Festivals in Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptian festivals were all based on religion, which is similar to the majority of our modern feasts. The ancient Egyptian gods were viewable as the supreme god Ra ” the Sun ” emerged from the underworld every day, while animal deities surrounded the ancient Egyptians with all their mighty powers. Egyptians awaited the festivals with bated breath every year to connect with their beloved divines in the most intimate way possible, visiting temples all at once, presenting offerings, dancing, and singing, and praying for their dreams and desires to come true. Despite the fact that no texts from the time period exist with information on the processes followed in any of these festivals during the Old Kingdom (about 2686-2181 BC), we still have monuments that teach us a lot about it. We can know about the Heb-Sed (Jubilee celebration) from the scale and style of King Djoser’s open-courtyard complex, while in the New Kingdom, unimaginable details of ancient Egyptian festivities are documented on the walls of temples and sacred sanctuaries.
Many festivals known as “Heb” were held throughout the year to pay gratitude to the gods and request divine graces in ancient times. The Egyptians would offer sacrifices, offerings, and rejoice the ‘ divine’ might at festivals in ancient Egypt, but the true purpose of these festivals was for the Egyptians to see the sons of gods “Kings” with their own eyes and maintain the belief structure that the world is run by the gods’ will as interpreted by the priests and implemented by the King. Festivals in Ancient Egypt were simply expressions of the divine in human existence, and as such, they established a life pattern for the Egyptians. The Ancient Egyptian calendar is divided into 12 months of exactly 30 days and the entire year was divided into three seasons, the first being Akhet, the season of flooding, the second being Peret, the season of irrigation and growth, and the third being Shemu, the season of harvesting, plus they added five extra days (epagomenal days) to celebrate a different occasion of each day with their own special festival. A parade of a god through a particular path, such as the one seen at Karnak temple, was part of ancient Egyptian festivals. They would conduct a celebration at the start of each year and again at the end to emphasize the concept of life’s everlasting, cyclical nature. Throughout the year, Egypt hosted a plethora of events and festivals.
Festivals on the epagomenal days (epagomenae)
The calendar year for ancient Egyptians consisted of 12 months of 30 days each, leaving five additional days, or “epagomenal days,” at the end of each year. The sky goddess Nut was supposed to have given birth to her offspring Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis, and Nephthys on these days, which were honored as “days out of time.”
- Day 1: Osiris’ birthday Festival
- Day 2: Horus’ birthday Festival (Hormas)
- Day 3: Seth’s birthday Festival
- Day 4: Isis’ birthday Fistival
- Day 5: Nephthys’ birthday Festival
5 Major Ancient Egyptian Festivals
Birthday of God Horus on the second epagonal day (Hormas, and later Christmas):
one of the most important ancient Egyptian festivals. Every ancient Egyptian temple, even those erected by the Greek Ptolemies, contains a particular chapel “portion” dedicated to the divine birth of Horus; the hieroglyphic term for this chapel is “ma-mse,” which translates as “birth chapel.” This chapel is known as the “birth chapel” in English. Every year, the ancient Egyptians celebrated the birth of Horus, honouring the miraculous birth of the saviour who represents the struggle between good and evil and who maintains the delicate balance of existence.
- Ancient Egyptian’s New Year Day (Wepet-Renpet Festival):
The New Year’s Day ceremony in ancient Egypt was called “The Opening of the Year.” Because the celebration was dependent on the Nile River’s flood, it was a type of mobile feast. It commemorated Osiris’ death and rebirth, as well as the renewal and rebirth of the land and people. It is solidly established as beginning in the late Old Kingdom of Egypt (c. 2613 – c. 3150 BCE) and is clear proof of the Osiris cult’s prominence at the period. This event included eating and drinking, as it did for most others, and the celebration would extend for days, depending on the time period. Osiris’ death was commemorated with solemn ceremonies, as well as singing and dancing to commemorate his rebirth. The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys, a call-and-response poem, was read at the beginning to summon Osiris to his feast.
- The Opet Festival (Wedding of Amun & Mut):
At the second month of the Egyptian calendar, the Opet festival took place in Akhet. It is the most significant festival in Egyptian history, and it is also the longest celebration in the Theban festival calendar, lasting anywhere from 11 to 15 or even 20 days. At Thebes, the king was revived by the deity Amun as part of the celebration. The celebration would begin with the journey of the Theban God Amun from the Karnak temple to the temple of Luxor, where he would be married to the goddess Mut in a holy ceremony. After the divine wedding ritual took place at Luxor temple, Amun-Re of Karnak would relocate to Luxor temple and oversee the re-creation of the universe on an annual basis. The heavenly Journy continues in the company of his wife goddess Mut, and they return from Luxor Temple to Karnak Temple, where they announce the birth of the newly born deity Khonso to the people. It was also the King who was a part of this union and who had a role in the rebirth of this heavenly force.
- The Festival of the Dead (Wag festival):
This festival is dedicated to the death of Osiris and the honouring of the spirits of the departed as they go through the afterlife on their journey. This celebration was held in conjunction with the Wepet-Renpet, although the date of the event shifted according to the lunar calendar. As with Wepet-Renpet, it is one of the oldest holidays celebrated by the Egyptians and occurs for the first time during the Old Kingdom. During this event, people would construct little paper boats and place them on graves in the direction of the west to signify Osiris’ death, and they would also float shrines made of paper on the waters of the Nile for the same reason.
- Sacred Marriage of Hathor:
It all started on the 18th of the tenth month, Paoni, when the figure of Hathor Goddess was removed from her sanctuary at Dendera to sail upriver to Horus’ temple at Edfu. She and her disciples arrived in Edfu on the new moon day at the end of summer. Horus left his temple and greeted his spouse on the seas at the anniversary of his victory against Seth. The heavenly couple arrived at the temple at the Opening of the Mouth and the Offering of the First Fruits. This odd mix of funeral and harvest rites is presumably due to Horus’ connection with Osiris, the deity of both. They spent the night in the Birth House. The next day’s celebrations were different. The Festival of Behdet consisted of ceremonies to assure the people of Horus’ reign and full authority. Visits to the necropolis and memorial services were among the events. It was said that Horus the Behdetite had retaken the Upper and Lower Egyptian crowns by sacrificing an animal and a goat. “Praise to you, Ra, praises to you, Khepri, in all these lovely names. I saw you slain the monster and ascended beautifully.” His adversaries were metaphorically stomped underfoot, and their names were written on papyrus for everyone to see. After the enemy was defeated, the celebrants enjoyed a night of delight. Assumedly, this element of the ceremony was a signal to the priests, priestesses, king, queen, and most commoners to do the same. One of the main motivations for the celebration was presumably for mortals to “drink before the god” and “spend the night gaily.” After two weeks of fun and games, Hathor Goddess returned to Dendera.
Other Ancient Egyptian Festivals
The Heb-Sed (Jubilee Festival)
This is a very specialized celebration, as it is observed by the king every thirty years of his reign to verify that he is in complete conformity with the gods’ wishes. As a sign of his authority over the country and his capacity to conquer other countries and enhance Egypt’s influence, riches, and strength, the king was also supposed to run around a contained enclosure to prove he was fit and shoot fire arrows into the four cardinal directions.
Festivals drew people closer to the divine, brought the past and present together, and paved the path for the future, or just provided opportunities for people to unwind and enjoy themselves.
Tekh Festival: The Feast of Drunkenness
This celebration was held in honor of Hathor (‘The Lady of Drunkenness,’) and honored the moment when alcohol saved mankind from extinction. Ra, according to legend, had grown tired of people’s incessant cruelty and foolishness and had dispatched Sekhmet to kill them. She threw herself into her work with zeal, ripping them apart and devouring their blood. Ra is content with the devastation until the other gods remind him that if he really intended to teach mankind a lesson, he should halt it before there was no one left to learn from it. Ra then commands Tenenet, the goddess of beer, to dye a huge quantity of the beverage crimson and bring it to Dendera, directly in Sekhmet’s path of devastation. She discovers it and swallows it all, believing it to be blood. She then falls asleep and awakens as the compassionate and benevolent Hathor.
Worshippers became intoxicated, slept, and were then awoken by drummers to communicate with the goddess Mut [who was intimately associated with Hathor]” in the Hall of Drunkenness. Alcohol would lower inhibitions and prejudices, allowing them to experience the goddess more deeply as they awoke to the holy drums.
In Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 – c. 2613 BCE), Sokar was an agricultural god whose attributes were subsequently adopted by Osiris. The Sokar Festival was combined with the somber Khoiak Festival of Osiris, which commemorated his death, in the Old Kingdom. It began as a solemn event, but it evolved to incorporate Osiris’ resurrection and was celebrated for over a month during the Late Period of Ancient Egypt (525-332 BCE). During the ceremonies, people planted Osiris Gardens and crops to commemorate the deity as the plants sprang from the soil, representing Osiris’ rebirth from the grave. Planting crops during the event most likely dates back to Sokar’s early devotion.
Bast Festival / Bastet Festival
Another prominent event was the worship of the goddess Bastet at her cult center of Bubastis. It commemorated the birth of Bastet, the cat goddess who was the defender of women, children, and women’s secrets, as well as the guardian of hearth and home. According to Herodotus, Bastet’s celebration was the most extravagant and well-attended in Egypt. According to Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch, who quotes Herodotus, “During the yearly festival in Bubastis, women were liberated from all restrictions. They drank, danced, made music, and displayed their genitals to commemorate the goddess’s festival ” (116). The women’s “lifting of the skirts,” as reported by Herodotus, showed the liberation from usual restraints seen during festivals, but it also had to do with reproduction in this case.
Although Herodotus claims that over 700,000 people attended the celebration, there is little question that the goddess was one of the most popular in Egypt among both sexes, thus this figure might be accurate. The event included dancing, singing, and drinking in honor of Bastet, who was thanked for her gifts and requested future blessings.
Nehebkau was the deity who, at birth, connected the ka (soul) to the khat (body) and, after death, bound the ka to the ba (the soul’s wandering aspect). As the people celebrated rebirth and renewal, the celebration marked Osiris’ resurrection and the restoration of his ka. In many ways, the celebration was comparable to the Wepet-Renpet New Year’s Festival.
From the Predynastic Period in Egypt (c. 6000 – c. 3150 BCE) forward, Min was the deity of fertility, vigor, and reproduction. He is generally shown as a guy with an erect penis and a flail in his hand. The Min Festival is said to have begun in some form in the Early Dynastic Period, although it is best documented in the New Kingdom and afterward. The statue of Min was brought out of the temple by priests in a procession that featured holy singers and dancers, much as it was at the Opet Festival. When they arrived in the king’s position, he would cut the first sheaf of grain ceremonially to represent his relationship to the gods, the land, and the people, and then sacrifice the grain to the deity. In the expectations of a happy reign that would bring fertility to the country and people, the celebration honored both the monarch and the deity.
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