However, the month names have modified slightly over the centuries, and their starting point is later.