Image: Festival
Courtesy Betsy Bryan  /  JHU
A drawing based on an ancient Egyptian wall painting shows a drinking festival in progress. The upper row of figures features revelers drinking wine, including one woman who has overindulged. The lower row shows a procession with musicians.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 10/30/2006 10:49:09 AM ET 2006-10-30T15:49:09

Today, it sounds like a spring-break splurge on the order of "Girls Gone Wild": Drink huge quantities of beer, get wasted, indulge in gratuitous sex and pass out — then wake up the next morning with the music blaring and your friends praying that everything will turn out all right.

But back in 1470 B.C., this was the agenda for one of ancient Egypt's most raucous rituals, the "festival of drunkenness," which celebrated nothing less than the salvation of humanity. Archaeologists say they have found evidence amid the ruins of a temple in Luxor that the annual rite featured sex, drugs and the ancient equivalent of rock 'n' roll.

Johns Hopkins University's Betsy Bryan, who has been leading an excavation effort at the Temple of Mut since 2001, laid out her team's findings on the drinking festival here on Saturday during the annual New Horizons in Science briefing, presented by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

"We are talking about a festival in which people come together in a community to get drunk," she said. "Not high, not socially fun, but drunk — knee-walking, absolutely passed-out drunk."

The temple excavations turned up what appears to have been a "porch of drunkenness," associated with Hatshepsut, the wife and half-sister of Thutmose II. After the death of Thutmose II in 1479 B.C., Hatshepsut ruled New Kingdom Egypt for about 20 years as a female pharaoh, and the porch was erected at the height of her reign.

Some of the inscriptions that were uncovered at the temple link the drunkenness festival with "traveling through the marshes," which Bryan said was an ancient Egyptian euphemism for having sex. The sexual connection is reinforced by graffiti depicting men and women in positions that might draw some tut-tutting today.

The rules for the ritual even called for a select few to stay sober — serving as "designated drivers" for the drunkards, she said. On the morning after, musicians walked around, beating their drums to wake up the revelers.

Prayerful party
The point of all this wasn't simply to have a good time, Bryan said. Instead, the festival — which was held during the first month of the year, just after the first flooding of the Nile — re-enacted the myth of Sekhmet, a lion-headed war goddess.

According to the myth, the bloodthirsty Sekhmet nearly destroyed all humans, but the sun god Re tricked her into drinking mass quantities of ochre-colored beer, thinking it was blood. Once Sekhmet passed out, she was transformed into a kinder, gentler goddess named Hathor, and humanity was saved.

Bryan said the festival re-enactment came to its climax when the drummers woke up the celebrants. "The ultimate intention of inebriation is to see and experience the deity," she said.

That's when the Egyptians would ask the goddess to preserve the community from harm. "It was a communal request, not an individual request," Bryan said.

New twists in an old tale
The discoveries at the Temple of Mut parallel historical references to drunken rituals during Egypt's Greco-Roman period. The writer Herodotus reported in 440 B.C. that such festivals drew as many as 700,000 people — with drunken women exposing themselves to onlookers. "More grape wine is consumed at this festival than in all the rest of the year besides," Herodotus wrote. The festival also turns up in chronicles from around A.D. 200.

The new twist in Bryan's work is that such rituals were found to have taken place during a much earlier time in Egyptian history, said Aidan Dodson, an Egyptologist at the University of Bristol. "She's actually found the first definite evidence," he told MSNBC.com.

Dodson agreed with Bryan that getting drunk was definitely part of the ritual. "Clearly the Egyptians enjoyed a drink or three," he said. What's more, the parallels to the Sekhmet myth provide a "good theological basis" for what otherwise might be considered bad behavior.

However, he's not so sure that the sex was a religious obligation. "It's more likely to be a natural result of the vast imbibing of the beer, rather than an integral part of the ritual itself," Dodson said.

Beer, made from fermented barley bread, was the drink of choice for the festival of drunkenness as celebrated at the Temple of Mut, Bryan said. Another ritual, celebrated several months later in the year and known as the "festival of the beautiful valley," called for the celebrants to get drunk on wine, laced with lotus flowers to promote sleepiness. The lotus could also induce vomiting — which is depicted in some Egyptian wall paintings, Bryan noted.

Bryan conceded that she didn't have solid answers for many of the questions surrounding the rituals. For example:

  • Did the revelers use birth control? (The Egyptians were said to favor natural pastes and suppositories, or perhaps stone amulets that served as intrauterine devices.)
  • How long did Hatshepsut's porch of drunkenness last, and why was it taken down? (Egyptologists say Hatshepsut's successor to the throne, Thutmose III, obliterated all references to the female king — and her name was a mystery until the damaged ruins were reconstructed.)

Image: Temple of Mut
Courtesy Betsy Bryan  /  JHU
An aerial photo shows the Temple of Mut excavation site with what appears to be a processional boulevard leading toward the nearby Temple of Karnak.
Bryan suspects that the festival of drunkenness fell out of favor soon after Hatshepsut left from the scene. By the time of Amenhotep III, less than a century later, references to the rite had faded away. "One can't help but wonder whether individual piety won out over this kind of communal drunk," she said.

But Dodson said the Egyptian rite must have survived in some form long after Hatshepsut. Otherwise, how could it resurface during the Greco-Roman period? "If something dies out, I'm always a bit nervous about the idea of it being resurrected in full form centuries later," he said.

In either case, the debate over sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll in ancient times has added a little spice to the sometimes-staid field of Egyptology. "It certainly seems to have gotten people interested," Bryan acknowledged.

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