I was going to write about something else, but then I checked my calendar and had a round of “Ack! This is tomorrow!”
And then I cracked out the books and had a round of, “… and preparations would have started two weeks ago in ancient times!” Heh. Well, these things will work out over time, eh?
My calendar for this month says “at the new moon: the Festival of the Beautiful Reunion kicks off the First Fruits of the Harvest”. My reference for how the festival is conducted is pulled from chapter 9 of Barbara Watterson’s The House of Horus at Edfu: Ritual in an Ancient Egyptian Temple.
So, to set the stage: in ancient times, starting at the last full moon, preparations would have been made in Dendera, the offerings of harvest crops, and the preparation of the sacred barge. Hetharu would travel, making state visits, the hundred-mile journey to Edfu, with more and more boats joining in the procession as She passed, until – on the new moon – she arrived at Edfu and was met at the pier by Heru.
It is interesting to note that the actual harvest would likely have begun some two months or so before, and thus the fact that the temple calendars refer to this as the first fruits may be something of a misnomer (and the evidence suggests that it was probably a threshing festival). However, given that our farmshare just paid out its first crate of greens last week, I’m tickled by the timing: right around here, the first fruits actually are being harvested around now. By which I mean “strawberries”. (We also snagged a bin of blueberries at a farmstand the other day.) So it works out all right for northern hemisphere temperate climate as-is, if taken literally.
This is a peaceful holiday, kind of mellow apparently, with even the crocodiles taking the day off. The reunion of these two Powers is a graceful and stately one, with several formal repetitions of the Opening of the Mouth as well as the Powers observing the state of the fields together, watching a ceremony called the driving of the calves, and receiving offerings of ma’at and selections from the recent harvest. We guess They withdrew to a private chapel in the Edfu temple for Their personal renewal of their long-distance marriage to the accompaniment of the welcome songs performed by the temple musicians. Overnight, there was great feasting made available among the populace, which certainly would go a long way towards enhancing the popularity of the festival.
In the following morning, the Beautiful Reunion gives way to the Festival of Behdet (the proper name of Edfu). The Powers went in procession to the local burial grounds, there to make offerings to the ancestors foundational to the city, perhaps in the sacred grove there. Offerings made, a ceremony known as treading the grave (apparently to obscure the signs of burial so that the dead might remain safely undisturbed by malevolent purposes) was performed, and sacrifices of red-pelted animals were made. Four geese were released, one to each of the four cardinal directions, to declare Heru’s claiming of the two crowns.
Additionally, various execration rites were performed: the destruction of a red wax hippo, the recording of names of enemies, the rite of the trampling of the fishes, the smiting of enemies with a sword. These, unlike the other formal rites, may have been conducted at least somewhat publically, to demonstrate the magical protection of the nation was in place.
Similar rites to these were performed on the second, third, and fourth days of the Festival of Behdet, visiting the mounds of a different powerful ancestor each time; upon the fourth night, it is said that the Powers in celebration conceived a son. From the fifth through the fourteenth day, additional festivities were pursued, perhaps on a smaller scale, at which point Hetharu reclaimed Her barge and followed the river home, riding with the current under the light of the full moon.
So, now that I’ve done a summary of the ancient rites as written in Watterson’s book, some thoughts about modern approaches.
There are several major factors intertwining to formulate this festival. One of them, of course, is fertility, which touches upon not only the marriage but the harvest and the offerings made to the divine ancestors. One is sovereignty: it is one place that Heru claims His right to the throne, which is of course also bound up with His performance of the offering rites to the ancestors and the rites dispelling the power of enemies. Protection, of course, comes in with the execration rites as performed and the sacrifices made.
The First Fruits of the Harvest portion of this festival is notably more literal for me in New England than it would have been for the ancient Egyptians, despite the dramatic differences in our growing seasons. Here we are having the first hints of fresh crops appearing on our tables, while the ancients would have been offering bread made from grain reaped and winnowed in accord with ritual prescriptions. For me, then, this must be a festival of the promise of the wealth of the land, rather than its accomplishment; I do not think that this is too far askew of ancient expressions, since the promise and the resolution are so tightly bound together.
Here we have abundance displayed, though, and the feast of is of many different kinds of roast, bread of course, and wine. It is a night of drunken merriment, and if Watterson’s quotation is to be trusted, that night of merriment would indeed have lasted all night. Certainly it is at least worth raising a glass, even if we have to turn in early to make it in to work in the morning.
And because of the abundance – and the nature of harvest as allegorical for the death of Wesir – in the morning, we go to the foundational ancestors, the ones that underlie the land itself here. I find in this festival an ambiguity between Westerners, Powers of the land, and possibly Powers of the land who are also Westerners. (But the Duat is a complicated place….) In any case, these ancestors are responsible for the fertility of the land, and thus partake of its bounty.
I think this ambiguity is a worthwhile matter to consider. The idea of the land as ancestral power – the earth itself made up of the bodies of those which have gone before and the remains of stones – is a potent one. We not only have human ancestors, but the pre-human and non-human as well, making up the humus upon which everything depends. Do you have a relationship with your land-ancestors? Can you build one, by bringing gifts to their mounds and asking what they want? If you are inclined to claim any form of dominion, what do the ancestors of the place where you live think of that?
It is by affirming that tie to the ancestors and the land that Heru takes dominion and claims the two crowns. He announces this with a flight of geese – the animal of Geb – as He ascends to the Throne of Geb. (I find that interesting.)
This is, of course, a generational festival: the ancestors, the married couple, the conception of Their child. Perhaps, for those of us who are married, it may be time to consider renewing and rejuvenating our vows, as the Powers are doing. It is also not just a matter of looking to the founding powers of the land, but to the children who will inherit that land. Raise a glass to them as well, whether our own (born or unborn) or those that will come after in a broader community.
But back to the feasting. A number of different forms of roast are mentioned – and a meat offering is always a declaration of victory over enemies. We are not nations, to speak of enemies domestic and foreign, but within the sovereignties of our own lives: what opposes us, what opposes ma’at in our lives? What bad habits can we write down on a piece of paper, set the kids to scribbling over with crayons, cut up with scissors, and set on fire? What can we inscribe on a little red wax hippo before doing a solid morris dance on its remains? Is it “indecision” that plagues, or “quick-temperedness”? In short, when we cut the joint of meat, what enemy power are we devouring to turn it from opposing us to residing in the belly where it feeds our power?
Last month, with the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, we let the flow of energies between the seen and the unseen rejuvenate both. Here, we are all in the seen, with the cosmic wedding of Heru and Hetharu, and Their renewal of bonds with the land They rule. The flow of rejuvenation continues, and the first fruits of the harvest are upon our tables and the tables of the gods. Here, the lands are united, the earth and heaven are united, and the Throne of Geb is occupied once more.