This entry surveys offerings in ancient Egypt, with reference to their theological significance and chronological development. It discusses the various types of offerings and the personnel and accessories related to them. It comprises three articles:
For a related discussion, see the composite entry on CULTS.
Offerings to the dead have become known from prehistoric times through finds in ancient Egyptian graves. Special offering places have also been found in relation to graves throughout Egypt's historical period; the earliest were placed outside the superstructures of the tombs and the later inside. Most likely, offerings were also made in the shrines depicted on prehistoric material, since offerings were part of temple rituals; they are well documented in textual material and, from the New Kingdom onward, also in temple reliefs.
The Ideology of Offerings.
Two concepts are linked to the notion of offerings that cover all kinds of offerings and explain the meaning of offerings in the Egyptian worldview. One concept is “the Eye of Horus” (ἰrt Ḥr), one of the most important symbols of ancient Egypt and used about all kinds of gifts. The other concept is maat, which means “order, structure, justice, truth, and harmony.”
Horus, the god who represented all that is good and all constructive forces in the universe, was once, according to a myth, deprived of one of his eyes while fighting with his eternal enemy Seth, the god of confusion, of violence, and of all destructive forces of the cosmos. Seth managed to capture the eye of Horus, demolished it, and threw it away. Thoth, the god of knowledge and magic skill, found the parts and put them together so that the injured eye was healed again. The healed eye was then called the wed-jat-eye (wḏʒt), the “sound eye,” and it became the symbol for the reestablishment of ordered conditions after disturbance. The eye is important in the myths, as for example in the myth of Osiris. Horus is said to have brought his eye to his dead father Osiris who devoured it as an offering meal and by means of it was recalled to life; it thus became the guarantee of life and of the regeneration of life. The fact that offerings are called “the Eye of Horus” indicates that they are considered participants in the preservation of life. This designation also characterizes the offerings as divine substance and even allows for discussions about the transsubstantiation of the materia of the offerings. The Eye of Horus is the greatest gift of all, and it constitutes the quintessence of gifts.
The concept of maat, also used to designate offerings of all kinds, supports the idea that the gifts to the gods were meant to strengthen the established order and to help preserve it. The goddess Maat, the daughter of the creator, represented the order and structure of the creation on all levels: on the cosmic level, in the form of the right and orderly rising and setting of the Sun, Moon, and stars; on the earth, in the form of the right and just functioning of society, its laws and rules; and in the personal human sphere, in the form of righteous and truthful lives. Maat, like the Eye of Horus, represented what was sound and perfect.
Offerings were, above all, a means to maintain the order of the world so that evil forces were checked and not allowed to prevail. They were a way to show that people put all their efforts on the side of good. Further, they were a symbol of gratitude offered by those living on earth to the divine, given in the hope of gifts in return, indicating an exchange of gifts to maintain the order of the world. At the same time they were a means of communication between the two worlds—the everyday world and the supreme reality beyond the everyday world.
The temple offerings to the gods intended for the preservation of life were actually of two different kinds. First, the offerings consisted of “all good and pure things on which the god lives.” The recipient was regarded as the father or the lord of the offerings, as was often attested in the texts “to give X to its father or its lord,” and supposedly the things brought back to their rightful owner were considered to strengthen the recipient so that he was able and willing to give in his turn. That process of offering was do ut des, which means “I give in order that you give.” Second, there were offerings that represented the destructive forces, such as animals attached to the god of confusion, Seth—the ass, hippopotamus, crocodile, gazelle, and geese. They symbolize the chaotic forces threatening the created ordered cosmos.
The offerings to the dead were intended for the restoration of life. The dead were momentarily in an inert state, according to the Egyptian way of thinking, and to bring them out of that state and back to life they were given “all good and pure things on which the god lives,” which was the appropriate offering for those who entered the divine world.
The Daily Temple cult.
Offerings were given to the gods during the daily temple cult. The daily ritual is known from several sources that were dated from the New Kingdom to Greco-Roman times. There are papyri, now in Berlin, dating from the twenty-second dynasty, that describe sixty-six scenes of the ritual for Amun and Mut in Karnak. Scenes of the daily cult were also depicted on temple walls, where single scenes often represented the whole ritual. The most comprehensive were found in the temple of Sety I at Abydos (thirty-six scenes), in the Edfu temple (nineteen scenes), and in the temple of Dendera (six scenes). The king was the “Lord of ritual” (nb irt ḫt). In all reliefs, the reigning king was always depicted officiating before a statue of god, although the duty was, in reality, delegated to the head priest of each temple.
The morning cult was the most important; the offerings were prepared in the offering room, consecrated through libations and censing, then brought into the sanctuary to be presented to the statue of the god. At noon and in the evening, a shorter ritual took place. Possibly, during some periods and in certain temples, Edfu for example, an hourly ritual was celebrated throughout the day and night.
Although many depictions and descriptions of the daily cult are known, there is no consensus about its ritual order. The cult seems to be based on human morning ritual: washing, dressing, and eating. Since the status of the cult statue was one of a mighty god, it was treated like a king and offered royal insignia. All the ritual acts were accompanied by libations and censing.
The cult was a means of entering into contact with the powers that governed the world, as well as a means of maintaining communication with the divine world. In pictured scenes, there are indications of what is being recited during the rites—what the priest says and what the god answers. Giving implied a gift in return; inherent in the nature of a gift. The very acts of the cult were, in themselves, offerings to the gods. As the priest approached the sanctuary with the intention of executing the cult ritual and bringing the offerings, the flow of gifts started in return. In response to the cult actions and the material offerings—such as food, clothes, and other objects—the god bestowed life on the king-priest who acted as a mediator, allowing all the country and its inhabitants to benefit. Linked with the gift of life were the gifts of stability, prosperity, and other beneficial states, such as health and joy. With reciprocal giving, the god also bestowed power on the king-priest to maintain the realm and to be victorious over the country's foes. The divine gifts were also intended to confirm the divine status; thus he was offered the rank and function of the great gods like Atum and Geb as well as the kingship of the gods Re and Horus.
Numerous festivals marked the annual seasons and months. Each temple had its own calendar of festivals, which were celebrated with cultic activities within the temples and processions outside them. The daily cult as well as the festival activities within the temple were enacted in the privacy of the sanctuary, without the participation of the public. Only the processions took place in public. The lists of food deliveries for the festivals show that large amounts were brought in for those occasions and offered to the gods. During the processions, there were music, dancing, and singing; according to the Wisdom Literature (Ani), the gods also considered such activities as offerings.
The Offering Cult for the Dead.
The dead were given offerings on the occasion of the burial, and their offerings were to be renewed forever, on principle, at certain named festivals during the year: the new year festival, the Thoth festival, the Wag festival, the Sokar festival, and others, according to a lengthy list. In reality there were probably not so many days celebrated with a meal at the tomb, during which members of the family came together (as was the custom in Thebes, for example, at the Valley Festival, from the Middle Kingdom to Greco-Roman times).
Food offerings had been given to the dead in prehistoric times, and this custom continued throughout historical times. As early as the first dynasties, the deceased was depicted before an offering table, beside which there was an inscription enumerating all that was offered. In the tombs in the Theban necropolis in the latter part of the eighteenth dynasty, this rather simple though copious meal was changed into a scene of a banquet with many participants, servants, and entertaining musicians, which resembled the family meal in front of the tomb during the Valley Festival.
The king presented the offerings to the gods in the temples, and the idea of the king as the giver of offerings was also maintained in the tombs. The offering formula used in the tombs says “an offering that the king gives”; this was actually true, owing to a peculiarity of the Egyptian offering system called reversion of offerings.
The reversion of offerings implied that offerings went from the temple out to the necropolis. Offerings presented to the main god of the temple were carried out of the sanctuary, were presented to gods having subsidiary cults in the temple, then to statues of kings and private persons placed in the temple courts, and finally to the necropolis. After all those symbolic presentations, the offerings were distributed to the priests and all the staff involved in the rituals as a reward, or salary, for their work. This custom of reverted offerings was established as early as the Old Kingdom and was continued.
The custom of reverted offerings was not only a salary system for priests and temple staff in a non-monetary society, it also offered a possibility for old age insurance and tax planning, since fewer taxes were paid for fields belonging to the temples than for privately owned fields. From the Ramessid era onward, it was customary for higher officials to donate a statue of the king to the king and the temple, as well as the means to furnish it with offerings (i.e., fields). The king then put the donator in charge of the statue with the usufruct of the attached income. When the official retired, and thus lost the income of his former office, he kept charge of the statue and the usufruct of its income. The gifts to the gods thus had economic as well as religious implications.
Contracts of Offering.
Tomb owners and the priesthood of their hometown temple contracted to ensure future offerings during the generations to come. The most well known are the ten contracts of Hapidjefa at Asyut, an important official of the Middle Kingdom; they were established between him and the wab-priests, the hour-priests, and some specialist priests of both Wepwat and Anubis, as well as with the overseer of the necropolis and his staff. Hapidjefa stipulated what was going to be offered to him: bread and beer, on some occasions in very large quantities: twenty-two jars of beer and 2,255 pieces of bread of two different types, a roast of meat, wicks for the torches used during nocturnal processions, and the participation of some priests in those processions. In return for such services, bread, beer, land, and part of the temple income were given to them. On the occasion of the Wag festival, he gave in return exactly the same large amount as they offered to him on that day—an example of reverted offerings. Most of what Hapidjefa gave away came from his own inherited property (“of the house of his father,” according to the Egyptian term) or property from his own special funerary foundation. He also stipulated rewards originating from income that came from his office as a nomarch, which, however, was a less secure asset (the succeeding nomarch might disapprove of the arrangement and cancel it). His stipulations primarily concerned two important moments of the year: (1) the end of the year—the first epagomenal day and the fifth—which equals new year's eve and new year's day; (2) the Wag festival, eighteen days later. The end of the year was equated with death and burial, and the new year was equated with resurrection. The Wag festival was the great festival of the dead. On those occasions, ceremonies and processions took place in the temples and in the necropolis. It was important that Hapidjefa's statue was present, as it was for all dead persons.
Ancient Egyptian Terms for Offerings.
The specialized words for the verb “to offer” expressed, through their associative field, the different aspects of offerings. The word most frequently used was hotep (ḥtp), written with the hieroglyph representing the offering slab (a loaf of bread), and it has also been determined with the offering table. Ḥtp was the word used in the offering formula, “an offering that the king gives” (ḥtp dἰ nsw). Ḥtp also has the following meanings “to be pleased, happy, gracious”; “to be peaceful”; “to become calm”; “to satisfy”; “to pacify”; and their corresponding nouns. Ḥtp had to do with gifts in a holistic perspective of communication between the worlds, given in gratitude, received in happiness and grace, and leading to contentment, graciousness, mercy, and peace.
“To present” and “to hand over” the offerings were expressed by ḥnk; in hieroglyphic script, it is followed by the determinative of an outstretched arm holding a small offering bowl.
When the offerings had been carried in they had to be consecrated, and several words were used in that context. There is kherep (ḫrp), which has to do with the provenence of the offerings and which covers a large associative field. The offerings came from special districts and estates (ḫrp) that were administered (ḫrp) by the temples, and they had to pay taxes (ḫrpwt) in the form of their produce to the temple to which they belonged. So they brought in (ḫrp) their produce and provided (ḫrp) the temple with the necessities “to make offerings” (ḫrp). The products then had to be consecrated (ḫrp) and dedicated (ḫrp) to the gods. The word ḫrp has as its determinating sign an arm that holds a baton of office—very appropriate for all those different meanings. A similar determining sign, an arm with a stick, is also used in drp, with the meaning “to offer,” or “to present and make offerings.” So the word drp might also have to do with the consecration. That was probably also the case with sḳr, determined with a mace and with the general meaning of “to strike,” but it was also used in the sense of “to offer” and “to present offerings.”
Other words for “to offer” are linked to the things offered and to their treatment. Animals and birds were often offered, but first they had to be slaughtered. There is the word ἰʒm, “to offer,” written with the baton of office; it also meant “to bind the sacrifice,” then written with a rope as the determinating sign or with a knife to indicate the next step of the process. As to birds, they were killed by wringing the neck, wšn, which besides this meaning also meant “to make an offering.” Another word for “to offer” and “offering” is wdn, which has a flower on a long stalk as a determining sign. Since flowers and vegetables were an important part of the offerings, this word is probably related to such offerings.
During the offering ritual, the offering had to be purified. A purified offering was called wdḥw. The word is determined by the sign of water flowing out of a recipient, as well as with the signs of bread and beer. It is related to a word of the same stem with the meaning “to pour out” and to one of the words for “offering table.”
A word that has to do with offerings and at the same time with purification and purity is abu (ʿbw). What is offered to the gods must first be pure and sanctified, and that was done by a libation poured out from special libation vessels. Abu also means “impurity,” thus including the two opposites of the notion of cleanliness; so the word comprises the meaning of the impurity that has to be eliminated to make the gift suitable for the gods. The removal of what is impure and evil leads us to the words sfḫ, which means “lose,” “loosen,” “release,” “purify,” “remove evil,” “to separate fighting animals,” “offer to god,” and “offerings.” So an offering is likened to the parting of fighting animals and removing evil, thus releasing forces, or freeing from bonding. It was not only what was good and pure that was offered to god but also what was bad that had been removed and laid aside, so that energies that were blocked by evil and by fighting were released and got a chance. Among the offering animals were also animals that symbolized the bad, the Seth side of existence. Those were offered so that the bad could not spread and defile the totality. In Ptolemaic times, bound victims were occasionally seen on the offering tables, symbolizing the menacing disordered forces that had to be defeated.
Types of Offerings.
In prehistoric and in early dynastic times, the offerings to the dead mostly consisted of vessels, incense, oil, cosmetics, fruit, and meat. At first, there were real food and drink offerings. Next, the real offerings were supplemented with a list of the items and the amount of each offering, as were found on early dynastic stelae. Eventually, the offering lists and an offering formula could replace the gift of the material offering.
According to Winfried Barta in Die altägyptische Opferliste (Berlin, 1963), at first no established custom existed as to what offerings should be presented nor was there an order for appearance in the lists. The early period enumerations included both the offerings of objects that were part of the tomb equipment plus all that was needed for the burial, the commemorative ritual, and the meal. During the Old Kingdom, those two types of offerings were gradually separated into different lists. From the fifth dynasty onward, there are great offering lists of as many as ninety items for the ritual meal.
As for the temple offerings, the temple reliefs abound in offering scenes that refer to the daily temple cult. All over the walls, the richly furnished offering tables are laden with choice meat, fruit, vegetables, and so on. The scenes are often accompanied by offering lists that enumerate the items brought to the gods; such lists contain up to forty entries: bread of different kinds, several qualities of beer with different strengths; meat from cattle and wild desert animals, such as oxen and cows, sheep and goats, gazelles and antelopes; birds of different species, such as geese and water fowl; fruits, such as dates, grapes, figs, and pomegranates; vegetables, especially onions, garlic, and leek; honey; milk and wine; grease, oil, perfumes, and incense; lamps and wicks; wax; salt; natron; cloth; jewelry; and royal insignia.
According to Barta, the offering lists for the deceased and for the gods should be distinguished from the various other offering lists, those related to the festivals and to supplying the statues and the other foundations (which had the secular aim of nourishing the priests and attending staffs and probably also festival participants). The temple and tomb offerings had, rather, a sacred function, to contribute primarily to the preservation and restoration of life; although they, too, through the practice of reversion, secondarily entered the secular domain. Thus offerings were intended for the maintenance of life and of the living. Whether offerings were burned in a regular manner remains an open question. New Kingdom scenes sometimes show offerings surrounded by flames, and these have been interpreted as gifts to a god that no one else was to share. In the Late period, the destruction of offerings by fire came to symbolize offerings that represented hostile powers needing annihilation.
Human sacrifices were not part of ancient Egyptian religious rites (yet a few prehistoric and early dynastic finds have been interpreted in that way by some scholars).
Despite the superabundance of offerings, the material offering was not the essential thing. The act of devotion was more important than the material gift, as was attested by substitute offerings. Reciting the offering formula was an adequate substitute for the actual offering. This is particularly well attested where tomb owners address themselves to passers-by, demanding that the offering formula be read on their behalf. It takes no effort to read it, and it does not take long, they say, but for the grave owner, it is of great importance. As the owner's name is mentioned in the formula, reading it out makes the owner live on, in the memory of posterity. Further evidence for substitutes of the actual offerings are the figures of wax or incense and the replicas made of cake that replace material offerings.
As mentioned above, the offering of a sculpture with attached fields for sustenance was a means to secure an income after retiring from official service, and it belongs to the secular sphere. There were also sculptural offerings belonging to the sacral sphere. Among them were the offering of a statuette of Maat. Well aware of how fragile is the state of equilibrium and harmony, Egyptians saw it as the main task of the pharaoh to strengthen that state, to work for maat. That is why the king-priest is often shown offering a small statue of Maat. In so doing, he shows that he acknowledges the principle of maat and tries to keep the world in the order in which it was at its creation.
A variant of the maat offering is found in cases where the king, as the officiating priest, offers his name to the god. This variant is particularly found with names of Ramessid kings that contain the word maat. Ramses II is on many occasions seen offering his name Weser-Maat-Re to Amun, to Re-Horakhty, or to some other god, a name that means “Re's maat-order is powerful” or “may Re's maat-order be powerful.” There is also the possibility of interpreting the gift of the name as an offering of the self, the name being one of the expressions of the individual.
Another gift that might be interpreted as a gift of the self is a statue of the offering king—kneeling, prostrated, or in some other posture—presented to the god by the offering king himself. It could mean that the king offers himself, his action, and his power for the maintenance of life and order. Yet there are texts, such as the Harris Papyrus, which concern such statuettes and indicate that they are made and placed in the temple “in order to give thee [the god in question] daily offerings.” That is, they are meant to make the king and his gift a permanent presense in the temple. Not only the living king but also dead kings were thus permanently present in the temples by means of such statuettes piously preserved.
Priestly Personnel Connected with Offerings.
Given the extensive offerings in temples and tombs, many people were involved in the handling of the offering material and of the connected rituals.
In tomb service.
Usually the oldest son took the responsibility for the care of the burial, the offerings, and the subsequent rituals, but this charge could also, if necessary, be given to another individual. In the Old Kingdom, the priest in charge of the private tomb had the titles sekhen-akh (sḫn-ʒḫ), hem-sekhen-akh (ḥ-sḫn-ʒḫ), or hem-sekhen-per-djet (ḥm-sḫn-pr-ḏt). Sḫn means either “embrace,” “seek,” or “meet,” and akh (Ʒ̮h) is the designation of the deceased, so the title indicates the one who is in contact with the deceased. The word ḥm means “servant” and pr-ḏt is the designation of the foundation furnishing the funeral offerings of food, which the priest will eventually receive in return for his services. In the Middle Kingdom, a new title appeared, ḥm-kʒ, which means “the servant of the Ka,” with the Ka being one of the designations of the immaterial, psycho-spiritual aspects of a human being. From the New Kingdom onward, the most frequent title was wʒḥ-mw, meaning “the offerer of the water,” who, however, also took care of the food offerings.
The person responsible for the offerings and the reversion of offerings was entitled “Overseer of the god's offerings” (imy-r ḥtpt-nṯr) or “Scribe of the god's offerings” (sš ḥtpt-nṯr). These were the main officials but, given the enormous responsibilities, there were many other titles for those who handled specialized tasks.
Offerings According to the Egyptian Worldview.
How did the ancient Egyptians look upon such extensive offerings? It seems that the material offerings were not the most important, and there are a few indications of this in texts from differents periods. In the Instructions for Merikare (lines 128–129) it is said “the good qualities of the straightforward person are preferred to the ox of the evil-doer.” The same attitude toward substantial gifts was also reflected in the story of “The Shipwrecked Sailor” (line 159). When the shipwrecked Egyptian was going back home to Egypt, he took leave of the owner of the island, the divine serpent, who was a representation of the creator god, and he offered to send all the riches of Egypt to the serpent once he had reached home. The divine serpent, however, laughed at him and at his proposals and said that he had plenty of all that, since he was the rightful owner of all good things and there was nothing that did not exist in excess on his island. There was, however, one thing that he wished, that the sailor should make his name renowned in his home town. “Lo, that is my due from you.” So the inner attitude of thankfulness, remembrance, and testimony about the divine were more important than the actual gifts. Most important of all was maat, the righteousness, justice, truth, harmony, and balance as a gift in the temples, as that which accompanies the deceased into the netherworld.
According to Marcel Mauss in his Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l'échange dans les sociétés archaïques (Année Sociologique, II série, I, 1923–24, pp. 30–186), gifts are charged with the essence of the giver and imply that the receiver is obliged to give a gift in return. This is exactly what happened in the Egyptian offerings system. Humanity made offerings to the gods in order to urge the gods to give in turn. What was given was what had been received. Offerings were part of a continuous exchange of energies that corresponded to the Egyptian holistic worldview—where everything in the universe was ecologically linked in a network of energies. The human being had to take an active part in this network and contribute to its perfect functioning, so it is with this perspective that the offerings are to be understood.
- David, A. Rosalie. Religious Ritual at Abydos (c. 1300 b.c.). Warminster, 1973. Describes the offering scenes in the temple of Sety I, with an account of the interpretations of the order of the scenes, as given by various scholars.
- Englund, Gertie. “Gifts to the Gods—A Necessity, for the Preservation of Cosmos and Life. Theory and Praxis.” In Gifts to the Gods: Proceedings of the Uppsala Symposium 1985, edited by T. Linders and G. Nordquist, pp. 57–66. Uppsala, 1987. Comprises the collected papers presented at a symposium on offerings, particularly in the ancient Mediterranean civilizations but also some on Scandinavian traditions.
- Frandsen, Paul John. “Trade and Cult.” In The Religion of the Ancient Egyptians: Cognitive Structures and Popular Expressions, edited by G. Englund, pp. 95–108. Uppsala, 1989. Lectures given at two symposia on Egyptian religion, with the article discussing various opinions on offerings that are held by Egyptologists.
- Meeks, Dimitri, and Christine Favard-Meeks. Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods. Translated from the French by G. M. Goshgarian. London, 1997. A good description of gods, temples, and cults in ancient Egypt.
- Spencer, A. J. Death in Ancient Egypt. London, 1982. The third chapter, entitled “Providing for the Dead,” gives a detailed description of offerings and gifts for the dead.
Offering Formulas and Lists
One of the most ubiquitous classes of texts found in ancient Egypt, offering formulas have their origins in the cult of the dead. Since to ancient Egyptians death was simply a continuation—albeit on a different plane—of the life they had known, shelter and material goods were considered necessary for the deceased's well-being. A tomb equipped with clothing and everyday utensils supplied their needs, along with the appropriate food and drink. Nourishment was supplied through an elaborate set of legal transactions between an individual and the funerary priests, whereby the priests contracted to furnish a specified amount of sustenance to the individual's ka after that person had died. The food was brought into the tomb-chapel, where it was offered to the deceased at his false door, from which his ka would emerge to partake of the items spiritually. To safeguard against the cessation of sustenance within the tomb, the magical power of the written and spoken word was employed, to ensure a continual supply of offerings. This took the form of an offering formula, a genre first known from the fourth dynasty. On the false door inside the tomb-chapel a prayer was carved, requesting that offerings be given to the deceased. If the actual food offerings stopped, the offering formula would magically guarantee an eternal supply of food and enable the deceased to dispense with the assistance of the funerary priests for his continued sustenance.
The offering formula operated on another symbolic level, which related to the role of the king in granting offerings. This aspect of the offering formula had its origins in the daily offerings in the divine temples, where the king ensured the well-being of the country by presenting offerings to the gods. The essential role of the king as intermediary between the gods and mankind was central to the phrasing of the offering formula. Just as the king had struck a bargain with the gods, whereby he offered goods to them in exchange for prosperity and harmony in the land, so would the king intercede on behalf of the dead to ensure them a prosperous afterlife. On a more practical level, the offering formula grew out of the fact that the divine offerings—the actual foods—were distributed to the temple employees after the gods had spiritually satisfied themselves. Egyptologists refer to this practice as “the reversion of offerings.” In this way, what the king offered to the gods could subsequently be enjoyed by the population.
Given the importance of the offering formula, it is not surprising to see it on so many objects from ancient Egypt. First appearing on the architrave of the false door, the formula was also used as a descriptive title accompanying funerary scenes. It was later written on offering tables, coffins, and statues, and eventually became the standard inscription engraved on funerary and commemorative stelae.
A typical offering formula from the Middle Kingdom demonstrates the sentiments expressed in the prayer. “An offering that the king gives (to) Osiris, lord of Busiris, the great god and lord of Abydos, that he [i.e., Osiris] may give invocation offerings consisting of bread and beer, (cuts of) oxen and fowl, alabaster ([calcite] vessels) and clothing, (in fact) all good and pure things on which a god lives, for the ka-spirit of N.”
The offering formula always begins with the phrase “An offering that the king gives” (ḥtp-dἰ-nsw in ancient Egyptian). The word “offering” here was mostly meant to signify food offerings, such as the bread, beer, meat, and poultry mentioned in the prayer, but other boons were also prayed for that would guarantee success in this life and the next. Although the word ḥtp is rendered generically as “offering” in this phrase, the basic root meaning of the noun is “satisfaction” or “contentment,” which refers to the feelings of the deceased upon the presentation of the offerings. The fact that the king (nsw) himself is said to “give” (dἰ) the offerings shows not only the symbolic role of the king, but also the fact that the king was regarded as the source of all goods in ancient Egypt. The source of the offerings was always understood to be the “reversion of offerings” as shown by one of the items requested; this was said to be “food-offerings that have gone up before the great god.”
The “great god” mentioned in the example is Osiris, the preeminent god of the dead in ancient Egypt. Osiris was the god most often invoked in the offering formulas throughout the length of Egyptian history, although other divinities could be mentioned. In the Old Kingdom, for example, the god Anubis is found in all examples that predate the fifth dynasty, at which time Osiris and Geb first appear. It is noteworthy that the god Amun-Re is first mentioned sporadically in offering formulas of the twelfth dynasty but becomes popular in the eighteenth dynasty, reflecting the historical development of this divinity. Short epithets describing the god's nature and attributes were added after the divine name (“… Osiris, lord of Busiris, the great god and lord of Abydos”).
The next expression in the prayer, “invocation-offerings” (prt-ḫrw), literally means “the going forth of the voice” and shows the importance of the oral component of the ritual. That the offering formula was meant to be recited out loud by the dedicant is shown by the phrase itself as well as by representations that accompanied the formula. Such scenes occasionally have a caption, “Performing (the ritual of) an Offering-that-the-king-gives,” and show the officiant standing with one arm raised in a gesture of invocation, reciting the offering formula aloud.
Offerings of food are the most common requests in prayer, but additional phrases such as “that which heaven gives, the earth creates, and the Nile brings” can be added before “all things good and pure on which a god lives.” Lists of funerary and calendrical festivals, specifying the time at which the offerings were meant to be given, sometimes followed this request. The requests in offering formulas are too numerous to detail here, but these can be grouped into a few categories. One set deals with wishes for a prosperous career during the owner's life. This includes petitions for a long life, especially the traditional wish for a lifetime of 110 years, as well as honor and respect in one's lifetime, participation in various religious festivals, and so forth. A second group consists of requests for a successful transitional period between life and death. The most common of these is a plea for a “fine burial in the necropolis of the Western Desert,” but they also include wishes for the performance of the proper rites at the tomb, the reassurance of an unimpeded way to the tomb, and the proper placement of the mummy in the grave. The third group is concerned with wishes for a happy sojourn in the hereafter. These deal with matters as disparate as the preservation of the body, the granting of proper funerary gifts for eternity, and requests for a successful outcome of the final judgment, for freedom of movement in the underworld, and so forth. Wishes for the hereafter are noteworthy, especially when found in inscriptions from the Old Kingdom. These texts contradict an older theory that only royalty could achieve a beatific state in the hereafter during the Old Kingdom, because the only sizable body of funerary literature from that period—the Pyramid Texts—was reserved for the use of kings and queens. In fact, many of the wishes for the hereafter encountered in the offering formulas from the Old Kingdom were repeated in later funerary collections such as the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), which date to the Middle and New Kingdoms respectively. The offering formula shows that all people had access to a felicitous hereafter from the beginning of Egyptian history.
Appeal to the Living.
The paramount importance given to the oral component of ritual in ancient Egypt, where the spoken word was charged with such potency, is emphasized by a development in the offering formula known as the “Appeal to the Living.” If actual offerings were not forthcoming, the deceased could appeal to passersby to recite the formula for him. A typical example of such an appeal reads: “O you who (still) live upon the earth, who shall pass by this tomb of mine, whether going northward or southward, who love life and hate death, and who shall say ‘A thousand loaves of bread and jugs of beer for the owner of this tomb,’ I shall watch over them in the necropolis, for I am an excellent equipped akh-spirit.”
A further development of the Appeal to the Living is the “Breath of the Mouth” formula. In this formula, the deceased assures the living that nothing more than a spoken prayer is requested of them, and that giving is better than receiving. After the initial phrases of the Appeal to the Living, a typical example of this new formula adds: “Please offer to me from what is in your hands. But if (perchance) there is nothing in your hands, you need only say with your mouths. ‘A thousand of bread and beer, of oxen and fowl, of alabaster (calcite vessels) and linen, (in fact) a thousand of all pure things for the owner of this tomb.’ It is (after all) only the breath of the mouth. This is not something of which one ever wearies, and is more profitable to the one who does it than to the one who receives it.” Such eloquent pleas on the part of the deceased show the need for continued sustenance and the fear of not receiving it.
On the walls of Old Kingdom tomb chapels, in close connection with the false door, the offering formula is often accompanied by a fuller menu of the items requested by the deceased, the offering list. With its origins in the royal offering lists found in the Pyramid Texts (for example, Spells 23 to 57 and 72 to 171), the full offering list, as it had developed by the time of the fifth dynasty, consisted of more than ninety items, engraved within little rectangles neatly laid out in rows and columns, with each rectangle giving the name and a pictorial representation of the article desired, as well as the stipulated amount to be offered. A typical examples lists “Water libation, (pour) one; Incense, (burn) one; green eyepaint, one (bag); cloth, two (strips).”
Most of the items in the list are food or drink, from the standard bread and beer to cool water and five varieties of wine, and from cuts of meat to various kinds of pastries and cakes. Also mentioned are cultic items, such as pellets of natron and incense and the traditional seven sacred oils. The list usually ends with a series of ritual acts such as “assigning the offering,” “presenting cool water,” “breaking the red pottery,” “purification,” “hand-washing,” and so forth. This bill of fare is sometimes accompanied by a scene of priests performing the offering ritual before the deceased, who is seated before a table laden with the traditional half-loaves of bread and reaches with one hand for the loaves. Like the offering formula, the offering list was meant to be read out loud, with the recitation enabling the items magically to come alive for the deceased.
Changes in the Offering Formula.
Although there is scholarly debate over the interpretation of the offering formula, the fact that the writing of this prayer—in terms of paleographic variations and the actual words used—changed from one period to another suggests that, over time, some innovations occurred in its interpretation. For example, the opening phrases of a typical offering formula from the Old Kingdom read, “An offering that the king gives, (and) an offering that Osiris gives, (namely) invocation-offerings consisting of bread and beer, etc.,” with the word “offering” repeated. This parallel construction introduces the king and the god as equal donors of the offering. By the First Intermediate Period, this introductory phrase has been reformulated with the god introduced by a preposition, although this preposition is not always written. The formula now reads, “An offering that the king gives (to) Osiris.” This change suggests that the king was still considered the original donor of the offerings, but that he now gave them to the god, who then passed the offerings on to the recipient. To clarify this new interpretation, the theologians of the twelfth dynasty added the phrase “that he may give” before the expression “invocation-offerings.” That “he” in the phrase refers to the divinity and not the king is substantiated by the fact that when a goddess is mentioned—for example, Maat or Hathor—the feminine form “she” is used. Thus, the beginning of a traditional offering formula from the Middle Kingdom reads: “An offering that the king gives (to) Osiris, lord of Busiris, that he [i.e. Osiris] may, in turn, give invocation-offerings.”
In the system of writing devised by the ancient Egyptians, honorific consideration made it necessary to write the word “king” before the noun “offering” and the verb “to give” (nsw-ḥtp-dἰ) in the writing of the introductory phrase “An offering that the king gives,” even though the syntactic relationship among the three words should have demanded that “king” be written last (ḥtp-dἰ-nsw). This satisfied a calligraphic rule that divine or royal names, as well as the word for “king” and “god,” should precede any other word in the sentence, regardless of their syntactic function. The beginning of the Second Intermediate Period in the late thirteenth dynasty saw a change in the order of these words (although a few earlier examples are known). From the earlier nsw-ḥtp-dἰ, the order was now nsw-dἰ-ḥtp, a rewriting influenced by a less formal tradition of writing, such as the bureaucracy's. Although a definitive explanation of this calligraphic change eludes us, the actual interpretation of the prayer was not changed, as far as can be ascertained. Other significant changes in the offering formula from the New Kingdom onward were the use of new divinities invoked and a proliferation of wishes.
Such variations in the offering formula are useful to modern scholars as dating criteria, since they help to determine fairly precise dates for many monuments found outside their original context. Other variations in the prayer, such as the addition during the Middle Kingdom of the “Abydos Formula,” which requests participation in the great festival of the god Osiris at the city of Abydos, also help to date and localize certain types of objects, such as commemorative stelae.
- Barta, Winfried. Aufbau und Bedeutung der altägyptischen Opferformel. Glückstadt, 1968. Although not readily available in even the best libraries, this is still the only major scholarly study of the offering formula; note that the author does not believe the formula changed over time.
- Davies, Norman de G., and Alan H. Gardiner. The Tomb of Amenemhēt (no. 82). Theban Tomb Series, 1. London, 1915. Not readily available, but Gardiner's excursus on the offering formula, pp. 79–93, remains a classic study of the formula.
- Gardiner, Alan H. Egyptian Grammar. 3d rev. ed. Oxford, 1957. Excursus B, pp. 170–173, is an excellent introduction to the offering formula and the changes in the writing as they occurred between the Old and Middle Kingdoms.
- Hassan, Selim. Excavations at Giza, vol. 6: The Offering List in the Old Kingdom. Cairo, 1948. This remains one of the only full scholarly treatments of the offering list in English.
- Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Autobiographies Chiefly of the Middle Kingdom: A Study and an Anthology. Freiburg, 1988. Translations of a great number of texts that contain the Offering Formula as well as a discussion of the “Abydos Formula.”
- Spanel, Donald B. “Palaeographic and Epigraphic Distinctions between Texts of the So-called First Intermediate Period and the Early Twelfth Dynasty.” In Studies in Honor of William Kelly Simpson, edited by P. Der Manuelian, pp. 765–786. Boston, 1996. An excellent example of a study using the changes in the writing of the offering formula to assist in dating museum pieces.
Ronald J. Leprohon
The bringing of offerings was the focal element of ancient Egyptian tomb and temple cults; thus, the offering table was one of the main features of cult monuments. As yet, Egyptologists have formulated no satisfactory definition of “offering tables.” This term may designate any object on which offerings were placed, regardless of its place within a tomb, even though there are obvious functional dissimilarities between cult rooms and burial chambers and their respective equipment. At the same time, although temple offering tables are typologically very similar to those in tombs, they are often called “altars,” which is confusing from the standpoint of nomenclature. Strictly speaking, only objects from cult chambers that are equipment for the perpetual cult should be regarded as offering tables; artifacts from burial chambers must be otherwise designated.
In Predynastic times, bread was put on a mat spread in front of the grave; the memory of this most ancient offering furniture survived in the shape of the hieroglyph ḥtp, used to spell the words belonging to the root with the general meaning “to be satiated,” which becomes “to be satisfied, peaceful, etc.”; hence ḥtp denotes “offering” (the interpretation in Mostafa 1982, pp. 81–91 is hardly plausible).
All the basic types of offering stones had assumed their forms during the Old Kingdom, although afterward they changed noticeably. They were placed in front of the tomb's false door; inscriptions and representations on them were usually oriented in a manner to make it convenient for the tomb owner, who was meant to face out toward the opening of the tomb, or, as Egyptian texts say, “going forth.”
As far back as the Predynastic period, there appeared a type of little one-legged round table (ḫʒw.t), commonly made of calcite (alabaster) or limestone, or rarely of harder stone. Its leg is often separate from the top, suggesting that it originated from a plate on a stand. The tomb owner is represented at such a gueridon in endless table scenes, from the mid-first dynasty. Judging from these scenes, the ḫʒw.t was used in life and was included among the tomb furniture as an article of daily necessity. The earliest ḫʒw.wt belonged to the goods of the burial chamber, and as such they were meant to be used by the deceased; in one case, real food was found on the table, but models were also provided. These ḫʒw.wt cannot be considered offering tables because they had nothing to do with the funerary cult. However, during the fourth dynasty they were also placed in front of the false doors and for some time even became the commonest type of offering stone. Thus, in different contexts, the same object could have different functions, the meaning of the artifact being obscure if isolated from its context.
The tables with thin pedestal legs were too unsubstantial and vulnerable to serve as the main site for cult offerings. Eventually this form was replaced by a round slab without protruding parts. Such round offering tables imitating ḫʒw.t (e.g., GC 1304, 57037; see Bibliography below) are not among the most widespread types. Much more common were offering tables with one, two, or several rectangular depressions for libations of water, beer, or wine. These basins could be stepped, with one or several steps. Some of them had a spout to let water spurt out, but these were rare in the Old Kingdom. The original name of this type of offering stone was š, a word that could designate any reservoir, lake, or pond; in the Middle Kingdom it was replaced by the rather indefinite terms mʿḥʿ.t and jʿ.
The most important type of offering table prevailing after the middle of the Old Kingdom imitates in stone the ancient mat for a loaf. In its simplest form, this is a rectangular slab with the ḥtp sign occupying its entire upper surface. The name for these offering tables was also ḥtp. Rarer are large mastaba-shaped structures, usually monolithic. Because of their considerable size (primarily their height), they could not stand in front of the false doors, and so they were placed to the side (e.g., in the Saqqara chapel of Khentika Ikhekhi). To all appearances, they were used to put out food and equipment before priestly services, and thus they cannot be considered offering tables proper. Four-legged tables (wdḥw) are known principally as models found in burial chambers. They were manufactured of copper or later also of bronze, or of wood. They were so light and perishable that no trace of them remains in the chapels. It is interesting that later the hieroglyph depicting wdḥw became a common determinative to various words for offering tables (e.g., ḥtp).
All the above types are extremely rare in their pure form; much more often, heterogeneous elements are combined in a single object. The upper surface may bear both the ḥtp sign with one or several libation basins or basins together with a circle representing the ḫʒw.t. Often we also see a ewer in high relief, with its spout turned to the basin, which increases the number of possible combinations. Circular offering stones may also bear the ḥtp sign and/or basin and ewer. The top of the wdḥw table may be shaped like the ḥtp, while the mastaba-form tables may have low legs, thus merging with the wdḥw. Numerous offering tables are covered with representations of food.
The earliest temple offering tables come from Old Kingdom pyramid complexes (starting with Djoser) and from solar temples of the fifth dynasty. These may be either monolithic or brick, and they differ from the private ones in their monumentality. Another contrasting characteristic is a generalization of form and an austerity in decoration.
At the early stage of development, offering tables may seem to have been regarded solely as receptacles for real food and drink, which would conform well to Old Kingdom realism in all spheres of ideology; however, this statement would be wide of the truth. The presence of pictorial decoration means that besides their functions in the ritual feeding of the deceased, the offering tables had to generate eternally the ka-doubles of the depicted food. Moreover, the imitation ewers prove that the offering stones were used also in rituals of purification. Even more telling are the steps in the basins, which show that the latter were associated with sacred lakes that had the same stepped sides (the earliest known example is in the valley temple of Menkaure). Most interesting in this regard is offering table CG 1330, on which each of the three steps of the basin bears a low, mean, and high water mark, referring to the respective seasons. Thus, the basin represents a reservoir filled with the Nile flood. Representations of boats with the tomb owner are seen on the sides of one offering table (Louvre E.25369), while on CG 1353, the same boats are arranged around the basin; in accordance with Egyptian artistic conventions, this means that they are shown navigating on it.
The Middle Kingdom followed some of the old traditions (see, e.g., the ḥtp-shaped offering table CG 23008), but serious changes are also obvious. The most significant innovation is the spread of offering tables with numerous basins arranged at different levels and joined by channels. Liquid poured into the upper basin, flowed down to the lower levels, and often drained from the offering stone through a spout. Usually very shallow basins occupy the whole surface of the offering table. At the same time, the number of representations of food increases; they often cover the bottom of the largest flat basin, so that water was poured onto them. Thus, the function of the offering tables shifted from the Old Kingdom practice, and henceforth they were used mainly for libations and purification rites.
Widespread are offering tables with two symmetrical deep basins which are also frequent from Old Kingdom tombs. Middle Kingdom materials explicate the meaning of this form. Often two deep grooves go out to the basins and join before the spout. Sometimes the basins are replaced by representations of two libation vessels that may have water emerging, the spurts crossing as the grooves do. These two givers of water may be identified with the two sources of the Nile, very important in the Egyptian mythological picture of the world.
The New Kingdom did not contribute greatly to the development of offering tables. Its innovations include cartouche-shaped basins, appearing as a result of the proliferation of ritual libation vessels, and pictorial compositions with two vessels flanking the ḥʒw.t table and effusing water both onto the table and into the spout.
Most unusual among New Kingdom offering tables are those from the Amarna temples. For the first time since the solar temples of the fifth dynasty, the cult was transferred from dark sanctuaries to open courts, where it was celebrated on a scale incomparable with anything else in the history of Egypt. The temple courts are packed with rows of hundreds of similar brick offering tables; the most important of them, probably the place where the king served, is distinguished only by its size. Murals depicting the temples of Akhetaten (Tell-el-Amarna) with these countless offering tables are known in the Amarna tombs of Meryre I and Panehsy.
The archaizing tendencies of the Saite period, which followed the Old Kingdom tradition, affected offering tables as well as other items of tomb and temple furniture. In some cases, this resulted only in a general simplification in appearance, but careful reproductions were made of Old Kingdom forms. Archaization can be observed in some later monuments as well. [See ARCHAISM.]
In the final stages of Egyptian history, the repertory of representations extended, especially as concerns the mythological significance of the offering tables. Of special note are images of the ba drinking water and of the owner receiving water from the goddess of the tree. Also widespread are symbols with generally positive connotations—ʿnḫ hieroglyphs, lotus flowers, and so on. Coexisting with this tendency is one toward simplification in the form and decoration of the offering tables. Basins become optional, and the offering table often becomes only a flat slab with representations of two vessels and food. In Roman times, the exact meaning of the decoration of the offering tables was lost, and although traditional motifs survived, they no longer formed meaningful compositions; then offering tables with purely ornamental decoration were used.
- Abou-Ghazi, D. Denkmäler des Alten Reiches, vol. 3: Altars and Offering-Tables (CG 57024–5 7049). Cairo, 1980. Catalog of the foremost museum collection; in default of general studies, this and the other museum catalogs cited here are the best sources.
- Borchardt, Ludwig. Denkmäler des Alten Reich (ausser den Statuen) im Museum von Kairo, vol. 1: (CG 1295–1541). Cairo, 1937.
- Gessler-Lohr, Beatrix. Die Heiligen Seen ägyptischer Tempel: Ein Beitrag zur Deutung sakraler Baukunst im alten Ägypten. Hildesheimer ägyptologische Beiträge 21. Hildesheim, 1983. Discusses sacred temple lakes and libation basins as their imitations.
- Habachi, Labib. Catalogo del Museo Egizio di Torino, vol. 2: Tavole dʾoffertà, are e bacili da libagione, n. 22001–22067. Turin, 1977.
- Hassan, Selim. Excavations at Giza, V (1933–1934). Cairo, 1944. Contains a brief but thorough review on pp. 180–189.
- Kamal, Ahmed. Tables dʾoffrandes I-II (CG 22001–23256). Cairo, 1904–1905. An early catalog of the Cairo Museum collection.
- Mostafa, Maha M. F. Untersuchungen zu Opfertafeln im Alten Reich. Hildesheimer ägyptologische Beiträge, 17. Hildesheim, 1982. An attempt at constructing a typology of Old Kingdom offering tables; though unsatisfactory in many respects, it at least gives an idea of the main types.
- Radwan, Ali. Die Kupfer- und Bronzegefässe Ägyptens. Munich, 1983. Includes some metal offering tables.
Andrey O. Bolshakov