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Ancient Egyptian public religious ceremonies: Temple festivals-Processions, Festivals The Opet Festival, The Beautiful Feast of the Valley, The procession of Min, Osirian festivals, Visiting the dead, Calendar of festivals during the Middle Kingdom.
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Public religious ceremonies

    The daily worship from which the public was excluded, took place inside the temples. The statues of the gods were tended by priests who had to cleanse themselves ritually before entering the temple. The ordinary people worshipped their housegods at home or found a listening ear at some of the temples.
    The public retelling of the story of Osiris led to spectacles which can be described as theatre, in which lay persons and priests took part.

Temple festivals

    But the populace as a whole became involved during the festivals, which were a time of indulgence for the ordinarily frugal Egyptians. At the Ramesseum during the three week long Opet festival 11,400 bread loaves and cakes were baked and eaten, 385 measures of beer were consumed as well as considerable amounts of meat, wine, fruit. The Sokar festival lasted ten days with a consumption of 7400 loaves of bread and cakes and 1372 measures of beer.

Processions

    On the holidays the gods were carried outside in their gilded boats, often made a short journey on the Nile before returning to the gloom of their naos. These processions were occasions of public celebrations, with people travelling great distances to participate.
    Of some of the processions one knows during which season they happened. On the Hassawanarti island near Elephantine rock inscriptions concerning the event were carved at a height which corresponded to the lowest yearly water level of the Nile during the New Kingdom. Thus the procession took place in late spring. Other sources speak of the progression of Anuket by boat from Elephantine to the Sehel island occurring at approximately the same time of the year [2].
The Egyptians hold their solemn assemblies not once in the year but often, especially and with the greatest zeal and devotion at the city of Bubastis for Artemis (Pasht), and next at Busiris for Isis; for in this last-named city there is a very great temple of Isis, and this city stands Woman with rattle in the middle of the Delta of Egypt; now Isis is in the tongue of the Hellenes Demeter: thirdly, they have a solemn assembly at the city of Sais for Athene (Nit), fourthly at Heliopolis for Helios (Re), fifthly at the city of Buto in honour of Leto (Uat), and sixthly at the city of Papremis for Ares (perhaps Anhur).
 
Now, when they are coming to the city of Bubastis they do as follows:--they sail men and women together, and a great multitude of each sex in every boat; and some of the women have rattles and rattle with them, while some of the men play the flute during the whole time of the voyage, and the rest, both women and men, sing and clap their hands; and when as they sail they come opposite to any city on the way they bring the boat to land, and some of the women continue to do as I have said, others cry aloud and jeer at the women in that city, some dance, and some stand up and pull up their garments.
This they do by every city along the river-bank; and when they come to Bubastis they hold festival celebrating great sacrifices, and more wine of grapes is consumed upon that festival than during the whole of the rest of the year. To this place (so say the natives) they come together year by year even to the number of seventy myriads of men and women, besides children.
 
Thus it is done here; and how they celebrate the festival in honour of Isis at the city of Busiris has been told by me before: for, as I said, they beat themselves in mourning after the sacrifice, all of them both men and women, very many myriads of people; but for whom they beat themselves it is not permitted to me by religion to say: and so many as there are of the Carians dwelling in Egypt do this even more than the Egyptians themselves, inasmuch as they cut their foreheads also with knives; and by this it is manifested that they are strangers and not Egyptians.
 
At the times when they gather together at the city of Sais for their sacrifices, on a certain night they all kindle lamps many in number in the open air round about the houses; now the lamps are saucers full of salt and oil mixed, and the wick floats by itself on the surface, and this burns during the whole night; and to the festival is given the name Lychnocaia (the lighting of lamps). Moreover those of the Egyptians who have not come to this solemn assembly observe the night of the festival and themselves also light lamps all of them, and thus not in Sais alone are they lighted, but over all Egypt: and as to the reason why light and honour are allotted to this night, about this there is a sacred story told.
 
To Heliopolis and Buto they go year by year and do sacrifice only...

Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg

    Some of the processions took on a national rather than a regional character during the New Kingdom. Rock inscriptions on Hassawanarti speak of the participants: Courtiers, the crown prince, officials of the treasury and palace administration, the vice-roy of Kush, priests representing the Amen temple at Karnak and the temple of Montu, and high military men.
    The minor Khnum chapel at Gebel Tingar near Aswan on the other hand had only local fame. It attracted workers from the near-by quarries, ordinary soldiers on duty in the region and priests of the lower ranks [2].

The Opet Festival

    Amen's procession at Karnak, the most important in the New Kingdom, took place on the 19th day of the second month of the first season (akhet). The road along which the statues of the Theban Triad were carried was lined with peddlers hawking fruit and other kinds of food. Procession at Karnak, Excerpt from a photo by J Bodsworth The stern and bow of Amen's boat were adorned with rams' heads, Mut's had heads of women and Khonsu's of falcons. The carriers of the boats had clean shaven faces and heads and wore knee-length kilts.

Priests carrying bark, 19th dynasty
Petrie Museum
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

The priests burned incense and carried fans. They followed a tambourine player to the shore of the Nile where the boats and statues were loaded onto floating temples 120 cubits long, made of cedar wood from Byblos and covered with gold and silver ornaments, with lapis lazuli, turquoise and other precious stones. The gold alone is estimated to have weighed four tons and a half. The gods' boats were placed in pavilions at the centre of these barges.
    They were towed by fully equipped soldiers, carrying shields, spears and axes, and accompanied by standard bearers, while the onlooking men clapped and the women sounded sistra and castanets. Libyans sang and Nubians danced. The barges were tied to sailing ships and made their way slowly towards Luxor amidst an armada of ships and boats.
    Three weeks later the statues were returned to their temples at Karnak, another occasion for public celebrations.

The Beautiful Feast of the Valley

    There were other public processions of the god. During the Beautiful Feast of the Valley, celebrated in the second month of the Shemu season, Amen crossed the river to Deir el Bahri on the western bank of the Nile. This feast was more ancient than the Opet festival and may have been first held at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom as a day of remembrance of the dead, but it became more famous during the New Kingdom when Amen's preeminent position in the Egyptian pantheon had become unassailable:
Seti I, he made (it) as his monument for his father, Osiris-Ramses I [triumphant; making for him a house] of millions of yaers, the "Temple-of-the-Spirit-of-Seti-Merneptah-in-the-House-of-Amonon-the-West-of-Thebes"; and fashioning his barque, [built (?)] of electrum, in order to carry his beauty in the procession of the lord of gods, at his feat of the valley.
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three, §212
    Some feasts were held celebrating special occasions like Thutmose III's three Feasts of Victory
The second "Feast of Victory" was celebrated at the (feast) "Day-of-Bringing-in-the-God", the second feast of Amon, in order to make it of five day's duration.
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, §551
    Seven centuries later Piye described how he would celebrate this and other Amen festivals on his stela:
"Now, afterward when the ceremonies of the New Year are celebrated, I will offer to my father, Amon, at his beautiful feast, when he makes his beautiful appearance of the New Year, that he may send me forth in peace, to behold Amon at the beautiful Feast of Opet; that I may bring his image forth in procession to Luxor at his beautiful feast (called): "Night of the Feast of Opet," and at the feast (called): "Abiding in Thebes." which Re made for him in the beginning; and that I may bring him in procession to his house, resting upon his throne, on the "Day of Bringing in the God," in the third month of the first season, second day; that I may make the Northland taste the taste of my fingers."

The procession of Min

    The festival of the ancient fertility god Min was celebrated during the first month of the Shemu season (3rd season). The god's statue was carried on a litter from his temple to a platform in the country, during the reign of Ramses III at least preceeded by the king himself wearing the white crown of Lower Egypt and holding a long staff and a club. A white bull had a sun-disk fastened between his horns and represented the god himself. The gilded wooden statues of the pharaohs were carried in the procession with the notable exceptions of Hatshepsut, Akhenaten and his heirs. After placing the god's statue on the platform, the pharaoh brought another offering and prayed to the god
A blessing to you, Min, who fertilizes the mother. Deep is the secret of what you did to her in the dark.
From the Hymn to Min
the mother invoked being Isis, mother of Horus, ruler over both Upper and Lower Egypt. The pharaoh Sons of Horus, excerpt from the Ani Papyrus shot arrows in the four directions of the wind, freed four jays representing the four sons of Horus - Amset, Haphi, Duamutaph and Kabahsenuf - to announce to the whole land, that he was the heir of Horus and put on the red and white crowns. After symbolically reaping a few ears of corn the pharaoh kept one of them to himself. Further hymns were sung and the statue of the god was returned to its temple.

Osirian festivals

    Feasts in honour of Osiris celebrated fertility and were, unlike many official festivals, apparently organized by the villagers themselves at times. They were also different in the offerings presented to the god: pigs, like fish, are never found among temple sacrifices, but according to Herodotus they were offered to Dionysos (i.e. Osiris) and the Moon on such occasions.
Then for Dionysos on the eve of the festival each one kills a pig by cutting its throat before his own doors, and after that he gives the pig to the swineherd who sold it to him, to carry away again; and the rest of the feast of Dionysos is celebrated by the Egyptians in the same way as by the Hellenes in almost all things except choral dances, but instead of the phallos they have invented another contrivance, namely figures of about a cubit in height worked by strings, which women carry about the villages, with the privy member made to move and not much less in size than the rest of the body: and a flute goes before and they follow singing the praises of Dionysos.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg

Visiting the dead

    On the eighteenth day of the first month of the first season the wag-feast was celebrated, by visiting the parts of the tombs accessible to the living and leaving offerings for the deceased. For most people this was probably a family gathering, but the elite turned it into an occasion of public display. Hepdjefi, a Middle Kingdom nomarch, concluded a number of contracts with the priests of Wepwawet to ensure he would receive proper post-mortem treatment, which included a torch-lit procession on the eve of the wag-feast, the presentation of offerings the next day and a further illuminated nightly outing.
    The dead were remembered on a number of feast days, as Ahmose I's inscription makes clear, but that everybody observed all these days of remembrance may be doubted:
One spoke with the other, seeking benefactions for the departed (dead), to present libations of water, to offer upon the altar, to enrich the offering tablet at the first of every season, at the monthly feast of the first of the month, the feast of the coming forth of the sem, the feast of the night offerings on the fifth of the month, the feast of the sixth of the month, the feast of Hakro (hAkrA), the feast of Wag (wAg), the feast of Thoth, and at the first of every season of heaven, and of the earth.
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, §35
But it would have been a foolish person to neglect the needs of deceased ancestors, as they could be powerful allies in the underworld, looking after one's interests.

Calendar of festivals during the Middle Kingdom

Unlike during the Old and the New Kingdom, no Middle kingdom festival calendars have been found. Many of the festivals below are mentioned in inscriptions from Illahun.
Akhet 1st month
Day 1: New Year
Day 17: Eve of wag-festival
Day 18: wag-festival
Day 20: Feast of Drunkenness
Day 22: Great procession of Osiris
Day ?: Renewing of the year
2nd month
Day 26: Feast of Sokar
Days 27/8: Feast of Montu and Horus of Medamud
3rd month
Day 20: Heden-plant feast of Hathor
Day ?: Lifting up the sky
Day ?: Exalting the god
Day ?: Periplus of Sokar
Day ?: Entering into the sky.
4th month
Day 1: Periplus of Hathor
Day 26: Festival of Sokar
Day ?: Anointing of the gods
Day ?: Entering into the sky
Day ?: Drawing along Sokar
Peret 1st month
Day 1: Neheb-kau festival
Day 1: Periplus of Hathor
2nd month
Day ?: Feast of Sokar
Day ?: Drawing along of Sokar
3rd month
Day 1: Great Burning
Day ?: Entering into the temple
Day ? or 4th month of Peret: Periplus
4th month
Day 1: Lesser Burning
Day 14 or 15: Going forth to the Sky
Day 15: Renewing of the Year
Day 21: Victory festival
Shemu 1st month
Day ?: Feast of Sobek Lord of Sehwy
Day ?: Festival of the Valley
2nd month
Day 1: Festival (?)
Day ?: Festival of the Ruler
3rd month
Day ?: Festival of Sobek
4th month
Five epagomenal daysDay 1: Birthday of Osiris
Day 2: Birthday of Horus
Day 3: Birthday of Seth
Day 4: Birthday of Isis
Day 5: Birthday of Nephthys

 


Bibliography:
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, 1906
J. H. Breasted, Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt, 1972 University of Pennsylvania Press
Marshall Clagett, Ancient Egyptian Science: A Source Book, 2004 Diane
Herodotus, Euterpe, translated by Rawlinson
Karol Mysliewiec, Karol Myasliwiec, Eighteenth Dynasty Before the Amarna Period, 1985 Brill Academic Publishers
Jaquet-Gordon, The Festival on which Amun went out to the Treasury in Causing His Name to Live: Studies in Egyptian Epigraphy and History in Memory of William J. Murnane, http://history.memphis.edu/murnane/ , accessed March 2007
Bojana Mojsov, Osiris: Death and Afterlife of a God, 2005 Blackwell Publishing
Laszlo Torok, L Tvrvk, Handbook of Oriental Studies, 1997 Brill Academic Publishers
Sherif El-Sabban, Temple festival calendars of ancient Egypt, Liverpool University Press, 2000, ISBN 0853236232

 
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Felsinschriften auf und um Elephantine[2] Felsinschriften auf und um Elephantine by PD Dr. Stephan J. Seidlmayer
Bark stations: the Visual Story by Sjef WillockxBark stations: the Visual Story by Sjef Willockx
The Beautiful Feast of the ValleyThe Beautiful Feast of the Valley
 

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© August 2000
Update: March 2007

 

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