The ancient Egyptians’ calendar was crowded with festivals. These marked annual events in the farming calendar, the feast days of the gods, the accession of kings, epic victories, births, marriages and deaths, and celebrations in honor of the dead. The events could be organized as national, local, temple or family affairs. As most people spent the days toiling on the land or on building sites, feast days made a welcome break in routine.
For the Egyptians, the world was full of gods, who presided over every aspect of life from cradle to grave and beyond. Pharaohs took on the powers of divine kingship, and renewed their vows at the triennial festival of Sed. Because people believed their fortune depended on the generosity of the gods, they held festivals in their honor to give thanks and ask their favor. Calendars inscribed on temple walls list the dates, while painted frescoes show in more detail how people thronged the courtyards and crowded onto boats to follow the images of the gods as they were carried from one holy place to another. Priestesses danced at the temples; acrobats and dance troupes entertained in the street; and musicians played flutes, harps, cymbals and tambourines. Rich families enjoyed lavish banquets, and priests distributed bread and beer to everyone.
The year had three seasons: Akhet, Peret and Shemu. Akhet, the season of the flood, began in late summer with New Year jubilations, followed by days dedicated to the gods responsible for growth and regeneration. On these days, priests would take the image of the god out of its templeand parade it on a litter from one shrine to another. Crowds followed the procession with music and dance. At the temple they would offer food and prayer, and ask the god’s blessing. Throughout Egypt, several days in Akhet were dedicated to the fertility god Osiris, who was also god of the Nile and the underworld. Communities organized passion plays as well as processions to honor the story of his life, death and rebirth. Peret was the planting season, marked by festivals in honor of the nurturing goddess Wadjet and the protective cat goddess Bastet. Shemu, the season of harvest, included festivals to give thanks for the year’s crops and to ask the blessing of Hapy, god of the flood, on the expected inundation.
Opet was a three-week festival during Akhet, when a statue of the supreme god Amun-Ra was carried by road and river on a circuit of Theban shrines and temples, accompanied by a procession of priests, soldiers, dancers, musicians and a huge crowd of local people. In the inmost chambers of the temple the pharaoh received again the gift of divine kingship and the god’s power was regenerated. Afterwards people enjoyed feasting and entertainment, and could seek oracles from the god.
Festivals of the Dead
Two festivals that upheld the links between the living and the dead were the Feast of Wagy and the Beautiful Feast of the Valley. The first occurred 17 days after New Year, when families honored their ancestors with funeral rites and banquets. At the Beautiful Feast, the king sailed with images of the gods Hathor and Amun-Ra from Karnak across the Nile to the temples, followed by crowds wishing to visit their family tombs. They offered food and drink to the spirits of the dead before setting out their own feasts.
Celebrating Family Life
When children were not at school or working, they had time for fun, with ball games and leapfrog, wrestling and dancing, looking after pets and playing with toys such as wooden animals and dolls.
- Ancient Egypt Online: Ancient Egyptian Festival Calendar
- The British Museum: Festivals of Ancient Egypt
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Kings and Queens of Egypt
- Digital Karnak: Processional Routes and Festivals
- Ancient Egypt Online: Osiris
- BBC: The Calendar and Astronomy of Ancient Egypt
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Tutankhamun's Funeral
- The British Museum: Egyptian Life
- Royal Ontario Museum: Life in Ancient Egypt - Childhood
- Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images