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From Ritual Drama to Ancient Theater – Egypt

Osiris, Isis and Horus

Ritual dramas in Egypt were usually performed at seasonal festivals, and honored the gods Osiris, Isis, Horus, and occasionally the Sun god Amun/Re. They were performed in temple sanctuaries and around sacred lakes adjacent to temples.[1] Egyptian festivals included reenactments of myths and role-playing of the gods. Usually these sanctuary rituals were performed and witnessed by only members of the priesthood. The rest of the Egyptian people would be able to participate in the festivals only when the deity’s statue was removed from the sanctuary and displayed in an elaborate procession.[2]

One of the most important examples of Egyptian ritual drama was “The Triumph of Horus.” It was performed during the Festival of Victory at Edfou. The ritual celebrated the beginning of Egyptian kingship and the triumph over all her enemies. Texts describing the ritual date from the New Kingdom circa 1300-1200 BCE.

The Triumph of Horus Festival

The text includes acting instructions and notes the name of the performer before the words to be spoken. There is both a prologue and an epilogue, and the plot shows conflict with the battle of Horus and Seth, the god of chaos who killed Osiris. The text also notes that the drama had musical accompaniment. The tambourine and sistrum, an ancient Egyptian rattling percussion instrument, were depicted in carvings on the temple walls.[3]

Dramatic rituals also took place as part of the Khoiak Festival. Descriptions of the rituals performed were discovered carved on the walls of the temple of Hathor at Dendera. Figurines of Osiris were made, decorated, and interred in funerary beds. Small deity statues were also floated on thirty-four papyrus boats in Dendera’s Sacred Lake. The king and members of the priesthood participated in another ceremony where Osiris was presented with the pieces of his body that were hidden by his murderer, Seth.[4]

Sacred Lake at Dendera-now a grove of palm trees

Also at Dendera, carvings depict a large procession of priests participating in another ritual during the Khoiak festival. Members of the priesthood traveled from all over Egypt to attend the festival and the carving of each priest noted their location of origin above their image. Three of the priests are not identified, however, and one is wearing a large mask of the god Anubis. Another priest in line behind him appears to be assisting him as if he can’t see properly through the mask. Ceramic Anubis masks like the one depicted in the temple carving have been recovered and dated to 600-300 BCE.[5]

Ceramic Anubis Mask

Rituals also took place at the lake by the temple of Thoth in Hermopolis during the New Year Festival. The King played the role of the sun god Amun/Re, and a cultic regatta was held on the lake.[6] Even though Egyptians had highly organized ritual performances, they do not quite qualify as a full dramatic theatrical performance. The rituals have spoken parts, but there is no true dialogue between characters. Also, most of the dramatic rituals were performed in temple sanctuaries and were only observed by the god’s cult statue and members of the priesthood. The lack of a true audience shows that Egyptian cultic drama was not designed as a community activity, but only for the god and his priests.[7]

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FOOTNOTES:
[1] Inge Nelson, Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama,(Oxford, Oakville, CT:Aarhus University Press, 2002), 23.
[2] Ronald J. Leprohon, “Ritual Drama in Ancient Egypt,” The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama,edited by Eric Csapo and Margaret C. Miller, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 259-260.
[3] Inge Nelson, Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama,(Oxford, Oakville, CT:Aarhus University Press, 2002), 29-31.
[4] Ronald J. Leprohon, “Ritual Drama in Ancient Egypt,” The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama,edited by Eric Csapo and Margaret C. Miller, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 265-266.
[5] Leprohon, “Ritual Drama in Ancient Egypt,” The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama,269-270.
[6] Inge Nelson, Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama,(Oxford, Oakville, CT:Aarhus University Press, 2002), 35-36.
[7] Ronald J. Leprohon, “Ritual Drama in Ancient Egypt,” The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama,edited by Eric Csapo and Margaret C. Miller, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 272, 285-286.

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