The Festival of Drunkenness

A drawing based on an ancient Egyptian wall painting shows a drinking festival in progress. The upper row of figures features revelers drinking wine, including one woman who has overindulged. The lower row shows a procession with musicians.
Courtesy of Betsy Bryan via

No, dear reader, this is not Panama City on Spring Break.  This is an actual religious festival from ancient Egypt.  We have discussed how beer played a part in religious festivals, and that the Sumerians actually had a goddess specifically for it. (For more on Nin-kasi, please see this post: )  There was an importance placed on beer in Egyptian culture as well.  The source of this festival is a mythological story of how beer saved the world.

The story goes that Re, the sun god, was frankly salty about the “duplicitousness” of mankind and called his children together to discuss it.  A Council of the Gods is called, and they decide to punish the rebellious men by letting loose the goddess Hathor.  She stormed out in the form of Sakhnet, which literally means female magical power.  In some stories this is the form of a great flood, and in others it is the form of a lion.  Whatever this form is, Hathor went to town killing everyone up and down the Nile Valley.  Re and the other gods started to feel bad about what they let loose, and tried to get her to stop, but at this point Hathor was in a blood rage and would not and could not stop.  In order to stop her murderous rampage, the Council of the Gods flooded the fields with beer that had been tinted red with ocher to look like blood.  Hathor greedily lapped it up and got drunk and passed out.  Mankind was saved by drunkenness.

Originally, it was thought these rituals took place in later in Egyptian history when they were ruled the Greeks and Romans.  However, recent discoveries from the excavations of the Temple of Mut complex in Luxor show they took place much earlier- around 1470 BCE.  Dr. Betsy Bryan’s research has found the Festival of Drunkenness was celebrated by people at least once a year, sometimes twice, in homes, temples and makeshift desert shrines.  It was different than many other temple ceremonies as the priests or pharaoh would act on behalf of the people.  In this ritual, everyone participated together- the elites and the peasants.  The scene is described in a hymn to Sakhnet as young women with flowing garlands in their hair serving alcohol to everyone  They all drink to the point of passing out, then are awoken to the beating of drums and the priests carried out a likeness of the goddess Hathor and they present their petitions to her.  It wasn’t just drinking going on either.  Graffiti was found discussing “traveling the marshes”, which is a euphemism for having sex.  These festivals took place at the beginning of the Nile floods in mid-August, which hearkened to the fertility and renewal of the land by the floods.

The excavations have found what is termed a “porch of drunkenness” associated with Hatshepsut, the woman who became pharaoh.  (For more on Hatshepsut, please see this post )  The porch was constructed at the height of her reign.  It has been theorized that Hatshepsut was instrumental in popularizing the festival to justify her assumption of pharaonic powers by association with a Great Goddess.  There is also a tantalizing discussion of Hatshepsut driving off enemies of Egypt termed the “shemau”, which at least one historian believes was the Jewish people.  Then the festivals would be a time to celebrate the fertility of the remaining Egyptians and to replenish their population.  This would place the Biblical exodus much earlier than theorized.  There is no additional corroboration for this theory however.

No one knows why the porch of drunkenness was taken down.  Hatsheput’s name was stricken by her successor, Thutmose III, so it could have been part of that campaign.  The ritual fell out of favor as well, and according to Bryan it had lost favor completely by the reign of Amenhotep III.  She observed that Egyptians did not like the alcohol making them lose control, and that was what this ritual was about- taking them to the edge of chaos.  However, in the time of the fun loving Greeks and Romans it regained popularity.  Herodotus reported in 440 BCE that the festivals drew as many as 700,000 participants and drunkenness and sexual permissiveness was the rule.  There are also mentions of the festival as late as 200 CE.  Although the significance of it had gone, there’s nothing better than a good party.


The Vanishing Persian Army of Cambyses

Persian warriors, a detail from the frieze in Darius’ palace in Susa. Pergamon Museum / Vorderasiatisches Museum, Germany. Image credit: Mohammed Shamma / CC BY 2.0.
Persian warriors, a detail from the frieze in Darius’ palace in Susa. Pergamon Museum / Vorderasiatisches Museum, Germany. Image credit: Mohammed Shamma / CC BY 2.0.

When your dad is Cyrus the Great, you have a lot to live up to.  He began the Achaemenid Empire and reigned over the territory from Asia Minor to India.  Unfortunately, Cyrus met his match in a warrior queen named Tomyris and went to his long home.   (More on her in this post: )  This left his son Cambyses in charge.  There had been a bit of trouble when he was overseeing things for his father in Babylon.  No one is quite sure, but the Chronicle of Nabonidus indicates there was an issue during the very important New Year’s Akitu festival.   Possibly with Cambyses being armed during the ceremony, which was expressly forbidden.  However, all of this was glossed over as Cambyses was the chosen heir and took the throne around 530 BCE.

To set Cambyses off on the right foot, he took up the conquest of Egypt.  Although the Egyptian empire had been weakened, it was no pushover.  Pharaoh Amasis was ready to fight and had allied himself with Greek mercenaries to augment their navy.  Unfortunately, their Greek allies turned coat and didn’t fight.  There is no record of a sea battle, and the Persians marched in six months later and defeated the Egyptian army.  Amasis was dead and his son Psammetichus was captured and surrendered, receiving honorable treatment.  What is telling also is the admiral of the Egyptian fleet, Wedjahor-Resne, became Cambyses’ right hand man soon after the conquest.  Perhaps there was some more turncoating afoot?  Who knows.  What is known is Cambyses was recognized as the new pharaoh of Egypt with Wedjahor-Resne by his side as adviser.

However, not everyone was ready to play nice with the Persian conquerors.  According to Herodotus, in 524 BCE the priests at the Temple of Amun at the Oasis of Siwa rejected Cambyses.  That wasn’t going to stand, and Cambyses sent an army of 50,000 soldiers from Thebes to march into the desert and take care of these rebel priests.  Herodotus reports the god Amun must not have liked someone trying to beat up on his priests and sent a sandstorm to swallow up the army.  Since that day, no one has found hide nor hair of them.  And that was that.  Well, not exactly.  Experience has shown you can’t die from a sandstorm alone.  So what happened to the 50,000 men?

19th century engraving of The Lost Army of Cambyses. Public domain.
19th century engraving of The Lost Army of Cambyses. Public domain.

Egyptologist Olaf Kaper believes he has the answer.  In 2014 he published his findings and based on his research, he believe the army was not headed for Siwa but for the Dachla Oasis.  This was the location of a shadowy figure in Egyptian history, Petubastis III.  He is thought to have been a local price and possibly a member of the old royal line.  He was the leader of the rebel movement against Cambyses.  Kaper found an inscription by Petubastis III that he defeated the lost army of Cambyses via an ambush.  After this, he was crowned pharaoh in the lower Egypt capital of Memphis.  He believes Cambyses’ successor Darius I put forth the sandstorm story to cover up his predecessor’s shameful defeat.

However, two other archeologists, Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni, believe they found the resting place of the lost army.  They believe the army did not travel the well known route, but tried to sneak to Siwa around the back.  Instead of gaining surprise in battle, they only found the khamsin, the strong, hot wind from the Sahara desert.  In an excavation in 2009, they found a mass grave with hundreds of bleached bones and skulls.  Amongst the bones were Persian artifacts, such as arrow heads and horse bits.  Additional excavation has not been started according to the Egyptian authorities.

So was the army lost to natural elements or a military blunder?  Without additional study, we will never know.


The Harem Conspiracy

The mummy of Ramesses III, who ruled Egypt from 1186 B.C. to 1155 B.C. Credit: The BMJ

The royal court is never an easy place.  Its full of intrigue and deception and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  This is true today as it was in ancient times.  In Egypt, no one was more powerful than the Pharaoh.  However, in the Twentieth Dynasty, Pharaoh Ramses III was getting old.  He had ruled Egypt for a little over thirty years, and people were getting antsy.  Since he wasn’t vacating the throne on his own power, perhaps it was time to help him along.

Ramses had many wives like most pharaohs, however, unlike most pharaohs he did not name a Great Royal Wife.  This left the harem open to scheming and backbiting of all kinds.  There was the son of a senior wife who was the heir designate though.  This did not sit well with one of Ramses secondary queens, Tiy.  She was ambitious for her son, Prince Pentewere.  Tiy wanted him on the throne of Egypt not his half brother.  To achieve this, she had to get rid of both the old man, Ramses III, and the heir.  Tiy hatched a plan, but to make it work she needed the help of others.  So she started recruiting, and won stewards, inspectors, women of the harem, a priest, a magician and even a general to her side.  Her main co-conspirators were Pebekamen, the chief of the
chamber, and Mesedsure, a butler.  Their plans are outlined in detail in the Papyrus Rollin, the Papyrus Turin and the Papyrus Lee, which are transcripts of their trial.  Spoiler alert.  They did not succeed.

Pebekamen procured wax figures from a man named Pehuybin, which was supposed to disable the limbs of people.  These figures were secreted into the harem and more magic spells were performed to weaken the targets and evade any guards who might try to foil their plans.  This magic was done by the court magician and Ramses’ personal physician.  Messages were sent from one of the harem wives involved to her brother who was a captain of archers to “stir up the people” against Ramses.  This was going to be a full on decapiter plot with a matching revolution.  However, the plotters ran into problems as someone must have gotten scared and ratted them out.  Tiy, Pentawere and dozens of others were put on trial.  In the Papyri, it is suggested Pentewere was convicted.  Ramses’ other son became Ramses IV.  The coup ultimately failed.

One thing remained unclear, however, how far did the plot go?  There was confusion around whether Ramses III died a natural death later or if the plot had succeeded in killing him.  There were some stories of poison or that Ramses III survived the initial attack to die at a later date.  In 2012, a team revisited the mummy of Ramses III and performed a CT scan.  They found the mummy had a serious wound in his throat.  In the paper discussing their findings, the team wrote, “The large and deep cut wound in his neck must have been caused by a sharp knife or other blade,” the team wrote in a paper on their findings, published in the British Medical Journal on Monday (Dec. 17). They added that the cut, which severed his trachea, esophagus and large blood vessels,
would have killed him instantly.”

There is also question around what happened to Pentewere.  After being found guilty, he would have most certainly been put to death.  However, what happened to his body?  No one is quite sure, however, there is an unidentified mummy called Unknown Man E or the Screaming Mummy.  It was discovered in 1886 with an agonized expression on his face, which led to speculation of poison or being buried alive.  A 2008 National Geographic documentary investigated the possibility that Unknown Man E was Prince Pentawere.  The Papyri indicate Pentawere was given the “option” to commit suicide instead of being executed.  He may have used poison to take this option.  The mummy of Unknown Man E contains all its organs and is wrapped in a goat skin, which is not inline with typical mummification procedure.  Goat skin was considered ritualistically impure in ancient Egypt.  All of these things, may be interpreted as evidence punishment into the afterlife.  However, it was a kinder punishment than if he was executed as his body would have been burned and his ashes scattered.  This would have excluded him from any sort of an afterlife.  A genetic analysis of this mummy showed that Unknown Man E shared the same paternal lineage as Ramses III, which “strongly suggest[ed] that they were father and son”.  


The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great

Augustus Caesar venerates the mummy of Alexander in 30BC by Showmer Photo credit-
Augustus Caesar venerates the mummy of Alexander in 30BC by Showmer Photo credit-

Alexander the Great conquered the known world, but died unexpectedly in Babylon in 323 BCE at 32 years old.  His death left his empire in disarray, and his generals scrambled to save pieces of it  even as Alexander’s funeral preparations drug on for two years.  At one point, one of these generals, Ptolemy, took control of both Egypt and the great general’s body.  According to Roman historian Curtius Rufus, “Alexander’s body was taken to Memphis by Ptolemy, into whose power Egypt had fallen, and transferred from there a few years later to Alexandria, where every mark of respect continues to be paid to his memory and his name.  This was a big deal as Macedonia tradition was that the heir to the throne asserted their claim by burying their predecessor.  The priests at the temple of Ptah embalmed Alexander’s body, but did not want it to stay in Memphis.  Legend says they said he would not rest wherever he was laid.  Plutarch said representatives were sent to the oracle at the serapeum, and it said Alexander should lay in his name sake city of Alexandria.  It was moved to the Soma, a walled enclosure in the royal district where the Ptolomaic kings were laid.  Carved into the rock underneath was a beautiful tomb where Alexander lay in state in a crystal coffin.

Alexander’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage in the ancient world, and was visited by several Roman emperors.  The future Emperor Augustus visited the tomb after his victory over Cleopatra and Marc Antony.  He brought flowers and a golden diadem, and according to Dio Cassius a piece of his nose broke off when Augustus touched it.  The priests spun it as a blessing from Alexander to his new heir, but who really knows?  According to Suetonius, Caligula took the cuirass of Alexander from the tomb and wore it about on dress up occasions.  The last emperor to visit was Caracalla in 215 CE.  The last mention of the tomb was in early 4th century CE in an oration addressed to the emperor Theodosius that Alexander’s body was still on display in Alexandria.  Soon after Theodosius outlawed the worship of pagan gods.  This edict included Alexander, who had been deified and was worshiped as a god king.  Soon after, all trace of Alexander’s body and tomb disappears.  He is listed by Theodoret in the early 5th century CE as being among the famous whose tombs were unknown.

What happened to such a famous landmark?  Historians believe the Soma was destroyed in 365 CE when a tsunami hit the Alexandria and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean.  There are reports of ships being sent into the roofs of buildings, so it would not be out of the realm of possibility that this kind of natural disaster could have destroyed the Soma.  However, there are reports later than this of the body being on display, so it would make sense that it had been moved when the Soma was destroyed.  There are also references to a mosque or tomb of Alexander from Arab texts in the 9th and 10th centuries CE.  A map of Alexandria drawn in 1575 shows a building with a minaret and chapel and is labelled “Domus Alexandri Magni”, Latin for “House of Alexander the Great”.  When Napoleon invaded Egypt, he saw an empty sarcophagus in the courtyard of the Attarine Mosque, which was located where the 1575 map shows “House of Alexander the Great”.  But where is the body?  Stories from local guides say the body is hidden in a secret chamber in the new mosque built to honor Nabi Daniel or the prophet Daniel.  However, there is another theory.

Historian Andrew Chugg put forth a theory that the body of Alexander the Great isn’t in Egypt at all.  He theorized the disappearance of the mummy corresponded with the wave of Christianity through Egypt.  Theodosius’ edict did apply to Alexander as he was worshiped as a deified king.  About this time another mummy appeared in Alexandria- that of St. Mark the Evangelist.  This is curious ancient Christian writers such as Dorotheus, Eutychius and the Chronicon Paschale report St. Mark’s body as being burnt by pagans.  However, there is an apocryphal document which states a “miraculous storm” came up and allowed Christians to save St. Mark’s body from the fire.  Guess when this anonymous document was found in Alexandria?  In the 4th century CE, right around the time Theodosius outlawed the worship of pagan gods.  What a coincidence.

The story gets stranger from there.  The mummy stayed in Alexandria until it fell under Arab rule.  In 828 CE, two Venetian merchants smuggled the mummy out in a basket.  They supposedly kept the Alexandrian port officials from inspecting the basket too closely by covering the body with perfume and pork.  It was spirited back to Venice, where it was installed in the Basilica of St. Mark with much pomp and circumstance.

Hellenistic funerary sculpture of a shield with a starburst motif discovered in the foundations of St Marks in Venice. Photo Credit-
Hellenistic funerary sculpture of a shield with a starburst motif discovered in the foundations of St Marks in Venice. Photo Credit-

So does the body of Alexander the Great rest in Venice masquerading as a saint?  No one knows.  In 2008, a large block of sculpture was found embedded in the foundations of the Basilica near the tomb of the saint.  It has been identified as a funerary relief from a high status tomb of the 3rd century BCE.  The stone bears a life sized shield with the starburst emblem of Alexander’s family and a single edged sword called a kopis.  No one has any concrete theories on how it got there.  An easy way to settle this would be to test the remains, but the Roman Catholic Church has not granted permission for this.  So the mummy remains shrouded in mystery.


Ancient Ghost Stories

tumblr_mvb74p1mjg1rwjpnyo1_1280Anyone familiar with Greek myth knows that any hero worth his salt had to make a visit to the underworld.  However, the afterlife was not an unfamiliar concept to any of the cultures of the ancient world.  In fact, ancient peoples were probably more sure that the soul survived bodily death than some in the modern world.  The details of the afterlife differed from culture to culture, but there are consistent themes.  The afterlife was a place ruled by specific laws and souls could only roam the earth if given specific permission from the gods for special circumstances.  These usually included murder, where the murderer went unpunished, improper funeral rites or death where the body was never recovered, for example drowning.  The return of these spirits was not a welcome thing for the relatives involved, in fact many of our funeral customs stem from the desire to protect family members from an unquiet ghost.  These include covering mirrors, wearing black and lighting candles around the body.  

If a ghost did appear to a person on earth, it was up to that person to right the wrong so the ghost could continue on to the afterlife.  In ancient Mesopotamia, these visitations manifested themselves as sickness.  The scholar Robert D. Biggs writes, “The dead – especially dead relatives – might also trouble the living, particularly if family obligations to supply offerings to the dead were neglected. Especially likely to return to trouble the living were ghosts of persons who died unnatural deaths or who were not properly buried – for example, death by drowning or death on a battlefield”  Mesopotamian doctors asked the patient before treatment if they had any sins to confess, and if so that was part of the treatment as they believed sickness was the outward manifestation of sin- much like in the Old Testament.  The one of the earliest written stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, includes a trip to the afterlife and a ghost.

Improper funerary rites are a big theme as to why ghosts returned to earth.  This was especially true in ancient Egypt.  A ghost is also said to return if the deceased found out about a hidden sin of the living or a need for justice.  The person being haunted had to plead their case to the ghost for relief, and if that didn’t work have a priest intervene to judge between the living and the dead.  On the flip side, if funerary rites were performed properly a spirit could take a guardian role over the living- much like a guardian angel.  However, Egyptian myth is very clear about the difference between a protective peaceful spirit dwelling in the afterlife and a vengeful ghost returned to earth.

Ghosts are prominent figures in both Greek and Roman myth as most heroes have to go to the Underworld to get a glimpse of their destiny or make sure they were on the right path.  However, ghosts came into play for the everyday person as well.  As with other cultures, the theme of unfinished business and improper burial ran through the appearance of ghosts.  Again, benevolent family spirits could protect their living relatives, usually appearing in dreams to their progeny.  As with most thing Roman, ghosts were more organized and followed strict rules.  They could only appear at certain times of night and must be seen with some kind of light.  Only ghosts of loved ones were allowed to appear in dreams.  To placate evil spirits, the Romans celebrated Lemuria.  According to Ovid, this festival had been celebrated since Romulus murdered Remus, and the murdered twin’s spirit haunted early Rome.  The Romans also left crossroad offerings to Hecate, the goddess of the crossroads who was present when souls entered or left bodies.  She had the power to prevent ghost from visiting the living, but if she wanted revenge she could send them on their way.

Romans even had reports of a traditional haunted house.  A letter from Pliny the Younger to his friend Licinius Sura described what modern ears would recognize as sounding like a poltergeist.  He writes “The silence of the night was interrupted by the sound of weapons and chains. First they came from afar, but then they were heard nearby. Soon there appeared a filthy, emaciated old man with scraggly hair and beard. He had chains on his hands and feet.”  As with most haunted houses, the residents sold the place and headed for the hills.  The ghost was satisfied when a traveling philosopher saw the for sale sign and stayed the night.  The ghost appeared to him and led him to the chained remains of a man.  Once the body had been given proper burial, the visitations stopped.  He also told the story of a ghost who cut the hair of his freedman, Marcus, while he slept.  Pliny took this as a sign he escaped prosecution as Roman tradition said persons under public accusation let their hair grow.  Emperor Domitian died soon after this occurrence and in the emperor’s desk drawer were articles of impeachment against Pliny.

The similarities of supernatural behavior and beliefs cross multiple cultures, and in future posts we will examine the similarities in the Far East as well as in the Americas.


Sources available on request