What day is it? The Calendar in Ancient Egpyt

As promised in my last post I will kick off the second month of 2022 by taking a look at the taking ancient Egyptian calendar. Now had I been a little less busy at work I would have chosen this as my first topic back in the new year but sometimes it is a bit of a juggling act.

Figure 1: The Nilometer at Elephantine https://www.euratlas.net/PHA/Atlas/egypt_nile/aswan_nilometer.html

The Ancient Egyptian calendar in its earliest form was based on the lunar observations combined with eh annual inundation of the Nile. The annual inundation is measured by a device called a Nilometer. A Nilometer is a device usually made of a series of steps against which the height of the inundation would be measured [1]. Surviving examples of Niulometers are associated with the temples at Philae Edfu Esna and Kom Ombo and Dendera but the most well-known example comes from the island of Elephantine at Aswan. The Elephantine example was rebuilt during the Roman period and the markings are still visible at the site date from this later period[2]. Figure 1  

A fairly simple approach

The ancient Egyptians divided the year into three seasons with the year starting around mid-July (19th July following the Julien calendar), rather than our calendar in January, when the annual four-month inundation of the Nile started[3]. The year 12 months and three seasons; the first being akeht the inundation itself followed by Peret spring and then finally Shemu harvest. Each season was then further divided into four months of thirty days each consisting of 3 ten-day weeks. Apparently, according to a book, I was reading whilst researching calendars this system was briefly revived in France during the time of the Revolution. Learning how to read dates was an early exercise during my studies at university so oddly this section delving into reading the days months and seasons of the year is a little nostalgic. Months did have hieroglyphics names but they are not commonly used instead a three-part numerical system for indicating months and days was used[4]. So, let’s break this system down;

Figure 2: Jbd the heirogplyph for month is represented by a
Figure 3: The heiroglphyic writing of Akhet the inundation  Gardiner, A. (1927) Egyptian Grammar Being An Introduction To The Study of Hieroglyphs, Oxford: Griffith Institute Page 480
Figure 4: sw the heiroglphy for day is represented by a
  • Starting out would be the sign ‘jbd’ meaning ‘month’ would then be followed by a number from 1- 30. Figure 2
  • Then the name of the season would be added for the example in Figure 3 let’s use Akhet the inundation
  • Then finally the sign ‘sw’ meaning day would be added ending a with a number of strokes to determine the day.  Figure 4 

Using that as a guide this date taken from The Tale of Sinhue can be read as 3 Axt 7 meaning the 3rd month of the Inundation Akhet day 7. Figure 5  

The dividing of the day and night into twelve hours each appears to have been endorsed by the Egyptians early probably to reflect the 12 months of the year. The idea of an hour being 60 minutes as we know it was introduced by the Babylonians the Egyptians considered the length of an hour more flexible[5]. The smallest unit of time for the ancient Egyptians was referred to as ‘at’ which translates as moment and again has no really definite length.  

Figure 5: Taken from Berlin 10499 papyrus the Tale of Sinuhe. It is one of the most well preserved copies of the story. This section reads Year 3 the thrid month of Akhet day 7. Akhet is ddashed out with blue in this as in the wirttin the script is obscured but can be deciphered. http://carrington-arts.com/JJSinuhe/Sinuhe.pdf

Wait a second aren’t we missing a few?

The start of the year for the Egyptians, around 19th July, coincided with the date of the heliacal rising of the dog star Sirius and was considered to linchpin event for traditional Egyptian chronology (Figure 6). As a brief note, the heliacal rising of a star is the first day when this star becomes visible again in the east in the light of dawn just before sunrise[6]. If you are with me the system so far seems to make sense but there is a slight problem, we are missing a few days. The system used by the ancient Egyptians only gives a total of 360 days in a year. To remedy this the ancient Egyptians added an extra five ‘epagomenal days’ although this did not entirely fix the issue. The adding of these days could not provide permeant synchronisation between the seasons, the months and the agricultural activities[7]. These five days were added to the end of the twelfth month so that the seasons returned to their fixed periods and further added a quarter day which gave every four years a length of 366 days[8]. With the addition of these days, it meant that the civil year and genuine seasonal year were synchronized once every 1460 years although that doesn’t seem to have been seen as an issue until the Ptolemaic period when the idea of a leap year was introduced[9].

Figure 6: The ancient Egyptians personifeid the dog star as the goddess Sothis. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA11143

These days also held significance in Egyptian mythology as these days in turn represented the birthdays of Osiris, Seth, Isis, Horus and Nephthys by the goddesses Nut. There is of course an accompanying myth as to why these deities came to be born on these five extra days. The tale goes that when Nut became pregnant by the god Geb at the beginning of the world, Ra /Atum was so angry he decreed she would not give birth on any day of the year[10]. Devastated by this the goddess went to Thoth who came up with an ingenious plan.  Thoth gambled with Iah, the moon god, for five days’ worth of moonlight. He won the gamble and divided Iah’s moonlight into five days of sunlight which were not part of the year as decreed by Ra. So, Thoth essential created a very nifty loophole allowing Nut was to give birth to each of her children the gods Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys, and Horus on each of the days respectively. Sometimes referred to as ‘the five days over the year’ the birth dates are as follows; Day 1 Osiris, Day 2 Horus, Day 3 Seth, Day 4 Isis and then on Day 5 Nephthys[11].  

Figure 7: A portion of a calendar from Kom Ombo Temple. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kom_Ombo_Temple_Calendar_2.JPG

Alongside these deities’ birthdays, priests often used a separate religious calendar that consisted of festivals and ceremonies such as the Opet festival which occurred in the 2nd month of Akhet. The priests often calculated the dates of these according to the lunar month of about 29.5 days rather than according to the civil calendar since it was essential that many of them should coincide with particular phases of the agricultural or astronomical cycle[12] (Figure 7). Although it may seem complicated to use to tracks all of this information using two separate calendars that work alongside each other and can shift from time to time the days and events it would seem that for the ancient Egyptians on the whole that didn’t matter. It may be easier to think of it the way of who used these calendars and who needed to measure the passing of time. The dating system of months and days and seasons is part of what Egyptologists call the civil calendar of ancient Egypt and is primarily used in official texts and so often implemented by scribes in charge of record-keeping so they knew what seasons they were in[13]. Whilst most people kept track of the year by using the lunar calendar.  

So, I hope you have enjoyed exploring the ancient Egyptian calendar as we think of what we will do with the new year. If we followed the ancient Egyptian calendar maybe we would have a little more time to straighten out those new year’s resolutions that we have definitely stuck to so far in 2022.

References


[1] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 226

[2] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 226

[3] Allen, J., 2015. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Page 107

[4] Allen, J., 2015. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Page 107

[5] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 66

[6] https://m.espacepourlavie.ca/en/monthly-sky/heliacal-rising-sirius#:~:text=The%20heliacal%20rising%20of%20a%20star%20is%20the%20first%20day,annual%20flooding%20of%20the%20Nile.

[7] David, A., 2015. A year in the life of ancient Egypt. Barnsley: Pen and Sword. Page 12

[8] David, A., 2015. A year in the life of ancient Egypt. Barnsley: Pen and Sword. Page 13

[9] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 66

[10] https://www.worldhistory.org/Thoth/

[11] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/ideology/festivaldates.html

[12] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 66

[13] Allen, J., 2015. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Page 108

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