Friday, January 6, 2012

Happy New Year the Ancient Egyptian Way!

Posted by: Veronica Scott

I hope everyone had a Happy New Year and is now settling back into everyday life, like I’m doing.
Since my book Priestess of the Nile comes out from Carina this month, I started thinking about the New Year in Ancient Egypt. If we were living in the land where my story takes place, we’d actually be celebrating somewhere in July, pegged to the rising waters of the Nile and inundation of the fields to start the planting. Making it hard to do adequate planning, the Nile can begin flooding anywhere within a roughly 80 day time frame.
Egypt was nothing if not organized, with a structure going all the way down from Pharaoh to local authorities, with armies of scribes keeping track of everything in neat lines of hieroglyphics. This eighty day window didn’t work for them. Can’t have Pharaoh on standby waiting for the river to rise!
Lacking instant communications the Egyptians had to have a system that would allow everyone in the country to know the moment the New Year had begun, so all could be in sync with Pharaoh.
The solution they found was grounded in science and mythology, like so many ancient cultures. The star Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky. A quirk of its heliacal rising – the moment when it first becomes briefly visible above the eastern horizon just before sunrise, after a period of time when it had not been visible - makes it a perfect marker to anchor the calculations of the ancient New Year. Each day the star rises further and further in the sky until it disappears again, only to reappear a year later.
Sirius or Sepdet as the Egyptians called it, was a trustworthy predictor of the Nile flood season. The first new moon after Sepdet reappeared in the sky was the first day of the New Year. Even if the Nile hadn't begun to rise, that day was also deemed to be the official start of the flood.
The Egyptians believed the Nile flooded each year as Isis, Queen of the Great Ones (who appears in my novella) wept over the death of her husband Osiris. The bright star was said to be the goddess herself. Not to worry, Osiris rose from the dead with help – some legends credit the hero of my story, Sobek the Crocodile God, with assisting Isis in saving her husband. Osiris was considered the source of all life, including the vegetation that would grow after the Nile flooded with his wife’s tears, spreading rich black mud on the waiting fields.
This post isn’t long enough to go into the intricacies of the Egyptian calendar but there were five days of feasting and observances at the end of each year. The beer flowed freely according to some accounts I’ve read! New Year’s Day was the Opening of the Year and on Day 15 special offerings were made to ensure a good flood. Given the 80 day variation in the start of the flood, this Day 15 observance was pretty sure to fall during the actual rising of the Nile, thus making Pharaoh appear all knowing as he should be.
And their year would be off to a good start, life going smoothly!
What one thing are you hoping to see go differently in your New Year?


  1. Wow, you really did your research! : ) I love Egyptian history. I really can't wait to read this book.

    One thing I hope goes differently... finances!:)Spend less/make more.

  2. Sirius has always been my favorite star. Now I know why!

  3. The Celts celebrated their New Year around October 31st. (Samhain) All the crops were in, and the days grew short, marking the change in season from light to the dark time. It's interesting to think ancient people tied their New Year's celebration to nature, and now we tie it to...Well, I'm not even sure what we tie it to. Anybody? Celts would put out their hearth fires, gather as a community, light several bonfires, and as dawn arrived, they'd take an ember from the bonfires to light their new hearth fire to mark the day. Kinda cool. I suppose we could exchange light bulbs or something to light the New Year? Cool post, Veronica.

  4. Veronica, this is great stuff. Very interesting. As far as things that go differently? I hope to see my extended family more this year. We all live in different states which makes it hard to get together.

  5. Thanks for stopping by,everyone! Glad you found the topic interesting - I LOVE doing the research!

  6. Hmm...I find myself pondering what, if any cultures, celebrate the new year WITHOUT beer flowing freely (or the local fermented equivalent...)

  7. Yes, the flowing of alcoholic beverages seems pretty universal at New Year's everywhere!

  8. Alcoholic beverages? My dh and I always have chocolate sodas w/ vanilla ice cream. This year I managed to make them in a Florida hotel room. We bought dry ice to keep the ice cream cold enough while we went out to dinner. Put the soda water in the little refrigerator.

  9. Fascinating post, Veronica. Seems there's an ancient human wish to draw an ending and start anew -- and to celebrate that time!


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