Festivals in Ancient Egypt – The Beautiful Festival of the Valley

Figure 1: A map of the processional ways in the New Kingdom. Kemp, B., 1991. Ancient Egypt Anatomy of A Civilisation. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, p.266.

After taking a break for the holidays. I am now back with the second half of my two-part blog focussing on festivals in Ancient Egypt. In the first part of this blog, I focussed on the Opet festival but this time it’s the turn of another, the Beautiful Festival of the Valley.

Figure 2: An example of an unusually large well preserved painted ancestral bust. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/545914

Like the Opet festival, this festival took place annually and involved the procession of the Theban Triad (Amun, Mut and their son Khonsu) from Karnak to Dier el Bhari. Deir el-Bhari is located almost exactly opposite Karnak temple on the West Bank at Luxor, crossing the Nile the procession journeyed from the realm of the living to that of the dead (Figure 1). Alongside the cult images of the gods the parade consisted of priests, dancers and musicians a more personal parade would also take place. This more personal parade was formed by family groups taking images of their deceased relatives to their tombs. During the Ramesside period busts of ancestors could be set into niches in the walls of houses, examples have been found at the Workmen’s village of Deir el-Medina or they could be placed in the cemeteries[1](Figure 2). 

Figure 3: Flat circular basketry dish of woven palm leaf, with two loaves of unleavened bread. Excavated from Thebes.
https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA5341

The festival itself alongside this procession to honour Amun was a time for the souls of the deceased to be recognized. Allowing the living and dead to come together. Festival-goers would bring offerings for the dead including flowers, bread, wine and roasted meats (Figure 3). Part of the celebrations took this a step further. Rather than simply leaving offerings people visiting tombs commemorated the dead by enjoying meals there[2]. To some modern minds, the idea of having a meal in a cemetery may not feel like something you would want to do. But, there are celebrations around the world that share some features of ‘The Beautiful Festival of the Valley’ including QingMing in China and  Día de Los Muertos in Mexico. Furthermore, in antiquity, these cemeteries were not the bare sandy places that we see today. On the contrary, they were pleasant spots with brightly painted tombs and shady gardens[3] (Figure 4). 

Visiting the tombs empathized the continuation of a family and provided the opportunity for visitors to give news to the dead, ask for advice or even plead with the dead to intervene in some way. In my post about ghosts, we saw that these spirits were believed to have a hand in misfortune but they could also be helpful. 

The Tomb Chapel Paintings of Maya (TT338) which where removed and transported to Turin by Fabrizio Lucarini in 1906. Authors own photo.

However, before advice could be given and news received the tombs corporeal visitors had to have a good old party. This involved eating heartily and drinking a lot of wine, the wine, in this case, being a crucial part of the process. The Egyptians believed that they must enter an altered state to commune with their departed loved ones, they used the medium of alcohol in this example [4]. This is not the only festival where alcohol was used to lull people into this altered state to commune. 

The Tekh Festival, or as it is also referred to ‘The Feast of Drunkenness’ marked the time that humanity was saved from destruction at the hands of the goddess Skehkmet with the use of beer and some quick thinking. The central part of this festival can be seen on the ‘Porch of Drunkenness’ in the Temple of Mut at Karnak. It seems that in the Hall of Drunkenness, worshippers got drunk, slept, and then were woken by drummers to commune with the goddess Mut. Participants would lessen their inhibitions and preconceptions through alcohol and experience the goddess intimately upon waking to the sacred drums[5]. I don’t know if that is the best way to wake up after you have had a lot to drink? (Figure 5)   

Figure 5: A noble women appear to have over indulged and is tended by a servant.
Lutz, H., (1922), Viticulture And Brewing In The Ancient Orient. Bedford: Applewood Books, p.p99.

Back to the Beautiful Festival of the Valley. With the meal consumed the revelry and spiritual connections then continued for hours to come- I assume into the small hours. The cult images of Amun and deceased relatives would then at some point be returned to their holding places until the next festival would occur.

Festivals in Ancient Egypt is a large and interesting topic. Both with regards to the significance they held on a personal, country-wide and cosmological point for Ancient Egyptians. There are hundreds of them to explore and delve into but I hope you have enjoyed this quick dive into two significant dates in the Egyptian calendar.    

References

[1]  https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/545914 Accessed 07.01.2021

[2]  Baines. J, (1991). ’Society Morality and Religious Practice’ in Religion In Ancient Egypt Gods, Myths, And Personal Practice. Shafer, B. ed., Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, pp.123-199, Page147/148.

[3] Ikram, S., (2003). Death and Burial In Ancient Egypt. London: Pearson Education, p.199.

[4] http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/festival.htm Accessed 05.01.2021

[5] http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/festival.htm Accessed 05.01.2021

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