Africa,  Asia,  Egypt,  ER

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.