Ancient Egyptian Festivals: History & Traditions

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ancient Egyptian civilization was focused on more than just building pyramids. They also liked to party. In this lesson, we'll check out some major Egyptian festivals and see what they meant to the people of ancient Egypt.

Festivals in Ancient Egypt

The Egyptian calendar was full of festivals, celebrated at various points throughout the 12 months of the Egyptian year. These months were categorized into four seasons, and each contained numerous holidays.

To be honest, there's a lot that we don't know about even the most important of Egyptian festivals, because the records are scarce and sometimes inconsistent. One thing is pretty clear though: the Egyptians knew how to party.

Festivals and the Egyptian Religion

So why would the ancient Egyptians spend so much of their time on festivals? Well, according to the Egyptian religion, the cosmos was always teetering between order and chaos.

Everything from the rising and setting of the sun to the annual flooding of the Nile was seen as part of an elaborate system of cosmological cycles that prevented chaos, and these cycles were maintained by ritual.

So, festivals were more than just a day of relaxing for hard-working farmers and builders (although that was part of it), they were also literally meant to keep the universe from falling apart.


For now we're just going to focus on three major festivals, starting with the Opet Festival. This holiday occurred in the 2nd month of the Egyptian year, a year that started in late summer with the annual flooding of the Nile. Basically all of the first season in the Egyptian calendar was devoted to celebrations of renewal and rejuvenation, and the Opet Festival was no exception.

The festival, which according to the records of Ramses III could last up to 27 days, was believed to literally transfer the authority of the god Amun to the pharaoh. Basically, it reaffirmed the divinity of the pharaoh, and his right to rule.

Priests of Amun would wash and dress a statue of the god in the finest of regalia, parade him from the sacred temple at Karnak to that at Luxor, where the pharaoh waited to greet the deity and receive his authority. The people could also ask the gods yes-or-no questions, and receive answers through their oracles.

The processional grounds at Karnak where the image of Amun would depart on its way to bestow authority upon the pharoah

What's interesting about the Festival of Opet is that it became one of the most important events in Egypt, but we almost never find any record of it prior to the New Kingdom (roughly 1550-1070 BCE). It wasn't until this time that Amun rose to prominence as the preeminent deity of Egypt, worshiped by the New Kingdom pharaohs above all the others.

The Beautiful Feast of the Valley

Another celebration that was very important to the pharaohs of the New Kingdom was the Beautiful Feast of the Valley (although the origins of this one date back much earlier to the Middle Kingdom). This occurred in the 10th month of the year.

Again, it centered on Amun and again the statue of Amun was taken from the temple at Karnak and sailed down the Nile, this time accompanied by images of his wife Mut and son, Khonsu.

Statue of Amun
Amun statue

According to sources from the time, the Egyptian people followed the journey of Amun and his family with a colorful and joyous procession, featuring acrobats, musicians, and dancers. This might be surprising to us, considering that their ultimate destination was basically a cemetery.

Remember that the festival occurred right before the season of rebirth and rejuvenation, so this time of year was perfect for acknowledging death, the end of the cycle. The Beautiful Feast of the Valley was an Egyptian-style day of the dead, where people honored their ancestors through various rituals, offerings of food and drink, and massive consumption of food and wine.


Some festivals happened every year, but others were only celebrated once every few decades, which made them pretty spectacular. The Heb-Sed festival was another ritual to reaffirm the divine authority of the pharaoh, but this didn't occur every year.

Traditionally, it was celebrated on New Year's Day in the 30th year of the pharaoh's reign, and then every three years after. Pharaohs who didn't expect to live that long could, however, push this date forward.

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