Information concerning banquets in ancient Egypt is scarce, with the richest source of evidence being tomb scenes. Some further evidence has been derived from literary texts, notably Wisdom Literature, which outlines the ideal behavior of guest and host. Stories and myths featuring banquets are infrequent; the tale of the deity Seth entrapping his brother Osiris is one of the few. Remains of some funerary feasts, such as those found by W. B. Emery (1962) in a second dynasty tomb and the festal wreaths found associated with Tutankhamun's funerary banquet, have provided further information concerning such feasts. There is no word in Egyptian that is clearly translated as “banquet”; the closest word in Egyptian is ḥby (“to be festal” or “to make a festival”), with ḥb translated as “feast” or “banquet.” The injunction ir hrw nfr (“make holiday!”) often implied the holding of a banquet or feast.
Banquets were frequently featured in Egyptian tomb decoration, starting in the late Old Kingdom and continuing into the New Kingdom. The Old Kingdom banqueting scenes, such as the one found in the sixth dynasty tomb of Kahif at Giza (tomb 2136), as well as the Middle Kingdom scenes, tended to show elaborate family gatherings; their New Kingdom equivalents show both family and friends enjoying the feast. Gargantuan banquets were a feature of sed-festival (jubilee), when nobles, officials, servants, and the people at large feasted below the royal balcony in the king's presence. Under Horemheb, the king treated his officials to a sumptuous feast every month. The eighteenth dynasty provided the single richest source of banqueting scenes in ancient Egypt: in later dynasties, the banquet scene appears comparatively infrequently in Egyptian sepulchers.
There has been some debate as to whether the banquets depicted in tombs are funerary banquets, akin to wakes, or a chronicle of the type of banquet that the deceased enjoyed during his lifetime, recorded in the tomb so it could be enjoyed throughout the hereafter. Banquets or feasts probably took place for celebratory or commemorative events, such as births, deaths, marriages, and other special personal celebrations. Large-scale dinner parties might also be included in the category of banquet. Certainly, banquets were an important part of special religious festivals, such as the Valley Festival, when they were celebrated, most probably, within the tomb or its courtyard—so the activities depicted on the tomb walls were reified at least once a year. Some scholars suggest that the food put into tombs was to provide the basis for such feasts, in addition to the provisions for the afterlife depicted on the walls.
Banquets probably started in midafternoon and went on for some time thereafter. The banqueting time has tentatively been determined by the appearance of the open blossoms of the blue lotus that adorn both people and wine jars (as in Theban tombs 46, 96, 100, 155, and others). The blue lotus blooms by day and closes at sunset; thus the open blossoms indicate that the banquets started in daylight hours, and that would be true as well for banquets relating to religious festivals. Most festivals took place (or at least started) during the daytime. Certainly biblical references support an afternoon banquet—as, for example, when Joseph invited his brothers for a feast at midday (Gn. 43.16).
The banquet started with the hosts greeting the guests at the door (if the banquet was in a tomb, the image of the deceased provided that function). The elaborately garbed, coiffed, and bejeweled guests were then seated. Men and women were shown seated together mainly when they were related to one another. In most instances, however, they seem to be segregated, since men and women are shown on alternate panels in most New Kingdom banqueting scenes. Whether this meant they were seated in different areas of one room or in separate rooms is unclear. Seating was probably hierarchical, with the most important people placed closest to the hosts and the others arranged alongside them, according to rank. The type of seat would also depend on rank: chairs for the most favored guests, stools for the less favored, with mats, and even the bare floor for the lowest ranks. In some tomb scenes, people are shown seated before tables piled high with food (especially true for the more important guests); in other scenes, often in the same tomb, food is being passed to the guests by servants. Perhaps in addition to the seating arrangements, the amount of food provided reflected the relative importance of the guests. Generally, male servants served the men and female servants attended to the women, although female servants were sometimes shown serving the men. Once the guests were seated, servants washed the guests' hands in basins, provided them with perfumes and cones of fat (which would smell pleasant or repel insects, according to the choice of perfume burned in the fat cone), and furnished them with lotus flowers to smell and flower collars to wear. Then the food and drink were served. Entertainment was also provided. Music accompanied the meal, with musicians of both genders singing and playing harps, lutes, drums, tamborines, and clappers. There was energetic dancing, with scantily clad professional dancers, generally female, performing elaborate acrobatic combinations for the entertainment of the guests. The goddess Hathor, associated with alcohol, drunkenness, music, and dancing was often invoked during the course of a banquet and was the deity most closely associated with feasting.
Alcohol was plentiful at banquets, be it wine, beer, or šdḥ, a fermented pomegranate drink. Large vessels, decorated with lotus blossoms, contained the drinks and stood at the ready. Tomb scenes (e.g., Theban tombs 49 and 53) vividly record the results of overindulgence, both by men and women, with people vomiting or even passing out after an excess of alcohol. Food was no less plentiful than alcohol. A banquet was a time for excess: entire oxen were roasted, as were ducks, geese, pigeons, various other birds, and on some occasions, fish (as shown in the Memphite tomb of Horemheb). Stews were also served, and there were heaps of different types of bread, fresh vegetables, and fruit. Cakes, using dates and honey as sweetening agents, were also served.
According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, a slightly somber note was struck at the end of the banquet. A servant carried around a model coffin, containing a wooden statue of a corpse (about one cubit or two cubits in length), to the several guests. As it was shown to each guest in turn, the servant said, “Gaze here, and drink and be merry; for when you die, you will be thus.” There is no record of such an event during the feasts of pharaonic times; it was possibly a Late period practice (then again, perhaps it was told to or only occurred within the imagination of the historian).
See also INTOXICATION.
- Davies, Norman de Garis. The Tomb of Rekhmire at Thebes. New York, 1973, reprint. One of the most elaborate New Kingdom banqueting scenes, illustrated with translated texts.
- Emery, W. B. A Funerary Repast in an Egyptian Tomb of the Archaic Period. Leiden, 1962. Gives the menu of a funerary meal found in situ.
- Vandier, J. Manuel d'archéologie Egyptienne. IV: Bas Reliefs et Peintures. Paris, 1964. Extremely useful book, which lists the tomb scenes that show banquets.
- Wilkinson, J. G. The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, vol. 2. London, 1854. Uses Theban tomb scenes to re-create an Egyptian banquet.
- Winlock, H. E. 1941. Materials Used at the Embalming of King Tutankhamun. New York, 1941. Provides examples of the festal wreaths and other materials found from Tutankhamun's funerary banquet.