The usual elements of the banquet
The banqueting scenes are generally found in the first room of the chapel, close to the scenes of offerings and far from the scenes of the funeral proper.
which unfortunately survives only in the British Museum and in the form of fragments torn from the walls. In tomb TT52 of Nakht we also find female characters who have a lot of elegance and beauty.
Apart from a few married couples, the sexes are mostly separated, spread over several registers. More rarely, men and women rub shoulders, as in tomb TT93 of Kenamun.
The guests sit according to their social rank on chairs, stools, or on the floor, on mats. The company consists of people belonging, like the owner, to the elite. It is likely that from time to time subordinates, neighbours ... are invited, but the texts are clear: there is no question of drinking alone.
The artist can take a few liberties in these scenes that offer a good reflection of fashion, which changes from one reign to another. However, we do not escape stereotypical attitudes, the variety of traditional gestures being reduced. Most often, the characters have the arm and forearm extended and the palm of the hand turned down: it is the gesture of reception (or possession)
"shesep". The other hand rests against the chest, grasps a lotus stalk or - more rarely - a folded piece of cloth, or - even more rarely - the guest's shoulder in front.
We note the absence of elderly people and children: the participants are all young and attractive, in full possession of their sexual power (and thanks to the performative action of the image, they will remain so forever). From the middle of the XVIIIth dynasty, we can find representations of naked and pubescent teenagers included, clearly intended to stimulate sexual desire. They are dancers, or maidservants, who help other older women. Servants and maids bustle around the guests, arranging a lock of the wig, tying a floral necklace, rubbing ointment or perfume on a forehead ()… and above all they offer drink!
Main elements of the party
Lotus in flower or as a bud, mandrakes, necklaces and garlands of flowers, jars of ointments, oils or perfumes, scented cones ... are all at the disposal of the guests, who often also have the pleasure of being accompanied by musicians and dancers.
1)- Food and drinks
The various edible provisions appear on tables and on mats near the deceased. On the ground, piled up or arranged on trays, are jugs and amphoras full of wine and beer, sometimes surrounded by a lotus stem, as in the tomb of Imiseba TT65 (), or sometimes by a vine, as with Djeserkareseneb TT38 ().
2)- The plants
This is essentially the blue lotus (), or less often the white lotus; the pink lotus does not appear until the Persian period. These Nymphaeaceae are sometimes poorly differentiated by the Egyptians who group them under the word
The lotus, praised for its beauty and fragrance is also a powerful symbol of rebirth, of eternally renewed life. The Hermopolitan cosmogony was influenced by the behavior of the blue lotus, which in the morning opens, revealing a ball of golden yellow stamens: theologians saw in this the image of the solar disk leaving the Nun (the primordial ocean) every morning, as it did on the first day of the world.
The plant can be seen held by the stem, with its flower open or in bud in front of the nose, stitched into the wig of the ladies, around the necks of the guests in the form of floral necklaces "wah" or in floral garlands.
Wine and lotus are also intimately linked, and when wine jars are represented, they are often surrounded by stems of lotus buds or flowers (, Benia TT343).
The fruit of the mandrake
This perennial herb was cultivated in Egypt since the New Kingdom; it was imported from the Middle East where it was already known as aphrodisiac and able to make women fertile. Contrary to what will happen in the West where only the strange humanoid shaped rhizome roots gave rise to a negative interpretation, this is never evoked by the Egyptians who are interested only in the fruit (an example of ). It is sometimes difficult to distinguish from the fruit of Persea on parietal representations. Its color is ochre or orange and its spherical shape evokes the solar disk, which explains why the fruit is often used together with the lotus in bouquets sometimes mounted in a complex manner, as in the .
Its beautiful color and sweet smell quickly made it a symbol of love, desire and sexual power. Thus, in the tomb of Sennefer TT96, we see the deceased hold against his chest a mounted bouquet associating the "berry that creates love" (Keimer) and the lotus flower: the yellow ball seems to come out of the petals as the sun rises out of the horizon on the first day. We thus recall the hermopolitan myth of the birth of the world ().
In banquets, like the lotus flower but less often, the fruit is presented in front of the nose of a guest, almost always a woman, as in a famous scene of the tomb of Nakht (TT52) where we see young girls passing these fruits from one to another.
3)- The festival cone and two-tone clothing
The Scented Cone
A ubiquitous element, a so-called festival cone (or Theban cone) is often depicted upon the hair or wig of banquet participants, including the owner of the tomb, his wife and the musicians; it also appears on the heads of statues carved in the rock, as in the tomb of Nefersekheru TT296 ().
Its physical reality has been questioned, since the scented fat that supposedly formed it would have permeated a dress and wig by melting; however the wig is a precious object, intended to last and difficult to clean.
We often see a servant anointing a guest () by drawing material from a white substance that a helper carries in a dish. Does this really create a cone, or is it just anointing? We do not know.
Nadine Cherpion and Richard Parkinson propose to see the cone as a purely symbolic representation of the perfumes, oils and ointments used in anointing a person. Indeed, the Egyptians need a concrete realisation to represent intangible entities. It would be shown so to represent good odours, particularly important for them, because such odours evoked sexuality, eroticism and therefore rebirth.
For Joan Padgham, the cone symbolizes the ability of the deceased owner of a funeral cult to move - in the form of a Ba - between the world of the afterlife and the world of the living. This interpretation has not met much acceptance up to the present day.
The two-tone garments appear in the time of Thutmose IV (at the same time as the ointment cones) and are found during the Ramesside period. The white linen clothes take on a yellow-orange hue in the upper part of the body. The yellow colour is a way for the artist to show that large amounts of perfume have been applied, reflecting the wealth and opulence of the banquet organizer. But we do not know why the clothes of the owner of the tomb are less frequently two tones than those of his guests…
4)- Orchestra and dancers
The musicians are not always represented, but are supposed to be present for the party to be complete. The orchestra can be female and include a harpist, as in the tomb of Rekhmire. It is necessary to distinguish this harpist who plays in an orchestra from the "blind" harpist who is very often solitary, declaims his song which sometimes surprises by the doubts and the questions which it expresses.
The banquet: a ritual and social drunkenness?
As Lise Manniche pointed out, these "banquets" are very strange: nobody eats! The guests were gathered to drink with the deceased. It's not just about sharing a cup of wine together, but about "drinking to the point of drunkenness". And it is this search for drunkenness that reunites the participants: to reach a second state that allows the liberation of the mind and the freeing of the senses, the confusion of the world of the living and the dead, drinking a lot, to such an extent that they sometimes got sick.
Servants carrying small vases containing? Refusal by the guests - Pahery, Elkab
Servants and maids offer diners alcoholic beverages. But what can the small vases they hold in their hands contain? They are too small for wine or beer.
The words of a song praising the goddess Mut, which seem to allude to a product mixed with wine or beer, can be read in the tomb of Horemheb TT78: "The goddess Mut came with her beautiful face to put the food on the table, to shake her sistrum, and to mix her drink in a gold bowl, with what is found in another of lapis lazuli".
Some, intrigued by these allusions as well as by the small containers, have evoked the taking of a hallucinogenic substance that would have allowed the participants to put themselves in an ecstatic state. So let's see what pharmacological studies say.
Data in the literature is sometimes contradictory in this area.
Studies made before the 1990s have isolated alkaloids in the flowers and rhizome of Nymphaea coerulae resulting in sedation with the consequence that inhibitions are lifted. Not only do these alkaloids when diluted in alcohol (they are not soluble in water) have powerful effects, but they can be toxic (Benson-Harer, Emboden). These results have been criticized: the (botanical) genus of the blue lotus of antiquity is not necessarily the same as that existing today. On the other hand, the rare wine residues recovered have never shown the presence of any alkaloid.
The mandrake fruit contains hallucinogenic but dangerous alkaloids; this toxicity makes of it an essentially medicinal plant; on the other hand, with regard to its psychotropic use the same criticisms as above are made.
The opinion prevailing today (Rolf Krauss) postulates that it is for their perfume and their place in symbolising love that we find lotus and mandrake in the banquet scenes, and not for their pharmacological properties.
Altogether, the use of psychotropic substances by the Egyptians at banquets is not proven, even if the doubt persists. It seems that it is the association of alcohol, perfumes, music, dance that allows them to reach the desired ecstatic state, without necessarily having to resort to psychotropic drugs.
To drink or not drink?
This "mystical drunkenness" should not be confused with profane drunkenness, as the Egyptians themselves were well aware. There is indeed a double discourse here. The Wisdom texts advised one not to drink to excess, and particularly criticized public drunkenness. But other texts speak of drink and drunkenness as a ritual prerogative, a sign of sincere devotion having a sacred meaning, not for the pleasure it provides, but because it leads to a liminal condition favouring the contact of the living with the deceased and the realm of the gods.
Fifteen tombs showing guests vomiting up after drinking too much
This explains why the servants promise to stay with guests who express some reluctance: their role is to stimulate them, convince them to drink and reassure them; they will not leave them if they are sick and will take them home. So this servant in the chapel of in Elkab insists :
"To your Ka! drink to drunkenness! Celebrate! Listen to what your parent tells you. Do not be unjustifiably passive!"
Participation in the process of collective drunkenness is considered an obligation and the refusal to drink is experienced as both incorrect and unacceptable.
Gradually, it seems that questions have arisen about what should, mutatis mutandis, look like bacchanalia.
While we never see a character slumped on his seat, or having slipped to the ground, sometimes guests are represented throwing up. Such realism in a funerary chapel is really very surprising as it transgresses the codified laws of propriety. Remember, for example, that outside the Amarna period, the Egyptians do not even represent the act of eating.
It is in this context that we sometimes find a gesture whose meaning - refusal - is clear, but whose motivation is less obvious. One of the guests refuses the cup that a servant hands him, or refuse to be served again: he raises his arm, forearm vertically, palm of the hand turned forward in a very expressive gesture (not to be confused with the same gesture when there is no one in front, which shows that the subject will speak); the other hand may be a closed fist, sometimes tightly holding a piece of rolled cloth (as in ).
In the tomb of Pahery, one of the guests refuses to allow the servant to refill his cup again. At the same time, her neighbour in front turns around and calls the same servant, demanding
"18 cups of wine": she wants to get drunk because she feels as dry as parchment!
A scene from Rekhmirê's tomb TT100 helps one to better understand the problem. Two maidservants take care of three ladies who are drinking. The legend says,
"Is it maat (= good, nice) in her (= goddess) eyes that one should get drunk?" (Note: for the difference between the goddess Maat and the maat see ).
Fischer notes that the word
"Maat" 1) is written in retrograde writing, with hieroglyphs reversed compared to those of the rest of the text 2) that these inverted signs are turned towards the three guests 3) includes as determinative the image of the goddess . He concludes: "Yes, for Rekhmire, drunkenness is justified and has the approval of the goddess". The presence of Maat's feather adorning various objects of the banquet also points in this direction.
The gesture of refusal does not come from the fantasy of the painter who would like to break the monotony of the repetitive alignments of guests; nor is it an indication that some of them, for personal taste, do not wish to drink. For Brian Betsy, it should be seen a societal problem that has been transposed onto the walls of some tombs: it would be a monumentalization of the discourse on death and doubts that begin to emerge in a part of society as to the effectiveness of the tomb, funerary rites ... As we will see, these doubts will be expressed in some tombs by scenes of a song of the Harpist.
The festive banquet disappears from the iconographic repertory of the tombs after the end of the XVIIIth dynasty, but it is not known if these bacchanals really disappear or if the theme was simply neglected.
The Banquet: a strengthening of the social bond of the elite and a display of its wealth?
But the sexual symbolism in the banquet scenes must not make us forget that they also fulfil other functions (Nicola Harrington): to create a strong social network at the moment of death and to encourage the participants to meet regularly so that the funerary cult continues.
The owner of a tomb is part of the ruling elite and wants to let it be known. The very organization of these banquets represents a considerable investment for the owner: preparing food, beer, ointments and oils, floral garlands, reed mats and linen clothing within a short period of time, presupposes a large, organized and skilled workforce.
All of this sustains the prime position of the one giving the orders and increases his prestige. The hierarchy of places at the banquet, the contact with the ancestors during the drunkenness, the repetition of the festivals evoke a temporal continuity validating the social order established by making it the natural order. This is an opportunity to create alliances, a clientele…
Pascal Vernus wrote:
"Let us renounce, once and for all, the naiveties of the Egyptomaniac
Contrary to appearances, nothing spontaneous, nothing realistic, nothing natural in the decoration of the funerary chapels of the members of the elite. On the contrary, a sophisticated manipulation prevails, entirely devoted to presenting a gratifying image of the patrician. A gratifying image for his destiny in the afterlife, for the deities, and also for his destiny here below, for the benefit of his contemporaries and his posterity. The ranking of places at the banquet, the contact with the ancestors during drunkenness, the repetition of the fetes evoke this".
The banquet provides an appropriate environment for the boundaries between the worlds to become permeable and for the living to interact with dead ancestors. This requires the combination of ritual, music, dance and alcohol that create an erotic context for regeneration. The banquet also allows the formation of a relational network and a clientele, while it also delivers a political message: the existing social order, which has lasted since the time of the ancestors, is the natural order of things.
A tomb is the showcase of the prestige, knowledge and resources enjoyed by a prominent member of the XVIIIth Dynasty, reflecting both his wealth and influence, which enabled him to have the best craftsmen of his time. If the decor is particularly beautiful or original, the owner of the tomb can hope to attract many visitors to his chapel and thus increase his chances of receiving a material or vocal offering.
The great concern of the tomb owner is over the abandonment of his cult one day or another. He knows that it is inevitable, and the "song of the harpist" (see below) takes care to remind him of it: forgetfulness, estrangement, economic necessities which make the needs of the living prevail... It is then falls to representations in the tomb to take over and, by sympathetic magic, to replace the forgetful descendants.