The Osirian Khoiak Festival was held during the month of Khoiak, which was the fourth month of the inundation, Akhet, season. In other words, the ritual associated with the god Osiris was performed during the Egyptian month Khoiak (mid-September to mid-October). The Festival of Khoiak was when the people celebrated the death of Osiris, who was killed by his brother, Seth.
The main component of this Khoiak festival was the procession with Osiris from his temple to his tomb at Peker. Archaeologists identified the tomb as the tomb of Djer, a king from the first dynasty, located at Umm el-Qab. The festival attracted pilgrims from all over Egypt. These pilgrims erected steles and statues along the procession route.
Drama behind the Sokar Festival
The subject of the festival was the struggle between Osiris and his brother Seth, Osiris’ death, and his resurrection. The celebration lasted for ten days, culminating with Osiris’ resurrection at the end of the month that paralleled the planting of new crops at the beginning of the agricultural year.
Story of the Khioak Festival
The good King Osiris ruled Egypt with his devoted wife Isis, a great magician. Osiris’ brother, Seth, was jealous and believed he should be the king. Seth murdered Osiris – in this version through drowning – and dismembered his body into sixteen pieces that he scattered around Egypt. Isis gathered together the pieces of Osiris’ body and reanimated his body so that they could conceive a child, the following legitimate king, named Horus. Osiris proceeded to the next world, where he ruled over the dead.
Procession of the Khoiak Festival
By erecting these steles, pilgrims hoped to participate in the procession and benefit from it even when they were not physically present. Not only do these steles represent the owner, but quite often, it mentions their family members as well, who also profited from being displayed and mentioned in those steles. However, these pilgrims did not consist of people from every social stratum. They were from the more prosperous and well-off parts of society, the elite and middle class, which could afford such a pilgrimage. Archaeologists could preserve a large number of steles belonging to these people. The most extensive collection of these steles currently exists in the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities.
Royal Sculptor Hatiay
The royal sculptor Hatiay is one of the more famous steles from this collection. Hatiay, Penserd, and Penrennoe are all seen as either middle-class or elite within Ancient Egyptian society, who could travel to Abydos and participate in the festival and erect a personal stele. The reason for seeing these individuals as middle-class and elite is because they bear titles that required them to be literate and allowed them access to essential institutions, like the temples and the royal palace. It was impossible for people who did not belong to these social classes. Egyptians performed the festival to ensure a successful rebirth of the god Osiris and Egypt since this held agricultural importance. We can interpret the rebirth of the land as the receding of the Nile flood and reappearance of fertile farmland because Egyptians celebrated the festival at the same time as the last month of the inundation season.
The procession was closely intertwined with the Osiris myth, performed as a drama during the festival. The sources for this are monologues, dialogues, songs, music and dance.
Except for Osiris ‘ resurrection rituals, pilgrims looked at the drama outside the temple. Priests prepared these rituals and executed them in private chambers within the temple. These rites were holy, and thus non-religious personnel could not see them. The drama served as entertainment; religious education about the Osirian myth; and reassurance for what was to come after death.
Sources of the Sokar Festival
The primary sources of the Osirian Khoiak festival come from the calendars inscribed on temple walls, texts on a stele, reliefs of ancient Egyptian temples. It also comes from the archaeological remains, such as the statues of Osiris used in the performance. One problem with these sources is that they originate from widely different periods. The oldest material dates to the Middle Kingdom (2008–1630 BC.), while the newest origins date to the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 BC). The sources thus would also reflect variations in the importance of the different parts of the festival at temples widely separated both in time and space. Therefore, it is impossible to understand the festival’s development fully but only reconstruct it broadly.
Festival calendars of temples at Medinet Habu, Edfu, Dendera, and Esna are good sources of the ancient Khoiak celebration. Noteworthy that all these temples exist in Upper Egypt. They date as early as the time of Ramesses III (1187–1156 BC) and as late as the end of the Ptolemaic Period (30 BC). Each day witnessed a particular festival scene that included purifications, processions, feasts, and erection of obelisks and pillars that symbolized Osiris’ resurrection.
Choiak Festival Duration
The Osirian Khoiak lasted several days and allowed for plenty of opportunities for the public to participate in the god’s cult. Firstly, by being involved in the procession, they would create statues and steles and watch the parade; secondly, by watching the drama, which illustrated the Osiris myth. These aspects were closely intertwined since the drama was part of the procession or vice versa.
The Dendera texts also record specific ceremonies during the festival drama. On the sixteenth of the month, the god Horus conveyed Osiris’ body to the temple from the water in the form of a crocodile. It is possible that crocodile mummies, known from many temples, actually portrayed Horus at this point in the drama. The priests then held a procession that included the deities Sokar and Anubis, other gods with emblems, and the obelisk tops called benben stones. They travelled through the temple and the cemetery. This procession marked the divine transformation of Osiris’ body. On the twenty-second of the month, 34 boats bearing different gods participated in the search for the drowned remains of Osiris. They searched on the sacred lake within the temple.
The boats were small, about 63.5 centimetres (25 inches) long. The figures were also relatively small. However, archaeologists could not record the measurements of the statues of the gods on the boats. It is not clear why the gods continue to search for Osiris if Horus had already conveyed his body to the temple on the sixteenth. Perhaps this ceremony is a kind of flashback. On the twenty-fourth of the month, priests shrouded the figures of Sokar and Khenty-imentyu.
Further, the procession of the sixteenth was repeated. This time the procession preceded the burial of Osiris’ body. On the thirtieth, priests buried Sokar and Khenty-imentyu under a Persea tree.
Masks and Props
Reliefs on the roof of the Dendera temple illustrate scenes from the Osirian Khoiak drama. The reliefs portray a priest wearing a jackal mask, designating him as the god Anubis. Another priest wears a falcon mask, indicating that he plays the god Horus. Noteworthy that actual jackal masks have archaeological evidence. The ancient Egyptians made small statues from gold, silver, or wood. They are both props and characters in the drama. Archaeological examples of the Osiris statues came to world knowledge. They were hollow, made from bitumen, resin, and natron and filled with barley seeds. The seeds sprouted, symbolizing Osiris’ resurrection.