Most of us celebrate the New Year by staying up late and having fun with friends. For the ancient Egyptians it was a time of fear and dread.
Why? Because no one knew exactly when the New Year would arrive. It all depended on when the Nile River began its annual flooding. To make matters worse, no one knew exactly how it would flood either. The stakes were high: if the waters were too low, people might starve. If they were too high, people could drown.
The Egyptians added to the stress and anxiety by claiming that just before the inundation, the god Khons wrote The Book of the End of the Year, which contained the list of who would live and who would die in the coming year.
Priests worked overtime to protect the people with a magic spell called, The Book of the Last Day of the Year, written on a strip of papyrus and worn around the neck. It’s likely no one dared walk around with a naked neck during those anxious filled days.
On New Year’s Day—the day the Nile actually began flooding—the Egyptians celebrated by exchanging presents, usually small amulets of Sekhmet (the lion-headed goddess) or Bastet (the cat headed goddess). Even the gifts were tinged with anxiety: the amulets warded off the dreaded demons of plague, famine, or flood.
Of course, the ancient Egyptians were great partiers too, sometimes extending their feasts into weeks-long celebrations. Still, their fear-filled New Year’s worries reminds us just how fragile and precarious their lives were.
Which puts our complaining about “boring” celebrations into perspective, doesn’t it?