MONTHS OF COPTIC CALENDAR
Of all survivals from pharaonic Egypt, the calendar is the most striking. Each of the twelve months of the Coptic calendar still carries the name of one of the deities or feasts of ancient Egypt. Without doubt, this reflects the conservatism that characterizes the inhabitants of the Nile Valley, who are reluctant to set aside their traditional way of life.
The year was divided into three seasons of equal length, each comprising four months. Possibly as early as the Ramesside period, each month came to be named for an important festival that was celebrated during that period of time. Documents from around the fifth century B.C., such as the Aramaic papyri from Elephantine, indicate that the great festivals held in honor of certain divinities gave their names to the month in which that particular celebration occurred, and an inscription from Pharaoh Shebaka (700 B.C.) reveals that this certainly was the practice during the Ethiopian era (Cerny, 1951, pp. 441-42).
Thanks to a hieratic ostracon in the British Museum (no. 5639a), Adolf Erman was able to identify the names of the festivals which are at the root of the names for the months of Thoout (Tut), Paopi (Babah), Athor (Hatur), Mekhir (Amshir), and Phamenoth (Baramhat). Some years later, Gardiner, working with two papyri from Turin, added the names for the festivals of the months Epep (Abib) and Mesore (Misra), while J. Cerny, using documents from the Cairo Museum and excavations of the Institut français at Dayr al-Madinah, found the names for the festivals of the months Pharmouthi (Baramudah) and Paoni (Ba’unah).
Finally, thanks to a hieratic papyrus acquired by the Cairo Museum (no. 86637), which dates from the Ramesside period and contains the so-called Calendar of Lucky and Unlucky Days, Cerny (1943, pp. 173-81) was able to identify the festival for the first month of the winter season, Tobi (Tubah).
The twelve months and the origins of their names are as follows:
- Bohairic, ywout; Sahidic, yoout; Arabic Tut (September 11-12 to October 9-10). The first month of the Coptic year was dedicated to Thoth, god of wisdom and science, inventor of writing, patron of scribes, and “he who designates the seasons, months, and years.” Thoth presided over the “House of Life,” where were composed and copied all texts necessary for the maintenance and replenishment of life.
- Bohairic, paopi; Sahidic, paope; Arabic, Babah (October 11-12 to November 9-10). During the second month was celebrated the “beautiful feast of Opet,” whose name Paopi signifies “that of Opet.” According to Erman, the “colonnade of the temple of Luxor, decorated by Pharaoh Tut-Ankh-Amon, depicts the unfolding of this great festival in all its diversity. We see Amon-Ra traveling from Karnak to Luxor to celebrate the famous festival of Opet, from which the month Babah derives its name.”
- Bohairic, aywr; Sahidic, haywr; Arabic, Hatur (November 10-11 to December 9-10). This month commemorated Hathor, a very ancient goddess, found even in predynastic times, the “Cow of Heaven,” who gave birth to the sun and to all beings, gods and men. As the living soul of plants and trees, nurse to the rulers of Egypt, and mother of Horus, like Isis (with whom she was assimilated), Hathor was the “Gold of the Gods” and clothed herself in the form of a lion.
- Bohairic, ,oiak; Sahidic, koiahk; Arabic, Kiyahk (December 10-11 to January 8-9). This month derives its name from a ritual vase that was probably used for measuring incense and was very important in the celebration of the funerary feast originally known as the Union of the Ka. During this month, the great Osirian festivals were held, events of considerable importance to the Egyptian, for they represented: (1) the quest for the dismembered body of the martyred god, Osiris, pursued by the hatred of those representing the forces of evil; (2) the reuniting and reconstruction of his scattered parts into the form of a mummy; and (3) the burial of this simulacrum in the sacred cemetery. These mysteries were carried out in silence within the temple. Small statues made of wet clay mixed with seeds were fashioned in the form of Osiris and placed upon a bed. After a few days, the seeds germinated, and the figures became furry, keeping the original contours of the clay statues that had given them birth. Such are the “Vegetating Osiris,” those green and virile figures, those small and holy gardens, that are occasionally found faded in the Theban tombs. A reflection of this ancient practice is found today among present-day Egyptians, who still make lentils germinate in moist cotton pads for certain religious festivals.
- Bohairic, twbi; Sahidic, twbe; Arabic, Tubah (January 9-10 to February 7-8). During this month a great festival known as the Swelling of the Barley was celebrated. This name is listed in the Ebers papyrus, which dates from the beginning of the New Kingdom. According to Cerny (1943, pp. 173-81), the month was originally called Botti (Barley), but by metathesis became Tobi.
- Bohairic, me,ir; Sahidic, msir; Arabic, Amshir (February 8-9 to March 9). This is one of two months (distinguished from each other as the “large” and the “small”) related to fire and represented in the lists of festival objects by a brasier from which fire escapes (Parker, 1950, p. 46). This is the month of the “large fire” because it is the coldest time of year.
- Bohairic, vamenwy; Sahidic, parmhotp; Arabic, Baramhat (March 10-11 to April 8). This month was originally consecrated to a festival; but after the death of Amenhotep, first king of the Eighteenth Dynasty, he became the object of a particular cult and was worshipped as one of the divine patrons of the Theban necropolis. Around the Twentieth Dynasty, this cult became so popular that his name replaced that of the early festival (Parker, 1950, p. 45).
- Bohairic, varmouyi; Sahidic, parmoute; Arabic, Baramudah (April 9 to May 8). This month was dedicated to Ermonthis, goddess of the harvest, represented as having a serpent’s head and sometimes as nursing her son Kapri, the god of grain.
- Bohairic, pa,wn; Sahidic, pasonc; Arabic, Bashans (May 9 to June 7). This month took its name from the ancient festival of Khonsou, a lunar god who in very early times was integrated into the Theban theology as the son of Amon and Mut. With many qualities attributed to him, he is described as Khonsou the Magnanimous, his foremost Theban name.
- Bohairic, paoni; Sahidic, pawne; Arabic, Ba’unah (June 8 to July 7). In ancient times, “the Beautiful Festival of the Valley” was celebrated during this month. Held in the Valley of the Kings and lasting some ten days, it was without doubt the most important celebration in the life of the Egyptian people. As the annual commemoration of the dead, it included “the sacrifice, the visit to the tomb, the presentation of a consecrated bouquet, and finally, the banquet given in honor of the deceased, in which relatives, dancers, and musicians participated” (Derchain, 1954, p. 86).
- Bohairic, ep/p; Sahidic, ep/p; Arabic, Abib (July 8 to August 6). This month was consecrated in ancient Egypt to Ipy, goddess of fecundity, who assumed the form of a hippopotamus. The origin of this name is obscure, but it is probably a later form of ’Ipyp, identified at Thebes with Toeris, also a goddess of fecundity who was represented as a hippopotamus. Alabaster containers, meant to hold the water for the libations poured on the ground as an offering to this goddess, also bear the name of this festival (as did objects used in the festivals for the months of Kiyahk and Amshir).
- Bohairic, mecwr/; Sahidic, mecor/; Arabic, Misra (August 7 to September 5). The last month of the year celebrated the birth of the sun god Ra, though originally this, the last lunar month of the year, was named for the festival honoring the heliacal rising of Sothis (Sirius). For a while, the two names were used conjointly to designate the last month of the civil calendar, but then Ra’s name was accessorily applied to the first day of the civil New Year, which came to be known as the Birth of the Solar Disk during the Twentieth Dynasty and the Ptolemaic era. At Dandarah, where the two names were frequently associated with each other, the festival was called “the Festival of Ra, he who ushers in the New Year.” Gardiner (1966, p. 65), seeing therein a solar festival, considered it to be a commemoration of the “moment when the sun god, at his rising, signaled the succession of the months and years.” However, the first rising of Ra was also the moment of his birth (Mesore), the occasion of his first appearance (Parker, 1950, p. 46).
Finally, the epagomenal, or intercalary, days, called the “delayed days” (Arabic, ayyam al-nasi) or the “little month” (Arabic, al-shahr al-saghir), are five extra days that follow the month of Misra (six during leap year). The first of these days was reserved by the ancient Egyptians for the festival honoring their most celebrated god, Osiris. Certain other great ceremonies also took place at this time.
- Cerny, J. “The Origin of the Month Tybi.” Annales du Service des antiquités égyptiennes 43 (1943):173-81.
- . “Age of the Egyptian Month Names.” Annales du Service des antiquités égyptiennes 51 (1951):441-42.
- . Ancient Egyptian Religion. London, 1952; repr., 1957.
- . Coptic Etymological Dictionary. Cambridge, 1976. Chassinat, E. Le Mystère d’Osiris au mois de Khoiak. Cairo, 1966. Derchain, P. Chronologie d’Egypte. Cairo, 1954.
- Erman, A. La religion des Egyptiens, p. 234. Paris, 1952.
- Gardiner, A. Egypt of the Pharaohs: An Introduction. Oxford, 1961. Ghali, I. “Le Calendrier copte et l’ère des martyrs.” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 66 (1968):113-120.
- Parker, R. The Calendars of Ancient Egypt. Chicago, 1950.
- Wissa Wassef, Cérès. Pratiques rituelles et alimentaires des coptes. Cairo, 1971.
CÉRÈS WISSA WASSEF