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The Festivals of Khoiak

The festivals of Khoiak are among the best attested from ancient Egypt. They revolve around the myth of the god Osiris, murdered by his brother Seth, and revived by his sister-wife Isis to the point where she could conceive their son Horus. Osiris withdrew to rule the underworld, while Isis protected Horus until he was old enough to avenge his father in battle with Seth, and win the throne. The death and revival of Osiris provide the mythic echo of the annual rebirth of crops. In the ceremony, seeds were sown in earth, which was from the New Kingdom shaped in moulds to the form of Osiris; the sown earth was watered until the seeds germinated, and then this guarantor of a successful crop was buried. The timing of the festival in the official year placed it in the fourth month of flood, just as the waters receded to expose silt-covered fields fresh for sowing. The name of the festival was ka-her-ka 'ka upon ka' (or 'sustenance upon sustenance'); it survived into Christian times as the name of the fourth month of the season of flood, rendered in Coptic as Khoiak.

The focus on grain and burial can be found already in the Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BC), with earth packets and gridded sowing beds in funerary contexts such as the pyramid complex of Senusret II at Lahun, and formulae among the funerary literature such as Coffin Text 269 'formula to become barley', in which the deceased becomes 'the life that comes from Osiris', and Coffin Text 330 'formula to become Nepri' (personification of grain).

The burial of king Tutankhamun included a bed of seeded earth in the form of the god Osiris in profile, an early and royal example of the later local temple 'Osiris beds'. In the Theban Tomb-chapel of Neferhotep, dating to about 1300 BC, there is recorded for Flood Season month 4, day 18 'day of watering the grain and spreading the bed for the Osiris Neferhotep from this day until day 25, total 8 days', followed by a formula for empowering the funerary bier, a rite of burial known from the Coffin Texts of the early Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BC). This can be compared with the later sources in the table below.

From the Late Period there are preserved numerous cases figures, and cases for figures, of both Osiris and the falcon-headed funerary god at Memphis, named Sokar; in combination with extended written sources in inscription and manuscript, these figures indicate that every city temple made a seeded earth figure every year in these ceremonies, with burial each year of figures, and exhuming the figures of the previous year, in a special area of the necropolis of that city. The forms vary from place to place and across time, but the general practice seems regular across the country. The rites culminated in a ceremony of raising the Djed, the pillar symbolising the backbone of Osiris (djed is the Egyptian word for 'stability').

The following table provides comparison of the episodes as recorded in four key sources:

  1. the temple for the cult of king Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, about 1150 BC
  2. a granite trough for the seeded earth, inscribed under a Dynasty 22 king at Koptos, about 850 BC
  3. the record of myth and religious events and materials on a late Ptolemaic Period papyrus, Papyrus Jumilhac, about 100 BC
  4. the inscriptions in a roof chapel on the temple of Hathor at Denderah, dating to the early Roman Period, about AD 100

A fifth source is the funerary papyrus Louvre N 3176 columns V-VI, giving the rites for Osiris at Karnak temple, on days 18 to 26, with the 'procession of Osiris' on day 26. The relevant Osiris Khoiak chambers have recently been uncovered in the Karnak temple precinct.

The column on the left gives the day of the month (in the fourth month of the year - Season of Flood, month 4).


day Medinet Habu Koptos basin Papyrus Jumilhac Dendera chapel
12   watering the moulds   watering the Osiris/relic moulds
13   watering the moulds   watering the moulds
14   watering the moulds   watering the moulds; Sokar figure made
15   watering the moulds   watering the moulds
16   watering the moulds   watering the moulds; anointing the Sokar figure, placed on bier
17   watering the moulds   watering the moulds
18   watering the moulds   watering the moulds
19   watering the moulds finding the head of Osiris watering the moulds; censing the Sokar figure
20   watering the moulds finding the eyes of Osiris watering the moulds; weaving the shroud
21 opening window in Shetayt shrine watering the moulds finding the jaws of Osiris Osiris and relic figures taken out of moulds; cloth woven
22 hoeing the earth watering the moulds finding the neck/arm of Osiris search on the Sacred Lake
23 making way in Shetayt shrine watering the moulds finding the innards of Osiris burial preparations
24 placing Sokar in their midst procession of figures finding the intestines of Osiris removal of figures of last year
25 Netjeryt (tying onion strings in evening) final rites on roof (or 26?) finding the lungs/phallus of Osiris  
26 Sokar festival - circling the walls final rites on roof (or 25?) finding the thighs/legs of Osiris  
27     finding the leg/fingers of Osiris  
28     finding the phallus/arm of Osiris  
29     finding the heart of Osiris  
30 raising the Djed pillar  

finding arm/Horus sons; raising the Djed pillar

burial of figures; raising the Djed pillar



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