There was nothing better than breaking the routine of life with a splendid festival for the ancient Egyptians. Religious or political festivals allowed both rich and poor to put away their cares for a day or two, and sometimes longer, to celebrate the best of ancient Egypt. The festivals in Ancient Egypt were diverse and widespread.
- Vacations and Participation in Ancient Egyptian Festivals
- Festival Calendar
- Offerings during Ancient Egyptian Festivals
- Diversity of Festivals in Ancient Egypt
- New Year’s Day
- Feast of Wagy
- The Festival of Opet
- Beautiful Meeting Festivals
- Festival of Choiak or Sokar
- Rebirth Celebration of Nehebkau
- Festival of the Fertility god Min
- Valentine Sed Festival
- Beautiful Feast of the Valley
- Heb-Sed Festival
- Habits Related to the Festivals
- Affect of Heritage
Throughout history, religion has played an essential role in connecting people, maintaining political power and social order, from the Ancient Near East to the Middle Ages and onwards to the 21st century. Undoubtedly, religious festivals played a vital role in Ancient Egypt and fulfilled some functions in a socio-political context.
Vacations and Participation in Ancient Egyptian Festivals
Preparations for these festivals were necessary and elaborate. For instance, the workmen of Deir el-Medina were allowed several days off to brew beer for festival preparations. Besides intoxication, other forms of sensory stimulation like movement, scent and sound were used.
Lastly, festivals and feasts were highly anticipated events since they functioned as a weekend and a moment so that the entire population could participate in the state cult. The access was customarily restricted to high ranking priests and the Pharaoh by restricting access to the temples.
However, this was treated more leniently during festivals, and non-religious personnel were allowed access to the first court of most temples.
From actual data, we can reconstruct a cultic calendar for the principal 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 systematically. 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.
There existed comprehensive records connected to such celebrations, but ordinarily, we possess only a fraction of these original texts today. However, festival calendars tend to list the details of these celebrations, such as their date, the deity honoured and perhaps a sentence concerning the involvement of a specific priest in a relatively terse fashion. Fortunately, the walls of 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.
Offerings during Ancient Egyptian Festivals
Offerings were an essential part of ancient Egyptian festivals, and there are several attestations of alcohol consumption and how this consumption differed from the everyday norm.
From the Old Kingdom onward, festival calendars also contained explicit references to the offerings needed for the deities associated with these events. Notably, during significant events, priests required financial support for the king. There was also the necessary endowments for the performance of these feasts.
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 particular type of loaf or a specific type of beer can be determined by a specific integer that refers to the cooking or brewing undertaken. It is called the “cooking ratio”.
Frequently introducing 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 produced a certain number of beer jugs or loaves of bread. We can determine the exact amount of grain needed for these festivals in conjunction with the cooking ratio. Hence, we can add up the total amount of grain required for the subsistence of a cult, at least for the major ceremonies.
From this data, scholars have determined quantitatively how wealthy a specific central temple was and approximately how many priests were necessary to preserve.
Diversity of Festivals in Ancient Egypt
Egypt knew an abundance of festivals and feasts. These festivals in Ancient Egypt offered the opportunity to follow the heart and break social and moral values and codes. It meant that people were allowed to give in to their impulses and desires, contrary to non-festival days, during which the heart should be kept under control. Indeed, this leads to a lack of restrictions on moralistic overtones and acts of contrition during festivals, leading to a carnival-like setting.
The Egyptian holidays varied widely. The Palermo stone – which dates back to 2500 BC – reveals many of these holidays. Furthermore, the ancient Egyptians enthralled the walls of the temples of Kom Ombo, Edfu, Esna, Dendera and Abydos, with many lists bearing the names of many of those holidays. The ancients celebrated public holidays, such as New Year’s Day, Flood Day. Also, they had popular holidays; relating to a specific category or occasion, such as the new year, wedding feasts. Besides, they celebrated local holidays connected to a particular region or city, such as the birthday of a local deity and his victory day over his enemy.
Cultic and Civil Festivals in Ancient Egypt
The festivals in Ancient Egypt were abundant and varied between official and popular feasts, whether general at the country level or local in each region separately.
Most of the festivals that we know of from ancient Egypt are cultic rather than civil. There were plenty of civil celebrations, but our sources are primarily religious. For example, we know that Ramesses III established an annual celebration to honour his victory over the Libyans (Meshwesh), who had unsuccessfully invaded Egypt. Another secular occasion was the coronation of kings; the ancient Egyptians frequently included its date 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 significant because the reappearance of Sothis after 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 that took place were fixed within the civil calendar. These festivals took place on a specific date or were split out through several days. Such festivals are typically called “annual festivals” by scholars.
Although festivals were a significant part of the lives of the ancient people throughout Upper and Lower Egypt (many nomes or districts had their local festivals), a few festivals were known throughout the land.
The ancient Egyptians celebrated these feasts by decorating and lighting temples, singing songs, presenting offerings and sacrifices. The ancient Egyptians linked these feasts in their entirety to faith.
In ancient Egypt, the state cult where the Pharaoh, or priests he appointed, mediated between gods and men was not accessible to the commoner. During the festivals, the state cult was made more accessible. This point, in turn, must have led to social tensions and inequality.
As mentioned before, the state cult was not open to the commoners in Egypt. However, it became accessible during the festivals. Commoners could participate in religious celebrations but could not directly contact the divine.
New Year’s Day
Of course, the year’s first celebration was the New Year’s festival. It started on the first day of the year and when rejuvenation and rebirth ideally took place for the ancient Egyptians.
The ancient Egyptian celebration of the New Year was special. They called it “Webt Renpet Nefert”, meaning “the opening feast of the beautiful year”. This festival began with the sunrise of the 11th of September, “Tut”, the fourth month. At that time, the Yemeni poetic star appears on the horizon with the dawn of that day. Regarding the flood season, they associated it with the flood itself the same as the year; The ancient Egyptians noticed that the surge is an annual phenomenon that recurs regularly. They also believed that the flood was nothing but the tears of the goddess Isis, who kept crying for her husband Osiris after his brother Set killed him.
The year monthly division for the ancient Egyptians was – as it is now 12 months. They divided each month into 30 days; however, they dropped the remaining five days of the year calendar. They dropped it even from their historical events. However, New Year’s Day continued throughout those five days. They spent it in celebrations and joys outside homes, and the celebrations started from the temple. They went to the upper cabin on the temple roof, carrying bread, cakes, pancakes and wine. Then they went out to the fields and on the Nile bank, enjoying the plants, roses, winds and the beautiful calm atmosphere. Leaving behind the world’s troubles and worries haunted them throughout the year. Their food on New Year’s Day included ducks, geese and fish.
Feast of Wagy
Seventeen days after New Year’s day, there was the more sad 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. Private individuals celebrated it outside of official religious circles and within the precincts of the significant 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 ancient Egyptians never discarded it. Hence, during the historical period, there were 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
Centred in Thebes, this boisterous festival, known as the Beautiful Feast of the Opet, was held in the second civil month and was set according to a lunar calendar. Its twenty-seven-day duration in the 20th Dynasty shows how significant the festival became. However, we know virtually nothing about the celebration before the 18th Dynasty and the rise of Thebes. It was perhaps not as old a celebration as some of the other feasts, though during the New Kingdom mainly, the celebration of Opet was predominate.
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, ancient Egyptians thought that the might and power of Amun were ritually bequeathed to his living son, the king. Therefore, the festival 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 honouring 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 colourful linen and adorned him with jewellery from the temple treasury, including magnificent necklaces, bracelets, wands, 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 small Egyptian children were lucky to be placed on their parent’s shoulders to see.
In Hatshepsut’s 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 honour.
The Pharaoh 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 manoeuvred 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; he automatically forgave any wrongs he had committed. “He was once more the embodiment of divine strength and generosity, the source of bounty and well-being for Egypt.”
Prayers and Wishes
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 allowed into the temple were escorted to unique audience rooms. The priests would convey the answers through a concealed window high up in the wall or inside a hollow statue.
More than anything, the ancient Egyptian population enjoyed the gods’ generosity 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.
Transfer of the god Amun
The ancient Egyptians celebrated the feast of the transfer of the god Amun from Karnak Temple to Luxor Temple in Thebes. The procession exits from Karnak Temple, led by priests who carried the sacred boat on their shoulders. The boats of the Theban Trinity (Amon, Mut and Khonsu) – and then they moved the boat of Amun. These priests brought it out of the temple’s Holy of Holies until they reached the Nile bank. Then, they placed the sacred barks on real boats in the Nile and sailed them south towards the Temple of Luxor. Meanwhile, the crowds gather on the eastern bank of the Nile, singing and chanting for the procession. Also, the priestesses sang joyful songs while carrying musical instruments.
Boats stand on the Nile bank in front of the Luxor Temple. At the same time, priests carry the Trinity boats on their shoulders. Furthermore, the masses walk behind them singing joyfully. The women dance and play with musical instruments. Upon reaching the temple, the king makes offerings and sacrifices. The rituals proceeded at Luxor Temple for one night. A few days before the procession returned to the Karnak temple in the same way; The festivities continued for another eleven days. On the other hand, the police secure the parade and the masses because of the congestion.
Beautiful Meeting Festivals
The Ancient Egyptians celebrated the Beautiful Meeting when the procession of the goddess Hathor moved from her temple in Dendera. Where the priests took her boat – surrounded by the huddled masses – and headed south across the Nile until they reached the temple of Edfu. Where her goddess husband Horus is. To spend with him there fifteen days in a beautiful meeting. Moreover, during the procession, it stops at the city (Esna), where its ruler offers the procession escorts of the great crowds 500 loaves of bread, 100 vessels of wine, and 30 shoulders of cattle – the people of Esna were and still are known for their generosity.
On the Nile banks of Edfu, the ruler of Edfu with the priests and the masses awaited the Hathor’s procession. The more the parade sailed south, the greater the number of crowds. The crowds remained outside the temple of Horus, singing and dancing for fifteen days. Waiting for Hathor to leave and return to Dendera again! whose joy would be upon them, and they would increase in splendour and brilliance. The god Horus escorts the goddess Hathor away from the eyes of the masses. Furthermore, they spend beautiful times together in happiness and contentment.
Festival of Choiak or Sokar
The festival of Choiak or Sokar rivalled that of Opet during the New Kingdom but was a much older celebration. Its importance comes from its connection with the ancient significance of the god of the underworld, Osiris, and his link with the archaic powers of Memphis. It was celebrated in the fourth month of the Egyptian civil calendar, lasting for six days during days 25 through 30, though the festival grew much longer by the Late Period.
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 sombre celebration, completing the first season. The last days of the feast were observed with no small amount of agony and sadness. This part of the festival soon became associated with Osiris, who was considered dead by the central date of the Sokar feast (day 26).
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 resurrection of the god. Later this interval was connected to the king’s rebirth 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.
Festival of the Fertility god Min
The Min festival also opened a new season and was carried out in the ninth civil month, although it was set according to the moon. It is perhaps not surprising that this fertility ritual is also known from Egypt’s most distant past. However, most of the festival’s knowledge is from sources from the New Kingdom onward.
In this celebration, the king cut the first sheaf of grain. It symbolically supported his role as life-sustainer of his people. It can be noted that this festival, associated with Min, was one of fecundity and the masculinity of rebirth. Therefore, the third festival focuses on birth, predominating the agricultural aspect.
Valentine Sed Festival
The Valentine Sed Festival is one of the holidays of great importance to the ancient Egyptians. It was the thirtieth feast where the Pharoah celebrated the thirtieth year of his ascension to the throne. Therefore, the king appears on his throne in full strength. While the masses around him are happy and excited, waiting for the king’s word that prepares them. Furthermore, pharaohs prove themselves by rebuilding some of the temple’s chapels with gold, silver and precious stones! There is a new thirtieth festival full of prosperity and prosperity.
Beautiful Feast of the Valley
Beautiful Feast of the Valley is another annual event for Egyptians to look forward to was again centred in Thebes, allowing the living to commune with their loved ones in the afterworld. Though the celebration can be traced back to the Middle Kingdom, it became important during the New Kingdom. It was held in the tenth civil month.
The festivities began at Karnak temple on the east bank. The sacred image of the god Amun was placed atop a ceremonial boat and carried down to the Nile by the priests. Eventually, the image of the god Amun was accompanied by the pictures of his wife Mut and their child, Khonsu. The ceremony is very similar to how it occurred in the Opet Festival.
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 joyous and colourful procession of Egypt’s citizens. Acrobats and musicians entertained the masses of people who participated. At the same time, women played the sistrums, a kind of rattle instrument that made a soft jangling that sounded like a breeze blowing through papyrus reeds. This sound was said to soothe the gods and goddesses.
The procession ended at the cemetery filled with tomb chapels where the ancient people honoured their dead relatives by performing various rituals. 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 primary museum collection.) The celebrants themselves ate heartily and drank a lot of wine. Moreover, 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. 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 citizens probably witnessed it only once in a lifetime. The Heb-Sed Festival was usually celebrated 30 years after a king’s rule and every three years. This significant ritual symbolized regeneration and was meant to assure a long reign in the pharaohs afterlife. The ceremonies were meant to bring back the harmony between the king and the universe/ and in the case of illness or just the king’s old age, The official rituals were supposed to be performed after 30 years of a kings reign. However, there is evidence that the festival was sometimes scheduled earlier. It usually began on New Years Day, one of the Peret (Emergence) seasons and started with an imposing procession, as did all ancient Egyptian festivals.
Many Sed ceremonies, dating from predynastic times, were performed before officials and commoners who were lucky enough to be a part of the festival. For this purpose, fabulous 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 played the function of Djosers Heb-Sed Festival. Sculptors also reproduced shrines of local deities for the Sed Festival to show the extent of the king’s power over all of Egypt.
Those privies to participating in the king’s revitalization festival witnessed several different rituals. The king gave offerings to the goddess Sechat-Hor, who had fed Horus (the king) with her holy milk, the drink of immortality. After that, the nobles would come before the king, offer their services, and rededicate their devotion.
Next was the most famous and essential ritual to show the kings continued potency. According to La Civilisation de L’Egypte Pharonique: the king would run around the field (or within the Sed courtyard) while carrying several ritual articles in his hands – the imyt-pera list of possessions that gave the king the right to possess Egypt.
In the festival, priests led the king into two pavilions where he received the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, symbolically renewing the crowning ceremony. Later, the king shot four arrows into the four directions to frighten off evil powers and enforce Egypt’s right to rule over the world.
Habits Related to the Festivals
The ancient Egyptians used to make cakes in multiple geometric shapes. They made them in animals or flowers and stuffed them with dried dates. Then they stacked them on slabs of slate – because it was the rock that was easy to cut into panels. And then they baked them. They baked the cake type designated for visiting tombs in the form of a set amulet. “the knot of Isis” is one of the amulets that open the gates of bliss for the dead. Thus, each ancient Egyptian holiday had a bond that linked them to the afterlife.
Affect of Heritage
The exciting thing is that the current residents of Luxor still celebrate their religious occasions the same way as the ancients. On the anniversary of (Abu al-Hajjaj al-Luxor), his visitors stroll by standing on the Nile shore and crossing the crowded boats on its banks.
The social aspects take a lot of different forms. This form could be private celebrations with relatives to public celebrations with the rest of the population. Public and private celebrations had social implications since they broke up the routine for these people and allowed them to break with social norms and values for a brief period. This break enabled them to forget about their daily life and responsibilities, through all types of sensory stimulation, much like present-day festivals.