Kingship Rituals

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Kingship Rituals


Formal Titulary . The king acquired and maintained his divinity through a series of rituals. The first such ritual the king participated in was his coronation, called in Egyptian khai, which means “to arise,” and was also used to describe the sun’s rising. At this time, the five elements of the king’s formal titulary were announced: a Horus name, representing the king as the earthly embodiment of the sky god Horus; a “Two Ladies” name, the two ladies being the goddesses Nekhbet and Uadjit, the two protective goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt; the Golden Horus (or simply the Gold) name, whose exact significance is uncertain; his throne name, assumed at accession, was preceded by the title “King of Upper and Lower Egypt”; and the birth name, which beginning in Dynasty 4 (circa 2625-2500 b.c.e.) was compounded with the title “son of Re.” It is the throne name and birth name that were surrounded by a cartouche (an oval or oblong figure on a monument).

Opet Festival. Once being inducted into the office of kingship, the king participated in rituals designed to maintain and renew his divine status. Once a year the king traveled to Thebes to participate in the Opet festival at the temple of Luxor. During this festival, which began on the fifteenth or nineteenth day of the second month of the first season, Akhet (Inundation), the king participated in a procession from Karnak to the Luxor temple, where some of the rituals of the coronation were reenacted. The purpose of these rituals was to renew or restore the king’s royal ka and reconfirm his right to rule. Each Egyptian was thought to possess a ka, which can roughly be translated “life force.” It was a separate entity that was thought to inhabit the body. The ka was transmitted from parent to child and embodied the procreative power. The ka represented a bridge between the physical world and the world of the spirit. At his coronation, the king had received the royal ka, the same ka possessed by all the previous kings of Egypt. It was possession of this ka that rendered the king divine. As the vessel of the royal ka, some kings had temples dedicated to their worship built during their lifetimes. Amenhotep III erected temples to himself at Soleb, Sedeinga, and Sesebi; Tutankhamun built at Kawa and Faras; and Ramesses II at Gerf Hussein, es-Sebua, ed-Derr and most


This hymn was carved on the west wall of the Tomb of Ay, a courtier at Amarna who became king after Tutankhamun. It contains the most complete statement of Akhenaten’s new theology. Many scholars have compared it to Psalm 104.

Adoration of Re-Harakhti-who-rejoices-in-lightland. In his name Shu-who-is-Aten, living forever; the great living Aten who is in jubilee, the lord of all that the Disk encircles, lord of sky, lord of earth, lord of the house-of-Aten in Akhet-Aten; and of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, who lives by Maat, the Lord of the Two Lands, Neferkheprurue, Sole-one-of-Re; the Son of Re who lives by Maat, the Lord of Crowns, Akhenaten, great in his lifetime; and his beloved great Queen, the Lady of the Two Lands, Nefer-neferu-Aten Nefertiti, who lives in health and youth forever. The Vizier, the Fanbearer on the right of the King,… [Ay]; he says;

Splendid you rise in heaven’s lightland,
O living Aten, creator of life!
When you have dawned in eastern lightland,
You fill every land with your beauty.
You are beauteous, great, radiant,
High over every land;
Your rays embrace the lands,
To the limit of all that you made.
Being Re, you reach their limits,
You bend them for the son whom you love;
Though you are far, your rays are on earth,
Though one sees you, your strides are unseen.
When you set in western lightland,
Earth is in darkness as if in death;
One sleeps in chambers, heads covered,
One eye does not see another.
Were they robbed of their goods,
That are under their heads,
People would not remark on it.
Every lion comes from its den,
All the serpents bite;
Darkness hovers, earth is silent,
As their maker rests in lightland.
Earth brightens when you dawn in lightland,
When you shine as Aten of daytime;
As you dispel the dark,
As you cast your rays,
The Tow lands are in festivity.
Awake they stand on their feet,
You have roused them;
Bodies cleansed, clothed,
Their arms adore your appearance.
The entire land sets out to work,
All beasts browse on their herbs;
Trees, herbs are sprouting,
Birds fly from their nests,
Their wings greeting your ka.
All flocks frisk on their feet,
All that fly up and alight,
They live when you dawn for them.
Ships fare north, fare south as well,
Roads lie open when you rise;
The fish in the river dart before you,
Your rays are in the midst of the sea.
Who makes seed grow in women,
Who creates people from sperm;
Who feeds the son in his mother’s womb,
Who soothes him to still his tears.
Nurse in the womb,
Giver of breath,
To nourish all that he made.
When he comes from the womb to breath,
On the day of his birth,
You open wide his mouth,
You supply his needs.
When the chick in the egg speaks in the shell,
You give him breath within to sustain him;
When you have made him complete,
To break out from the egg,
He comes out from the egg,
To announce his completion,
Walking on his legs he comes from it
How many are your deeds,
Though hidden from sight,
O Sole God beside whom there Is none!
You made the earth as you wished, you alone,
All peoples, herds, and flocks;
All upon earth that walk on legs,
All on high that fly on wings,
The land of Khor and Kush,
The land of Egypt
You set every man in his place,
You supply their needs;
Everyone has his food,
His lifetime is counted.
Their tongues differ in speech,
Their characters likewise;
Their skins are distinct,
For you distinguished the peoples.
You made Hapy in dat [the netherworld],
You bring him when you will,
To nourish the people,
For you made them for yourself.
Lord of all who toils for them,
Lord of all lands who shines for them;
Aten of daytime, great in glory!
All distant lands, you make them live,
You made a heavenly Hapy descend for them;
He makes waves on the mountains like the sea,
To drench their fields and their towns.
How excellent are your ways, O Lord of eternity!
A Hapy from heaven for foreign peoples [rain],
And all lands’ creatures that walk on legs,
For Egypt the Hapy who comes from dat [the Nile].
Your rays nurse all fields,
When you shine they live, they grow for you;
You made the seasons to foster all that you made,
Winter to cool them, heat that they taste you.
You made the far sky to shine therein,
To behold all that you made;
You alone, shining in your form from yourself alone,
Towns, villages, fields, the river’s course;
All eyes observe you upon them,
For you are the Aten of daytime on high.
You are in my heart,
There is no other who knows you,
Only your son Neferkheprure, sole-one-of-Re,
Whom you have taught your ways and your might.
(Those on) earth come from your hand as you made them,
When you have dawned they live, When you set they die;
You yourself are lifetime, one lives by you,
All eyes are on your beauty until you set,
All labor ceases when you rest in the west;
When you rise you stir everyone for the King,
Every leg is on the move since you founded the earth.
You rouse them for your son who came from your body,
The King who Lives by Maat, the Lord of the Two Lands,
Neferkheprure, Sole-one-of-Re,
The Son of Re who Lives by Maat, the Lord of crowns,
Akhenaten, great in his lifetime;
And the great Queen whom he loves, the Lady of the Two Lands,
Nefer-neferu-Aten Nefertiti, living forever.

Source; “Great Hymn to the Aten,” in Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings, volume II, compiled by Miriam Lichtheina (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 96–99.

famously, Abu Simbel. In these temples the king could even be shown worshiping himself. The king really was not worshiping himself, but the royal ka of which he was only the vessel.

Sed Festival. After about thirty years on the throne, the king participated in a festival designed to restore his flagging powers. This event, called the Sed festival (named for an ancient jackal god Sed), could be held wherever the king chose. Generally, the festival would be held near the capital. Amenhotep I and Amenhotep III of Dynasty 18 (circa 1539-1295/1292 b.c.e.) held their Sed festivals at Karnak; Ramesses II celebrated a Sed festival at the city of Pi-Rameses in the Delta. The exact elements of the Sed festival are uncertain, and the available evidence indicates that the rituals underwent changes over the course of Egyptian history. The two major aspects of the Sed festival remained fairly constant. The king would sit on two thrones in succession, first wearing the crown of Upper Egypt, and then the crown of Lower Egypt. He would then pay a visit to each of the provincial gods in their shrines, which had been built for this occasion. Next he ascended the throne to receive visits from these same gods. Secondly, the king performed a ritual race or dance in which he strode across a field, crossing it along the two axes formed by the cardinal points. This activity took place between two territorial cairns, designated respectively as the southern and northern boundary markers. During this circuit, the king wore alternately the two crowns of Egypt, a shendyt kilt, and carried a flail (a symbol of rulership) and a document container containing the deed to Egypt. The ritual of crossing the field was intended to symbolize the king’s taking possession of Egypt.

Rejuvenation . The result of completing the Sed festival was the rejuvenation of the king. An inscription from the temple of Seti I at Abydos stated of the king that “you experience renewal again, you begin to flourish … as a young infant. You become young again year after year… . You are born again by renewing Sed festivals. All life comes to your nostrils. You are sovereign of the whole land forever.” After completing his first Sed festival, the king could celebrate subsequent festivals at intervals of two to three years. Amenhotep III celebrated three such festivals, while Ramesses II held fourteen.

New Year . The third major festival associated with the king was the New Year’s festival. This festival began on the last five days of the year, called epagomenal days, because they were added by the Egyptians to their 360-day calendar to bring the year up to 365 days. The festival lasted until about the ninth day of the first month. The festival had three main purposes: protect the king from the ills and dangers that were thought to threaten creation during the five epagomenal days; renew royal power for the coming year; and purify the king and Egypt from the miasmal effects of the end of the year and of their misdeeds of the past year. There were two main parts to the festival: the Ceremony of the Great Throne and the Rites of the Adoration of Horus Who Bestows the Heritage.

Ceremony of the Great Throne. During the Ceremony of the Great Throne the king was purified, dressed in new garments, provided with amulets of protection such as the ankh-sign. (for life), and anointed nine times as a means of protection. After the last anointing, “Pharaoh is a god among gods, he is come into being at the head of the ennead, he has become great in the heaven and eminent in the horizon. Pharaoh is one of the victors who causes Re to triumph over Apophis; he is without wrongdoing, and his obstacles are dispelled.” This last line is a quotation from Book of the Dead Spell 125, called the “negative confession” in which the deceased denies any wrongdoing. In a hymn to Isis from the temple at Philae (built in the third century b.c.e.) one reads: “The evils of the past year that had adhered to [the king] have been repelled. His evils of this year are destroyed. His back is turned to them… . He has not done anything abominable toward the god of his town. He has not committed any evil. Nothing will be counted against him among the assessors and the scribes of the Two Lands.” Here the king is essentially performing two functions; he is making amends for his past wrongdoings and, by extension, the people of Egypt, and as a result, the king can claim ritual purity and sinlessness. The king can claim that he has fulfilled the divine commission to uphold Maat and destroy Isfet (wrongdoing), and, as a result, he and the

people of Egypt are entitled to the blessings and favors of the gods.

Rites of the Adoration of Horus. In the Rites of the Adoration of Horus the king participated in a series of events that renewed his powers through recalling the coronation. The king spent a night in a chapel in the temple (which temple was not significant) during which he received a scepter and had four seals placed on his head, two with the name of Geb, one with Neith, and the other with Maat. The next morning, when the king appeared from the chapel, two birds were sent out as messengers to proclaim the king’s dominion. The king then engaged in the symbolic massacre of Egypt’s enemies by cutting off the tops of seven papyrus stalks. Next the king made offerings to all the deceased former kings of Egypt. This last act was related to the concept of the royal ka that we encountered in the Opet festival. Each king, by virtue of the fact that he was endowed with the royal ka at his coronation, was thought to be a direct descendant of all the previous kings of Egypt. One responsibility of possessing this ka was that of providing for the king’s deceased predecessors. In ancient Egypt one way for the eldest son to ensure his right to the primacy of inheritance was to provide for the burial and continued funerary offerings of his father. By providing his deceased predecessors with the necessary offerings, the king is confirming his right to inherit the throne.

Importance . As can be seen from this brief description of the coronation, Opet festival, Sed festival, and the New Year festival, the maintenance of the king’s divine status was of great importance in the royal ideology of Egypt. An acquired status can be lost. In order to prevent this from happening, the king participated in several rituals intended to reinforce his divinity and relationship to the royal ka. This process was essential to the well-being of the country, because without his status of netjer, the king could neither meet the needs of the gods nor successfully intercede with the gods on behalf of the Egyptian people. If this happened, all sorts of calamities could be expected. After the period of the Amarna interlude, during which the gods and their temples were neglected, we are told that “the land was topsy-turvy, and the gods turned their backs upon this land.” So it was vitally important to the well-being of Egypt that the king’s status as netjer be constantly maintained.


Lanny Bell, “Luxor Temple and the Cult of the Royal Ka” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 44 (1985): 251-294.

H. W. Fairman, “The Kingship Rituals of Egypt,” in Myth, Ritual, and Kingship: Essays on the Theory and Practice of Kingship in the Ancient Near East and in Israel, edited by S. H. Hooke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), pp. 74–104.

Eric Uphill, “The Egyptian Sed Festival Rites,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 24 (1965): 365-383.

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Kingship Rituals

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