The HEB -SED Festival – A royal Jubilee

This week here in the UK we are celebrating the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II and so it has got me thinking about what a jubilee celebration for a pharaoh would look like. Luckily there is such a celebration recorded from ancient Egypt the Heb-Sed festival or more simply the Sed festival.

Figure 1: An ebony oil label showing the Sed festival of King Den. In the top right-hand corner, you can see the king running between two boundary markers. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA32650

Early Origins

Figure 2: In this line drawing Pharaoh Djoser is seen running between two boundary markers wearing a kilt and animal tail. Kemp, B., 2007. Ancient Egypt Anatomy of a Civilisation. 2nd ed. London: Routledge. Page 106

The Sed festival has its origins early in ancient Egyptian history. An ebony label from the tomb of King Den shows the elements of the ceremony. But I will go into that a little later on. From the fourth dynasty, the importance of the Sed festival is felt. The festival itself was a ritual to renew and regenerate the king and is celebrated only after 30 years of their reign had passed and then repeated every three years later[1].  The Sed festival is believed to get its name from the god Sed. Sed is an ancient jackal-like god who may have been an independent deity or related to another jackal-headed god Wepwawwet [2]. Sed is closely related early on to kingship ideology and the Sed festival that he gives his name to. Sed is also associated with the goddess Maat in certain ways and may have been seen as a champion of justice similar to Maat[3].

Surviving inscriptions and monuments associated with the festival seem to suggest that many kings were able to reach this jubilee even when the reigns of these kings are recorded as much shorter than 30 years…. curious[4]. There are two potential explanations for this. The first was that many kings did celebrate the send festivals well before the requisite 30 years had elapsed and the second was that these kings ordered the depiction of the ritual in anticipation of the event happening later into their reign[5].

The ceremony itself

Figure 3: A reconstruction of the southern part of the Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara with its eternal sed festival court Kemp, B., 2007. Ancient Egypt Anatomy of a Civilisation. 2nd ed. London: Routledge. Page 104

There appears to have been two main elements of the ceremony. First, the king would present offerings to a series of gods and then was crowned, with the white crown of Upper Egypt and then with the red crown of Lower Egypt[6]. The king is often shown wearing distinctive robes on a special dais and often artistically represented back-to-back illuding to Upper and Lower Egypt[7]. It appears then that, as of the 3rd Dynasty, the king then changed into a short kilt with an animal’s tail attached to his back. Now changed he then ran a ritual course four times and was then carried away in a great procession to visit the chapels of the gods of Upper and Lower Egypt[8]. An early example of the festival took place in the reign of King Den (1ST Dynasty). We know this from an ebony oil label found in his tomb at Abydos (Figure 1). On the front of this label is an incised inscription, vertically on the left side and in four horizontal registers on the right. These four registers are surrounded by a large ‘rnpt’ hieroglyph (rnpt meaning year) and so show that the text records the events of a particular year. The top register bears a scene of the Sed festival, showing the king wearing the double crown, running as part of the ritual and seated on a throne in a booth[9].  

The details of the festival are then further filled in by the architecture at the Step Pyramid of Djoser. At Saqqara, it appears that the mortuary complex has a sed festival enclosure attached to it in order to magically function for eternity.  In the adjoining courtyard south of the pyramid traces were found of boundary marks like those we see in reliefs and the label of Den[10] (Figure 2). Alongside this area, a separate complex runs. This arena runs alongside the east side of the main enclosure and consists of a series of mostly solid, dummy buildings arranged along both sides of the court[11](Figure 3 and Figure 4). These dummy buildings have a “distinctive appearance these are; a series of small rectangular structures, with exterior detailing creating in solid full-scale representations of temporary shrines which were in life constructed of timber and matting.”[12] These dummy buildings also have said to be solid reconstructions of early temple buildings.

Figure 4: The dummy shrines at the Saqqara Pyramid complex of King Djoser https://www.britannica.com/topic/Heb-Sed

A Theban update

Figure 5: Hatshepsut runs alongside the Apis bull as shown at the Red Chapel at Karnak http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/sedfestival.htm

As I said above the festival changed over time in its composition and when /how it was celebrated. But nonetheless continued to be practised throughout pharaonic Egpyt. 

At Karnak there are blocks from the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut as king, running with the Apis bull between the markers. The Apis Bull is a representation of the god Apis who is usually shown as a walking bull. As chief of the bull deities to the ancient Egyptians Apis was closely linked to monarchical ideology where the physical power of the bull was stressed[13]. So, the king’s physical might was equated with that of the god when, like Hatshepsut, kings were shown running alongside Apis during their Sed festival (Figure 5). Then on the inner walls of the hypostyle hall at Karnak, there are also scenes depicting Ramesses II in one of his Jubilees, and the ceremony is also shown in the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III at Thebes (Malkata) [14]. However, Amenhotep III seems to have somewhat altered the ritual and its usual setting giving it a Theban update. He celebrated three Sed festivals (years 30, 34 and 37) and descriptions of the ceremonies say that they took place on the great artificial lake he built at Malkata. Amenhotep III built a huge lake to the east of his palace at Malkata. High officials would row the royal barge and tow the boat of Sokar like the day barque and night barque of the sun-god, miming his death at sunset when he traversed the womb of the sky-goddesses Nut to rebirth at dawn[15].  The celebration of the Heb-Sed festival continued throughout pharaonic Egypt. Although elements of it changed and developed over time it was a mainstay of kingly celebrations (Figure 6).

I hope you have enjoyed learning all about the jubilee celebrations of the Pharaohs and that you have enjoyed the celebrations over the weekend if you are celebrating.

The menat or counterpoise of celebrating the Heb-Sed, of Psammetichus I (664–610 BC 26th Dynasty. Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités égyptiennes, E 22634 – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl010006495

References


[1] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 287

[2] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 190

[3] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 191

[4] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 287

[5] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 287

[6] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Heb-Sed

[7] Kemp, B., 2007. Ancient Egypt Anatomy of a Civilisation. 2nd ed. London: Routledge. Page 107

[8] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Heb-Sed

[9] https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA32650

[10] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 287

[11] Kemp, B., 2007. Ancient Egypt Anatomy of a Civilisation. 2nd ed. London: Routledge. Page 107

[12] Kemp, B., 2007. Ancient Egypt Anatomy of a Civilisation. 2nd ed. London: Routledge. Page 107

[13] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 170

[14] http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/sedfestival.htm

[15]  Aldred, C., 1991. Akhenaten, King of Egypt. London: Thames and Hudson. Page 163

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