The Ancient Egyptian New Year
Wepet Ronpet (or as we spell it, Upet Ronpet) means "Opening of the Year" in the ancient Egyptian language. It was their equivelent of New Year's Day, and was celebrated as a national civic and religious holiday.
Traditionally, many cultures observed the start of the new year with the beginning of spring; but in Egypt's desert climate, two other events that coincided every 365 days marked the start of a new year. These events were the beginning of the Nile flood, and Sirius (the Dog Star) rising above the horizon just before dawn. This astronomical event was called Peret Sopdut, or "Emergence of Sopdut", referring to the star as a goddess linked to Isis.
The Egyptian calendar was divided into three seasons--Inundation, Akhet, Emergence (of the fields), Peret, and Summer, Shomu--that were each four months long. Each of the twelve months lasted thirty days, yielding a total of 360 days; to which they added five special intercalary days between the end of one year and the beginning of the next. These days were considered the birthdays of Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis and Nephthys, respectively. But the ancient Egyptians did not know that one full year is actually 365 and 1/4 days, so they had no leap year...and as a result, over the centuries their civil calendar fell out of synch with the natural and astronomical events it was originally based upon. Only every 1,456 years did the civil and astronomical calendar coincide!
Nowadays, Sirius rises on August 1st, which is the date observed by some Kemetic groups. But during ancient times the date fell on July 18, which is the date observed here at the Temple of Tutankhamun. It's the date he most likely would have observed himself, which would have been the time the Nile flood began.
Several religious traditions surround Upet Ronpet. As the beginning of the year, it was regarded as Ra's birthday. The flood was often considered to be caused by the tears of Isis, weeping for her murdered husband Osiris; in fact, even up until the 1960's when the annual Nile floods were ended by construction of the Aswan High Dam, local Egyptians still called the first night of the flood "the night of the drop"!
Another religious tradition involved the Vengeance of Sakhmet. We know of this myth through the Book of the Divine Cow, a sacred text preserved in the tombs of some pharaohs and on Tutankhamun's outermost gold shrine. According to the story Ra, while still ruling on earth, discovered that humans had grown arrogant and plotted to rebel against him. He sent Sakhmet, the lion-headed goddess who is also seen as an aspect of Hathor, as his enforcer to punish mankind. She quickly slaughtered the rebels, but to the other gods' dismay continued her bloodbath indiscriminately and threatened to wipe out humanity. To make her stop, they filled a lake-sized depression with beer colored red. Sakhmet happened across the lake and mistook it for blood, drinking the entire thing and passing out cold. Thus humankind was saved, and to commemorate the story Egyptians would drink red beer, just as the Irish celebrate Saint Patrick's Day with green beer today.
In the area of Thebes, Sakhmet was identified with Mut, the wife of Amun. The Feast of Mut-Sakhmet was celebrated shortly after the New Year, and ritual drunkenness was a key, even state-sanctioned, part of the festivities! Recent discoveries from the ruined temple of Mut in Karnak record an inscription from Hatshepsut's time: "She made it as a monument to her mother Mut...making for her a columned porch of drunkenness anew..." This Festival of Drunkenness would have taken place during the first month of the year.
While some holidays were celebrated only locally, or held significance mostly for the ruling king, Upet Ronpet was a universal holiday celebrated by all Egyptians. Its appeal continues down to the modern day.
Brier, Bob. Ancient Egyptian Magic. New York: Quill Press, 1980.
Roerig, Catharine H. et al. Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005.
Scott, Joseph and Lenore. Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Everyone. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993.
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