Worship and Rituals in Ancient Egypt

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Opening of the Mouth
of Tutankhamun and Aja
Ancient Egyptian gods required a lot of attention. “The Book of the Dead” and wall inscriptions are full of details about rites and rituals for specific gods.

Everyday priests took care of the statues of the gods as if they were living people. In a daily ritual called the “opening of the mouth,” priests gave the statue offerings of food in the morning and evening, clothed them in clean linen and new jewelry and had new make-up applied. These rituals were performed in sanctuaries — in which only priests and pharaohs were allowed — within the temples. Ordinary people had no idea what went on in these sanctuaries. Sometimes the same rituals were performed on mummies.

Before kings or priests entered a shrine they had to purify themselves in a sacred pool. After entering the sanctuary they said liturgy while they lighted charcoal and incense in a censer next to the statue, made some offerings, anointed the statue, redressed it in new clothes with a proper insignia and performed rituals which allowed the statue to speak and breath. During the libation rituals an alabaster sistrum — a ritual noisemaker topped with cobras and the falcon-god Horus — was used to ward off violence. Feasts were held before statues were as placed back in their shrines.

In a temple in Hierakonpolis dated to 3500 B.C. large dangerous animals such as crocodiles and hippopotami were sacrificed perhaps as symbols of natural chaos. Bulls were sacrificed by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Druids but treated with reverence by Egyptians (black bulls in particular were given harems and palaces because they were believed to be related to the bull-god Apis).

Everyday priests took care of the statues of the gods as if they were living people. In a daily ritual called the “opening of the mouth," priests gave the statue offerings of food in the morning and evening, clothed them in clean linen and new jewelry and had new make-up applied. These rituals were performed in sanctuaries — in which only priests and pharaohs were allowed — within the temples. Ordinary people had no idea what went on in these sanctuaries. Sometimes the same rituals were performed on mummies.

Before kings or priests entered a shrine they had to purify themselves in a sacred pool. After entering the sanctuary they said liturgy while they lighted charcoal and incense in a censer next to the statue, made some offerings, anointed the statue, redressed it in new clothes with a proper insignia and performed rituals which allowed the statue to speak and breath. During the libation rituals an alabaster sistrum — a ritual noisemaker topped with cobras and the falcon-god Horus — was used to ward off violence. Feasts were held before statues were as placed back in their shrines.

In a temple in Hierakonpolis dated to 3500 B.C. large dangerous animals such as crocodiles and hippopotami were sacrificed perhaps as symbols of natural chaos. Bulls were sacrificed by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Druids but treated with reverence by Egyptians (black bulls in particular were given harems and palaces because they were believed to be related to the bull-god Apis).

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Maru Aten, a Ritual Complex at Amarna

Anna Stevens of Cambridge University wrote: “The Maru Aten was a ritual complex, incorporating a Sunshade of Ra dedicated to Meritaten, at the far south end of the Amarna plain. The site is known for having been elaborately decorated, including with painted pavements, but is now lost under cultivation. The site comprised two enclosures, a northern one, built first, and southern one. [Source: Anna Stevens, Amarna Project, 2016, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org ]

“The northern court was dominated by a large shallow pond surrounded by trees and garden plots, with a viewing platform and causeway built at one end. At the other end was a stone shrine adjacent to an artificial island on which was a probable solar altar flanked perhaps by two courts. The northern enclosure also contained T-shaped basins, probable houses, and other buildings of uncertain purpose. The southern enclosure likew ise had a probable central pool (not excavated) and a building at either end, one a mud-brick ceremonial structure, perhaps for use by the royal family, and the other a stone building of uncertain function.

“The “Lepsius Building” and El-Mangara A few hun dred meters southwest of the Maru Aten there likely stood another stone-built cult or ceremonial complex, noted briefly by Lepsius in 1843, while at the site of el-Mangara, about 1700 meters southeast of Kom el-Nana, evidence was also collected in the 1960s for a stone-built complex, in the form of largely intact decorated blocks, mud-brick, and Amarna Period sherds. Both sites are now lost under cultivation.”

Execration Rituals in Ancient Egypt

sacrificial table

Execration rituals were conducted throughout the history of ancient Egypt. They were intended to prevent rebellious actions by Egyptians, foreigners, or supernatural forces by textually and kinetically destroying enemies via inanimate, animal or human substitutes. Kerry Muhlestein of Brigham Young University wrote: “Execration rituals were stylized magical actions aimed at thwarting or eradicating foes and were similar in nature to other protective measures, such as apotropaic animal sacrifice or walking on depictions of enemies. Execration rites took place from at least early in the Old Kingdom through the Roman Period. Over 1,000 execration deposits have been found, mostly in cemeteries, notably at Semna, Uronarti, Mirgissa, Elephantine, Thebes, Balat, Abydos, Helwan, Saqqara, and Giza. Main sources for understanding the rite are the surviving manuscripts of its various versions, plus texts that were often inscribed on the ritual objects and thus became a physical component of the ritual. Important texts include Papyrus Bremner-Rhind, P. Louvre 3129, P. British Museum 10252 , and P. Salt 825. Execration texts could be as simple as lists of forces and people against whom the rite was enacted, or could contain substantial formulae. Variations on the concept behind the rite eventually spawned both love charms and spells for warding off bad dreams. [Source: Kerry Muhlestein, Brigham Young University, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org ]

“The earliest traceable manifestations of aspects of the rite are motifs of bound prisoners (part of Egypt’s earliest iconography) and actions connected to offerings and purification rituals. As to the latter, Assmann suggests that after red pots were used for offerings they had to be destroyed and that the smashing of these pots was assigned an overlapping meaning of scaring away—or eventually destroying—enemies (cf. Pyramid Texts 23 and 244). Purification rites also involved the use of red pots. In the Pyramid Texts, warding off enemies often precedes and/or succeeds both offering and purification pericopes. PT 214, for example, illustrates the need for warding off the inimical during purification. This connection continued throughout Pharaonic history and is perhaps best reflected in the Festival of the Kites (the birds that symbolized the goddesses Isis and Nephthys), which purified and placed protection around the temple, and during which Seth was driven to the executioner and a “great rite of protection” was performed. The text repeatedly notes that those who know creation can also eliminate their own enemies, thus tying the re-creative aspect of purification to execration. While the use of (predominantly red) pots continued in funerary offerings for millennia, by the Old Kingdom the ritual of smashing pots had given birth to independent execration rites. By the Middle Kingdom execration texts had become standardized (though they would change over time), perhaps indicating that the rite had also taken a standard form. Some execration rites arose due to specific circumstances, but at least by the Late Period (712–332 B.C.) there were also both daily and cyclical festival execrations.

“Execration rites could be aimed at political, preternatural, or personal enemies. The political and preternatural were often tied together. The Book of Felling Apophis, for example, instructs that the rite will fell the enemies of Ra, Horus, and Pharaoh. Political rituals likely began as attempts to deal with rebellious Egyptians, but soon included rebellious vassals and foreign enemies, and were almost always directed toward potential problems as a type of proactive apotropaic measure. The victims of these rites were those who, whether dead or alive, would in the future rebel, conspire rebellion, or think of speaking, sleeping, or dreaming rebelliously, or with ill- intent. These vague enemies, as well as specific individuals, groups, or geographic locations, were named for things they might do in the future, though some individuals presumably were included because of things they had already done. The standardization of the texts, the concern with foreign entities, and the desire to protect the state, ruler, and divine, combined with the knowledge of foreign politics, geography, and leaders that the texts demonstrate, all indicate that these were state- sponsored rites.

“The figures and pots used in the rites were often inscribed with the rebellion formula, but sometimes only with personal names (not necessarily foreign), and were frequently not inscribed at all. Simple rites associated with private graves, and those exhibiting only personal names or no text, indicate an individual use of execration rituals, as well. Private, small-scale rituals are far less archaeologically visible, especially when they involved the use of cheaper, less durable substances. Versions of execration were carried out both on a large-scale basis by the state and on a small scale by individuals throughout Egyptian history.

“While red pots were the earliest objects utilized in the rites, and remained a common article of manipulation, by the late Old Kingdom, papyrus, hairballs, figurines, statues, and statuettes made of clay, stone, wax, or wood were also used. Live animals also likely composed a component of the ritual. If the Bremner-Rhind Papyrus is any indication, wax figures and a fresh sheet of papyrus, on which the targeted name was written, were among the most commonly used materials. The animals, hair, papyrus, wood, and wax ritual victims are largely archaeologically invisible, making the known (mostly clay) remains of the ritual a vast under-representation of the frequency of the rite. At the most complete execration find—the Middle Kingdom fortress at Mirgissa—besides the remnants of melted wax, other trace remains indicate the use of nearly 200 broken inscribed red vases, over 400 broken uninscribed red vases, nearly 350 mud figurines, four limestone figures, and one human, whose head was ritually severed and buried upside down as part of the rite. Similar evidence of human victims as execration figures also appears in an early 18th-Dynasty context at Avaris.

“Within a full execration, each ritual action could require a separate rite, and though not every execration included all of the following components, some did: ritual objects could be bound, smashed (red pots, probably with a pestle), stomped on, stabbed, cut, speared, spat on, locked in a box, burned, and saturated in urine, before (almost always) being buried (sometimes upside down). As an example, a portion of one rite calls for the object to be bound and gives subsequent instructions to “spit on him four times . . . trample on him with the left foot . . . smite him with a spear . . . slaughter him with a knife . . . place him on the fire . . . spit on him in the fire many times”. A full rite could employ any of these actions numerous times with numerous figures. Thus various magical measures were taken to prevent chaotic forces from acting before they could even begin”.”

Temple Offerings in Ancient Egypt

bronze model of an offering table

Mu-Chou Poo of the Chinese University of Hong Kong wrote: “The ritual offerings in Egyptian temples and funerary settings constitute an important part of the outward expressions of Egyptian piety. In temple rituals in particular, according to the images preserved on temple walls, we know that often, though not always, each ritual act was accompanied by a series of incantations (often inscribed on the wall beside the images), including the title of the ritual, the ritual liturgy, and the reply of the deity who was receiving the ritual performance or offering. Although there is still some uncertainty regarding whether the temple reliefs represent actual ritual acts, most scholars agree that the meaning of the rituals can be deciphered, at least partially, by examining these texts. Although these ritual liturgies had a long-standing textual tradition that can be traced as far back as the Pyramid Texts, most of the best-preserved texts were from the Ptolemaic and Roman temples. The present discussion, therefore, mostly utilizes texts from this period. [Source: Mu-Chou Poo, Chinese University of Hong Kong, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org ]

“The basic meaning of any offering was to incur the blessing of the deities, or deceased ancestors, who were regarded as capable of protecting or aiding those who presented the offering. In funerary settings, as we saw in the offering lists, the Egyptians would provide what they considered an appropriate amount and selection of offering items. The significance of the offerings as sustenance for the deceased is self-evident. However, in the temple-ritual setting, although the primary significance of offerings to deities remained basically the same as that of funerary offerings, the subsequent elaboration of the rituals and liturgies that accompanied the offerings to deities served to exalt the meanings attached to the actual offering items. Thus the offering of a certain item would become a symbolic action relevant to either the characteristics or functions of the recipient deities, or the offering item itself would become symbolic of a certain beneficent deed or cosmic force—on a level of importance matched by that of the deities.

“Only occasionally do we find an item that is offered exclusively to a certain deity, the offering of mirrors to Hathor being an example. In most cases, however, there seems to be no one-to-one correspondence between the offering and the recipient god. This indicates that despite particular theological or mythological allusions implied by such offerings as wine or water, the basic underlying significance of an offering as an object that supplies a “need” of the deity in exchange for blessings remains the same.”

Liquids in Ancient Egyptian Temple Rituals

two priests, one holding a vase for libations

Mu-Chou Poo of the Chinese University of Hong Kong wrote: “In ancient Egypt the liquids most commonly used in temple rituals included wine, beer, milk, and water. The meaning of the rituals were intimately tied to the qualities of the liquid used as well as to the religious and mythological associations the liquids were known to possess. With the exception of beer, all the ritual offerings of liquids were connected in some way with the idea of rejuvenation. [Source: Mu-Chou Poo, Chinese University of Hong Kong, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org ]

“Of the numerous rituals recorded on temple walls, the offering of liquids occupied a rather large proportion. Here we discuss four kinds of liquids employed in temple rituals: wine, beer, milk, and water. The meaning of an individual ritual act was intimately related to the nature of the liquid employed, as well as to whatever religious and mythological associations the liquid was known to have. Certain deities might have some particular connections with a particular offering, as we shall see below. Yet as far as we can tell, there could be multiple recipients for the same kind of offering, and a particular deity could receive multiple offerings at different times.

“In the Temple of Hathor at Dendara, on the outer wall of the sanctuary, the offering of wine was represented symmetrically opposite representations of beer offerings on the opposing walls, indicating a certain affinity between them, perhaps due to their alcoholic content. The offering of water, on the other hand, was paired with the offering of bread and beer, which suggests that water, bread, and beer were endowed with the power of sustenance. Moreover, the offering of wine was also in one instance paired with the “dance for Hathor,” which implicitly suggests a connection between wine and the “ecstasy of Hathor” .

“It is interesting that all the ritual offerings of liquids were, each in its own way, somehow connected with the idea of rejuvenation. Perhaps this need not be surprising, since all the offering-liquids were, in a sense, nutrients that could be used by the human (or divine) body, and could thus be considered sources of rejuvenation. In the case of beer, the absence of specific allusions to the intoxicating power of alcohol and the mythological stories of Hathor-Sakhmet or Hathor-Tefnut in the offering liturgies remains unexplained.”

Wine in Ancient Egyptian Temple Rituals

Mu-Chou Poo of the Chinese University of Hong Kong wrote: “Wine was often an important item in funerary and temple cults. From as early as the Old Kingdom, wine was regularly mentioned in offering lists as part of the funerary establishment . In temple rituals, wine was also often offered to various deities. In the pyramid temple of Fifth Dynasty king [Source: Mu-Chou Poo, Chinese University of Hong Kong, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org ]

glass and bronze grapes

Sahura, for example, the king was shown offering wine to the goddess Sakhmet. Besides its general significance as an item that pleased the deities, the offering of wine took on certain specific religious and mythological associations. Already in the Pyramid Texts, Osiris was mentioned as the “Lord of Wine in the Wag Festival”. The Wag Festival was celebrated at the beginning of the inundation, on the 17th, 18th, or 19th of Thoth, the first month of inundation . The festival itself was a funerary feast that was probably aimed at the celebration of the resurrection of life that the inundation brought. Since Osiris epitomized resurrection, there may be a certain connection between Osiris as the god of vegetation and rejuvenation and the symbolic coming to life of the grapevine. The fact that wine production depended upon the coming of the inundation might therefore have fostered the meaning of wine as a symbol of life and rejuvenation. A text in the Ptolemaic temple of Edfu contains the following sentence: “The vineyard flourishes in Edfu, the inundation rejoices at what is in it. It bears fruit with more grapes than [the sand of] the riverbanks. They [the grapes] are made into wine for your storage . . . .”. Thus the relationship between the inundation and the production of wine is clearly stated.

“On the day following the Wag Festival, there was, at least in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, a festival of “the Drunkenness of Hathor” celebrated at Dendara. The calendar of festivals at Edfu alludes to the relationship between Hathor and the inundation: “It is her [Hathor’s] father, Ra, who created it for her when she came from Nubia, so that the inundation is given to Egypt” .

“In the Ptolemaic and Roman temples, Hathor-Sakhmet was often referred to as “Lady of Drunkenness,” and this epithet was often regarded as an allusion to the famous story “The Destruction of Mankind”... Although beer was featured in the story, the effect of alcoholic drink in general was probably what made wine (and beer) an important temple offering, particularly in connection with the honoring of the goddess Hathor-Sakhmet.

“In another mythological story about Hathor- Tefnut, or the Eye of Ra, the god Ra commanded that his daughter, the lioness Hathor-Tefnut, be brought back to Egypt from Nubia. Parallel to the story of the Destruction of Mankind, Thoth and Shu were assigned the mission. After Hathor was brought back to Egypt, her wild and bloodthirsty nature needed to be appeased with dance and music, and the offering of wine. As Greek and Roman authors noted, the Nile water turned red during the inundation, which suggests the color of wine. As Hathor’s return to Egypt (according to the mythological story) corresponded to the rise of the Nile waters—which not only resembled wine in color, but could in fact bring a prosperous harvest of grapes and wine—it is fitting that she be referred to as the Mistress of Drunkenness and identified with the inundation.

“On the other hand, when we examine the numerous offering scenes on the temple walls, it becomes clear that, as a common offering, wine could be offered to many deities other than Hathor. The religious meaning of wine, moreover, was not limited to the allusions to the mythological stories related to Hathor, or to its intoxicating nature, important as it was in many ancient cultures, but had wider significance. The color of wine, when it was red, and even disregarding its association with the mythological story, already suggested an association with blood and the life-giving force of nature. As this association was not limited to ancient Egyptian culture, it is all the more possible to believe that the symbolic association of wine and blood did exist in Egypt. The winepress god, Shesmu, for example, was referred to as bringing wine to Osiris on the one hand—“Shesmu comes to you [Osiris] bearing wine”: shown pressing the blood of the enemies with the winepress. It is reasonable to suspect here an allusion to the grape juice being pressed from the winepress.

“Moreover, offering liturgies testify that wine was regarded metaphorically as the “Green Eye of Horus”—that is, the power of rejuvenation: “Take to yourself wine—the Green Horus Eye. May your ka be filled with what is created for you...”. And reference to the contending of Horus and Seth can also be found in the liturgy of wine-offering: “Take to yourself the wine that was produced in Kharga, O noble Falcon. Your wedjat-eye is sound and supplied with provision; secure it for yourself from Seth. May you be powerful by means of it . . . may you be divine by means of it more than any god.”“

Beer in Ancient Egyptian Temple Rituals

Mu-Chou Poo of the Chinese University of Hong Kong wrote: “Being the most popular and affordable drink in ancient Egypt, beer featured prominently as an offering in funerary as well as temple rituals. The brewing of beer involves the fermentation of cereals, and, as studies of beer residues show, the brewing of beer in general comprises several steps. First, a batch of grain was allowed to sprout, thereby producing an enzyme. Then another batch of grain was cooked in water to disperse the starch naturally contained within it. The two batches were subsequently combined, causing sugar to be produced, and then sieved. Finally, the sugar-rich liquid was mixed with yeast, which fermented the sugar into alcohol. [Source: Mu-Chou Poo, Chinese University of Hong Kong, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org ]

“Like the offering of wine, the beer-offering was a common ritual in Egyptian temples. However, although Hathor’s epithet “Mistress of Drunkenness” was found in beer-offering scenes , it is somewhat surprising to learn that, contrary to our expectations, the mythological story of the Destruction of Mankind does not appear to have been alluded to in the beer-offering liturgies. What were emphasized in the offering liturgies were concerns regarding the correctness and meticulousness with which the beer was brewed: “Take the sweet beer, the supply for your majesty, which is brewed correctly. How sweet is its taste, how sweet is its smell!. How beautiful are these beer jars, which are brewed at the correct time, which fill your ka at the time of your wish. May your heart be joyful daily. Take for yourself the wonderful beer, which the noble one has brewed with her hands, with the beautiful plant from Geb and myrrh from Nepy.”

“The deities’ emphasis on the proper brewing of beer is interesting, since the production of wine was never mentioned as having been done by gods. It is mentioned that music was performed during the offering of beer: “Take the beer to appease your heart...for your ka according to your desire, may you drink it, may [you] be happy, as I make music before you”. This leads us to rethink whether the epithet of Hathor as “Mistress of Drunkenness” necessarily alludes to the mythological story of the Destruction of Mankind, and not to a more general sense of intoxication and rejuvenation. After all, beer, above all other offerings, would be the obvious choice for alluding to the story if indeed the story gave rise to Hathor’s epithet.”

Milk in Ancient Egyptian Temple Rituals

heavenly cow

Mu-Chou Poo of the Chinese University of Hong Kong wrote: “Since the function of milk is to nourish, and its white color is associated with purity, the significance of the offering of milk in temple rituals was also built around these allusions. Milk was often offered, for example, to Harpocrates (the child Horus), milk being a obvious source of nourishment for children: “May you be filled with milk from the breasts of the hesat-cow” ; “Take the milk, which is from the breast of your mother”. The result of nourishment was no doubt to strengthen the body, as the following texts indicate: “May your limbs live by means of the milk and your bones be healthy by means of the white Horus Eye [milk]....The king rejuvenates his [Osiris’s] body with what his heart desires [milk]”.

“Milk was also offered to other deities, among them Hathor and Osiris, in various rituals , especially in the Abaton-ritual, in which 365 bowls of milk were brought before Osiris daily . One offering liturgy reads: “Oh, ‘White [milk]’, which is from the breasts of Hathor. Oh, sweet [milk], which is from the breasts of the mother of Min; it entered the body of Osiris, the great god and lord of Abaton”. Here the whiteness of milk is clearly referenced, thus indicating milk as a liquid of purification. This is confirmed by such liturgical texts as “offering milk to his father and purifying [lit. overflowing] the offering of his ka,” or “purifying the offering of His Majesty with this White Eye of Horus [milk]”. Since the libation of water was metaphorically referred to as the “milk of Isis”, the reverse is also true. These general religious significations aside, there seem to be no further mythological or theological allusions that can be connected to milk.”

Water in Ancient Egyptian Temple Rituals

Mu-Chou Poo of the Chinese University of Hong Kong wrote: “Of all the temple rituals, the ritual of purification was likely the one that needed to be performed first in any program of daily ritual. The priest, the temple grounds, and even the libation jars needed to be purified before any ritual offerings to the deities were performed. The water of purification could be presented to the deities in two ways, either poured onto the ground or onto the altar or statue as a gesture of general purification: “Spell for purifying [ ] as far as the heaven, the earth, to Harakhty, to the great Ennead, to the small Ennead, to Upper Egypt, and to Lower Egypt. My arms are given the water [lit. inundation], that it may purify the offering and every good thing of Tebtunis, with its Ennead, [ ] for your ka [?]. It is pure. Purification with the four jars of water: take the Eye of Horus, as it purifies your body. Oh water, may you purge all impurity and evil from the daughter of the Creator, oh Nun, may you purify her face.” Thus the water cleansed the statue of the deity from the outside, as an ablution, purifying the image in a direct and mundane sense. [Source: Mu-Chou Poo, Chinese University of Hong Kong, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org ]

“On the other hand, water could be offered to the deities as a drink (libation). In a papyrus found in the Roman Period temple at Tebtunis, no less than six libation rituals were included in the daily temple ritual program. The deities were urged to drink the water offered to them in symbolic recognition of the rejuvenating power of the Nile: “Offering libation. Words spoken: May this water rejuvenate your body, may your majesty drink from the water. Offering libation. Words spoken: This libation is brought from Abydos, it came from the region of the Sea of Horus. May you drink it, may you live by means of it, may your heart be sound by means of it, the divine water to [fill?] your altar [with] the libation that I like.”

“The act of drinking the water provided a sense of purification from the inside, thus imbuing the ritual with a heightened spiritual significance. Moreover, allusions to the inundation were often made, as the pouring of the water was regarded as symbolizing the coming of the inundation, and the libation water was compared to Nun: “Hail to you, precious libation jar, which inundates Nun and Nut. Spell for presenting libation. Words spoken: Hail to you, Nun in your name of Nun. Hail to you, Inundation in your name of Inundation. Pouring libation to the altar. Words spoken: Hail to you, the Powerful, take to yourself the libation, which begot everything living. I have come to you, the vases are inundated, the jars filled with the flood, and the vases filled with the inundation for your Majesty.”

“Here the significance of libation is no longer merely purification; rather, it has been elevated to the level of cosmic rejuvenation by associating the pouring of water with the coming of the annual Nile flood. This metaphor, found in the Pyramid Texts, was of course very ancient: “O King, your cool water is the great flood that issued from you. You have your water, you have your flood, you have your efflux that issued from Osiris.” In sum, the overwhelming ritual significance of water was its affinity to the Nile flood: the rejuvenating power of nature. Whether the water was poured before the deities, or on the statues of the deities as an ablution, or drunk by the deities as a libation, merely expressed a variation of the same idea.”

Roman depiction of an Isis water ceremony

Ritual and Royal Violence in Ancient Egypt

Kerry Muhlestein of Brigham Young University wrote: “Violence was a real part of cultic practice and many rituals employed violent actions. Most of this violence, however, was enacted against animals or inanimate objects. In these rituals, t he animals or objects were often seen as substitutes for humans. Sometimes the objects were anthropomorphic in form, as with the many clay, stone, and wax figures used in execration rituals. During the ceremonies, these figures were smashed, decapitated, mutilated, stabbed, speared, burned, and buried. Violence against mortals and against preternatural enemies was often combined in the rites. At least two execration rituals, one at Mirgissa during the Middle Kingdom and one at Avaris during the early 18th Dynasty, almost certainly used humans as the objects of the ritual. [Source: Kerry Muhlestein, Brigham Young University, 2015, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org ]

“Early Dynastic labels appear to depict violent rituals, such as a Djer label illustrating some kind of royal festival, part of which depicts a bound man seemingly being stabbed by a priest . Some form of ritual violence continued throughout Egyptian history, for such early iconographic evidence is matched by later philological evidence. The language used to describe several sanctioned killings implies that they took place in a ritual context, while other texts are explicit about the ritual nature of the slaying. For example, Senusret I slayed offenders at the temple of Tod, Ramesses III captured and killed Libyans in a ritual context , and Prince Osorkon burned rebels in the temple of Amun at Karnak. In all of these cases ritual language is employed to describe the killings. For example, the text of Osorkon records the punishment of rebels: “Then he struck them down for him, causing them to be carried like goats on the night of the Feast of the Evening Sacrifice in which braziers are lit...like braziers at the going forth of Sothis. Every man was burned with fire at the place of his crime”.

“There is some evidence that the stereotypical smiting scene at times may have been an actual ritual. Undoubtedly Amenhotep II smote captives as part of his coronation ritual. Several late New Kingdom non-royal stelae represent the king smiting prisoners within temple grounds, perhaps indicating that the owner of the stela had witnessed the ritual. Some have disagreed with this interpretati on, such as Ahituv, while others, including myself , have supported Schulman’s claims, showing faults with the arguments of his detractors, such as illustrating that Ahituv was wrong in stating there was no corroborating evid ence for kings actually smiting prisoners, or demonstrating the illogic behind concluding that if Syrian prisoners were spared in the palace, none of them could have been smitten.

“Some texts describing Ramesses III’s dealings with captives can be taken to indicate that he subjected them to ritual smiting, such as when a captive prince and his visiting father engendered distrust in Ramesses and he “came down upon their heads like a mountain of granite”. Moreover, a number of specialized a nd individualized smiting scenes imply that these were based on real events, such as the depiction of a man with a unique physical deformity being struck by the king. While we cannot be sure, it is quite likely that smiting enemies was a royal ritual.”

Sacrifices in Ancient Egypt

In a temple in Hierakonpolis dated to 3500 B.C. large dangerous animals such as crocodiles and hippopotami were sacrificed perhaps as symbols of natural chaos. Bulls were sacrificed by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Druids but treated with reverence by Egyptians (black bulls in particular were given harems and palaces because they were believed to be related to the bull-god Apis).

cat killing the demon Apep

In 440 B.C. Herodotus wrote that Egyptians were forbidden to sacrifice animals except pigs, bulls and bull-calves, if they are unblemished, and geese. In Book 2 of “Histories” he wrote:” Egyptians of whom I have spoken sacrifice no goats, male or female: the Mendesians [people that lived in the Mendes region alog the Nile] reckon Pan among the eight gods who, they say, were before the twelve gods. Now in their painting and sculpture, the image of Pan is made with the head and the legs of a goat, as among the Greeks; not that he is thought to be in fact such, or unlike other gods; but why they represent him so, I have no wish to say. The Mendesians consider all goats sacred, the male even more than the female, and goatherds are held in special estimation: one he-goat is most sacred of all; when he dies, it is ordained that there should be great mourning in all the Mendesian district. In the Egyptian language Mendes is the name both for the he-goat and for Pan. In my lifetime a strange thing occurred in this district: a he-goat had intercourse openly with a woman. This came to be publicly known. 47. [Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2, English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

:“All that have a temple of Zeus of Thebes or are of the Theban district sacrifice goats, but will not touch sheep. For no gods are worshipped by all Egyptians in common except Isis and Osiris, who they say is Dionysus; these are worshipped by all alike. Those who have a temple of Mendes or are of the Mendesian district sacrifice sheep, but will not touch goats. The Thebans, and those who by the Theban example will not touch sheep, give the following reason for their ordinance: they say that Heracles wanted very much to see Zeus and that Zeus did not want to be seen by him, but that finally, when Heracles prayed, Zeus contrived to show himself displaying the head and wearing the fleece of a ram which he had flayed and beheaded. It is from this that the Egyptian images of Zeus have a ram's head; and in this, the Egyptians are imitated by the Ammonians, who are colonists from Egypt and Ethiopia and speak a language compounded of the tongues of both countries. It was from this, I think, that the Ammonians got their name, too; for the Egyptians call Zeus “Amon”. The Thebans, then, consider rams sacred for this reason, and do not sacrifice them. But one day a year, at the festival of Zeus, they cut in pieces and flay a single ram and put the fleece on the image of Zeus, as in the story; then they bring an image of Heracles near it. Having done this, all that are at the temple mourn for the ram, and then bury it in a sacred coffin. 43.

Herodotus on Egyptian Bull Sacrifices

Herodotus wrote in Book 2 of “Histories”:“They believe that bulls belong to Epaphus,21 and for this reason scrutinize them as follows; if they see even one black hair on them, the bull is considered impure. One of the priests, appointed to the task, examines the beast, making it stand and lie, and drawing out its tongue, to determine whether it is clean of the stated signs which I shall indicate hereafter.22 He looks also to the hairs of the tail, to see if they grow naturally. If it is clean in all these respects, the priest marks it by wrapping papyrus around the horns, then smears it with sealing-earth and stamps it with his ring; and after this they lead the bull away. But the penalty is death for sacrificing a bull that the priest has not marked. Such is the manner of approving the beast; I will now describe how it is sacrificed. 39. [Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2, English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

“After leading the marked beast to the altar where they will sacrifice it, they kindle a fire; then they pour wine on the altar over the victim and call upon the god; then they cut its throat, and having done so sever the head from the body. They flay the carcass of the victim, then invoke many curses on its head, which they carry away. Where there is a market, and Greek traders in it, the head is taken to the market and sold; where there are no Greeks, it is thrown into the river. The imprecation which they utter over the heads is that whatever ill threatens those who sacrifice, or the whole of Egypt, fall upon that head. In respect of the heads of sacrificed beasts and the libation of wine, the practice of all Egyptians is the same in all sacrifices; and from this ordinance no Egyptian will taste of the head of anything that had life. 40.

“But in regard to the disembowelling and burning of the victims, there is a different way for each sacrifice. I shall now, however, speak of that goddess whom they consider the greatest, and in whose honor they keep highest festival. After praying in the foregoing way, they take the whole stomach out of the flayed bull, leaving the entrails and the fat in the carcass, and cut off the legs, the end of the loin, the shoulders, and the neck. Having done this, they fill what remains of the carcass with pure bread, honey, raisins, figs, frankincense, myrrh, and other kinds of incense, and then burn it, pouring a lot of oil on it. They fast before the sacrifice, and while it is burning, they all make lamentation; and when their lamentation is over, they set out a meal of what is left of the victim. 41.

“All Egyptians sacrifice unblemished bulls and bull-calves; they may not sacrifice cows: these are sacred to Isis. For the images of Isis are in woman's form, horned like a cow, exactly as the Greeks picture Io, and cows are held by far the most sacred of all beasts of the herd by all Egyptians alike. For this reason, no Egyptian man or woman will kiss a Greek man, or use a knife, or a spit, or a cauldron belonging to a Greek, or taste the flesh of an unblemished bull that has been cut up with a Greek knife. Cattle that die are dealt with in the following way. Cows are cast into the river, bulls are buried by each city in its suburbs, with one or both horns uncovered for a sign; then, when the carcass is decomposed, and the time appointed is at hand, a boat comes to each city from the island called Prosopitis, an island in the Delta, nine schoeni in circumference. There are many other towns on Prosopitis; the one from which the boats come to gather the bones of the bulls is called Atarbekhis;23 a temple of Aphrodite stands in it of great sanctity. From this town many go out, some to one town and some to another, to dig up the bones, which they then carry away and all bury in one place. As they bury the cattle, so do they all other beasts at death. Such is their ordinance respecting these also; for they, too, may not be killed. 42.”

Sacred Bulls and Apis Bull Rituals in Ancient Egypt

Apis bull on a coffin

Aidan Dodson of the University of Bristol wrote: “We know of a range of sacred bulls, including Bata of Cynopolis, Kemwer of Athribis, Hesbu of the 11th Upper Egyptian Nome, and the Siankh, known only from the Palermo Stone, which recounts its “running” in the 2nd Dynasty reign of Ninetjer. The three best attested, however, are the Apis (associated with Ptah), Mnevis (Ra), and Buchis (Montu) bulls. An inscription on a bowl formerly in the Michaelides Collection, naming the Horus Aha alongside Apis, appears to bear out a statement by the Roman writer Aelian that the cult was founded by Menes, while the “first occasion of running the Apis” is mentioned under king Den (?) in the Palermo Stone, and under the same king on a contemporary seal- impression in Saqqara tomb S3035. At least two “running of the Apis” rituals occurred under Ninetjer (the second of them recorded on the Palermo Stone). The precise nature of these rituals is uncertain, but they may be related to later depictions of the Apis running alongside the king during the Sed-festival, for example on the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut at Karnak. [Source: Aidan Dodson, University of Bristol, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org ]

“The Apis was recognized by distinctive white and black markings, and after the death of an incumbent bull, a search would be made for its successor on this basis. According to Diodorus Siculus, “whenever one has died and has been buried in splendor, the priests who are charged with these matters seek out a young bull whose bodily markings are similar to those of its predecessor. When they find it, the people put away their mourning, and the priests whose duty it is conduct the bull calf to Nilopolis [near El-Wasta], where they keep it forty days; then they put it on a state barge with a gilded stall and convey it as a deity to the sanctuary of Hephaestus at Memphis.”

The earliest evidence for posthumous rituals concerning the Apis come from the late 18th Dynasty, when elaborate interments begin to be found at Saqqara, comprising above- ground chapels and subterranean burial chambers for each bull. These are succeeded under Ramesses II by a series of catacombs in the same area, known collectively as the Serapeum. While later bulls were conventionally embalmed, the surviving 18th and 19th Dynasty examples comprised broken osseous remains that had been formed into a mass using resin and linen, in at least one example molded into the simulacrum of a human mummy. Given that the tombs also held jars of ashes, it is possible that the dead bull may have been cooked and ceremonially eaten, perhaps by the king in an echo of the “Cannibal Hymn” in the Pyramid Texts. On the basis of Plutarch, Pliny, and Ammianus Marcellinus, it appears that by Roman times the bull’s maximum lifespan may have been fixed at 25 years, at which point a surviving bull was drowned (Pliny). However, there is no indication that this was the case earlier, and that practices regarding the Apis changed after the Ptolemaic Period (304–30 B.C.) is shown by the termination of burials in the Serapeum under Augustus. From the 27th Dynasty until Cleopatra VII, the cows that had borne an Apis were interred in their own catacomb . The ritual employed in the late Ptolemaic Period is preserved in Papyrus Vienna 3873, which indicates a sequence of ritual washing, embalming, wrapping, encoffining, and ceremonial, closely matching that used for high-status humans.

“The Mnevis of Heliopolis is known from New Kingdom tombs and monuments, but the Buchis bull of Upper Egypt first appears in the record at the end of the Late Period (712–332 B.C.) and continues to be attested well into Roman times. Although a catacomb, the Bucheum, was provided for him at Armant, the bull seems to have been a fusion of earlier bovine forms of Montu, and as such, rituals concerning the installation of the Buchis were carried out at Thebes, with the cult also existing at Tod and Medamud. It is at the latter site that we have evidence for the Buchis in an oracular role. A living representation of a god such as a sacred animal was of course an obvious oracle-giver. Good examples of Demotic oracular petitions addressed to the Thoth have been recovered from the baboon/ibis catacombs at Tuna el- Gebel. Other attested oracular creatures include the ram of Mendes and even a scarab beetle, but the practice almost certainly existed wherever a sacred animal was to be found.”

Herodotus on Pig Sacrfiices

Herodotus wrote in Book 2 of “Histories”:“Swine are held by the Egyptians to be unclean beasts. In the first place, if an Egyptian touches a hog in passing, he goes to the river and dips himself in it, clothed as he is; and in the second place, swineherds, though native born Egyptians, are alone of all men forbidden to enter any Egyptian temple; nor will any give a swineherd his daughter in marriage, nor take a wife from their women; but swineherds intermarry among themselves. Nor do the Egyptians think it right to sacrifice swine to any god except the Moon and Dionysus; to these, they sacrifice their swine at the same time, in the same season of full moon; then they eat the meat. The Egyptians have an explanation of why they sacrifice swine at this festival, yet abominate them at others; I know it, but it is not fitting that I relate it. But this is how they sacrifice swine to the Moon: the sacrificer lays the end of the tail and the spleen and the caul together and covers them up with all the fat that he finds around the belly, then consigns it all to the fire; as for the rest of the flesh, they eat it at the time of full moon when they sacrifice the victim; but they will not taste it on any other day. Poor men, with but slender means, mold swine out of dough, which they then take and sacrifice. 48. [Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2 English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

“To Dionysus, on the evening of his festival, everyone offers a piglet which he kills before his door and then gives to the swineherd who has sold it, for him to take away. The rest of the festival of Dionysus is observed by the Egyptians much as it is by the Greeks, except for the dances; but in place of the phallus, they have invented the use of puppets two feet high moved by strings, the male member nodding and nearly as big as the rest of the body, which are carried about the villages by women; a flute-player goes ahead, the women follow behind singing of Dionysus. Why the male member is so large and is the only part of the body that moves, there is a sacred legend that explains. 49.

“Now then, it seems to me that Melampus son of Amytheon was not ignorant of but was familiar with this sacrifice. For Melampus was the one who taught the Greeks the name of Dionysus and the way of sacrificing to him and the phallic procession; he did not exactly unveil the subject taking all its details into consideration, for the teachers who came after him made a fuller revelation; but it was from him that the Greeks learned to bear the phallus along in honor of Dionysus, and they got their present practice from his teaching. I say, then, that Melampus acquired the prophetic art, being a discerning man, and that, besides many other things which he learned from Egypt, he also taught the Greeks things concerning Dionysus, altering few of them; for I will not say that what is done in Egypt in connection with the god and what is done among the Greeks originated independently: for they would then be of an Hellenic character and not recently introduced. Nor again will I say that the Egyptians took either this or any other custom from the Greeks. But I believe that Melampus learned the worship of Dionysus chiefly from Cadmus of Tyre and those who came with Cadmus from Phoenicia to the land now called Boeotia. 50.

Human Sacrifices in the Early Dynastic Period (2950 to 2650 B.C.)

Evidence unearthed in Abydos, one of the oldest ancient Egyptian sites, shows that human sacrifice may have taken place there. Around the funeral enclosures of kings buried in Abydos were a number of subsidiary graves. Outside the enclosure of King Aha, for example, six people were buried with food and wine for the journey to the afterlife. One was a child of four or five buried with a bracelet made from ivory and lapis beads. Outside his tomb 35 more people are buried in graves next to several sacrificed lions. Some have suggested that these graves belonged to people who were sacrificed, perhaps poisoned. [Source: John Galvin, National Geographic, April 2005 +++]

Matthew Adams of the University of Pennsylvania told National Geographic: “The graves were dug and lined with bricks, then roofed with wood and capped with mud brick masonry. Above the masonry cap, a plaster floor extended from the enclosure and covered all the graves." The conclusion that one draws from this is that all the people were buried at the same time. It seems unlikely that they all died of natural causes at the same time, or their bodies were stored and then buried. This suggests that there is a strong possibility that they were all sacrificed at the same time — at around the time of King Aha's funeral. +++

Brenda Baker, a physical anthropologist at Arizona State, looked at all the skeletons that had been found around Aha's tomb and enclosure. She told National Geographic she found no evidence of trauma. “The method of their demise is a mystery. My guess is they were drugged." Another possibility is that were strangled. Some blood has been found in the enamel of the teeth (when someone is strangled blood cells burst inside the teeth). +++

Interest in human sacrifice appears to have been a passing fashion, There were 41 subsidiary grave at Aha's tomb and enclosure, 569 around the tomb and enclosure of his successor Djoer but only 30 beised the tom (is enclosure has not been located) of Djoer's successor, Qaa. By the 2nd dynasty around 2800 B.C. the practice stopped. A few years later the first pyramids were built. +++

John Galvin wrote in National Geographic, “All of the 1st-dynasty tombs and most of the enclosures excavated so far are accompanied by subsidiary graves—hundreds in some cases—containing the remains of elite officials and courtiers. Egyptologists have long speculated that these graves might hold victims of sacrificebut also acknowledged that they could simply be graves reserved for the king's staff, ready to use as each person died naturally.” +++

Possible Scenario for Human Sacrifice in Abydos?

John Galvin wrote in National Geographic, “On the day of Aha's burial a solemn procession made its way through the sacred precincts of Abydos, royal necropolis of Egypt's first kings. Led by priests in flowing white gowns, the funeral retinue included the royal family, vizier, treasurer, administrators, trade and tax officers, and Aha's successor, Djer. Just beyond the town's gates the procession stopped at a monumental structure with imposing brick walls surrounding an open plaza. Inside the walls the priests waded through a cloud of incense to a small chapel, where they performed cryptic rites to seal Aha's immortality. [Source: John Galvin, National Geographic, April 2005 +++]

“Outside, situated around the enclosure's walls, were six open graves. In a final act of devotion, or coercion, six people were poisoned and buried along with wine and food to take into the afterlife. One was a child of just four or five, perhaps the king's beloved son or daughter, who was expensively furnished with ivory bracelets and tiny lapis beads. +++ “The procession then walked westward into the setting sun, crossing sand dunes and moving up a dry riverbed to a remote cemetery at the base of a high desert plateau. Here Aha's three-chambered tomb was stockpiled with provisions for a lavish life in eternity. There were large cuts of ox meat, freshly killed waterbirds, loaves of bread, cheese, dried figs, jars of beer, and dozens of wine vessels, each bearing Aha's official seal. Beside his tomb more than 30 graves were laid out in three neat rows. As the ceremony climaxed, several lions were slain and placed in a separate burial pit. As Aha's body was lowered into a brick-lined burial chamber, a select group of loyal courtiers and servants also took poison and joined their king in the next world.” +++

Ancient Egyptian Religious Practices That Live On in Coptic Christianity

Pre-Dynastic burial

Saphinaz-Amal Naguib of the University of Oslo wrote: “Urbanization and globalization have profoundly changed Egyptian culture and prompted the abandonment of most religious practices belonging to the Egyptian lore. However, some aspects of Pharaonic religious practices can still be observed in Coptic Christianity. These practices are tied to the Coptic calendar, funerary rituals, visits to the dead, and mulids. [Source: Saphinaz-Amal Naguib, University of Oslo, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org ]

“Egypt has been open to a number of foreign influences. One cannot, therefore, assert that customs and rituals derive directly and unaltered from Pharaonic times, and that they are exclusively Egyptian and Coptic. As mentioned earlier, traditions are hybrid and continuously adapted to changing contexts. What is important is not to assess the degree of indebtedness one culture has to another but instead to explore the significance, quality, and results of acculturation processes.

Coptic religious iconography offers many examples of themes and motifs that have been perceived as legacies from Pharaonic times. Such examples do not necessarily imply a direct, unbroken cultural lineage to ancient Egypt. Rather, they show cultural resilience and the power to accommodate various cultural influences within an Egyptian mould. Among the most known motifs are the representations of Maria Lactans, which bring to mind those of Isis with the child Horus; similarly, the figure of the holy horseman or warrior-saint slaying a dragon, devil, or snake with his spear echoes that of Horus fighting Seth, or killing Apophis or a crocodile.

Links Between the Ancient Egyptian and Coptic Christian Calendar

Saphinaz-Amal Naguib of the University of Oslo wrote: “Cultural changes usually occur as part of long processes of transformation. However, some events may trigger rapid changes in a culture’s structures, generate innovations, and bring about new ways of life. The construction of the Aswan High Dam was such an event. Inaugurated in January 1971, the Aswan High Dam has radically altered Egypt’s ecology and led to the disappearance of most rituals and religious practices related to the Nile and its inundation. It has modified a cumulative body of local knowledge and made the agricultural calendar meaningless. Nevertheless, some religious practices tied to the seasonality of the Nile are still recognizable in Coptic Christianity. Their memory lingers on in the Coptic calendar, a solar calendar that is based on the ancient Egyptian one, which used to be the agricultural calendar of Egypt. For instance, like the ancient Egyptians, Copts celebrate their New Year (cayd el-nayruuz) on the first of Tuut, which corresponds to the month of September. Before the building of the Aswan High Dam, the river’s level attained its peak around the middle of the month. Land- taxes would not be collected before the Nile had reached the ideal height of sixteen cubits. The final level of the river was measured on the seventeenth of Tuut and was called “the level of the Cross.” The Coptic synaxarium reminds us that the day is dedicated to the Feast of the Cross (cayd el-saliib). [Source: Saphinaz-Amal Naguib, University of Oslo, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org ]

Coptic cross and Greek writing on older inscriptions at the Isis Temple in Philae

“The third month of the year, Haatuur, begins with the three “nights of darkness,” during which Coptic liturgy is imbued with funerary tones. From an Egyptological point of view it harks of Plutarch’s statement that Osiris was killed during this month. Nothing in the Coptic liturgy reminds us of the mysteries of Osiris that were celebrated during Khoiak, the fourth month of the year. Yet during this month it is a custom among Egyptians, both Copts and Muslims, to sow seven types of grain on cotton-wool wrapped around a bottle or on the model of a doll cut in cardboard. The sprouting figure is considered as an omen of a “green year”—that is, a prosperous and happy one. The fifth month, Tuubah, was known for the quality and purity of the Nile’s water. People used to store mayyat Tuubah—Nile water drawn during this month— for special occasions. Big jars filled with it were placed near cemeteries, tombs of saints, and other pilgrimage sites. It was believed that the waters would cure diseases and prevent all kinds of ailments. Copts celebrate the Feast of Immersion (cayd el-ghitaas) commemorating the Baptism of Christ on the eleventh of Tuubah and visit their dead on the following day.

“In ancient Egypt solemnities commemorating the erection of the Djed-pillar were held during this month. The spring feast of shamm el-nasiim, which usually occurs during the month of Barmuudah, has been considered to derive from the ancient Egyptian Sokar Festival. The twelfth of Ba'uuna is dedicated to the archangel Michael, and the liturgy of that day includes prayers to the Nile. Before the building of the Aswan High Dam, this period coincided with the Night of the Drop (laylat el-nuqta), when the Nile was at its lowest level and the inundation period started. On that night a divine drop falling from the sky was said to initiate the rise of the Nile. To ancient Egyptians it corresponded with the appearance of the Dog Star, Sopdet (vocalized as Sothis by the Greeks), at dawn announcing the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new one. According to Pausanias, it was believed that during that night Isis mourning the loss of Osiris shed a tear, thus triggering the overflow. Furthermore, it is worth noting here that the archangel Michael seems to have taken over the characteristic of the god Thoth as regulator of the Nile.”

Ancient Egyptian Funerary and Festival Rites That Live On in Coptic Christianity

Saphinaz-Amal Naguib of the University of Oslo wrote: “Coptic funerary rituals in today’s Egypt show many analogies to well-documented ancient Egyptian religious practices. Animal sacrifice, for example, is performed at the doorstep of the main entrance of the house when the coffin is taken out, on the same day at the cemetery, at the end of the mourning period, and periodically before the visits to the dead. The meat is distributed to the poor. However, due to various factors, these rituals have almost disappeared from large towns and cities. Visits to the dead, offerings of food and flowers, and libations at the cemetery are other reminders of Pharaonic Egypt. [Source: Saphinaz-Amal Naguib, University of Oslo, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org ]

“Copts go to the cemetery on fixed dates—specifically, the third day after death, after the rituals of “taking away the mattings” and “delivering the soul of the dead” have been carried out, then on the seventh, fifteenth, and fortieth day after death. Other periodic visits to the dead take place on the Coptic New Year (cayd el-nayruuz), on Nativity (cayd el-miilaad), on the Day of Immersion (yawm el-ghitaas), on Palm Sunday (‘ahad el-sacaf), during Pentecost (el-khamsiin or cayd el-cansara), and during pilgrimages and mulids. It is especially women who carry out these visits, or tuluuc (more commonly known as talca). Their attitudes resonate with those attributed to the goddesses Isis and Nephthys. Like them, they cry for the dead, lament over the corpse, bring offerings of food and flowers, and make libations of water.

“Coptic pilgrimages and mulids have gone through various developments giving way to innovations and hybridization. The term “mulid” (Arabic: mawlid, pl. mawaalid) stems from the root wld, meaning birth. It designates the birthday of a saint. More exactly, it marks the anniversary of the saint’s martyrdom or death and thereby her or his “rebirth.” By extension, mulid denotes the festivities held around the shrine of the saint, who is a center of pilgrimage. The shrine locality attracts fairs with all their various stalls and games. Mulids, whether Coptic or Muslim, pertain to popular religion and have been frowned upon by both religious and governmental authorities, which blame them for re-enacting pagan rituals, encouraging sexual licentiousness, and providing the grounds for the consumption of drugs. So much so that the term “mulid” signifies rowdiness and anarchy. Nevertheless, mulids are popular among people from different social backgrounds and until recently Copts and Muslims used to take part in each other’s mulids. Some mulids are recent creations, but the majority have a long history exemplifying the significance of a given site as a consecrated sacred space and bringing forth the descriptions of festivals dating back to the Pharaonic Period. Some saints and martyrs may have incorporated the characteristics of older local deities, but this is an opinion open to controversy.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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