The Osiris Festivals

During prosperous times as in the darkest times of the Middle Kingdom, the Second intermediate Period and the New Kingdom, the kings paid particular attention in the holy city of the Thinite nome and dispatched there, anxious as they were for the sanctuary of Osiris-Khentyamentiu, high ranking persons, civil servants or priests, charged with verifying the inventory of sacred fixtures, to construct, in the name of their sovereign, a new monument to the god of Abydos and, very often, to direct, by taking an active part, the festivals celebrated in his honour.
These men, invested with royal confidence, did not fail to record the scrupulous way with which they had discharged their assignment on commemorative stelae which constitute the essence of our documentation, with the monuments dedicated by certain kings who travelled in person in order to direct the ceremonies at Abydos.
The celebration of these gave way, most of the time, to important preparations of material, of administrative and liturgical order, placed under the responsibility of the representative.
The inventory of holy fixtures was established, of the restoration works or of refitting were achieved, when it was not about the erection of a new building dedicated by the sovereign to Osiris. The priestly personnel was reorganised and the calendar of festivals reviewed and instituted. Finally, the furniture and the liturgical objects were renewed or made for the occasion with metals and precious materials entrusted to the representative by the king wishing to make offering of it to Osiris-Khentyamentiu. The adornments, jewelry and insignia worn by the god were fashioned, as well as the new statue intended for the ritual of the resurrection. The sacred boat of the god in Abydos, the Neshmet-barque, was entirely rebuilt every time and equipped with the care of the representatives, who, in their stelae, recorded this fact of importance by means of a stereotypical and very discreet sentence: "I directed work in the Neshmet-barque".

The festivals celebrated in honour of Osiris were composed of several ceremonies and processions reminder of the episodes of the Osirian myth which they were intended to commemorate and to represent.
The sources of the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom give no indication on their length and on the period of the year when they took place.

The celebrations probably started with the Going Forth of Osiris outside the temple. The god, attacked by Seth and his partisans, was then murdered. This tragic death, a horrible fact during which the Egyptians observed in devout silence from time immemorial, appears on the stelae only through rare veiled allusions. However, it must necessarily have preceded the first mentioned ceremony: the First Going Forth, peret tepyt, still named the Going Forth of Wepwawet or the Going Forth of Sem, and which would have no justification without the previous death of Osiris.
Indeed, lkhernofret, representative of king Sesostris III, specified that at the time of the Going Forth of Wepwawet, he "proceeded to avenge his father" (l. 17), which means that in his son's virtue, dressed with the attributes of Harendotes, he left the temple to send away the enemy from the remains of Osiris, and he practised on them the rites of mummification.
Murdered, embalm and brought back by his son into the temple, Osiris had become Khentyamentiu "The one who presides over the Westerners", the sovereign of the deceased.

It was then a question of proceeding to the burial, and the body of the god was then taken to his tomb, situated in the desert necropolis, in Peqer, at the end of a long route including three stages.
First of all, during the Great Going Forth, peret a3t, Osiris-Khentymentiu left the temple, in funeral procession, preceded by Wepwawet. Carried in the Neshmet-barque, the god was cheered and was adored by the crowd of the faithful who had come in number "to prostrate and to gaze upon his perfection".
The second part of the journey was consisted of the crossing of an extent of water symbolising the passage between the two worlds. Osiris-Khentymentiu made this navigation on board the Neshmet-barque under the protection of Thoth and marked his definitive departure of the sphere of the living and thus his adherence to the beyond in which he henceforth reigned. In all probability, this crossing actually took place on the consecrated lake of Abydos, which remains unknown.
The last part of the journey, the god crossed in solitude, only accompanied by some officiants of high rank.
According to the indications of Ikhernofret, it seems that following the navigation, the god disembarked from the Neshmet-barque to take place on the weret-barque, the sled on which the mummy proceeded, by terrestrial way, up to his beautiful tomb in Peqer.
There the funeral took place, far from all glances, the texts never made mention of it.
Then came the different rituals which culminated in the climax of the festival of Abydos: the resurrection of Osiris. It probably took place in the House of Gold, in the district of Peqer, close to the divine tomb.

The actual resurrection rituals were carried out at night to expand the two ceremonies - 'The God Who Rests' and the time of 'The Repose of Horus the Quarrelsome', which, in the sources, are always associated with a third, the Haker-festival, which took place after the resurrection. According to the account of king Neferhotep I of the XIIIth Dynasty, the god himself returned in great pomp, surrounded by his Enneads. In the secret of the House of the Gold, a new figure of Osiris was prepared, from electrum or gold.
The divergence of the texts doesn't allow the establishment, with precision, the actual moment in time of its manufacture, during the preparations for the festivals, or after the god's funerary ceremony.

The newly shaped statue was arranged on a bed as it was night 'so that the god can rest'. The exact content of this ceremony is not known, at least we can suppose the coming into existence of the god in his effigy by means of the Opening of the Mouth.
On the other hand, we know the officiating priest allocated to the fulfilment of the rituals. He was the representative or a priest of high rank supplied by king. He played, in this circumstance, the role of the his sa-mer-ef, "his beloved son", in other words, Horus, practising the acts of filial devotion towards his deceased father. His important funeral assignments explain that, at the time of the festivals of Abydos, it was to the sa-mer-ef that the distinguished privilege was given to present to the world the divine statue and to revive Osiris.
This same sa-mer-ef was the quarrelsome Horus, the main actor of 'The Repose of Horus Quarrelsome' during which the rebirth became effective.
Resting by the statue, he was supposed to capture "spirit" of the god by the Haker exclamation, "come to me!". The figure was then considered as living and inhabited by Osiris who was revived and took the name of Onnophris.
The resurrection was announced in the Thinite nome, to the living as to the deceased, who shared, at the time of the Haker-festival, the greatest exultation and the hope of their own triumph over death.
Brought back at life, Osiris-Onnophris then received justification in Peqer, corresponding to the myth to the one received at the end of the suit instituted in Seth before the tribunal of Heliopolis. After the ascribed m3a acclamation, the prophet of Harendotes put on the god's head the crowns of justification to general rejoicing.
This recognition of Osiris had like effect, in the beyond, to count the dead and to distinguish the blessed ones, victorious of the judgement.
In the world of the living, it had as a consequence the transference of the paternal royal function to Horus, the legitimate heir.

Resuscitated, recognised as just, and in the middle of the jubilation of the inhabitants of the Thinite nome and the rejoicing of the deceased, Osiris-Onnophris left Peqer on board of the Neshmet-barque to triumphantly join his temple by the great processional way.
The festival of Osiris closed with a banquet served to the god and his Ennead in the evening of the return to the temple.

Coming now to some specific particularities to the celebrations of Abydos.
On several occasions, the question of Peqer arises, a place of primary importance since, on the one hand, Osiris was buried there and where, on the other hand, he was revived there in the House of Gold, and received justification there.
In the immense necropolis of Abydos, the geographical location of that which is designated Peqer poses problem. The place Peqer, where Osiris was buried, can be safely identified with Umm el- Ga'ab, the ancient Thinite cemetery of the sovereigns of the first Dynasty where, since the New Kingdom, the Egyptians located the tomb of Osiris in that of king Djer.
As for the House of Gold, it should logically be part of the temple of Osiris. one can reasonably see, following funeral ceremony, a return of the deceased god to the House of Gold of his sanctuary to receive a new form there, then a departure for Peqer in view of the resurrection and the justification? It appears difficult, and it is necessary to really resolve to admit that it existed in Peqer, i.e. Umm el-Ga'ab, a place serving as House of Gold, although on the ground no archaeological vestiges are found to confirm it.

The festival at Abydos, as we have said, commemorated and represented the myth of Osiris in which Isis appears as a key figure, and playa leading role. However, in Abydos, the goddess is totally absent, within the pantheon as in the celebrations. This non presence of Isis in the holy city of Osiris seems all the more paradoxical as the importance of the role held by the goddess, in the myth, develops with time. This is explained however by the theology of the local feminine divinities which, by means of the loiness-goddess Tefnut, grants the preference to Hathor.

Wepwawet is the central character who combines all of the essential functions, including the attributes which traditionally, in the myth, fell to Isis. It is the leading god who opens the way for the processions of Osiris, but he is essentially therefore the son, the heir, Horus, Harendotes, the quarrelsome Horus, the sa-mer-ef and the Sem-priest.
It is likely that the kings in person or their representative played all roles of Wepwawet, apart from the one of opener of the paths for which the god appeared.
In his usual form of the standing canine on a raised base. This importance, Wepwawet owes it to the particular nature of the festival at Abydos which, from the Middle Kingdom, associated the original tradition of Abydos of the ceremonial of burial of the dead king Khentymentiu and the transfer of the royal power to his heir, the living king Wepwawet, with the representation of the Osirian myth.
Originally son of the deceased king, Wepwawet appropriated the functions of the son of Osiris as a matter of course and those of Isis, who could not have her place in the original rituals of Abydos.
The absence remarkable of Isis in Abydos finds an explanation therefore at same time in the fusion of the divine college of the place and in the survival of local tradition, previous to the arrival of Osiris and greatly marked by an ancient and prestigious historic past which had conferred on him his royal and funerary character.

A final point concerns the significance and destiny granted by the Egyptians themselves to the Abydos festivals.
On the stelae of Montouhotep and Sehetepibre, high commissioners and representatives of kings Sesostris I and Amenemhat III, as well as on the inscription of Nebuauy in the British Museum, First Prophet of Osiris under Thutmosis III, we can read: "I played the role of the sa-mer-ef in in controlling the House of Gold in the mystery of the Lord of Abydos". This same great priest, on another stela in the Cairo Museum, declares: "I accomplished the mysteries (shetau) for my Lord, as guardian of his father's house".

According to these most meaningful accounts, the Abydos ceremonies celebrated for Osiris were considered as one or several mysteries by the members of the upper clergy since the Middle Kingdom.
What is the meaning given to the term "mystery (s) ?
In the first place, it could be making reference to rituals accomplished in secret far from the indiscreet gaze, in the presence of a restricted number of officiants. If such was indeed the case for some ceremonies of the festivals of Osiris, on the other hand, the "Going Forth" were the processions which took place in public.
A second significance could be brought closer to that of the mystery of our Christian Middle Age, a representation of the Biblical story which, in this particular case, constituted only a part of the celebrations of Abydos.
Finally, a third view could lean toward the mysteries of Ancient Greece, especially as, for long centuries later, having attended Osirian rituals to Sais, is definite on their meaning: these are mysteries comparable to those existing in the Greek religion.
Is it possible to consider the festivals celebrated in Abydos in honour of Osiris as the Egyptian counterpart of the Greek mysteries ? The answer again remains very controversial, and we can only bring some elements extracted from our Abydos documents, and not without having showing beforehand that which characterises the Greek mysteries.
According to the small amount of gathered information on those of Eleusis, the best-known, it is a question of, during several nights and several days, placing the applicants in certain psychological positions with the help of ceremonies and rituals celebrated in the greatest of secrecy. The mysteries, thus prepared, were revealed by the disclosure of the sacred word and by the ostentation of symbolic objects. Become initiated holders of the Knowledge, they were, as such, free from fear and reached to the state of bliss and serenity. However, they were held to keep the most absolute secret on the Knowledge of which they were henceforth the guardians.
In Abydos, the secret is easiest to put in evidence in the relative inscriptions of the ceremonies honouring Osiris. All those, sovereign, representatives or members of the high ranking clergy, who were brought to take control of the celebration of the Abydos festivals, recorded it on their stelae while using different processes aimed at the greatest possible discretion.
For example, lkhernofret and some others mention voluntarily in the disorder of the rituals and the processions, in which they were involved, with descriptions of the preparations and the functions which they held during the ceremonies, the whole being perfectly incomprehensible for a non aware reader.
Another subterfuge consists in withholding information with the help of already made sentences which are found one monument or another and which have the advantage not revealing much to the layman: " I dressed the god with his crowns in my function of leader of the mystery and in my role of sem-priest. I was skilful with my hands in the act of decorating the god, a sem-priest has pure fingers" (Cairo Stela CG 20538, II, 6-7). Finally, it happens that a particularly meaningful term such as the Neshmet-barque or "mysteries" (shetau), is the object of a graphic simplification intended to make it unrecognisable. This process was used by Nébuauy, first prophet of Osiris under Thutmosis III, on his two stelae (British Museum 1199,18 and Cairo Museum CG 34018,5).
So all means were employed to preserve the secret on what happened in Abydos.

Bliss and serenity are perceptible in the formulas of the stelae which represent two categories of deceased. The first unites people who, for their living, took part in the festivals: the kings, their substitutes, the priests and certain private individuals. Having left earthly life, they want to preserve the good deeds acquired by their involvement with the ceremonies and reach to the blis of the Akhu, the privileged following of Osiris. This is why, they erected the staircase of the God Great, i.e. close to the temple and the site of the processions, of the monuments commemorating their activities at the time of the Abydos festivals.
The second gathers the greatest majority of the dead, those who didn't have the privilege to attend there during their life, but who wish to participate there throughout eternity.
The families erected for them one or several stelae close to the staircase of the God Great so that they can see the progress of the ceremonies and so extract the same good deeds as those who participate there in an efficient way.
Indeed, it seems that the presence of the deceased represented by their stelae, in the place of the celebrations, was sufficient to benefit them in the eminent places of the beyond with Osiris, among the blessed.

After having passed the ultimate test of being counted and the judgement at the time of the Haker festival, all of they who died, those who had participated in the ceremonies during their life and those who had attended there from the other-world through the intermediary of their stela, had access to bliss and to serenity of Akhu, of which the advantages are enumerated in the phraseology of what we agree to call the glorification of Abydos, frequent on the funerary monuments of the Middle Kingdom.
The Akh is acclaimed by all the divine or human beings populating the Thinite nome; He (the Akh) is covered with offerings at the time of the festivities; he is a part of the continuation of Osiris and is admitted into his presence; victorious and justified, he is identified to the God Great, who guarantees him the hope of triumph over death and the prospect of a serene eternal life.

The specific character of the Abydos festivals lies, in what the rituals and the processions accomplished with the aid of the living and especially with that of all the deceased of the necropolis. So that they benefit in their afterlife, with the same privileged status and the same state of bliss, as those which benefited the actual participants, a kind of post-mortem initiation which does not appear to have existed in the ceremonies and mysteries of ancient Greece.