Ancient Egyptian festivals

Ancient Egypt's Inundation season (called Akhet in the ancient Egyptian language) took place over a four-month period from mid-July to mid-November. It related to the annual flooding of the Nile that was essential for a good harvest, and was hugely significant in Egyptian religious practice.

The New Year festival took place at the beginning of the season, during the month of Thoth. Starting around the 19 July and lasting 14 days, this popular event was celebrated across all Egypt to welcome the arrival of the Nile flood and the fertility it brought. Gifts were offered during this festival, such as elegant vases known as New Year's flasks. Their short neck ends in a mouth in the shape of a papyrus umbel (that's the grassy bit at the top of a papyrus plant and the upper part of their body is decorated with a broad, elaborate collar. They often bear a hieroglyphic inscription wishing an excellent year. The standard formula is: 'May [name of one or several deities] inaugurate(s) a perfect year for its lord', with 'lord' referring to the owner of the flask. 

The New Year festival was also related to the rebirth of the god Osiris as well as to the renewal and confirmation of royal power. The beginning of this season also coincided with the heliacal rise of Sirius – the first time each year that the star becomes visible in the sky just before dawn. The star was known as Sothis to the ancient Egyptians, and they associated it with the goddess Isis, wife of Osiris. The Egyptians believed the Nile to be the efflux (humours of the body) of Osiris, and the earth was fertilised by the flood as Isis was by her husband. The Nile's annual life-bringing flood was therefore seen as the union of Osiris and Isis, when they conceived their son Horus.

Mass-produced fertility figurines seem to have played an important role in the festivals of the Inundation season. They were deeply connected with the sacred Osirian family. Many representations of Egyptian child gods with oversized phalluses (penises) have been discovered in the lost underwater city of Thonis-Heracleion. This example shows a plump baby with shaved head and side-lock, holding a drum or tambour above his exaggerated phallus, which emphasised his creative and fertile power. The figure is a representation of a child god, probably Horus-the-child (Harpokrates), the son of Osiris and Isis. Festivals celebrating the Nile Inundation were colourful events involving music, represented here by the drum held by Horus. Other known examples show Horus carrying wine amphorae or libation bowls, playing a harp or flute, or holding a frog (another symbol of the Nile Inundation and its fertility).

As well as the very common phallic Horus-the-child figures female fertility figurines were also popular in the Nile Delta. Numerous examples were made at the cosmopolitan harbour town of Naukratis, where a workshop produced them for the local Egyptian population. This particular one represents the goddess Isis-Bubastis wearing a festival dress. She is holding up the front of her tunic to show her pubic area. This practice was recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus, who experienced the river festival of Bubastis (an important city of the eastern Delta) when he visited Egypt around 450 BC:

'They sail, men and women together, and many of each in every river barge. Some women have clappers and rattle them, some men play pipes throughout the journey, while the other women and men sing and clap their hands. And when, as they sail, they pass any city […] some of the women […] jeeringly shout at the women in that city, some dance, and some stand up and pull up their clothes.'

The figure here is still brightly painted. Isis' large headdress with wreaths and garlands over her long 'Isis-locks' give some impression of the colour and vibrancy of these important Egyptian festivals.

You can find out more about Egyptian Festivals and the Nile Inundation in the BP exhibition Sunken cities: Egypt's lost worlds (19 May – 27 November 2016).

New Year's flask. From Thebes (modern Luxor), 26th Dynasty (664–525 BC).

Limestone phallic figure of Horus-the-child (Harpokrates) holding a drum. From Thonis-Heracleion, 4th–2nd century BC. Maritime Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

Terracotta figure of Isis-Bubastis. From Naukratis, c. 300–100 BC.