03 December 2007

Holidays & Celebrations:
Egyptian Harvest Festivals

By Jean Adams

The ancient Egyptians were always ready to party and celebrate. In fact almost all the days in the year they seemed to be celebrating something or a god. Since Thanksgiving has just passed in the US, and Christmas (of course unknown to the ancient Egyptians) is on the way, what better time than to celebrate show their harvest festival.

In many respects, Thanksgiving is a major world holiday, and has been since ancient times, although the date may very according to different growing seasons. The traditional Horn of Plenty is a traditional harvest icon, and the celebration of a good harvest means plenty of good food for all.

It is also a timeless celebration, with a tradition dating back to mankind's earliest farming efforts. Today, most of us cannot comprehend the importance of a good harvest, but in ancient times the difference between a bountiful harvest and a weak yield could spell the difference between life and death, malnourishment or health. It could also have much more disastrous effects, such as setting the stage for dynastic change, and periods of upheaval.

Throughout history, people have given thanks to a god or gods for a good harvest. In many cases, it was the ruler who had the ultimate responsibility of appeasing the gods so they would provide a good harvest, and it was the ruler who might be blamed if that were not the case.

In ancient Egypt, crop failures and the resulting famine are suspected as being at least in part the cause of several intermediate periods of governmental collapse between strong dynasties. Good harvests were a source of pride and bragging rights by kings who could take considerable credit for the good fortune because the gods were pleased with his deeds.

This comes as no surprise. Egypt became famous as a "bread basket", and the fertility of the Nile Valley was a source of pride for the ancient Egyptians. While Egypt may be well known to us for its huge and glorious monuments, it was almost certainly the easy agricultural economy that allowed such sophistication.

Jean AdamsAs in many lands, harvest did not occur in Egypt during the fall months, but rather during late March or early April. Because of Egypt's mild climate, crops could be planted at almost any time, but it was the Nile inundation that triggered the initial production phases.

The height of these floods would usually occur in mid August, and at that time, each farmer would row around his land in small boats, closing the vents in the surrounding dykes. This would allow the water to leave behind a deposit of enriched mud, which would soak down deep into the soil. Around October, the land might be firm enough to plant, but in these early days, there were always rites surrounding most agricultural operations.

Even in predynastic Egypt, we find the king taking part in a symbolic inauguration of breaking the earth and sowing the grain. This ceremony came to symbolize the ritual burial of the god, Osiris, who had died at the hand of his brother Seth, but came back to life to thank his wife and sister, Isis. Indeed, grain became the symbol of Osiris' body because it appears to have no life until it sprouts anew.

Around the end of March, or the beginning of April, the first cereal grains would be harvested, and although additional crops could and would be planted, this marked the most important harvest of the year, and a time of celebration if the crops were good.

Over its 3,000-year-old pharaonic history, harvest rites changed. Harvest celebrations could also vary depending on the location. They might be considerably different for those in the Nile Valley as opposed to those at a desert oasis.

However, the best known harvest festival was dedicated to the god, Min, who was also a fertility god, who took interest in both the land, as well as the fertility of mankind. So identified was the fertility of the land and of mankind, that a virgin girl was poetically referred to as an "unplowed field".

The start of the harvest in ancient Egypt involved celebrations in honor of Min, which were often opened by the king himself, who reaped the first ears of grain with a sickle. This was the month of Shemou (harvest), and 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 (the goddess if truth and justice). This pedestal represented the primordial mountain, a symbol of resurrection, renewal, and rebirth. During the processional honoring Min, songs were sung and ritual dances were performed. Many festivals around the land honor the harvest.

Heqet, goddess of childbirth was also associated with grain germination while Renenutet was also a goddess of grain, as well as a fertility goddess. Isis, who caused Osiris to rise after his death, was closely associated with the harvest festivals for she was seen as the reviver of the grain who caused it to sprout.

The harvest began with this festival, and there would, as in most ancient Egyptian festivals, have been some abundance of food and festivities for all. However, it is interesting that the festival occurred before the actual harvest.

Afterwards, there was likely to have been more celebration. Most of the land belonged to the king, or temples, so the harvest, for the most part, would have been a personal celebration by individual farmers.

In fact, traditional thanksgiving which is seen as the end of the growing season and a time for rest, in Egypt there would have been another crop to plant. Since Egypt's earliest times, it was recognized that two crops could be grown between Nile floods, but getting this second crop in the ground would have left little time for celebration of the first crop beyond the initial festivals. Hence, for many common farmers, the end of the harvest did not warrant much time for giving thanks.