Friday, December 31, 2010

How the Ancient Egyptians Celebrated New Year's


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?

9 comments:

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

Very interesting! So New Years for them wasn't by calendar, but by geological event? Woosie.

Carrie at In the Hammock Blog said...

awww, that's too bad it was such a stressful time for them. Happy New Year!!

Amalia T. said...

great post! I didn't know any of this about ancient Egypt, but I can definitely see how anxiety-filled it would be to have to wait on the Nile, hoping it was feeling JUST GENEROUS ENOUGH.

Gail said...

I learn something EVERY time I read your blog. Thanks for sharing your passion with the rest of us!

Hope your New Years wasn't fearful :-)

Trisha said...

I much prefer the way we celebrate! It's nice for my biggest worry on New Year's Eve to be whether or not my hair will make it all night without frizzing out. :)

campbele said...

So, there was no Egyptian calendar other than the river?

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks, Gail! I agree, Trish. If frizzy hair is the worst we worry about, then we sure are lucky!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

campbele,
There was indeed a very sophisticated Egyptian solar calendar of 12 months of the year. It's just that the New Year began with the inundation, which, typically took place around September.

In my book, I go off on a little tangent about the so-called Julian-calendar. Julius Caesar, after consulting with Cleopatra's court astronomers, came back to Rome and fixed their very messed up lunar calendar. It was then dubbed the Julian calendar. But the Egyptians had been using that sophisticated calendar for thousands of years! Grrrrrrr

Cathy C. Hall said...

Always good stuff over here at history with a twist! That is, interesting to read NOW. Probably wasn't so good for the Egyptians...Hope you have a happy, flood-free 2011, Vicky!