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egyptian drama dramatic gods

Egyptian theater has been a mystery to modern scholars. The fact that the Egyptians had no words equivalent to the English words “theater,” “actor,” or “stage,” leads many scholars to believe that Egypt had no theater, as theater is understood in modern times. Yet Egyptologists (experts who have made a special study of Egyptian culture) have recognized that while there is no vocabulary pointing to theater, there are certain ancient Egyptian texts that are dramatic in nature. Many dialogues between gods and kings have survived and much of the music that was recorded on stone walls or papyrus is accompanied by illustrations of people in dramatic poses. There is also a recorded history of Egyptian priests impersonating different gods during ceremonies and festivals. If theater did exist in ancient Egypt it would have occurred during the various festivals held throughout the year, as it mainly did in ancient Greece and Rome in the later centuries before the common era. Even if theater was performed during festival periods, however, Egyptologists concede that it may have lacked many of the major components found in modern theater including entertainment value, professional actors, a stage, action and even an audience since many of the activities considered to be theater took place in small temple areas.


It is clear that if Egyptian theater existed, it did not serve as an independent form of entertainment. Instead it functioned within religious rituals as either a teaching method or as an offering to the gods. This type of theater is similar to the function theater played in various other cultures of this time period such as the Japanese Noh drama that took stories from religious myths and presented them both for religious edification and for education. This designation puts Egyptian theater in contrast to more Western civilizations, such as Greece which developed theater as an independent institution from religion, education, or government, even though these institutions were still heavily influential in determining dramatic content.


Because theater was not separate from the institution of religion in Egypt, there were no professional actors or acting troupes. Instead, it was the religious class that performed all acting duties. While priests and, on the rare occasion, priestesses were the main performers in theater rituals, statues also played a large role in the dramatic telling of stories. The bestknown example of how these actors and statues functioned in a theater production comes from a surviving Osirian drama most likely performed in the cult center at Abydos. The statues used to represent gods were usually made of stone and thought to be small based on remains that have been found. For instance, the figures of the gods Henty-imentyu and Sokar were approximately 22 inches tall. The coffin for the god Osiris used in the drama was about the same length, suggesting that the figure of Osiris used in the drama was also small. Lesser gods, such as a small hippopotamus that was used to represent the god Seth in the Osiris play, were rendered not in stone, but in bread. Priests also represented gods in this drama and they wore masks that allowed them to impersonate the gods and provide a narrative by reciting a ritual. Priestesses mimed the parts of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, who performed a mourning ritual. Some reliefs that allude to the Osiris drama indicate that the king, for whom all theater would be performed, would sometimes portray himself during performances. A variety of archaeological and textual materials have revealed many of these details of the Osirian Khoiak festival.


Since all theater was related to religious rituals and festivals, Egyptian dramatic presentations took place at various venues within a temple. Chapels at the god Osiris’ temple in Abydos bore names related to different scenes in the drama and were perhaps the venues for the performances of these different scenes. The priests, however, often presented other scenes on the temple lake within the sanctuary, and at specific stations on the processional way to different temple locations. Hence, there was no necessity for a central theater in ancient Egypt due to the fact that religious rites were mobile.


Based on the surviving texts thought to be dramatic in nature, action was most often reported rather than performed. The characters were often statues and thus could not be manipulated to perform actions. Furthermore, the course of the story was never a surprise to the audience. The dramatic presentation was instead the reenactment of a ritual that was most likely performed yearly and would be familiar to all in attendance. While there was little action during Egyptian drama, there were various different elements during a performance that told the story of a myth within the context of a temple ritual. These included song, dance, instrumental music, pantomime, and dialogue.


Though comparisons with ancient Greek or with modern drama can clarify the differences between modern expectations and Egyptian reality, those expectations cannot be used to define or evaluate Egyptian theater. Since all of the stories were centered around the religious rituals which were taken from the myths surrounding the god Osiris, his wife Isis, their son Horus, and Osiris’ brother Seth, there was most likely very little originality in the performances. There would not have been one ritual that was more highly favored than any other due to the fact that each ritual honored a different god. Hence, unlike festivals in other cultures where theater was judged and prizes awarded, the Egyptians saw theater more as a necessity and not worth the fanfare.


Louis B. Mikhail, Dramatic Aspects of the Osirian Khoiak Festival (Uppsala, Sweden: Institute of Egyptology, 1983).

Paul O’Rourke, “Drama,” in Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Ed. Donald B. Redford (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): 407–409.

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