Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Banquets in ancient Egypt

The above photo depicts a Theban tomb painting of a typical banquet. In the top register the guests enjoy the fragrance of Lotus flowers while a female servant waits on them. The women in the bottom register are three singers, a musician playing a double flute and two dancers.
Information concerning banquets in ancient Egypt is scarce. with the richest source of evidence being tomb scenes. Some further evidence has been derived from literary texts. notably Wisdom Literature which outlines the ideal behaviour of guest and host. Stories and myths featuring banquets are infrequent; the tale of the deity Seth entrapping his brother Osiris is one of the few. Remains of some funerary feasts. such as those found by W. B. Emery (1962) in a second dynasty tomb and the festal wreaths found associated with Tutankhamun's funerary banquet, have provided Further information concerning such feasts. There is no word in Egyptian that is clearly translated as "banquet": the closest word in Egyptian is Hpy "to be festal" or “to make a festival") with Hb translated as "feast" or "banquet." The injunction fr hr-w nfr ("make holiday-I") often implied the holding of a banquet or feast. Banquets were frequently featured in Egyptian tomb decoration, starting in the late Old Kingdom and continuing into the New Kingdom. The Old Kingdom banqueting scenes. such as the one found in the sixth dynasty tomb of Kahif at Giza (tomb 2136) as well as the Middle Kingdom  scenes, tended to show elaborate family gatherings: their New Kingdom equivalents show both family and friends enjoying the feast. Gargantuan banquet.-a were a feature of sed-festival jubilee}. when nobles, official, servants and the people at large feasted below the royal balcony in the king’s presence. Under Horemheb. the king treated his officials to a sumptuous feast every month. The eighteenth dynasty provided the single richest source of banqueting
scenes in ancient Egypt: in later dynasties, the banquet scene appears comparatively frequently in Egyptian tombs.
There has been some debate as to whether the banquets depicted in tombs are funerary banquets, a kin to wakes or a chronicle of  the type of banquet that the deceased  enjoyed during his lifetime, recorded in the tomb so it  would be enjoyed throughout the hereafter. Banquets or feasts probably took  place for celebratory or commemorative events as births. deaths, marriages and other special personal celebrations. Large-scale dinner parties might also be included in the category of banquets. Certainly banquets were an important part of  religious festivals such as the Valley Festival, when they were celebrated.  most probably within the tomb or its courtyard. The activities depicted on the tomb walls were reified at least once a wear. Some scholars suggest that the food put into tombs was to provide the basis for such
feasts. in addition to the provisions for the afterlife depicted on the walls Banquets probably started in midafternoon and went on some time thereafter. The banqueting  time has tentatively been determined by the appearance of the open  blossoms of the blue lotus that adorn both people and wine jars (as in Theban tombs-46,96, I00. 155. and others). The blue lotus blooms by day and  closes at sunset; thus the open blooms indicate that the banquet.-. started in daylight hours. and that would be true as well into banquets relating to religious festivals. Most festivals took place {or at least started} during the day time'. Certainly hierarchical with the important people placed closest to the hosts and the others arranged alongside them, according to rank. The color  of seat would also depend on rank: chairs for the most favored guests. stools for the less favored, with mats, and even the bare floor for the lowest ranks. In some tomb
scenes, people are shown seated before tables piled high with food {especially true for the more important guests); in other scenes. often in the same tomb. food is being
passed to the guests by servants. Perhaps in addition to the seating arrangements. the amount of food provided reflected the relative importance of the guests. Generally.
male servants served the men and female servants at- tended to the women. although female servants were sometimes shown serving the men. Once the guests were
seated. servants washed the guests’ hands in basins. provided them with perfumes and cones of fat (which would smell pleasant or repel insects. according to the choice of
perfume bunted in the fat cone). and furnished them with lotus flowers to smell and flower collars to wear. Then the food and drink were served. Entertainment was also provided. Music accompanied the meal. with musicians of both genders singing and playing harps, lutes. drums, tamborines. and clappers. There was energetic dancing with scantily clad professional dancers. Generally female. performing elaborate acrobatic combinations for the entertainment of the guests. The goddess Hathor, associated with alcohol, drunkenness, music and dancing was often invoked during the course of a banquet and was the deity most closely associated with feasting.
Alcohol was plentiful at banquets, be it wine, beer, or idly, a fermented pomegranate drink. Large vessels. deco- rated with lotus blossoms. contained the drinks and stood at the ready. Tomb scenes {e.g.. Theban tombs 49 and S3) vividly record the results of overindulgence, both by men and women, with people vomiting or even passing out after an excess of alcohol. Food was no less plentiful than alcohol. A banquet was a time for excess: entire oxen were roasted. as were ducks. geese. pigeons. various other birds and, on some occasions, fish.

Source: The Oxford encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt


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