With the holiday season in full force, we thought it would be good to spend a week with the Em Hotep BBS folks looking at ancient Egyptian feasts and festivities. Inside you will visit an Egyptian feast, with its menus and entertainment; we learn about some of the major holidays such as Opet, the Beautiful Feast of the Valley and heb sed jubilees; we look at music and dance; sacred processions; getting drunk good and proper; more.
Contributors: Yvonne Buskens, Amy Calvert, Carolyn Graves-Brown, Lyn Green, Dennis van Hoorn, Heidi Kontkanen, Vicky Metafora, Richie O’Neill, and Keith Payne.
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Welcome to an Egyptian Feast!
The Egyptian epicure had a broad palette to whet his palate. In this section we will look at how he ate and drank, as well as how he was entertained while he enjoyed the evening.
From Chronicle of a Pharaoh: The Intimate Life of Amenhotep III by Joann Fletcher
“Egyptian bakers made their bread from stoneground emmer wheat mixed with water and salt and sometimes enriched with eggs, butter, or milk. They added nuts, spices, seeds, or fruits to produce many different sweet and savory variations…
“The ancient Egyptians ate many vegetables, including onions, leaks, garlic, beans, chickpeas, lentils, lettuce, and cucumbers. Tigernuts were popular, and almonds were found in the tombs of Tutankhamun, Kha, and Meryt at the site of Amarna. Aromatic seeds of caraway, coriander, and aniseed were used in cooking, while sesame seeds were both eaten on their own and used for oil, as were olives. Watermelons were popular, and dates, figs, pomegranates, and grapes were also eaten in large quantities and used as sweetening agents together with honey…
“The wealthy regularly ate meat—usually beef, with mutton, pork, and goat eaten more generally…Hunters killed wild hare, gazelle, ducks, geese, quail, and pigeons for food. Fish were usually dried and salted…Hens were first imported from Syria during Amenhotep [III]’s reign, while cow’s milk was popular as a drink and was also used for making butter and cheese.” (Pp. 94-5)
…And to drink
From Chronicle of a Pharaoh: The Intimate Life of Amenhotep III by Joann Fletcher
“Rich and poor, adults and children alike all enjoyed the standard Egyptian drink of barley beer, henket, which with bread formed the country’s staple diet…The beer’s strength was indicated by its darkness. It seems to have been a rather thick liquid that had to be filtered before being drunk, and dates or honey were often added…
“The wealthy were also fond of wine, and viticulture appears in numerous tomb scenes…Wine was made from figs, pomegranates, and dates as well as from grapes…Honey and spices were sometimes added, as probably were myrrh and pistacia resins, which are natural preservatives.
“…Some labels gave the wine’s purpose, from “wine for offering” and “wine for taxes” to “wine for a happy return” and “wine for merry-making”. Vintage wines were much appreciated: one wine jar in Tutankhamun’s tomb was labeled “year 31” of Amenhotep [III]’s reign (ca. 1361 BCE). Unlike his grandfather, Tutankhamun must have preferred dry wines: only four jars in his large collection are labeled ‘sweet.’” (Pp. 95-7)
From Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt by Barbara Mertz
“The Egyptians ate not only for nourishment but for conviviality. Some of the tomb reliefs which show people eating together may have been designed to ensure the dead a perpetual banquet in the afterlife, but they probably also reflect the pleasant custom of dinner parties. People ate with their fingers, and when the meal was over a servant, or a daughter of the household, came around with water which was poured over the hands…
“At banquets like these there was a floor show. Singing and musical instruments accompanied the feasting. A basic orchestral instrument was the harp; several different types are shown in the reliefs, from small portable instruments to big floor models, taller than the harpist. Percussion instruments, small drums, and tambourines beat out the rhythm and were accompanied by the hand clapping and finger snapping of the dancers…
“A stock figure in the orchestra was a bent, elderly male harper, often blind. The rest of the musicians were girls, and if they were as young and pretty as the paintings suggest, their appearance provided additional pleasure for the feasters. Their costumes, like those of the dancers that appeared with them, were quite flimsy; sometimes they wore only a string of beads and a girdle.
“Thus the wealthy entertained their friends.” (Pp. 109-11)
The Sed Festival
From Helen Strudwick’s Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
“To regenerate his strength and renew his power, the pharaoh celebrated by holding a festival known in Egyptian as the heb sed (royal jubilee). In principle, this complex ceremony took place in the thirtieth year of his reign and, thereafter, every two or three years. Although in theory the king could celebrate his jubilee only after a reign of 30 years, in practice, rulers such as Hatshepsut held it earlier to reaffirm their power…The elaborate rituals varied from sed to sed, with some rulers taking a low-key approach, while others such as Hatshepsut, Amenhotep III and Ramesses II enjoyed lavish ceremonies that lasted for days.
“Monumental halls and courtyards were often built to hold the royal jubilee, which began on the morning that the Nile flood began to subside. Surrounded by the royal court and senior dignitaries, the pharaoh would first raise the djed pillar, representing the backbone of Osiris, god of resurrection, and symbolizing stability.
“Next the king re-enacted his coronation, successively mounting two thrones wearing the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt to reaffirm his authority over all Egypt. Later in the day, the king undertook a ritual run, often in a specially prepared courtyard, between two sets of boundary markers representing the borders of his domain. Once the ceremonial rites were over, there were days of singing, dancing and feasting on beer, bread and beef, as well as the exchange of gifts and souvenirs.” (Pp. 162-164)
The Festival Hall of Thutmose III was constructed for the celebration of that pharaoh’s heb sed and was later used for the Opet Festivals which we will discuss further below. Located in the Precinct of Amun-Re at Karnak, the main hall contains a kings list showing Thutmose III offering to his ancestors.
“Thutmose III is said to have built this structure on the site of the brick enclosure of an older sanctuary for Nun. It is one of the more interesting, as well as one of the more unusual features at Karnak. He built it as a sort of memorial to himself and his ancestral cult and named it the “Most Splendid of Monuments”. The entrance was originally flanked by two statues of the king wearing a festival costume. It is at the building’s southwest corner and leads into an antechamber with magazines and other rooms to the right and left of the temple’s great columned hall. The roof of this hall is supported around its perimeter by thirty-two square pillars, while the central portion contains his famous tent pole style columns. There were originally twenty of these. They may recall ancient religious booths, but more likely symbolize the military tent that was so familiar to the great warrior pharaoh.” From The Central Courtyard and the Festival Hall of Tuthmosis III in the Temple of Amun at Karnak, by Jimmy Dunn
This vase may have once been given by Pharaoh Wenis to a loyal noble as a gift on the occasion of Wenis’ sed festival. Yvonne Buskens quotes the museum:
“Vases bearing royal names were certainly commissioned by sovereigns themselves as gifts for their most loyal servants. This would appear to have been customary, especially during the sed, or royal jubilee, that took place in the thirtieth year of a king’s reign. Inscriptions on some vases make reference to this festival, moreover. This could be seen as a political gesture, intended to underscore the king’s power while honoring his favorites. The latter would then take these tokens of royal favor to the grave with them. It is also possible that the unguent or oil contained in these vases played a part in the jubilee celebrations.”
The Opet Festival
From Helen Strudwick’s Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
“On important dates, images of the gods were carried through the streets in a procession. One of these events was the Opet Festival, celebrated each year in honor of Amun. In the temples of ancient Egypt only the courtyards were accessible to the public. Entry to the inner area, or particularly the inner sanctuary where the cult image was kept, was reserved for the priests and the pharaoh. The common people could approach the cult statue itself only during rare and important festivals—but even then it was hidden from view in a shrine.
“One such occasion was the Opet Festival, celebrated annually in the second month of the season of Akhet, the inundation period…For this festival, the statues of Amun, Mut and Khons were taken from the Karnak temple to the temple at Luxor. In the beginning, the shrines with the cult images were carried overland from Karnak to Luxor on model divine barges; the return journey was made on the Nile. Later, the entire journey took place on the river, in a series of ceremonial boats.
“In addition to the barges of the family of gods and the family of the king, boats with priests, female dancers, musicians and soldiers participated in the procession. After arriving at their destination, the model barges were taken ashore, to great rejoicing of the crowds. People piled their offerings along the way to the temple. Priests and servants waving palm leaves accompanied the ceremonial barges, offering incense and water and reciting sacred texts.
“Welcoming ceremonies took place in front of the Luxor temple. The barges of Mut and Khons were placed in the courtyard built by Amenhotep III while the image of Amun was taken to a small ajoining chapel. During the rituals that followed, Amun had a symbolic union with the pharaoh’s mother, whose son was ‘reborn’, affirming the king’s temporal and spiritual power.” (Pp. 166-68)
Heidi Kontkanen, who provided us with these neat photos of the Opet procession from Luxor Temple shares this from Richard Wilkinson:
“Once each year, in the festival called The Beautiful Feast of Opet, the great god Amun-Re of Karnak visited the sanctuary of Luxor, for what was doubtless the most important festival of the Theban area. Celebrated in the second month of the inundation season of Akhet, the Opet festival was linked to the Nile´s flood season and its symbolic fertility, and although not documented before the 18th dynasty, this festival attained great importance in the New Kingdom times.” (From The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt by Richard Wilkinson)
Heidi explains that the pictures are from the first court of Luxor Temple and depict the Opet procession led by seventeen sons of Ramesses II, leading the sacrificial bulls to the temple.
Dennis van Hoorn discovered this well-written article about the Opet Festival by John Darnell.
Vicky Metafora provided us with an article on the Opet Festival from Odyssey Adventures in Archaeology.
On the subject of Opet, Vicky Metafora found this link to an article from the Jebel Barkal website on Jebel Barkal as True Destination of the Luxor Opet Festival.
From “Royal and Divine Festivals” by Joachim Willeitner, in Regine Schulz and Mattias Seidel’s Egypt: World of the Pharaohs”.
“Most of the state festivities were repeated in an annual rhythm and were thus bound by the ancient Egyptian calendar with its three seasons flood (Akhet), seed (peret), and harvest (Shemu), each lasting four months. The year’s first annual event that merited celebrations was held at the beginning of the year in mid-summer; it marked the onset of the Nile floods and the reappearance of Sirius—which the Egyptians regarded as a female deity called Sothis.
“Most of the subsequent annual festivities only had regional significance and were always linked to specific deities…Often, priests took the divine images from the temple shrines, put them on large barques equipped with poles and carried them through the village in a resplendent procession that included music and dance. The cult statues were placed in portable shrines in order to protect them from the illicit stares of the public lining the procession route. But the public were able to address them with prayers and requests, to which the cult statue responded by way of specific movements—manipulated by the priests—of the barque.” (P. 455)
From Martin Stadler’s Procession in the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology:
“In ancient Egypt processions were performed, and acquired meaning, in a religious context. They may be categorized as either processions of deities, in which royal processions would be included, or funeral processions. Processions of deities may be subdivided into those that took place within the temple and those that exited the temple. The former were not open to the wider public but had a profound impact on the architectural design of a temple, because the deity’s statue was carried around to “visit” interior stations or chapels, or—at least from the Late Period onward—the deity’s earthly manifestation was brought to the temple’s roof for cosmic rejuvenation of the god through ritual unification with the sun, as part of the New Year’s feast. Alongside these internal processional ways, votive statues were erected by the Egyptian elite to guarantee their permanent (even posthumous) presence in the audience whenever a deity was epiphanized.” (p. 1)
“During the major religious feasts a procession of the deity exiting the temple was the highlight, because it was the only occasion during which the public, who did not have unrestricted temple access, could have more immediate contact with the deity. The deity’s statue appeared by coming forth from the temple’s sanctuary in a ceremonial bark” (Stadler, p. 3)
“Quite a different sort of procession is the funeral procession. It can be considered a “rite of passage” through which the deceased was prepared for his or her transition into the hereafter and which actually constituted the first steps of that transition. The funeral’s procession…evolved from a representation of a mere coffin in the early Eighteenth Dynasty to more elaborate scenes showing the tomb as the destination of the procession, the rites performed for the deceased by the sem-priest and the lector priest, the wailing women mourners, and the deceased’s tomb equipment being carried along” (Stadler, p. 8).
The Beautiful Feast of the Valley & Sacred Inebriation
From “Royal and Divine Festivals” by Joachim Willeitner, in Regine Schulz and Mattias Seidel’s Egypt: World of the Pharaohs”
“The most famous barque festivals were held at Thebes; ever since the New Kingdom, the opet festival has been held during the “second month of flood,” and since the Middle Kingdom the “beautiful feast of the valley” was held at new moon in the second harvest month….
“The “beautiful feast of the valley lasted several days. It soon enjoyed widespread popularity even beyond Thebes. In this feast, Amun’s barque travelled from his temple at Karnak to Deir el-Bahri…across the Nile and from there to all royal funerary temples on the Theban west bank where worship continued…
“In the large area of the Theban necropolis, the relatives of deceased Egyptians buried far from the festival activities knew how to take advantage of the event: elaborately decorated and clothed, they visited their relatives’ tombs and celebrated with them there. The experience of consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, thereby freeing oneself from earthly realities and thus supposedly achieving closer proximity to the deceased, played a significant part in these celebrations. It is understandable, then, that a principal endeavor during the funerary celebrations was maximum intoxication…
“Excessive alcohol consumption appears to have played an essential part in other festivities as well: one of the first national celebrations, held shortly after a new year had begun, was simply called “drunkenness” (tekhi).” (Pp. 456-57)
Yvonne Buskens shares the above banquet scene from an unknown Eighteenth Dynasty tomb (piece is currently in the KMKG – MRAH – Brussels). As Yvonne notes:
“This fragment from a wall painting depicts part of a banqueting scene. From right to left, two men and a woman are seated on chairs. The person in the middle appears to be sick: he turns away to vomit; this theme is part of the rich iconography of a number of Theban tombs.”
Vicky Metafora provided this link to Osirisnet detailing the western wall of Nakht’s tomb (TT52) with its images from the Beautiful Feast of the Valley.
Vicky Metafora contributed this article from MSNBC: Sex and booze figured in Egyptian rites on the subject of the Festival of Drunkenness, with a great quote from Betsy Bryan: “We are talking about a festival in which people come together in a community to get drunk. Not high, not socially fun, but drunk — knee-walking, absolutely passed-out drunk.”
Music and Dance
From Ancient Egypt by Lorna Oakes and Lucia Gahlin
“Singing was a key element of the rites associated with agriculture. Harvesters might chant a lament, accompanied by a flute, in order to express their sorrow at the first cutting of the crops, which was thought to symbolize the wounding of Osiris, the god of vegetation. Dancing was also related to agricultural rites, both as a means of stimulating growth and as a form of thanksgiving…The dances appear to be measured and fairly sedate. The keskes-dance, associated with Hathor, involved holding mirrors and what appear to be wooden or ivory sticks, carved in the shape of a hand at one end; they were probably clappers.” (P. 477)
From The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt by Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
Music, musical instruments
“The importance of music in ancient Egypt is attested to by the large number of instruments in museum collections. Ancient Egyptian musical instruments consisted of four basic types: idiophones, membranophones, aerophones, and cordophones. The idiophones, including clappers, sistra, cymbals and bells were particularly associated with religious worship. The membranophones included the tambourine, usually played by girls at banquets or in outdoor ceremonies, and also the drum, a military instrument that was sometimes used in religious processions…”
“…The earliest Egyptian aerophone was the flute, but there were also double ‘clarinets’, double ‘oboes’ and trumpets or bugles (mostly connected with the army). The cordophones consisted of three types: the harp (an indigenous Egyptian instrument) and the lute and lyre (both Asiatic imports).”
Regarding the harp depicted above, Yvonne Buskens quotes the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
“Arched harps of this type were already in use during the Old Kingdom and remained the foremost string instruments until the end of the Middle Kingdom. From the New Kingdom onward, Egyptian arched harps co-existed with a great variety of harps in different shapes and sizes…Skin, now missing, covered the open top of the soundbox. Older forms of arched harps like this had four or five strings; during the later New Kingdom musicians experimented with newer forms that accommodated many strings. Harp players accompanied a singer; harps, flute players and singers formed the most common type of musical ensemble that performed during festivals and banquets, funerals and temple rituals.”
From Red Land, Black Land by Barbara Mertz
“Dancing seems to have been a spectator sport or a religious exercise; I know of no representations of boys and girls dancing together for fun. The slim little girls dancers were professionals,a nd some were trained to do acrobatic tricks. Mucis also seems to have been reserved for professionals” (p. 111).
Carolyn Graves-Brown provides us with the above glimpse of music from Amarna. According to the museum description, “Broken faience or glass ring bezel from Amarna of a lady musician with a monkey. The figure is twisted showing the naval and curve of the belly which is in keeping with the art of the period.”
Yvonne Buskens brings us the above beautiful wine bowl with a female lute player. She quotes the description:
“It is a lively representation featuring numerous details possessing an erotic significance. On the girl’s right thigh we find a tattoo of the dwarf god Bes. Bes is patron god of music, dance, eroticism and sexuality. Moreover, his animal companion, a little monkey, is busy divesting the girl of her girdle, the only item of clothing she is wearing. All this taken together, we are probably dealing with a courtesan here.”
Another fine and relevant page from the Pharaonic Egypt website, this one on music and dance.
Digital Egypt for Universities has this section on Music in Ancient Egypt.
Here is an Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Music by Jimmy Dunn from the Tour Egypt website.
Dividing the Year: The Months and Festivals of Ancient Egypt
From The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt by Richard H. Wilkinson, (Richie O’Neill, contrib.)
“The Egyptian Calendar had three seasons, Akhet (Inundation), Peret (Growth); and Shemu (Harvest), each divided into four 30 Day Months- theoretically approximating our Mid-July to November, Mid-November to March, and Mid-March to July. In addition, five so-called epagomenal or additional days were dedicated to the birthdays of certain deities in order to bring the year to a 365 day total. In reality however, the seasons moved progressively forward- beginning a little earlier each year- due to the quarter day discrepancy between the length of the Egyptian Calendar year and the actual solar year.
Festivals of many types were scheduled throughout the year, with special provisions for each new moon as well as festivals tied to specific seasons. The dates and offerings of these recurrent festivals were carefully recorded and were inscribed on temple walls from Old Kingdom times. Such festival calendars appear in Valley Temples of Pyramids and sun temples of the 5th dynasty and doubtless continued to be engraved in middle kingdom temples, although none has yet been recovered. More evidence survives from the new kingdom, and examples of temple calendars may be found at Karnak, Abydos, Elephantine, and at western Thebes in the Ramesseum and Medinet Habu. From the Graeco-Roman Period similar calendars are found in the temples of Dendera, Edfu, Esna and Kom Ombo.
According to these calendars, some of the major festivals of the Egyptian year were as follows (most festivals without locations were of regional or national character).
Vicky Metafora gave us a link to Kartikeya Senapati’s paper (online): Egyptian Religious Calendar – CDXIII Great Year of Ra Hathor.
From Tour Egypt’s exhaustive site we have Egypt: Grand Festivals in Ancient Egypt.
Digital Egypt for Universities provides this section on Festivals in ancient Egypt.
The Pharaonic Egypt website has this great article on public religious ceremonies, including sections on Opet, the Beautiful Feast of the Valley, Osirian festivals, and a calendar of festivals from the Middle Kingdom.
We have some ancient Egyptian recipes for you to try at home from Ancient Egypt Online.
Lyn Green provided this link to Temple Festivals of the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods by Filip Coppens from the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology (online).
Lyn Green shared this article on ritual Procession by Martin Stadler in the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology (online).
Géraldine Ashby shared this link to Digital Karnak with a video tracing the routes of Opet, the Beautiful Feast, and Wahem Ankh through Karnak.
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2012. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise stated, photography and images used are either in the public domain or are used via Creative Commons. All other photography is used by permission, all rights reserved.