Provocative Yet Sacred: The Ancient Egyptian Festival of Drunkenness
The Festival of Drunkenness is a religiously significant celebration that was held annually (said to be biannually in some places) by the ancient Egyptians. The background story for the celebration of this festival can be found in a text known as The Book of the Heavenly Cow . In this text, there is an ancient Egyptian myth involving the destruction of mankind. According to the myth, human beings were saved from extinction thanks, in part, to alcohol.
The Destruction of Mankind
In The Book of the Heavenly Cow , there is a myth known as the ‘Destruction of Mankind’. This story begins by stating that once upon a time, human beings lived together with the gods, and were ruled over by Ra (Re). It goes on to say that when Ra had grown old, mankind began to conspire against him. Ra became aware of mankind’s scheming, and decided to summon the other gods to his palace, in order to obtain counsel from them.
A scene from the Book of the Heavenly Cow as depicted in the tomb of Seti I. ( Public Domain )
After explaining his dilemma to the gods, it was suggested to Ra that he ought to release his Eye, so that it might smite down humanity. He agreed with this suggestion, and sent his Eye in the form of the goddess Hathor to punish mankind. In the meantime, the humans fled to the desert, as they became fearful of Ra.
Nevertheless, Hathor, who was transformed into a lion (or the warlike goddess Sekhmet), descended and slew mankind in the desert. In one version of the story, the goddess went on a rampage, and was about to wipe out all of humanity when Ra took pity on mankind. It was through Ra’s subsequent intervention that mankind was saved. In an alternate version of the myth, it seems that Ra had planned the event to save mankind, so that he could be the savior of humanity.
Statue of Sekhmet from the temple of Mut. ( Public Domain )
Thus, Ra summoned his messengers, and ordered them to bring him a great amount of haematite from Elephantine. He then ordered the haematite to be ground. In the meantime, barley was also being ground to produce beer. When both substances were ready, Ra had the haematite put into the beer, so that it resembled human blood. It is written that 7,000 jars of this beer were made.
Nun, the embodiment of the primordial waters, lifts the boat of the sun god Ra into the sky at the moment of creation. ( Public Domain )
One night, Ra poured out the blood-like beer, which flooded the fields “three palms high.” On the morning of the next day, the goddess saw that the fields were flooded with what seemed to be human blood, and was delighted at the sight. She began drinking the liquid without knowing that it was actually beer, and soon became intoxicated, then fell asleep. As a result, mankind was saved from destruction.
The Day of Celebration
The Festival of Drunkenness is celebrated on the 20th day of Thoth, the 1st month of the ancient Egyptian calendar. The festival of drunkenness was a communal affair and on one level, the celebrations took place in temples. On another level, this festival took place in peoples’ houses and shrines.
Typically, the participants of this festival would be served lots of alcohol, get drunk, and fall asleep. It was not regarded, however, as a social drinking session, but was sacred event. In the temples, the celebrants would be awoken by the sound of drums and music. Upon waking up, they would worship the goddess Hathor.
A drawing based on an ancient Egyptian wall painting shows a drinking festival in progress. ( Betsy Bryan )
Other aspects of the ritual celebration included dancing and the lighting of torches, which was performed in the hopes that the devotees of the goddess would receive an epiphany from her. Another activity believed to have been undertaken during the festival was sex. In a hymn regarding the festival, there is a phrase “travelling through the marshes”, and it has been speculated that this is an ancient Egyptian euphemism for having sex.
Egyptian painting of dancers and flutists, from the Tomb of Nebamun. ( Public Domain )
One explanation for this activity is provided by regarding Hathor in her role as a goddess of love. Alternatively, it may have been linked to the fertility of the land as well. The Festival of Drunkenness was typically celebrated around the middle of August, the period when the Nile began to rise. Therefore, sexual activity during the festival may have also been perceived as a means of bringing the Nile floods back, and thus ensuring the fertility of the land.