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egypt royal king’s gods

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 Wadjit, the two protective goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt); the Golden Horus (or simply the Gold) name, the exact significance of which is uncertain; his throne name, assumed at accession, which was preceded by the title “King of Upper and Lower Egypt”; and the birth name which, beginning in the Fourth Dynasty (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 that held the king’s names).


Once inducted into office, the king participated in rituals designed to maintain and renew his divine status. Once a year he 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 known as Akhet (Inundation), the king participated in a procession from Karnak to 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 (spirit) and reconfirm his right to rule. Each Egyptian possessed a ka, which can roughly be translated “life force.” This 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 (r. 1390–1352 B.C.E. ) erected temples to himself at Soleb, Sedeinga, and Sesebi. Tutankhamun (r. 1332–1322 B.C.E. ) did the same at Kawa and Faras. Ramesses II (r. 1279–1213 B.C.E. ) built temples to his own divine form at Gerf Hussein, es-Sebua, ed-Derr and most famously, Abu Simbel. In these temples, the king could even be shown worshipping himself. The king really was not worshipping himself, but the royal ka of which he was only the vessel.


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, was named for a very ancient jackal god named Sed. It could be held wherever the king chose. Generally, the festival would be held near the capital. Amenhotep I (1514–1493 B.C.E. ) and Amenhotep III (1390–1352 B.C.E. ) of the Eighteenth Dynasty held their Sed festivals at Karnak; Ramesses II (1279–1213 B.C.E. ) 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. First, the king sat on two thrones in succession, first wearing the crown of Upper Egypt and then the crown of Lower Egypt. He then paid 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. The king then 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 (piles of stones serving as a memorial markers) designated respectively as the southern and northern boundary markers. During this circuit, the king wore alternately the two crowns of Egypt, a shendyt kilt that was a royal symbol, and carried a flail—a symbol of royal rule—and a document container containing the deed to Egypt. The ritual of crossing the field was intended to symbolize the king’s seizing possession of Egypt.


The result of completing the Sed festival was the rejuvenation of the king. An inscription from the temple of Sety I (1290–1279 B.C.E. ) 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.


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 which 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 the 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.


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, the following statement is given: “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, the so-called “negative confession” in which the deceased denies any wrongdoing. In a hymn to Isis from the temple at Philae (third century B.C.E. ), there is the following inscription: “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 [Egypt].” Here the king is essentially performing two functions: he is making amends for the past wrongdoings by himself, and by extension, the people of Egypt. As a result, the king can claim ritual purity and innocence. The king can claim that he has fulfilled the divine commission to uphold Maat and destroy wrongdoing (isfet), and as a result, he and the people of Egypt are entitled to the blessings and favors of the gods.


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 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 confirmed his right to inherit the throne.


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. The king’s divinity was essential to the well-being of the country, because without his status of netjer the king could not 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 Amarna Period (1352–1332 B.C.E. ), during which the traditional 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. Ed. S. H. Hooke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958): 74–104.

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

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