By the time writing first appeared (around 3100 B.C.E.) ancient Egyptian life centered around no less than three calendars. The lunar calendar, the civil calendar, and the Sothic calendar. These calendars were based on the celestial patterns of the moon, the sun, and the star Sirius, respectively.
The Lunar Calendar
The moon with its regular cycle became the oldest time keeper. Coinciding with a woman’s menstrual cycles, it was the perfect instrument to keep track of her and the animal’s fertile times and to record the patterns of life. No wonder the goddesses Isis and Hathor were associated with the moon.
The Solar Calendar
The civil calendars were solar based and used the movement of the sun across the sky to signal the approaching seasons. When roaming the countryside, chasing game, and gathering food gave way to the practice of agriculture, it became more important for our ancestors to master the signs of the growing seasons than to follow animal migration patterns.
Early agriculturists began to look up at the sky in an effort to learn when to prepare the ground, when to plant, and when to reap. Unlike lunar calendars, solar calendars marked the solstices (the longest and shortest days of the year), as well as the equinoxes (when the days and nights were of equal length).
In addition, seasonal changes that affected the growing season were predicted by observing the rise of certain constellations, particularly those constellations that followed the ecliptic (the apparent path of the sun through the heavens). Thus, the appearance of the twelve zodiacal constellations formed an important part of the civil and solar calendar.
Correcting The Inconsistencies
Because the moon cycles didn’t exactly match the sun cycles, five intercalary days, called Epagomenal Days, were eventually added to the calendar year. In Egypt those five days honored the births of the great neters (Supreme Deities) Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis, and Nephthys. Even after the Epagomenal Days were added to the solar calendar, it was still inexact because the true year is actually a few hours longer than 365 days.
To determine exactly when the seasons would change and when to sow or harvest, the Egyptians began to track and observe all the heavenly bodies, including the moon, the sun, the constellations, and the brightest, most visible stars. By watching the sky over the years, people began to notice that just before dawn near the summer solstice, the rising of the Dog Star Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens.
The rising of this star was a better, more reliable predictor of the coming of the flood season than the solar calendar alone. When the star appeared, the flood waters flowing from the southern mountains and highlands appeared soon after. By observing Sirius, preparations for planting and sowing could be made well in advance. In addition, the regularity of the rise of Sirius most closely resembled the true length of the year.
The Sothic Calendar
The brilliant star Sirius, appearing in the constellation we know as Canis Major, was ancient Egypt’s most important star. The Egyptians called the star Sopdet and equated it with Isis, the powerful goddess of regeneration.
The Greeks called the star Sothis, later developing a so-called Sothic calendar that kept even more regular track of the years and the seasons, being most nearly 365.25 days. Even then the calendar still wasn’t perfect.Incremental changes were occurring due to the rotation of the earth, the tilt of the earth, and the procession of the equinoxes.
The Civil Calendar
By divine decree laid down in the mists of prehistory, the Egyptian priest-king swore never to alter the civil calendar, even though its solar-basted calculations were not keeping up with the changing seasons. The reason for this seemingly irrational adherence lay in the fact that the year had been divinely established by the god of wisdom and time, Thoth.
Thoth’s laws were the laws of the gods, and divine laws were considered unalterable. The real reason may have been that astrologer priests were tracking an even larger arc of time – a procession not of the sun and moon, but of the equinoxes – that resulted in a kind of calendar of the ages.
When the Greeks arrived in Egypt, however, they saw little value in maintaining such a cosmic calendar when the civil calendar was so woefully out of alignment. Once they established themselves as kings, the Ptolemaic Greeks believed that the time had come to alter Thoth’s divine law. They coerced the priests into adding an extra day every four years to even out the true calendar. The result created the leap year, which we use even to this day.
How The Egyptian Calendar Works
At first Egypt’s calendar seems hard to understand because we are conditioned to our own notions of month and season derived from the Romans. Really, the ancient Egyptian calendar is fairly simple. The year has twelve months, the months have three weeks, and each week has ten days. This represented the basic system of the lunar year.
Tacked on to the end of these 360 days were the five Epagomenal Days, added to create the 365 days of the solar year. The Epagomenal Days signaled the end of the year and were followed by the new year’s celebration, just as New Year’s Day follows New Year’s Eve in our calendar. But, whereas we begin counting in the winter month of January, the ancient Egyptians began counting at the rise of the Dog Star Sirius, which occurs in the middle of our summer.
This system makes perfect sense because the new year signaled the beginning of a new agricultural cycle. When the Dog Star rose, the Nile flooded, and the parched earth was refertilized The sacred actions of the Nile River – its flooding, its retreat into its banks leaving fertile soil, and its eventual low flow creating drought conditions – determined not only the major festivals of the pharaoh and his people,but the three seasons of the year.
The Three Seasons
The ancient Egyptians did not celebrate four seasons of spring, summer, fall, and winter as we do. Rather, their three seasons were uniquely timed to the particular agricultural requirements in their geographic region. The three seasons were:
- Ahket – Innundation
Also called the Red Season, it extended from mid July to mid November, when most of the river valley and Delta were underwater.
- Pert – Sowing
Also called the Black Season, it extended from mid November to mid March, the equivalent to our spring, which the Egyptians called the Coming Forth.
- Shemu – Harvest
Also called the White Season, it extended from mid March to mid July when crops were harvested. By season’s end, everything was dry and the fields were scorched.
From: Feasts of Light
The great and supreme powers of ancient Egypt were the Gods and Goddesses of nature. The coming of the annual flood, the blossoming of the lotus, the rising of the brightest star in the sky, the disappearance of the moon, the eclipsing of the sun, the cutting of the wheat – all were occasions in which the Divine manifested on earth.
The religious life of the ancient Egyptians was marked by the celebration of the following kinds of sacred events:
- Festivals dedicated to a particular god or goddess which honored them through the public remembrance of their mythic lives.
- Festivals which honored the dead, bringing together a sense of the tribal community and the ancestral history and marking the cycles of time.
- Festivals which initiated the agrarian work cycles of preparing, sowing, and harvesting, as well as lying fallow.
In all probablity these seasonal festivals were determined by astronomical markers, such as the equinoxes, the solstices, and the rise of particular stars and constellations.
These were sacred events to which the Great Gods and Goddesses provided their blessings, for they were the manifestations of the cosmic cycle of nature. The will of the Gods was made known through the great pattern laid out in the sky by celestial phenomena.
There earliest festivals were those celebrating the mysteries of the Goddess in her appearance as the day and night sky, as both sun and moon. Most of the original ancient Egyptian feast days were celebrated at the new or the full moon. The ancient hieroglyph for “month” was the image of the moon itself. Apparently, the original festival calendar was lunar.
Of course, many Egyptian feast days are moveable feasts; that is, they are lunar festivals timed to phases of the moon. Thus, their occurrence might slip around from one year to the next. Other Egyptian festival dates were set by the motion of the stars, the planets, and the actions of the sun.
In any true sense it would be impossible for us to know the actual recurring dates of many of the festivals. We can, however approximate the ancient dates, which is what most Egyptologists do.
During the season of Inundation more major public festival occurred than at any other time of the year, most of them related to fertility rites and abundance rituals. The feasts tended to occupy the general public during this time because the land was so flooded that little real work could be done.
By comparison, the Sowing season had fewer festivals. Once the waters receded and work in the fields began, the Sowing season was the busiest time of year. The growing season was quickly followed by the Harvest season. But during the final months of the year, when the harvest had ended and the land was dry, the festivals began again, mostly in anticipation of the coming Inundation.
The festival calendar, as it appears to us now, spans three thousand years of Egyptian history and probably was being recorded, observed, and manipulated many thousands of years before that. In those three millennia a great many political and religious changes affected the designated feast days. Some feasts fell out of favor, others were renamed, a few were entirely forgotten.
From: Feasts of Light
The Festival of Navigation (March 5th) was an ancient Roman festival that celebrated Isis as the ruler over safe navigation, boats, fishing, and the final journey of life. At this festival, after an elaborate parade, a Ship of Isis filled with great offerings of incense, flowers, libations and small shrines was sent out to sea.
For an eyewitness description of this festival, visit this post: Navigium Isidis.
I do like the idea of sending out ships with offerings to Isis. And with that in mind, I’m sharing here a video tutorial on how to make a paper boat that floats on water. This small boat could be decorated with symbols or with petitions for guidance, filled small offerings, and then floated down a stream, creek, river, etc. If you don’t have access to water, you could ritually burn your boat on a bed of incense and fragrant herbs and allow the smoke to take your petitions and offerings to the goddess.
When Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, Greek merchants brought the worship of Isis from Alexandria to Rome and invoked Her as inventor of the sail, patron of navigation, and ruler of the waves.
Possibly the most well known Isiac festival of the Roman world was the Navigium Isidis, celebrated on the 5th of March. As part of the festivities, a a festive carnival procession was performed in honor of Isis, and the Vessel of Isis, laden with offerings of precious spices and milk libations, is launched.
Here is a colorful and detailed eye-witness account of the procession and the ceremony:
Soon the sun of gold arose and sent the clouds of thick night flying; and lo, a crowd of people replenished the streets, filing in triumphal religious procession. It seemed to me that the whole world, independent of my own high spirits, was happy. The dusky clouds were routed; and the heavens shone with clear sheer splendor of their native light.
Presently the vanguard of the grand procession came in view. It was composed of a number of people in fancy dress of their own choosing; a man wearing a soldier’s sword-belt; another dressed as a huntsman, a thick cloak caught up to his waist with hunting knife and javelin; another who wore gilt sandals, a wig, a silk dress and expensive jewelry and pretended to be a woman.
Then a man with heavy boots, shield, helmet and sword, looking as though he had walked straight out of the gladiators’ school; a pretended magistrate with purple robe and rods of office; a philosopher with cloak, staff, clogs and billy-goat beard; a bird catcher, carrying lime and a long reed; a fisherman with another long reed and a fish hook.
Oh, yes, and a tame she-bear, dressed like a woman, carried in a sedan chair; and an ape in a straw hat and a saffron-coloured Phrygian cloak with a gold cup grasped in its paws – a caricature of Jupiter’s beautiful cup-bearer Ganymede.
Finally an ass with wings glued to its shoulders and a doddering old man seated on its rump; you would have laughed like anything at that pair, supposed to be Pegasus and Bellerophon. These fancy-dress comedians kept running in and out of the crowd, and behind them came the procession proper.
At the head walked women crowned with flowers, who pulled more flowers out of the folds of their beautiful white dresses and scattered them along the road; their joy in the Saviouress appeared in every gesture.
Next came women with polished mirrors tied to the backs of their heads, which gave all who followed them the illusion of coming to meet the Goddess, rather than marching before her.
Next, a party of women with ivory combs in their hands who made a pantomime of combing the Goddess’s royal hair, and another party with bottles of perfume who sprinkled the road with balsam and other precious perfumes; and behind these a mixed company of women and men who addressed the Goddess as “Daughter of the Stars” and propitiated her by carrying every sort of light – lamps, torches, wax-candles and so forth.
Next came musicians with pipes and flutes, followed by a party of carefully chosen choir-boys singing a hymn in which an inspired poet had explained the origin of the procession.
The temple pipers of the great god Serapis were there too, playing their religious anthem on pipes with slanting mouth-pieces and tubes curving around their right ears; also a number of beadles and whiffers crying: “Make way there, way for the Goddess!”
Then followed a great crowd of the Goddess’s initiates, men and women of all classes and every age, their pure white linen clothes shining brightly. The women wore their hair tied up in glossy coils under gauze head-dresses; the men’s heads were completely shaven, representing the Goddess’s bright earthly stars, and they carried rattles of brass, silver and even gold, which kept up a shrill and ceaseless tinkling.
The leading priests, also clothed in white linen drawn tight across their breasts and hanging down to their feet, carried the oracular emblems of the deity. The High Priest held a bright lamp, which was not at all like the lamps we use at night banquets; it was a golden boat-shaped affair with a tall tongue of flame mounting from a hole in the centre.
The second priest held an auxiliaria, or sacrificial pot, in each of his hands – the name refers to the Goddess’s providence in helping her devotees. The third priest carried a miniature palm-tree with gold leaves, also the serpent wand of Mercury. The fourth carried the model of a left hand with the fingers stretched out, which is an emblem of justice because the left hand, with its natural slowness and lack of any craft or subtlety, seems more impartial than the right. He also held a golden vessel, rounded in the shape of a woman’s breast, from the nipple of which a thin stream of milk fell to the ground. The fifth carried a winnowing fan woven with golden rods, not osiers. Then came a man, not one of the five, carrying a wine-jar.
Next in the procession followed those deities that deigned to walk on human feet. Here was the frightening messenger of the gods of Heaven, and of the gods of the dead: Anubis with a face black on one side, golden on the other, walking erect and holding his herald’s wand in one hand, and in the other a green palm branch. Behind, danced a man carrying on his shoulders, seated upright, the statue of a cow, representing the Goddess as the fruitful Mother of us all.
Then along came a priest with a box containing the secret implements of her wonderful cult. Another fortunate priest had an ancient emblem of her godhead hidden in the lap of his robe; this was not make in the shape of any beast, wild or tame, or any bird or human being, but the exquisite beauty of its workmanship no less than the originality of its design called for admiration and awe.
It was a symbol of the sublime and ineffable mysteries of the Goddess, which are never to be divulged a small vessel of burnished gold, upon which Egyptian hieroglyphics were thickly crowded with a rounded bottom, a long spout, and a generously curving handle along which sprawled an asp, raising his head and displaying its scaly, wrinkled, puffed-out throat…
Meanwhile the pageant moved slowly on and we approached the sea shore… There the divine emblems were arranged in due order and there with solemn prayers the chaste lipped priest consecrated and dedicated to the Goddess a beautifully built ship, with Egyptian hieroglyphics painted over the entire hull; but first he carefully purified it with a lighted torch, an egg and sulphur. The sail was shining white linen, inscribed in large letters with the prayer for the Goddess’s protection of shipping during the new sailing season.
The long fir mast with its shining head was now stepped, and we admired the gilded prow shaped like the neck of Isis’s sacred goose, and the long, highly-polished keel cut from a solid trunk of citrus-wood. Then all present, both priesthood and laity, began zealously stowing aboard winnowing-fans heaped with aromatics and other votive offerings and poured an abundant stream of milk into the sea as a libation.
When the ship was loaded with generous gifts and prayers for good fortune, they cut the anchor cables and she slipped across the bay with a serene breeze behind her that seemed to have sprung up for her sake alone. When she stood so far out to sea that we could no longer keep her in view, the priests took up the sacred emblems again and started happily back towards the temple, in the same orderly procession as before.
On our arrival the High Priest and the priests who carried the oracular emblems were admitted into the Goddess’s sanctuary with other initiates and restored them to their proper places. Then one of them, known as the Doctor of Divinity, presided at the gate of the sanctuary over a meeting of the Shrine-bearers, as the highest order of the priests of Isis are called. He went up into a high pulpit with a book and read out a Latin blessing upon “our liege lord, the Emperor, and upon the Senate, and upon the Order of Knights, and upon the Commons of Rome, and upon all sailors and all ships who owe obedience to the aforesaid powers.”
Then he uttered the traditional Greek formula, “Ploeaphesia”, meaning that vessels were now permitted to sail, to which the people responded with a great cheer and dispersed happily to their homes, taking all kinds of decorations with them; such as olive boughs, scent shrubs and garlands of flowers, but first kissing the feet of a silver statue of the Goddess that stood on the temple steps.
From: The Golden Ass
In ancient Egypt, the saving of mankind was commemorated every year on the feast day of Hathor/Sekhmet (Jan 7). Everyone drank beer stained with pomegranate juice and worshiped
“the Mistress and lady of the tomb,
destroyer of rebellion,
mighty one of enchantments“
A statue of Sekhmet was dressed in red facing west, while Bast was dressed in green and faced east. Bast was sometimes considered to be Sekhmet´s counterpart (or twin depending on the legend), and in the festival of Hathor they embodied the duality central to Egyptian mythology. Sekhmet represented Upper Egypt while Bast represented Lower Egypt.
The dates for this feast day vary widely. In the book, Festivals of Light, August 7 is given as the Inebriety of Hathor, with a similar description of the festivities.
The Egyptians called it, Night of a Teardrop. On this night, (June 16) when the moon rose high in it’s sky, Isis shed one blessed and mournful tear for her beloved, Osiris. That precious tear was then collected into the palm of the Goddess of the River Nile, Satis, in which she placed it within’, causing the Nile to bring forth it’s annual flood. Even in Isis’ pain, something divine came forth.
The Nile River has always been the backbone of Egypt. The mighty river flows for some 4,000 miles from the mountains of Equatorial Africa (Blue Nile) and Lake Victoria (White Nile) before it empties into the Mediterranean Sea. Were it not for the Nile River, Egyptian civilization could not have developed, as it is the only significant source of water in this desert region. It would flood each year, bringing in silt-laden waters; when the waters receded the silt would stay behind, fertilizing the land,the silt would be helpful for growing crops.
If a flood was too large it would wash over mud dykes protecting a village. A small flood or no flood at all would mean famine. A flood must be of just the right intensity for a good season.
The Ancient Egyptians used an object called a nilometer to record how high the Nile was during the year. The nilometer was a staircase that proceeded down into the Nile with marks on it so the Egyptians knew how far the river rose. Nilometers were placed at various points along the Nile in order to monitor the changes in the water level. It was recorded that at the start of the flooding the clear waters would turn a turbid red.
As the agriculture of Egypt revolved around the Nile, so did the social life of the ancient Egyptians. During inundation when there was less to do, people had more time for recreational activities, they played games, held sporting tournaments and regularly feasted.
When the River Nile receded the appearance of the land had radically changed and there was a great rush to restore boundaries. There were many disputes as markers had moved, banks had collapsed, and distinguishable features had disappeared.
~Compiled from various sources
Sham el-Nisim is an Egyptian national holiday marking the beginning of spring. It always falls on Easter Monday, the day after the Eastern Christian Easter (following the custom of the largest Christian denomination in the country, the Coptic Orthodox Church).
Despite the Christian-related date, the holiday is celebrated by Egyptians of all religions, so it is considered a national festival, rather than a religious one. The main features of the festival are:
- People spend all day out picnicking in any space of green, public gardens, on the Nile, or at the zoo.
Traditional food eaten on this day consists mainly of fesikh (a fermented, salted and dried grey mullet), lettuce, scallions or green onions, tirmis, and colored boiled eggs.
The name of the holiday is derived from the Egyptian name of the Harvest Season, known as Shemu, which means a day of creation. According to annals written by Plutarch during the 1st century AD, the Ancient Egyptians used to offer salted fish, lettuce, and onions to their deities on this day.
After the Christianization of Egypt, the festival became associated with the other Christian spring festival, Easter. Over time, Shemu morphed into its current form and its current date, and by the time of the Islamic conquest of Egypt, the holiday was settled on Easter Monday. The Islamic calendar being lunar and thus unfixed relative to the solar year, the date of Sham el-Nessim remained on the Christian-linked date.
As Egypt became Arabized, the term Shemu found a rough phono-semantic match in Sham el-Nessim, or “Smelling/Taking In of the Zephyrs,” which fairly accurately represents the way in which Egyptians celebrate the holiday.
In his book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Edward William Lane wrote in 1834:
A custom termed ‘Shemm en-Nessem’ (or the Smelling of the Zephyr) is observed on the first day of the Khamaseen. Early in the morning of this day, many persons, especially women, break an onion, and smell it; and in the course of the forenoon many of the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, or go in boats, generally northward, to take the air, or, as they term it, smell the air, which on that day they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect. The greater number dine in the country or on the river. This year they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the neseem; but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to ‘smell’ it.