The topic of drama in ancient Egypt is a complex and somewhat controversial one. Many have categorically claimed either its existence or its nonexistence. A judicious assessment of the evidence, or lack thereof, indicates that a more qualified position allows greater insight into this question.
There is no archeological or textual evidence for theaters as we know them in pharaonic Egypt. There do not appear to be specific words in the Egyptian language for technical terms like “drama,” “play,” or “actor.” Thus, the claim for the presence in Egypt of secular drama, as we know it, seems to have no supporting evidence to date.
There are a number of religious texts from papyri and temples that have been labeled “dramatic texts” by some modern scholars in their search for drama in religious rituals. These texts, for the most part, focus on certain acts performed by the god(s) at the beginning of time, at “the first occasion,” and are believed to contain material for commemorative reenactments of incipient cosmic events for the purpose of maintaining life and the order of the cosmos. Their content is based on myth, and their purpose is to reenact, not to instruct or to reflect. In no way do they attempt to explain human behavior, good or bad.
Studies of such texts by modern scholars have provoked some interesting discussions, most of which founder on the rocks of semantics. The majority of those who have looked into the question of the origins of drama in ancient Egypt have begun their discussions with somewhat subjective and personal definitions of drama and its essential elements; they have then proceeded to manipulate the details of the so-called Egyptian dramatic texts to prove their points. Many of these studies led to the coining of terms like “dramatic ritual,” “liturgical drama,” “sacred drama,” and the like—rhetorical niceties that offer nothing by way of an answer to the question. Furthermore, in the case of most specific “dramatic” rituals, even in the so-called Osirian mysteries celebrated at Abydos and the rituals conducted in the Edfu temple in which Horus triumphs over Seth/Apophis and the forces of chaos, what we encounter is fundamentally different from anything that we today would regard as drama. Additionally, the majority of the texts identified as “dramatic texts” are hopelessly fragmentary and often abbreviated—perhaps intentionally so. Therefore, what one can say about such texts as drama is usually limited to conjecture.
These objections, however, can best serve as caveats to underscore the difficulties encountered in attempting to address the question of drama in ancient Egypt. There is no denying that a number of Egyptian rituals can be viewed as dramatizations of certain events in the lives of the Egyptian gods. To what degree these dramatizations were “staged” is difficult to say.
Many of the texts identified as “dramatic” contain elements that point to their oral components. The oral nature of Egyptian religious texts is well known. Many texts and sections of texts are framed by labels like rʒ or ḏd mdw ἰn …, “Utterance” and “Words to be recited by …,” respectively. Do such oral markers indicate that texts so labeled are to be dramatically enacted as well as recited? If one simply answers yes, as a number of Egyptologists have done, then one may well argue that virtually all religious texts are dramatic texts by definition, an all-inclusive definition that seems to beg the question.
It has generally been argued by the proponents of Egyptian drama that the actors in these plays were members of the priesthood under the direction of a lector-priest. They have postulated dramatic reenactments both inside and outside the temple proper. In certain rituals depicted on the walls of Egyptian temples, scholars have claimed to find not only dramatic texts but reliefs as well that depict various stages of what they perceive as drama; one of these rituals belongs to the Osirian Khoiak festival. Unfortunately, the evidence for the ritual is found piecemeal in a number of temples and papyri, and the sources for the evidence are also scattered over a broad time span. An assessment of the dramatic elements of this ritual, thus, relies on the reconstruction of the ritual from its various components and their locations, a process that is largely hypothetical. A second ritual is that of the so-called Triumph of Horus over his enemies, found in the Ptolemaic temple at Edfu. The texts and reliefs of this ritual, found on a single wall, form a connected series that has been seen by some as a play. The texts and reliefs involve a number of different deities, and the sequence of the texts does move forward in storyline form. One editor has even argued that certain elements within the texts comprise stage directions. Despite the fact that this ritual is self-contained within a single temple, in order to see it as drama, primitive or otherwise, we are faced with the problem of a hypothetical reconstruction and evaluation of what may only possibly be dramatic elements.
An examination of two texts, both of which form part of the so-called mysteries of Osiris celebrated at Abydos, reveals several important pieces of information and may serve as better evidence for dramatic elements in Egyptian rituals. Both papyri have been dated to the Ptolemaic period. The first text, from a papyrus in Berlin, contains a ritual to be performed in the Abydos temple on the twenty-fifth day of the fourth month of Akhet, or Inundation. The ritual involves strophic addresses to the god Osiris by the goddesses Isis and Nephthys. The colophon states that at the completion of the ritual, the temple where it was read is to be “made holy, not seen [and] not heard by anyone except the chief lector-priest and a sem-priest.” It then states that “two women beautiful in body are to be brought and made to sit on the ground in the first doorway of the Hall of Appearances, the names of Isis and Nephthys written on their upper arms.” After receiving certain offerings, they are required to sit with “their faces bowed down.” The reading of the text is to be conducted twice on that day, at the third hour and at the eighth hour, apparently by the lector-priest.
In the second text, the Bremner-Rhind Papyrus in the British Museum, similar but expanded instructions are given at the beginning of the text. The text is said to contain the ritual of the Two Kites—i.e., Isis and Nephthys—which is celebrated in the temple of Osiris Kentyamentiu in the fourth month of Akhet, from the twenty-second to the twenty-sixth day. The instructions then state that “the entire temple shall be made holy [and] there shall be brought in two women pure in body, virgins, the hair of their bodies removed, their heads adorned with wigs … tambourines in their hands, their names inscribed on their upper arms, namely Isis and Nephthys. They shall sing from the stanzas of this book in the presence of this god.” The alternations between first person singular and plural in the text seem to indicate shifts between solos sung by Isis and duets sung by the two goddesses.
The instructions in these two texts contain important differences. The two women mentioned in the first text are required to possess physical beauty, to sit in a specific place in the temple, to have the names of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys written on their arms, and to sit with their faces bowed down. These are their only requirements, and no further specific roles are assigned to them. The text specifically states that it is to be read, apparently by the lector-priest despite the fact that the title of the text is “The evocation of ritual recitations which is made by the Two sisters.” In the second text, the women are required to be ritually pure and virgins, to undergo depilation, to wear wigs, and to have the names of Isis and Nephthys written on their upper arms. The text also explicitly states that it is they who are to sing the ritual. Thus, the women in the second text take on active roles as the sisters of Osiris, whereas in the first text their role appears to be passive, almost that of players in a tableau. These differences in instructions may simply indicate variant forms of the same ritual.
Beyond the descriptions and instructions encountered in texts like the two discussed above, we have little other information about the nature of the reenactment of these rituals. They both contain clear elements that we would associate with dramatic performance, namely song and role-playing. Despite the presence of such elements of dramatic expression in Egyptian ritual, at this point we can discuss them only as such. The question of the existence of an independent genre of drama in ancient Egypt, and what its individual components may have been, remains to be answered.
- Altenmüller, H. “Zur Lesung and Deutung des Dramatischen Ramesseumspapyrus.” Journal Ex Oriente Lux 19 (1964–1965), 421–442. A reappraisal of the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus published by Sethe in 1928 and the article by Helck mentioned below. Interspersed are remarks about the nature of Egyptian drama.
- Drioton, E. Le Théâtre égyptien. Editions de la Revue du Caire, 1942. Reprinted in Pages d'Egyptologie (Cairo, 1957), pp. 217–330. The fundamental study by a scholar who dedicated much time to the research and discussion of the topic of drama; thought-provoking but problematic.
- Fairman, H. W. The Triumph of Horus. London, 1974. A study of a single ritual in the Ptolemaic temple of Horus at Edfu; interesting but highly conjectural.
- Faulkner, R. O. “The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys.” Mélanges Maspero I: Mémoires de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale du Caire 66:337–348.
- Faulkner, R. O. “The Bremner-Rhind Papyrus-I.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 22 (1936), 121–140.
- Helck, W. “Bemerkungen zum Ritual des Dramatischen Ramesseums-papyrus.” Orientalia 23 (1954), 383–411. A reappraisal of the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus published by Sethe in 1928.
- Mikhail, L. B. “The Egyptological Approach to Drama in Ancient Egypt, I.” Göttinger Miszellen 77 (1984), 19–26. An assessment of the history of the discussion of the topic, as are the following.
- Mikhail, L. B. “The Egyptological Approach to Drama in Ancient Egypt, II.” Göttinger Miszellen 77 (1984), 25–33.
- Mikhail, L. B. “The Egyptological Approach to Drama in Ancient Egypt, III.” Göttinger Miszellen 78 (1984), 69–77.
- Mikhail, L. B. “The Egyptological Approach to Drama in Ancient Egypt, IV.” Göttinger Miszellen 79 (1984), 19–27. A comparative analysis of other dramatic forms from ancient and some non-Western cultures.
Paul F. O'Rourke