For a few consecutive years now, a number of you within the overarching Kemetic community may have noticed the word “Herishefgiving” float across your Tumblr dashboards, Facebook newsfeeds, and other corners of the “Pagan” internet. I haphazardly started an impromptu “fixed” holiday for Herishef years ago, and the existence of this initially-impromptu-but-nevertheless-fixed holiday has been discussed very briefly and in a humorous way. In all this time, I haven’t yet taken the opportunity to more fully and seriously explain what Herishefgiving is about, and for what reasons it came into being. I had intended to do so sooner, but I’ve finally gotten around to remedying the lack of information regarding this Modern Kemetic holiday.
WHAT IS HERISHEFGIVING? WHY DOES IT EVEN EXIST?
The shortest, simplest explanation I can give for the first question is that Herishefgiving is a “replacement” for American Thanksgiving, hence its highly unoriginal name, and an Americanization of the highly significant Ancient Egyptian Khebs-Ta festival (explained at length later in this article) which takes place around the same time of year as Thanksgiving but does not “seasonally match.” Regarding the second question: The most obvious reason for the existence of Herishefgiving is that I’m one of the few Modern devotees of that particular God, and not many festivals exist (or rather, have survived and that I am aware of) which explicitly revolve around Him — the only other significant, unique festival of Herishef’s cult center which places Him at the fore, that I’ve yet been able to track down, is the Akh Pet or Uplifting of the Sky festival occurring on the 1st of Peret III, or “first day of Phamenoth” as Brugsch gives in his Religion und Mythologie der Aegypter concerning rather late iterations of Ancient Egyptian religion. (223) At any rate, Herishefgiving is a way to better popularize Herishef and invent more reasons to celebrate Him, since few are known to exist. But this is by far not the only reason.
Herishefgiving came into being at a time when I, like many Modern Kemetics, did not have direct access to an articulate, consolidated, and above all accurately-calculated Egyptian calendar. I had a vague idea as to when the Khebs-Ta festival occurred — toward the end of autumn, in late November / early December — but have never been one terribly adept at calendrical calculations. For those who don’t know, the Egyptian calendar is determined by the heliacal rising of Sopdet (Sirius) in late summer over a given geographical location, ergo its dates “drift” much more noticeably from year to year. The Egyptian calendar exists in stark contrast to the Gregorian one predominant in the Modern West, whose dates are decidedly much more stationary. Herishefgiving is, therefore, much more easy to anticipate and plan for than the varying date of the historical Khebs-Ta festival. Even for some North American-dwelling Kemetics who now, like me, have access to an accurately-calculated Egyptian calendar and additional resources in that vein, a festival occurring on a fixed date which can be clearly marked on the “universal / secular” (Gregorian) calendar to which we Modern Westerners are accustomed is vastly preferred.
What also makes Herishefgiving much more easy to anticipate and plan for is that it takes place during a pre-established and now thoroughly secularized American holiday: Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving carries with it a number of negative connotations which have caused a number of people to mark the day as one of mourning, or ignore it altogether. Unlike Columbus Day — another holiday which holds extremely negative connotations; is increasingly becoming recognized as Indigenous Peoples’ Day; and has no actual, practicable observances unique to it — Thanksgiving is a holiday that is widely observed by Americans of a variety of backgrounds, with specific seasonal foods and themes of family togetherness inseparably attached to it, notwithstanding its American folkloric explanation which, in a grossly “kiddified” way, relates to the genocide of Indigenous American peoples. Rather than waste a well-established holiday of togetherness and feasting whose Modern American cultural meaning I absolutely do not agree with, I decided to make it about Herishef and His Khebs-Ta festival, which in recent Kemetic Orthodox years has tended to consistently fall very close to Thanksgiving on the “secular” calendar.
Herishefgiving also exists to help negotiate the glaring disparity between the seasons and agricultural cycles endemic to North Africa and parts of the Near East and those belonging to large swaths of North America. What is a deeply religiously-significant time of receding floods and sowing of seeds in Egypt is a time when many of us in North America, particularly in the Northern United States, are seeing or have already seen the last major harvest(s) before winter sets in. While the (Ptah-)Sokar and Wesir Mysteries which precede the Khebs-Ta “make sense,” without a great deal of necessary alteration, when transplanted into a North American autumnal setting — a time of dormancy, a “seasonal descensus” which lends itself well to the spirit of the chthonic Mysteries of (Ptah-)Sokar and the Mysteries of Wesir — the Khebs-Ta as practiced in Ancient Egypt does not make much sense when transplanted into a North American context and cannot be adopted readily without significant alteration into the practices of Modern Kemetics living in North America.
THE HISTORICAL KHEBS-TA FESTIVAL :
ITS RELATED FESTIVALS, THE DEITIES INVOLVED,
AND THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WATER AND VEGETATION
The Khebs-Ta and Nehebkau Festival
The Feast of Digging the Land, known as Khebs-Ta in the Egyptian language, occurs on 1st of Peret I, following the (Ptah-)Sokar and Wesir Mysteries of Akhet IV (Ka-her-ka/Khoiak), and invariably coincides with the Nehebkau festival. The Khebs-Ta festival is the time when “Wesir is buried,” in fulfillment of and concluding the preceding Wesir Mysteries, within the context of the Ancient Egyptian agricultural cycle, after the annual flood has receded. In other words, it is the time when the land is tilled and seeds are sown. The “body” of Wesir was associated with the seeds sown, while their flourishing months later was associated with Wesir’s “resurrection” and establishment as Khentiamentiu or “Foremost of the Westerners” in the Duat, and also His vindication through His son and successor, Who was conceived by Aset during the Mysteries, Heru. (Mokhtar, 188) Nehebkau, Who was worshiped at Henen-nesu and had a shrine attached to Herishef’s temple (Shorter, 47; Barta, 389) comes to regenerate cyclical time, or neheh, of which the agricultural cycle is emblematic. The co-occurrence of the Khebs-Ta and Nehebkau festivals was not a mistake nor mere happenstance, but was religiously significant and deliberate. As Nehebkau was, and is, integral in the success of the transfiguration of the deceased in the Duat and the success of the Mysteries of Wesir, Nehebkau is connected to the sowing of seeds during the Khebs-Ta and their successful flourishing. He is as much responsible for the reunification of the kau of the deceased with their respective bau as He is with furnishing the Blessed Dead with offerings.
The Khebs-Ta and the Nehebkau festival occurring with it had been celebrated throughout Ancient Egypt since the Early Dynastic Period. However, in Henen-nesu this occasion held a very special regional (and during and after Dynasties IX and X, State) significance, since Naret is one of the places named as a location of Wesir’s “relics” (the pieces of Wesir’s body) and also on account of Herishef sharing an intimate association with Wesir-Naref in His cult center of Henen-nesu. (Mokhtar, 177 – 180, 188 – 189) Coupled with the Nehebkau festival, and Henen-nesu being one of Nehebkau’s better-known worship centers apart from Hu / Hut-Sekhen (Diospolis Parva), the events of Akhet IV and Peret I constituted a prolonged, contiguous performance of Henen-nesu’s local theology, in near-entirety.
Indeed, the Khebs-Ta was so important to Ancient Egyptians that it is mentioned more than once between the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead. It was a festival integral to both life in this world and life in the next. Throughout these texts, it is important to bear in mind that Henen-nesu is put on the level of Abdju (Abydos), the latter city being a major cult center of Wesir’s and one of the most important locations mentioned in connection with Wesir’s Mysteries. Chapter 1 of the Book of the Dead states that the Khebs-Ta was performed in Henen-nesu specifically:
“I am the priest of Per-Wesir [Busiris] for the Lion-God in the House of Wesir with those who raise up earth; I am he who sees the Mysteries in Rosetjau; I am he who reads the ritual book for the Soul in Per-Wesir; I am the sem–priest at his duties; I am the Master Craftsman on the day of placing the Barque of Sokar on its sledge; I am he who takes the hoe on the Day of Breaking Up the Earth in Henen-nesu [Herakleopolis Magna].”
(Faulkner, Plate 5)
Meanwhile, Chapter 175 of the Book of the Dead gives something of an “origin story” for the Khebs-Ta festival in Henen-nesu and Naret, wherein Herishef is subtly identified with/as Wesir. (Rundle-Clark, 136 – 137 ; Mokhtar, 185, 188) Chapters 1 and 175 — along with Chapter 17, and all other passages wherein Herishef, Wesir, and Heru are mentioned in connection to Naret and/or Henen-nesu in the Book of the Dead and the Coffin Texts which came before that type of funerary text, particularly CT IV Spell 313 — do not merely portray the Herakleopolitan Kings’ attempts to consolidate their position as the heirs to the Memphite and Heliopolitan theologies that previously dominated. They help to describe the unique roles Henen-nesu and its chief deity played as the real or imagined “initiator” or “source” of both royal and agrarian cultus. This did not simply end with the Herakleopolitan Supremacy, but carried on much later through Pharaonic history, being emphasized by Ramesside and Saite Kings in particular.
Additionally, Herishef Himself is closely associated with “outpouring water,” as Mokhtar phrases it (166), further defining Him as a deity of preeminent nilotic and subsequent agricultural importance. This association is strongly influenced by the location of Henen-nesu, which dominates Ra-Henet, Modernly known as the Bahr Yussef canal. This is the waterway which feeds water from the Nile northward into the greater Faiyum Region.
According to some of the Ancient religious considerations throughout this region, namely those endemic to Henen-nesu though also appearing further north in the Faiyum Region until the very end of Egyptian religion in Late Antiquity (Zecchi, 117, 123, 139 – 143), it is Herishef Who is responsible for the influx of life-giving fresh water and rich, fertile silt from the Nile proper. It is Herishef (sometimes also in connection to other Faiyum Gods, exempli gratia Sobek-Shedety and other Faiyum-specific “Sobeks”) Who ultimately controls the delicate flooding of the land north of the Ra-Henet, the ordered timeliness of the agricultural cycles, and the successful growing and harvesting of edible crops. Herishef’s association with the all-important inundation and its powers of revivification is one He shares with Wesir. This is an association of Wesir’s that Griffiths contests in his The Origins of Osiris and His Cult, which he attributes instead to Wesir’s death by drowning and the role of water libations in funerary ritual. (160) This mutual association, whatever its ultimate origins and irrespective of Griffiths’ criticisms, helps to cement the relationship between the Wesir Mysteries and the Khebs-Ta festival in Henen-nesu.
The (Ptah-)Sokar Festival and the Wesir Mysteries
The (Ptah-)Sokar festival and Wesir Mysteries constituted what were perhaps the most significant and lavish religious observances of the year for all of Ancient Egypt, apart from the Wep Ronpet (New Year) festivities and the New Kingdom festival of Opet. George Hart in his Egyptian Myths gives a decent synopsis of what mythic events the Wesir Mysteries commemorate and reenact, and details which locations were significant destinations for its processions. (30 – 33)
Initially, the (Ptah-)Sokar festival and the Wesir Mysteries were regarded and conducted separately, but textual and iconographic evidence indicates that at some point during the New Kingdom Period they became conflated and standardized. This conflation and standardization must have occurred well after Wesir’s position as Duat-God par excellence became more total, having subsumed the identities, roles, and functions of Andjety of Djedu (Busiris — Whom Donald B. Redford refers to as ‘Anzata), the Jackal God Khentiamentiu of Abdju (Abydos), and (Ptah-)Sokar of Mennefer (Memphis). Katherine Eaton summarizes the evidence for these festivals still being regarded and conducted separately (at least in Abdju) during Seti I’s time. She likewise explains in fantastic detail the different barques and barges used in the processions of Divine effigies during these festivals.
Both the (Ptah-)Sokar festival and the Wesir Mysteries involved the annual production of “perishable” icons of these Gods and “corn mummies” and what I will here refer to as “mineral mummies” which relate to (Ptah-)Sokar. For the Wesir Mysteries, these consist of two items, which Meeks describes as “a substitute for the local Osirian relic” and “[a representation of] a vegetal Osiris,” which were to be replaced and solemnly buried. (169, 173) A separate series of items were crafted for (Ptah-)Sokar out of different materials. Meeks defines, perhaps oversimply and a bit misleadingly, the difference between the two as “the absence of cereal grain” in the case of the Wesir Mysteries and its “corn mummies,” and “the absence of minerals” with regard to (Ptah-)Sokar’s festival and its special moulds and Divine effigies. (173) As the word “annually” implies, the previous year’s crafts could not exist together with the current year’s. During what Meeks refers to as the “critical period” of the 22nd through the 26th of Akhet IV, the current year’s Divine effigies were in the loving and lavished process of being born, while the previous year’s were in the well-attended and continuously-lamented process of dying, and it was the previous year’s which were interred with great ceremony and drama. (172) Concerning the “old” statue of (Ptah-)Sokar, it was “taken from its chest, its bandages were changed, and it was wrapped in netting made with stones,” and was placed in a portable sycamore shrine in which it would finally be buried, as was similarly done with that of Wesir-Khentiamentiu. (173)
Finally, it is worth mentioning here that Griffiths argues that the earliest mention of Wesir in connection to grain (primarily corn and secondarily barley) is within the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus (which mentions corn, representing Wesir, and its threshing by Set in animal form). He likewise states that this connection is not a particularly salient element of the Wesir Mysteries until later periods. (163) However, Griffiths grudgingly cedes (165 – 169) that it is possible Wesir in some situations forms a syncretism or is otherwise identified with the God Nepri, “the Grain God,” as mentioned by De Buck in his Coffin Texts IV concerning spells 168c – 170b, and with less ambiguity in the evidence presented by Gardiner on the matter. In any case, Wesir being associated with grain is decidedly not a feature of Predynastic or Old Kingdom Period Egyptian religion(s), contrary to popularly-held misconception. Plenty of evidence from the New Kingdom Period onward exists, as Griffiths and others note, often in the form of funerary accouterments including but not limited to so-called “Osiris beds,” which confirms associations between Wesir and vegetation. Certainly, in Henen-nesu, Wesir-Naref was quite clearly and undeniably associated with vegetation for much of Henen-nesu’s history, as He had a pomegranate tree cult endemic to the region, which was directly connected to the burial site of His “relics.” (Mokhtar, 38, 191)
WHEN ARE THESE FESTIVALS OCCURRING THIS YEAR?
HOW ARE THEY OBSERVED?
According to the Kemetic Orthodox calendar for Year 23, the (Ptah-)Sokar festival begins on the 17th of Akhet IV and ends on the 23rd, just before the commencement of the Wesir Mysteries, which this year will be observed between the 24th of Akhet IV through the 30th of Akhet IV. The dates just so happen to neatly correspond to the 17th through the 30th of November, 2015.
The 1st of December, 2015 is the date of the Khebs-Ta festival (though it is not currently listed on the Kemetic Orthodox calendar, insofar as I was able to tell). As mentioned above, the Nehebkau festival also occurs on this date, which is listed on the Kemetic Orthodox calendar.
The Modern expressions of these festivals frequently deviate from their various counterparts in Antiquity. Particularly, Modern celebrations of the (Ptah-)Sokar festival and Wesir Mysteries tend to deviate, quite understandably, in the way of not carrying out any processions featuring lavish sacred barques and river barges, nor making and burying any (Ptah-)Sokar “mineral mummies,” Wesir “corn mummies,” and other annually-replaced Divine effigies upon the conclusion of these several-day-long festivals. The circumstances of Modern and especially urban living in the West; operating on a different agricultural/seasonal cycle than in Egypt proper and not having access to the Nile and the sacred sites along its banks; too few fully-fledged and adequately-financed Kemetic Temples in existence; and Kemetics not living very close together in large groups make such activities largely unfeasible for most, to date.
That said, a handful of Modern Kemetics and Graeco-Roman-Egyptian-styled polytheists, including Sat Ma’at and Isidora, have made traditional “mineral mummies” and “corn mummies” for their own fairly private observances of the (Ptah-)Sokar festival and Wesir Mysteries, respectively.
Many Modern Kemetics formally observe a single six-hour Night Vigil for the Wesir Mysteries, during which the Lamentations of Aset and Nebet-Het are recited and the body (physical icon) of Wesir is temporarily hidden. Unlike those of Antiquity, the icons used in the observances of the Wesir Mysteries are overwhelmingly permanent cult objects rather than annually-produced “perishables.” The nature of this Night Vigil and its performance have been discussed in detail by many Modern Kemetics and similar polytheists in years past, including but not limited to the current Nisut of the Kemetic Orthodox Temple Rev. Tamara Siuda; Tenu/Emky; Heruakhetymose; and Isidora. The full fifteen days encompassing the (Ptah-)Sokar festival, the Wesir Mysteries, and the concluding Khebs-Ta and Nehebkau festivals are, at least to my knowledge, rarely formally observed in their entirety by Modern Kemetics.
The tone of Modern celebrations of these festivals is one of simultaneous jubilation and mourning. While (Ptah-)Sokar and Wesir are the primary focus, it is also a time when Modern Kemetics remember and celebrate their own ancestors.
As opposed to the Wesir Mysteries, the Modern celebrations for the Khebs-Ta (or its newly-minted counterpart “Herishefgiving”) and the Nehebkau festival are ones for which no accounts are yet readily found. As explained above, historically these were festivals of sowing rather than festivals of harvest. Their adaptation to Modern Western contexts, namely American ones, mandates their celebration as a late harvest feast. As such, the Modern emphasis is placed on Herishef being a God of Life and Provisions, the “Begetting Ram” Who exemplifies the fulfillment of the Mystery of Wesir’s triumphant transformation and His continuing affects on the realm of the living even from His place in the Duat, in Herishef’s multifarious unities with Wesir, Re(-Horakhty), and Heru. Similarly, Nehebkau is to be celebrated at the same time as the God upon Whom all the Blessed Dead, Glorified Akhu, rely for their being and sustenance in the Duat; without Whom the deceased could not become and remain Glorified Akhu; and without Whom neheh would not revive, renew, and continue “for millions of years,” but would instead stagnate and decay — making all life, both in this world and in the next, impossible.
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