Ancients Celebrated Thanksgiving

How the Ancients Celebrated Thanksgiving

by Jimmy Dunn

An Old Style American  Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving America. November 24th of this year, 2005, is when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, a major US holiday. Of course, in many respects this is a major world holiday, as it has been since ancient times, though the date may very according to different growing seasons. Today, as it has been for so many years, Thanksgiving is a time of great feasts and family reunions, and this does not vary markedly for harvest type festivals in other parts of the world. The traditional "Horn of Plenty" is, after all, a harvest icon, and the celebration of a good harvest means plenty of good food for all.

It is also a timeless celebration, with a tradition that dates back to mankind's earliest farming efforts. Today, most of us cannot comprehend the importance of a good harvest, but in archaic times the difference between a bountiful harvest and a weak yield could spell the difference between life and death, malnourishment or health. It could also have much more disastrous effects, such as setting the stage for dynastic change, and periods of upheaval.

Of course, the American Thanksgiving is in many respects considered a religious holiday. Obviously, the connotation is that we give "thanks" to the Lord for our good fortune. This too is not unique in harvest festivals. Throughout history, people have given thanks to a god or gods for a good harvest. In many cases, it was the ancient ruler who had the ultimate responsibility of appeasing the the gods so they would provide a good harvest, and it was the ruler who might be blamed if that were not the case. In ancient Egypt, for example, crop failures and the resulting famine are suspected as being at least in part the cause of several intermediate periods of governmental collapse between strong dynasties. On the other hand, good harvests were a source of pride and bragging rights by kings who could take considerable credit for the good fortune because the gods were pleased with his actions and deeds.

Harvesting the Grain in  Ancient Egypt

Harvesting the Grain in Ancient Egypt

This is not surprising. Egypt became famous as a "bread basket", and the fertility of the Nile Valley was a source of pride for the ancient Egyptians. While Egypt may be well known to us for their huge and glorious monuments, it was almost certainly the easy agricultural economy that allowed such sophistication.

Unlike the US, and many other lands, harvest did not occur in Egypt during the fall months, but rather during late March or Early April. Because of Egypt's mild climate, crops could be planted most any time, but it was the Nile inundation that triggered the initial production phases. The height of these floods would usually occur in mid August, and at that time, each former would row around his land in small boats, closing the vents in the surrounding dykes. This would allow the water to leave behind a deposit of enriched mud which would soak down deep into the soil. Around October, the land might be firm enough to plant, but in these early days, there were always rites surrounding most agricultural operations. Even in predynastic Egypt, we find King Scorpion participating in a symbolic inauguration of breaking the earth and sowing the grain. This ceremony came to symbolize the ritual burial of the god, Osiris, who had died at the hand of his brother Seth, but came back to life to thank his wife and sister, Isis. Indeed, grain became the symbol of Osiris' body because it appears to have no life until it sprouts anew.

Cutting the grain for the  Harvest in anceint Egypt

Around the end of March, or the beginning of April, the first cereal grains would be harvested, and though additional crops could and would be planted, this marked the most important harvest of the year, and a time of celebration if the crops were good. As one might imagine over its pharaonic history of some 3,000 years, harvest rites changed over this vast time span. Furthermore, harvest celebrations could vary depending on the location. They might be considerably different for those in the Nile Valley as opposed to those at a desert oasis. However, the most notable, or at least the best known harvest festival was dedicated to the pagan god, Min, who perhaps not surprisingly was also a fertility god who took interest in both the land, as well as the fertility of mankind. So identified was the fertility of the land and of mankind, that a virgin girl was poetically referred to as an "unplowed field".

Carrying the grain from the field

The start of the harvest in ancient Egypt involved celebrations in honor of Min, which were often opened by the king himself (at least in a certain region), who reaped the first ears of grain with a sickle. This was the month of Shemou (Harvest), and a statue of Min, represented as an ithyphallic god of fertility in iconography, was placed on an inclined pedestal, which was the symbol of ma'at. This pedestal represented the primordial mountain, a symbol of resurrection, renewal, and rebirth. During the processional honoring Min, hymns were sung and ritual dances and perhaps other types of dances were performed. However, there were many other festivals around the land in honor of the harvest. This was an agricultural society, but there were not temples to Min everywhere, and in many instances, other gods had to be the patrons of the harvest.

The King (Scorpion) ceremonially hoeing in a field

For example, Heqet, a frog headed goddess of childbirth was also associated with grain germination while Renenutet was also a goddess of grain, as well as a fertility goddess. Isis, who caused Osiris to rise after his death, was closely associated with the harvest festivals for she was seen as the reviver of the grain who caused it to sprout. Of course other gods might preside over other crops, such as grapes or vegetables. The harvest actually began with this festival, and there would have, as in most ancient Egyptian festivals, been some abundance of food and festivities for all. However, it is interesting that the festival occurred prior to the actual harvest. Afterwards, there would have probably been more celebration, though in what manner we cannot say. Most of the land would have belonged to the king, or temples, so the harvest would have, for the most part, been a personal celebration by individual farmers. In fact, unlike Thanksgiving in the United States, which traditionally might be seen as the end of the growing season and a time for rest, in Egypt there would have usually been another crop to plant. Since Egypt's earliest era, it was recognized that two crops could be grown between Nile floods, but getting this second crop in the ground would have left little time for celebration of the first crop beyond the initial festivals. Hence, for many common farmers, the end of the harvest did not warrant much Thanksgiving.






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Last Updated: Decamber 25th, 2011