The gods of the ancient Egyptians were always apparent to the people through natural events. The sunrise was Ra emerging from the underworld in his great ship, for example, and the moon was the god Khonsu traveling across the night sky. When a woman became pregnant, it was through the fertility encouraged by Bes or Tawaret, and the Seven Hathors were present at the child’s birth to declare its destiny. Sycamore trees were sacred to Hathor and the home was protected by Bastet. There was no need for anything like a weekly worship service to pay homage to these gods because they were worshiped daily and nightly through various rituals during which individuals participated in the work of the gods.
The Nature of Egyptian Festivals
Communal gatherings for worship took place during festivals, and as the Egyptians set a premium on enjoying life, there were many of them throughout the year. These festivals (known as heb) allowed people to experience the god intimately, give thanks for gifts that were given, and make requests for divine favors. Egyptologist Margaret Bunson writes:
The purpose of most of the festivals was to allow the people to behold the gods with their own eyes. Particular images of the gods, sometimes carried in portable shrines, were taken out of the temple sanctuaries and carried through the streets or sailed on the Nile. Stations of the Gods were erected throughout the various cities in order to provide stages for the processions. Oracles were conducted on these festivals as the images of the deities moved in certain directions to indicate negative or positive responses to the questions posed by the faithful.
These public gatherings also helped to maintain the belief structure of the culture in that everyone who attended was encouraged in the traditional understanding of how the world operated: through the will of the gods as interpreted by the priests and implemented by the king.
Religious Practice in Egypt
There were no religious services in Egypt corresponding to worship services in the present day. The priests served the gods, not the people, and their job was to administer to the gods’ daily needs, recite hymns and prayers for the souls of the dead, and engage in rituals which ensured the continued goodwill of the gods to the people.
A deity was thought to live in the statue housed in the inner sanctum of that god’s temple, and the high priest was the only person allowed in its presence until the position of God’s Wife of Amun was elevated during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2040-1782 BCE). At this time, the female priestess in the role of God’s Wife of Amun became the counterpart to the high priest and assisted in caring for the statue in the temple of Karnak at Thebes.
Although people would come to the temple complexes to offer sacrifices, offerings, receive various forms of aid, and make requests, they did not enter the temple to worship. Common people were allowed in the courtyard of the temple complex but not in the interiors and certainly not in the god’s presence. As noted, people performed their own private rituals in communion with the gods, but collectively, their only opportunity for worship was at a festival.
The Ancient Egyptian Festivals
The Egyptians observed national and local festivals annually. There were many such celebrations but those listed below are among the most important and best-documented. In some cases, the details of what went on at these gatherings have been lost, but for many, they are known in great detail. The festivals marked the progression of the year, notched on the staff of time by Thoth, and the year would end in the same celebration with which it had begun; thus emphasizing the cyclical, eternal, nature of life.
Wepet-Renpet Festival: The Opening of the Year – This was the New Year’s Day celebration in ancient Egypt. The festival was a kind of moveable feast as it depended on the inundation of the Nile River. It celebrated the death and rebirth of Osiris, and by extension, the rejuvenation and rebirth of the land and the people. It is firmly attested to as initiating in the latter part of the Old Kingdom of Egypt (c. 2613 – c. 3150 BCE) and is clear evidence of the popularity of the Osiris cult at that time.
Feasting and drinking were a part of this festival, as they were for most, and the celebration would last for days; the length varied depending on the time period. Solemn rituals related to the death of Osiris were observed as well as singing and dancing to celebrate his rebirth. The call-and-response poem known as The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys was recited at the beginning to call Osiris to his feast.
Wag Festival: Dedicated to the death of Osiris and honoring the souls of the deceased on their journey in the afterlife. This festival followed the Wepet-Renpet, but its date changed according to the lunar calendar. It is one of the oldest festivals celebrated by the Egyptians and, like Wepet-Renpet, first appears in the Old Kingdom. During this festival, people would make small boats out of paper and set them toward the west on graves to indicate Osiris’ death and people would float shrines of paper on the waters of the Nile for the same reason.
Wag and Thoth Festival: A combining of the Wag Festival with the birth of the god Thoth and centered on rejuvenation and rebirth. This festival was a set date on the 18th day of the first month of the year. Thoth was worshiped as the god of writing, wisdom, and knowledge – among other attributes – and associated with the judgment of the dead by Osiris, thus linking the two gods. Thoth’s birth and Osiris’ rebirth were joined in this festival from the latter part of the Old Kingdom onwards.
Tekh Festival: The Feast of Drunkenness: This festival was dedicated to Hathor (‘The Lady of Drunkenness’) and commemorated the time when humanity was saved from destruction by beer. According to the story, Ra had become weary of people’s endless cruelty and nonsense and so sent Sekhmet to destroy them. She took to her task with enthusiasm, tearing people apart and drinking their blood. Ra is satisfied with the destruction until the other gods point out to him that, if he wanted to teach people a lesson, he should stop the destruction before no one was left to learn from it. Ra then orders the goddess of beer, Tenenet, to dye a large quantity of the brew red and has it delivered to Dendera, right in Sekhmet’s path of destruction. She finds it and, thinking it is blood, drinks it all, falls asleep, and wakes up as the gentle and beneficent Hathor.
According to Egyptologist Carolyn Graves-Brown, the festival began in the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE), was most popular in the early New Kingdom (c. 1570-1069 BCE), fell out of favor, and was then revived in Roman Egypt. Graves-Brown describes the central part of the festival as depicted on a ‘Porch of Drunkenness’ in the Temple of Mut at Karnak: “It seems that in the Hall of Drunkenness, worshippers got drunk, slept, and then were woken by drummers to commune with the goddess Mut [who was closely linked with Hathor]” (169). Participants would lessen their inhibitions and preconceptions through alcohol and experience the goddess intimately upon waking to the sacred drums.
Opet Festival: One of the most important festivals in which the king was rejuvenated by the god Amun at Thebes. It was observed during the Middle Kingdom but grew in popularity in the New Kingdom of Egypt, where, in the 20th Dynasty, it was celebrated for twenty days. During this festival, the priests would first wash and dress the statue of Amun and then carry it out of the temple and through the streets of Thebes which were lined with people waiting to see the god. The statue was then transported to Luxor, by foot in earlier times, and later on a barge. Once at the temple of Luxor, the king would enter the presence of the god in the inner sanctum and emerge forgiven of sins and rejuvenated to continue his reign.
As at other festivals, the state supplied the people with food and drink, distributing bread, sweets, and beer while the crowds waited their turn to ask the god a question. The statue of Amun would answer these questions through the agency of the priests who would either interpret the god’s answer or ‘tip’ the statue one way or another to indicate a positive or negative response.
Hathor Festival: Held annually at Dendera, the main site of Hathor’s cult, this festival celebrated the birth of the goddess and her many blessings. It was similar to the Tekh Festival in many aspects. This festival dates from the Old Kingdom and was among the most anticipated. The cult of Hathor was extremely popular and, just as with the festival for Neith, the celebration was well-attended wherever it was held. As with the Tekh Festival, participants were encouraged to over-indulge in alcohol while engaging in singing and dancing in honor of the goddess. There may also have been a sexual component to the celebration similar to the Tekh Festival, but this interpretation, while not at all inconsistent or incredible, is not universally accepted.
Sokar Festival/Festival of Khoiak: Sokar was an agricultural god in the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt (c. 3150 – c. 2613 BCE) whose characteristics were later taken on by Osiris. In the Old Kingdom, the Sokar Festival was merged with the solemn Khoiak Festival of Osiris which observed his death. It was a very somber affair in its early form but grew to include Osiris’ resurrection as well and was celebrated in the Late Period of Ancient Egypt (525-332 BCE) for almost a month. People planted Osiris Gardens and crops during the celebrations which honored the god as the plants sprung from the earth, commemorating Osiris’ rebirth from the dead. The planting of crops during the festival no doubt dates back to the early worship of Sokar.
Bast Festival: This was the celebration of the goddess Bastet at her cult center of Bubastis and another very popular festival. It honored the birth of the cat goddess Bastet who was the guardian of hearth and home and protector of women, children, and women’s secrets. Herodotus claims that Bastet’s festival was the most elaborate and popular in Egypt. Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch, citing Herodotus, claims, “women were freed from all constraints during the annual festival at Bubastis. They celebrated the festival of the goddess by drinking, dancing, making music, and displaying their genitals” (116). This “raising of the skirts” by the women, described by Herodotus, exemplified the freedom from normal constraints often observed at festivals but, in this case, also had to do with fertility.