Festivals in Ancient Egypt – The Opet Festival

As our thoughts turn to winter festivities it has got me thinking about festivals in ancient Egyptian. The ancient Egyptians had a number of festivals across the year and in general centred around the ritual procession of a deity’s statue from one temple to another. These festivals performed both an opportunity for commoners to come in closer contact with the gods and for the gods to perform important cosmological acts. In this and my next blog I am going to focus on two festivals; The Opet Festival and The Beautiful Festival of the Valley.   

The Opet Festival

Figure 1 – Map of Karnak SHAW, I., & NICHOLSON, P. T. (2008). The British Museum dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London, British Museum Press. Page 165

The Opet Festival took place annually in the second month of the season of Akhet and lasted between 2-4 weeks.  The full name of this Opet festival is heb nefer en Ipet, which can be translated as the ‘beautiful feast of Opet’ with the word Opet or Ipet referring to the inner sanctuary of the Temple of Luxor that the festival focusses on[1].

Like many festivals it centred around the procession of the god Amun and his divine family from his temple at Karnak to the ‘southern chapel’ at Luxor. During the New Kingdom this festival became one of the most important religious events in the calendar. As a result, a large portion of the evidence for this festival dates to this time period.

 The temple of Karnak is a vast complex of temples and demonstrates the significance of the area[2]. The main temple complex is dedicated to Amun whilst the northern temple precinct is dedicated to his son Montu and the Southern precinct to his wife Mut. (Figure 1).  During this festival the inundation is celebrated as well as the visiting of Amun to his wife Mut, producing the current pharaoh who is bestowed with Amun’s powers. Beyond this, the festival also secured the regeneration of Amun of Luxor and the rebirth of Amun-Re and the recreation of the cosmos[3].  

The procession of the festival of Opet can be seen on the central colonnade of the Luxor temple and consisted of the sacred boats of Amun (known as barques) being carried by priests, followed by his wife and son along an avenue of sphinxes, stopping way stations* along its route (Figure 2). A way station gave the opportunity for the god to rest and receive further offerings from festival participants. One of these way stations / chapels was built by the female pharaoh Hatshepshut and is referred to as the ‘Red Chapel’. Although dismantled by her successor Thutmoses III some 300 of its blocks were discovered still lying within the infill of the 3rd Pylon of Amenhotep III and restored the “Centre of French-Egyptian Studies of the Temples of Karnak” (CFEETK). It is called the Red Chapel as it is built using predominantly red quartzite, while the foundations, door frames and cornice are in black diorite[4]. Within the walls of this way station is believed to be the first depiction of the Opet festival, that is not to say that it did not happen before this time but it was certainly elaborated during this time[5]. (Figure 3)  

Figure 2 Ostracon with procession, showing the barque of Amun being carried by priests, 19th dynasty (1192-1186); Neues Museum Berlin, Germany; ÄM 21434. Authors own photo

The outbound journey of the Theban triad is show on the western wall of the central colonnade with the sequence of events running north to south and their return procession is being shown on the eastern wall from south to north[6](Figure 4). The festival scenes shown can be broken down into 10 board scenes, the first five on the western walls and the remaining on the eastern wall. These first 5 scenes consist of the following; the king offering to the barques of Amun, Mut and Khonsu at Karnak, the king accompanying the barques** to the banks of the Nile, the voyage upstream to Luxor, the barques arriving at the Luxor façade and finally offerings to the barques in their Luxor sanctuaries[7].  The eastern wall (scenes 6-10) then echoes this procession of offerings but in reverse.   

The general population counted this festival as one of the opportunities they had to get closer to the gods, although still not too close. Military personnel, including soldiers and sailors, make up a large number of the festival participants depicted on the colonnade hall scenes[8]. The general population could watch from the riverbanks and the outer forecourt of the temple. This festival is a great and grand display, playing an important role in the kingship of the Pharaoh and the cosmological certainty of Egypt – with those stakes you can see why it became the focus of the festival calendar for the ancient Egyptians. In next week’s blog I will look at a different type of festival, one that by comparison is a lot more personal and involves having dinner in a tomb.

Figure 4 – The Barques of Mut and Khonsu and the Pharaoh being carried from Karnak to the Nile. I recommend taking a look at the original source material to get a really clear look of all the details. The Epigraphic Survey, (1994) ‘Reliefs and Inscriptions at Luxor Temple, Volume 1: The Festival Procession of Opet in the Colonnade Hall with translations of texts, commentary, and glossary’, OIP Vol 112, Chicago: Oriental Institute Publications, Plate Episode 2 Detail of the Western Wall Northern section.

References

[1] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/magazine/2019/05-06/ancient-egypt-royal-feast/ Accessed 10/12.2020

[2] Oakes, L., (2008) The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of The Pyramids, Temples and Tombs of Ancient Egypt, London: Southwater, Page 144

[3] http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/opetfestival1.htm Accessed 10/12/2020

[4] https://www.osirisnet.net/monument/chaproug/e_redchap_1.htm Accessed 10.12.2020

[5] http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/opetfestival1.htm   Accessed 10.12.2020

[6] The Epigraphic Survey, (1994) ‘Reliefs and Inscriptions at Luxor Temple, Volume 1: The Festival Procession of Opet in the Colonnade Hall with translations of texts, commentary, and glossary’, OIP Vol 112, Chicago: Oriental Institute Publications, page XVIII

[7] The Epigraphic Survey, (1994) ‘Reliefs and Inscriptions at Luxor Temple, Volume 1: The Festival Procession of Opet in the Colonnade Hall with translations of texts, commentary, and glossary’, OIP Vol 112, Chicago: Oriental Institute Publications, Page XVIII

[8] Darnell, John Coleman, 2010, Opet Festival. In Jacco Dieleman, Willeke Wendrich (eds.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles.http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz0025n765, Page 9

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