Celebrating the Seasons: the Ancient Egyptian Calendar

As 2017 comes to an end, and Christmas and New Years are just around the corner, many of us are decorating our homes for the holiday season, planning outings with friends or family, and preparing gifts for loved ones. Holidays are a joyful respite from everyday life, and we use them to mark the changing seasons, remember important events, celebrate our religious beliefs, or even commemorate our ancestors and dearly departed. In the spirit of the holidays, the Nile Scribes have teamed up with The Dead Speak Online to bring you a double feature on the celebration of holidays, or festivals, in ancient Egypt and their place in the Egyptian calendar.

How did the ancient Egyptians organise their time?

The ancient Egyptians had several calendrical systems in place to mark the passing of time: (1) a lunar calendar, (2) a civil calendar, and possibly (3) a solar calendar. Like us, the Egyptian civil calendar divided the solar year (renpet) into twelve months, but each month (abed) consisted of a standard thirty days (heru), equaling 360 days in a year. Each of the twelve months contained three weeks – the workweek was nine days long, followed by one day of rest. Also like us, they divided their days into twenty-four hours (wenut) with a standardised twelve hours for daylight, and twelve to mark the passing of night.

Astronomical ceiling in the tomb of Ramesses VI showing the hours of the day (1)
Astronomical ceiling in the tomb of Ramesses VI showing the hours of the day (1)

Originally, the Egyptians did not have names for each of their months as we do (we derive our names from the Julian and Roman calendar systems), but organised the twelve months into three seasons of four months each (more on that below). As a result, they called the months by their order in the season: first month of the season, second month of the season, and so on. In the Middle and New Kingdoms, some month-specific names began to be used, probably linking the months to festivals celebrated during them – such as the month of Phaophi, which was named after the annual Opet festival (pa-opet) in Thebes. Elements of this practice can already be seen in some Twelfth Dynasty documents belonging to Heqanakht, a Theban official.

Heqanakht papyrus containing reference to the month of Shef-bedet (2)
Heqanakht’s papyrus containing reference to the month of Shef-bedet (2)

The Egyptians did not use consecutively running years as we do, but measured years by the current Egyptian king. After the death of a king, the yearly count, or regnal years, would be restarted at year 1 to mark the succeeding king’s reign. When Egyptians wrote official dates on documents, the system incorporated the regnal year of the current king, the month and season, and the day of the month, for example: regnal year 8, third month of Peret, day 15.

Inundation (Akhet – ʒḫt) Growing (Peret – prt) Harvest (Shemu – šmw)
1. Thoth/Djehuti
2. Phaophi
3. Athyr
4. Choiak
5. Tybi
6. Mechir
7. Phamenoth
8. Pharmuthi
9. Pachons
10. Payni
11. Epiphi
12. Mesore

The Egyptian names for the months of the year (after Parker, 1950)

The Lunar Calendar

At the heart of the Egyptian calendar year seems to have been the rising waters of the Nile as part of the annually-occurring inundation. Over time, they must have observed the changing phases of the moon, each cycle of which numbers 29 ½ days. Eventually, Egyptians also realised that the Sirius star (Sopdet) would rise more or less in the same time every year (which for between 3,000-2,500 BC was in late June). With the inundation usually happening shortly thereafter, for the Egyptians this was to be the new year and it was celebrated with a festival. As we will discuss in more detail below, dates within this system would not always match up to occur at the same time every year and so the year would shift by a small amount.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFEs8CA15Ug&w=560&h=315]

We mentioned earlier already that the Egyptians arranged the 12 months of the year into three seasons of four months each. With the rise of the Sirius star and the increasing waters, the Inundation season would make up the first month, which was called Akhet (ʒḫt). This is the time when the melting waters in the Ethiopian highlands would cause the levels of the Nile to rise flooding its banks on either side. For the Egyptians, they sought the source of the Nile and inundation in a cave in the area around Aswan and in turn personified this power of nature as Hapy, the fertile god of inundation. In the Great Hymn of the Inundation, a text surviving from the Middle Kingdom, the poet calls upon the power of Hapy to bring forth the inundation over Egypt – we read:

“Hail to your countenance, Hapy,
Who comes forth from the ground, who returns to save the Black Land; […]
To whom his divine entourage gives constant praise,
Who waters the countryside created by Reʾ
In order to preserve every kind of small creature.” (3)

tomb of petosiris harvest
Harvest scene from the Ptolemaic tomb of Petosiris (4)

The inundation lasted about four moons, or four months, from start to finish and would be followed by the Growing season, which the Egyptians termed Peret (prt). It is during this time that they would plow their fields and plant the crops to be harvested the following season. After the passing of another four months, the crops were beginning to be ready for the Harvest – a season the Egyptians called Shemu (šmw). At the beginning of the ninth month (or first month of Shemu), an important festival celebrated the collection of grains – an aspect oft-associated with the goddess Renenutet. Depicted with the head of a cobra in Egyptian art, she was a goddess of fertility and in charge of the harvest. “Lady of the Granary” or “Lady of Arable Land(s)” are a few of her titles and emphasise her connection to the harvest, grain, and food.

Figure of Renenutet with the head of a snake suckling a child (5)
Figure of Renenutet suckling a child (5)

The Civil Calendar

Now, with the somewhat imprecision of the lunar calendar, Egyptians improved their understanding of the astronomical cycles and must have soon learned that the heliacal rising of Sirius would happen once every 365 days. This led the Egyptians to create a second calendar, which we call the civil or administrative calendar. While this calendar did not follow the phases of the moon or other astronomical events, it was exact and precise, and perfectly suited to organising their perception of time. They ordered the administrative calendar to include 12 months, each of 30 days, which equaled 360 days. Because an astronomical year is 365.25 days long, each Egyptian year also included five epagomenal days (from Greek Epagómenos) to account for this irregularity.

Eighteenth Dynasty calendar on verso of Papyrus Ebers (7)
Eighteenth Dynasty calendar on verso of Papyrus Ebers (7)

These epagomenal days were observed outside the regular calendar months, and compensated for the missing five days throughout the months. These “five days upon the year,” which were always observed after the last day of the fourth month (Mesore) of Shemu, were each associated with an Egyptian deity: Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis, and Nephthys. In many cultures, intercalary days are celebrated in association with the divine, such as the intercalary Festival of Ayyám-i-Há of the Bahá’í Faith. In Egypt, these days anticipated the reappearance of the dog star Sothis (called Sopdet by the Egyptians) after its 70 day absence in the sky. Ideally, its reappearance would coincide with the first day of the new year, when the Nile inundation was at its highest, but due to the “wandering year,” this only occurred around every 1460 years. The heliacal rising of Sopdet could still be celebrated symbolically when it did not coincide with the new year, however.

Astronomical ceiling from the tomb of Senenmut with the personified Sopdet at center (6)
Astronomical ceiling from the tomb of Senenmut with personified Sopdet at center (6)

The Egyptians did not have a system for compensating each year’s additional missing quarter-day (the Gregorian calendar accounts for these days through the “leap year” system of adding one intercalary day every four years). Losing a quarter-day from the calendar each year resulted in the civil and solar calendars becoming more out of sync every year, a process we call the “wandering year.” During the Ptolemaic period, an additional intercalary day was added to the five epagomenal days every four years to ensure that the civil calendar would remain synchronized with the solar calendar.

With the lunar calendar most likely having been created in Predynastic Times, it would go on to be used throughout pharaonic times for keeping track of religious festivals (learn more from this The Dead Speak Online video). When the civil calendar came about in the early Old Kingdom, it was symbiotically used for thousands of years for administrative matters and is still kept alive today in the traditions of the Coptic Church.


Notes

  1. From Joshua Roberson’s “The Rebirth of the Sun.”
  2. Heqanakht Account VII, Metropolitan Museum of Art (22.3.522)
  3. From the translation by John Foster in Journal of Near Eastern Studies 34(1) (1975): 17
  4. N. St. Fleur, “Volcanoes Helped Violent Revolts Erupt in Ancient Egypt” published in NYTimes on 17 Oct. 2017
  5. From the article by Joseph Leibovitch in Journal of Near Eastern Studies 12(2) (1953): figure 12
  6. Facsimile by Charles K. Wilkinson, Metropolitan Museum of Art (48.105.52)
  7. P.Ebers Taf. I – Papyrus und Ostraka Projekt, Universität Leipzig

Further Reading:

Leave a Reply