Festivals in ancient Egypt were not a commemoration, but the updating of a myth by means of specific rites. Their foundation is based in the regular return of a precise, agricultural, astronomical and mythological event. The festivals are synonymous with offerings, following a specific ritual, and transport the participants (who become porters of a mythological role) of the daily world towards the divine world, bringing them closer to the company of the gods.
In the New Kingdom, at the end of the month of Khoiak (last month of the season of inundation, "Akhet") and at the beginning of the one of Tybi (1st month of the growing season, "Peret") which follow each other, in Thebes were a series of festivities, appropriate to Sokar. They include a specific plant, the Egyptian onion, of which the aspect and the reproductive cycle inspired the priestly theologians of the houses of life. This festive cycle culminated in the great Netjeryt festival of Sokar and ended with the festival of Nehebkau ("He Who Unites the Kas"). The festival of Bastet, at the beginning of Pharmuti (4th month of the germination season, also known as the month of Renenutet) is the real end of the Sokar cycle.
On Khoiak 22nd (October 26th) takes place the ritual "to dig up the land", which could have been an agricultural (agrarian) ritual, lately connected to the myth of Sokar.
On Khoiak 23rd, anointment, libation, purification, lead to the embalming of Osiris-Sokar.
The night of Khoiak 23rd/24th, the ritual of the Opening of the Mouth is read in full at the time of a great funerary vigil.
The day of Khoiak 24th is devoted entirely to the mummy's protection.
The night of Khoiak 24th/25th, a procession followed by a navigation transports the mummy towards its tomb.
The day of Khoiak 25th, is mimed the navigation of the deceased on board of the neshemet barque towards Abydos, the holy city of Osiris, where different funeral rituals were carried out. On this occasion, the enemies of Sokar-Osiris are ritually exterminated.
The night of Khoiak 25th/26th, the deceased, likened to Sokar, is made divine, its mummification having returned the vital faculties: the powers of the mummified Sokar-Osiris are restored.
At the dawn of Khoiak 26th (October 30th) the dismembered Sokar-Osiris becomes a solar Osiris. It is the day of the true festival of Sokar, Netjeryt, with the hauling of his Henu barque (which is consubstantial with him), and the great procession which makes "the tour of the walls".
On Khoiak 28th (November 1st) is the feast of the procession of the obelisk.
On Khoiak 30th the Djed pillar is erected.
On Tybi 1st takes place the festival of Nehebkau.
(What follows constitutes, for the essential part, a summary of the articles by Catherine GRAINDORGE-HEREIL - see bibliography)
In Egyptian hieroglyphics, the word "onion" is written
HDw, with sometimes the general plant determinative instead of the three onions. It should be noted that many authors translated
HDw as "garlic"; it seems that they are wrong, but it cannot be excluded that, in certain circumstances, the two plants are interchangeable.
One text asserts that the origin of onion
HDw is milk teeth (a play on words, with
HD which means "white") of Horus which germinated in soil after falling there. In the same way, the white eye of Horus
"which comes from the land" would hint at this white onion which springs from soil. The eye and the tooth of Horus are thus interchangeable.
The onion referred to here is a special one, 'Allium cepa L', the Egyptian one being bulbus (also called the tree onion), which measures about a metre in height. It produces the bulb (on and in the ground), but also, uniquely produces a cluster of bulbilles at the top of the stems.
Culture: at the end of September (therefore at the winter solstice) is the planting of the seedlings on gritty land; 28 days later (a lunar month), the onions produce early bulbilles which can either be consumed or replanted. The big onions, at the base, can be harvested in February, at the time when the days get longer. A summary of the biennial cycle of the plant can be seen .
Besides its use in daily food, a popular belief was given to the onion:
Numerous medicinal, circulatory and anti-inflammatory uses were given to it, to such a point that it became an almost universal means to remove illness and the bad eye.
It had anti-snake properties (curative, preventive, repulsive). A property celebrated at the time of the festival of Bastet, in February. A closeness exists between
HDw "onion" and
HD "to destroy".
In mummification, it is known from the XIth Dynasty it was used for its antiseptic and deodorising properties. It was buried in the body, on the body, between the fabric strips around the mummy's legs.
Onions were part of the offerings always presented to the gods and to the people, always mixed with other vegetables.
At the time of the night of the great Netjeryt festival of Sokar occurs the deification of the deceased through the intermediary of the new, white, luminous onions (a merger of
HDw "onion" with
At the time of the ritual of the Opening of the Mouth, the onions purify the mouth, and a play on words exists between
sk ("to clean")
r ("the mouth") and
skr ("Sokar"). This then makes the face luminous, the prelude to the restoration of the deceased with its solar heart. Chapter 172 of the Book of the Dead would appear in this context:
"You chew the onion by fear of your heart". The onion appears as the guarantee of the maintenance of a heart, protecting the deceased and it is an instrument of a solar rebirth. From then on, the onions presented to the deceased's nostrils allow him to acquire the new breath of life.
It is the only plant of Egypt which reproduces at the same time under ground, on the soil and on a stem, the Egyptian onion thus perfectly evokes the potentialities of Sokar, to be a chthonian (underworld) inhabitant in the Duat, therefore intervening in the sudden appearance of the "First Time" and often taking the celestial form of a falcon. This vertical progression has the advantage to intervene at all levels of the universe in order to maintain it.
The "Festival of Divinisation", renews the union between Horus, cosmic manifestation of rebirth, and Sokar-Osiris, becoming a chthonian entity. On this occasion, the exercise of the divine cult on the west bank at Thebes is turned toward the restoration of the powers of the mummified Sokar-Osiris and is then placed in his tomb, before the great procession of the Henu barque on Khoiak 26th, in the necropolis. The ritual which comes with this transformation rests on the specific offering of onions.
This ceremony also takes place in the private Theban necropolis. During the night of Khoiak 25th, the priests of the ka, or the deceased's family, make the libations and fumigations in the chapels of the tombs. During the night and until the dawn, the living create necklaces of onions and tie them around their neck and also make assemblies of stems of onions in a bundle wreathed with a shackle, which is offered to Sokar and the deceased. They will allow obtaining the breath of life at the time of the ritual of Opening of the Mouth. In the texts are found expressions such as
"to tie necklaces of onions the divine night" or
"the divine morning" or one is asked
"to follow Sokar with onions around the neck".
The onions intervene here in order to clean the mouth (and therefore the teeth) and thus to illuminate the deceased's face. At the time of the opening of the mouth, five bulbs of onions are offered to the deceased, each corresponding to one of the orifices to be opened:
"Five bulbs of onions for the Osiris, justified, who is here. I bring you your white teeth, become fresh. That your face is more illuminated !".
In the New Kingdom, Ptah-Tatenen and Sokar became the two complementary states of a same divine principle: Tatenen was the land which rises up creating a surface translating the appearance of the "First Time" thus, Sokar is the principle of transformation permitting to appear to the surface of soil above.
At the same time, in Thebes, there occurred a fusion between Horus, cosmic manifestation of the solar rebirth, and Osiris-Sokar, becoming the principle chthonian of the richnesses of the land. This fusion produces the link with the onions, at this precise date of Khoiak 25th (October 29th). Indeed, the agricultural calendar perfectly defines the liturgy: the onions planted at the end of September and picked at the end of October are heralding the coming of light and are going to be transplanted in the land, to be chewed at the time of the festival of Bastet, February 5th, when all snakes come out of their hibernation and where the swallows return announcing the sun of summer.
The snake god or the one with the head of a snake,
"He Who Unites the Kas" has an ambivalent, dangerous role but also beneficial. It is written that the deceased asks to be recommended to him in the beyond. As highlighted by Shorter, it is difficult to understand how this obscure entity had such a place in a festival of such an importance. Unless by considering a tradition which states that he was the son of the god of the land, Geb, and of the goddess of the crops, Renenutet. Since the New Kingdom, Nehebkau had such a narrow link with Sokar.
This day of the festival of Nehebkau also corresponds to one of two New Year Days of the Egyptian year, "the 1st day of the year", and the other, New Year's Day in summer, with the arrival of the flooding.
The bundles of onions to be chewed are present in the ritual of this festival of Bastet. It is the time of the mature onions, which are consumed on the night of Pharmuti 4th (February 5th). The onions mature in the ground in an obscure and gritty environment, evoking the domain of Sokar in the Duat. The festival of Bastet, the real end of the Sokarian cycle, became an "anti-snake" festival. The ophidians, the snake-like spirit, who hibernated in soil by the power of the onions leaves, menaced the ascension of the summery light, just as Apophis threatens the progress of the solar barque in the Duat at the time of the nocturnal journey of the sun. Bastet, one of the feline goddesses who personified the burning eye of Re in the myth of the lion-like goddess, became then the protector of the burning sun of summer.