, pub-5063766797865882, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0 Stories and Festivals in Ancient Egypt ~ Ancient Egypt Facts

October 26, 2012

Stories and Festivals in Ancient Egypt

Stories and Festivals
Story-telling played an important part in the lives of the ancient Egyptians. Their oral tradition must be set apart from the Teachings or ‘Wisdom’ literature and the Egyptian religious texts. The deeds of gods and kings were not written in early times and only found their way through verbal tradition into the literature of a later date. This treasury of popular tale was based on an ageless tradition in ancient Egypt. As we have seen the people, their society and their institutions were moulded by the environment and by nature’s changeless cycles. This stability of the physical environment resulted in the lives of the rural Egyptians remaining changeless. For, while the priestly politicians were striving for political control and the sages were teaching proverbs and behaviour to their sons, the life of the peasants was moulded, as in times long past, by the rise and fall of the Nile. Each evening when the sun set, his work was done. He would put aside his hoe, his sickle and his winnowing fork, and sit with his friends in the villages of sun-dried brick, or on the rocky outcrop overlooking the valley, and tell tales.

They related all they knew of their ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, especially of the first pharaoh who united the Two Lands and who, like themselves, knew how to exploit the waters of the Nile. Narmer, they told, diverted the great river through an artificial channel and constructed a moat round his city which was fed by the river.

They told tales of the good and kindly king Senefru who helped the poor; of the wicked Khufu who constructed a mighty tomb in the shape of the sacred ben-ben at Heliopolis, and of Menkaure who was good and just and compensated the poor. Popular and magical tales were closely bound together in a ‘Thousand and One Nights’ narrative which provided a reason for their telling, like the magical feats performed in the various reigns of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. When the farmers told their sons certain stories of the battles between Horus and Set, they were telling them their ancient history of battles between Upper and Lower Egypt (during the first two dynasties). And in telling them others they were explaining the triumph of the fertile valley over the arid desert. If some of the tales had long been woven to serve a politico- religious purpose and subtly guide their loyalties, the farmers were unaware of it.

They told tales of the world around them: how the high sky was held aloft by mountain peaks or pillars that rose above the range that formed the edge of the world; how the sun was a disc of fire that sailed across the heavens in a boat; how the sky was a mother-goddess, Nut, who supported the heavenly bodies and the earth was the God Geb who sprouted vegetation. They told that through the centre of the land flowed the river which rose from the eternal ocean in the south and joined the eternal ocean in the north.

They told tales of their river: how Hapi God of the Nile dwelt in a grotto on an island where the Nile rose from the eternal ocean in the south and from whence he controlled its flow to the ocean in the north; of the terrible famine in the reign of their ancient king Djet when the river failed to rise because the people had not made sufficient sacrifices to Hapi.

And they told tales of their land: how the vegetation which died with the harvest was reborn when the grain sprouted, just as the Sun-god ‘died’ each evening and was reborn the next morning. How the Desert-god, Set, the personification of drought, darkness and evil, secretly aspired to the throne of Osiris, the god of fertility and water. They told how, when Horus was but a child and had been hidden in the marshes of the Delta, he was bitten by Set who had taken the form of a poisonous snake. Isis, in despair, called to the heavens for help, and the ‘Boat of Millions of Years’, drawing the Sun-god and his retinue across the heavens, heard her. Ra the Sun-god sent Thoth to speak to Isis and offer help. Thoth informed her that the boat of the Sun-god would stand still, darkness would reign, there would be no food and the people of the earth would suffer until Horus was cured. They told how the evil of Set was overcome, Horus God became healthy and the Sun-god resumed his journey across the heavens, cast his rays upon the earth and caused the crops to grow again.

Rural Egyptian festivals were a great source of pleasure in ancient Egypt. They were closely allied with the working patterns of the people, and were based on the agricultural cycle. The Nile festivals heralding the arrival of the flood were at once the most solemn and most joyous in the land. Sacrifices would be made to ensure that the waters rose to the required height to assure a bounteous return from the land, and prayers of thanks would be offered. The celebrations heralding the rebirth of the crop, the reaping of the first sheaf, the opening of a new canal, the bearing of the crop to the granary, were all accompanied by hand-clapping and singing. Some festivals were celebrated simultaneously throughout the land, others were local, all were of a religious nature. Pilgrimages might be made to the shrines of local deities to present offerings, or a longer journey might be undertaken to the shrine of a more widely popular deity to make a sacrifice. These were not gestures of piety towards the gods (a sentiment common in the New Kingdom), but a self-imposed duty, a gratification and a familiar and recognised pattern of behaviour.

In the Egyptian Old Kingdom the people were confident (they knew not war or foreign occupation), hard-working (a reflection of a stable and organised government), and optimistic (since the nature worship of Osiris had not yet developed into a Cult of the Dead there was no need for them to defend themselves against the awesome powers of the underworld and they suffered no apprehension of the hereafter). When they died and were buried on the western bank of the Nile, along with the necessary provisions for the hereafter, they would go to the ‘Godly West’ and live again, exactly as on earth. The eternity envisaged by the people was understandably a peasant environment as befitted a peasant community. There would be no hunger or want. They would till the fields, breathe the fresh air along the river banks, fish in the bulrushes, paddle boats along the river and enjoy fowling and hunting for ever and ever in the ‘Field of Reeds’.
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