The Significance Of Seasonal Renewal In Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt, The significance of seasonal renewal in ancient Egypt

Seasonal-renewal motifs in ancient Egypt were often incorporated into other aspects of sacred times--such as times of passage rites (e.g., ascension of the pharaoh to the throne), of death rites (e.g., the transformation of the dead person into a glorified person), and of commemorating certain historical events (e.g., military victories in which the pharaoh preserved ma'at--i.e., order, truth, and justice--which was active in the realms of nature and society).In Egypt during the 5th millennium BC, astronomers in the Nile Delta region associated the annual inundation of the river--which covered wide areas with fertile soil--with celestial movements, especially that of the star Sirius (i.e., Sothis) and the sun. From such observations the Egyptians developed a solar calendar of 365 days, with 12 months of 30 days each and five festival days at the end of the year. Though priests assumed important functions at the festivals centered about the fertility of the soil irrigated by the Nile and the life-giving warmth of the sun, the pharaoh, the sacred king, embodied the continuity between the realm of the sacred (i.e., the transcendent sphere) and the realm of the profane (i.e., the sphere of time, space, and cause and effect). The pharaoh was believed to be the son of the sun god Horus of the Horizon (Harakhte), symbolized by the falcon; the sun god was also known as Re, among other names. The eastern horizon was viewed as the meeting point of the underworld of the dead and the world of the living. The sun god also was known as Atum, which means, "to be at the end," or the west. Osiris, the god of the afterlife (the world of the dead) was believed to be embodied in the recently deceased pharaoh, who passed on his sacred powers and position to the new pharaoh, his son. At the sd festival, the new pharaoh, as the son of Horus and of Re, as well as of Osiris, was invested with both kingly and priestly powers. At his coronation festival the pharaoh was believed to gain the power to restore ma'at after the death of the previous pharaoh, and also to restore economic prosperity.

During the royal festivals--i.e. ascension to the throne, the coronation, and the sd festival--feasting presumably occurred. Festivals associated with seasonal renewal, however, involved sacrifices, eating, drinking, and sometimes dramatic or carnival-like events. Some scholars hold that the Egyptian terms for festival, however, contain concepts that became extremely significant in later Hellenistic (Greco-Roman) religions--e.g. the mystery, or salvatory, religions, such as those of Mithra, Isis, and the Eleusinian mysteries--and Semitic-based religions--e.g., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. According to this view Egyptian terms for festival, such as hb, h', and pr.t, all contain concepts of resurrection and epiphany (i.e., the manifestation of a god). In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, for example, the festival of the Epiphany (January 6) celebrates Christ's manifestation to the Magi of the East (presumably followers of Zoroaster, a 6th-century BC Iranian prophet) and his Baptism in the Jordan River. The usual Greek designation for Epiphany is "the day of the light" (he hemera tou photou), in reference to the words in the Bible, in John 1:4, that Jesus is the "light of men." Under the influence of the Christian Catechetical school at Alexandria (led by Clement and Origin in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD), the earlier religious speculations of the Egyptians concerning their festivals were enhanced by further mystical and spiritual interpretations that affected Christian worship, piety, doctrine, and iconography, especially in Eastern Christianity.

The Egyptians celebrated many festivals that were connected with seasonal renewal, some of which became elaborated into sacred times of cosmic significance. Among their more popular festivals were those dedicated to Osiris, Amon-Re (the sun god), Horus, and Hathor (the sky goddess, represented by a cow).

Of special interest is the festival dedicated to Min, celebrated during the harvest month of Shemou (April). A statue of Min, represented as an ithyphallic god of fertility in iconography, was placed on an inclined pedestal, which was the symbol of ma'at. This pedestal represented the primordial mountain, a symbol of resurrection, renewal, and rebirth. During the processional honoring Min, hymns were sung and ritual dances and perhaps other types of dances were performed. The pharaoh and his queen entered the shrine and presumably enacted a sacred marriage rite. After the pharaoh's enthronement at the harvest Festival of Min, four arrows were shot toward the north, east, south, and west; and birds also were released in the directions of the four cardinal points of the compass. The releasing of the birds and arrows announced the harmonious union of man--both as an individual and as a corporate being--with the divine powers of nature inherent in the pharaoh as "Horus son of Min and Osiris." Though the pharaoh was symbolically significant in the feasts and festivals of ancient Egypt, the priests of the various cults officiated in the rituals and sacrifices to the many gods and announced the proper times for the differing forms of celebrations.

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