The Opet Festival: Rejuvenation of the Gods
The Opet Festival was an ancient Egyptian celebration that linked two of the greatest creations of the New Kingdom: Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple.
The Creation of the Opet Festival: A Tribute to the Triad
The Opet Festival served both a religious and political purpose. The celebration honored the Theban triad, the three gods who were the main objects of worship in the area of Thebes. Known today as Luxor, Thebes was the capital city of the New Kingdom and home to some of the most famous ancient temples and tombs, such as the Valley of the Kings.
The triad, or holy family, was made up of Amun, his partner Mut, and their son Khonsu.
You can see parts of a historical reenactment from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in this video of a festival held at Luxor and the surrounding area in 2021.
Amun was a major Egyptian deity who was known since the Old Kingdom, but only became the patron god of Thebes in the 11th Dynasty (21st Century BC). He was associated with the wind and often represented with rams horns or two tall feathers.
In the ancient Egyptian pantheon, gods often evolved over time, combining with other gods or taking on new characteristics. In the New Kingdom, Amun became associated with the sun god, Ra, and became Amun-Ra or Amun-re. The first kings of the New Kingdom also credited Amun for their victory over the Hyksos and Amun became a symbol of justice, truth, and a champion of the underprivileged.
You are Amun, the Lord of the silent,
Who comes at the voice of the poor;
When I call to you in my distress,
You come and rescue me,
To give breath to him who is wretched,
To rescue me from bondage.
You are Amen-Re, Lord of Thebes,
Who rescues him who is in the netherworld;
For you are he who is [merciful],
When one appeals to you.
You are he who comes from afar.
Votive Stela of Nebre with Hymn to Amen-Re, from Deir el-Medina, Berlin Museum 20377
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume II: The New Kingdom.
Amun’s wife was known as Mut. She was also a creator and considered the mother of the world.
Mut first appears in text and art in the Middle Kingdom, when she replaced Amun’s earlier consorts. Often Mut was depicted with a vulture headdress, an ankh in her hand (the symbol of life), and the double crown which signifies the unified Upper and Lower Egypt.
Fun Fact: Mut was also worshiped by Kushite kings. There was a temple built for her at Jebel Barkal in Northern Sudan.
In Egyptian mythology, Mut and Amun had a son, Khonsu. He was the moon god, associated with the passage of time and a protector of travelers at night.
Khonsu was depicted with a moon-disk headdress either as a child, with a sidelock of hair indicating his youth, or with a falcon head. Interestingly, in his child form, Khonsu is shown as a mummy, wrapped in a white cloth and with green skin, representing death and resurrection.
He also bears symbols of divine kingship like a false beard and uraeus (rearing cobra).
Between the People and the Gods
In addition to honoring the Theban triad, the Opet Festival was important to legitimize the power of the pharaoh. In the ancient Egyptian world view, kings were divine. They were not gods themselves, but physical manifestations of the divine. Most importantly, the pharaoh was the link between the people and the gods of Egypt.
As one of the primordial gods, Amun came to represent creation, fertility, and the power of the sun. As the main god of the New Kingdom religion, Amun became closely tied to the pharaoh and kingship himself. According to scenes in the Temple of Amun, the king was also the son of Amun, who would take human form to impregnate the woman chosen to birth the king. Therefore, the Opet festival was central to renewing the bond between the king and the god Amun, a ritual rebirth, reminding the people that the pharaoh was from divine blood.
The festival itself likely included a range of events, like religious ceremonies, banquets and feasts. Luckily, we have depictions of the most important part of the festival; the ritual procession from Karnak to Luxor Temple and the renewal of divine kingship.
The procession began in Karnak Temple where cult statues of the gods were carried on barques, or shrines, along the east side of the Nile. This route was decorated with hundreds of sphinxes with ram’s heads, in honor of Amun. Known as the Avenue of Sphinxes, it was started during the New Kingdom but wasn’t completed until the 30th dynasty.
Fun Fact: The Avenue of Sphinxes was reopened to the public in November, 2021, after decades of conservation. The event included three gold boats, performers, and people in pharaonic dress.
The 2km long procession culminated in the “birth room” at the back of Luxor Temple. Here a ritual marriage ceremony between Amun-re and the Pharaoh, where the king merged, reborn as the child of Amun-Re and intermediary between the people of Egypt and the gods.
Ka: In ancient Egyptian religion, with the ba and the akh, a principal aspect of the soul of a human being or of a god. The exact significance of the ka remains a matter of controversy, chiefly for lack of an Egyptian definition; the usual translation, “double,” is incorrect. Written by a hieroglyph of uplifted arms, it seemed originally to have designated the protecting divine spirit of a person. The ka survived the death of the body and could reside in a picture or statue of a person.
The Season of Akhet
Like everything else in ancient Egypt, the annual festival was tied to the rise and fall of the Nile River, the lifeblood of Egyptian civilization. It was celebrated in the second month of Akhet, which coordinates with around the end of August in the Gregorian calendar. Akhet was the season of ‘inundation’ or flooding of the Nile. Since the Opet Festival was centered on fertility and rebirth, it coincides well with the flooding of the Nile, which brought rich soil to the agricultural lands of Egypt.
In the time of Thutmose III , the festival was held over 11 days. By the Reign of Ramesses III, 270 years later, the festival lasted a full 24 days. It continued through the New Kingdom and into the Roman Period.