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The Ancient Egyptians were very much aware of the tremendous influence the environment held over their lives. The cycles of the Sun, Moon, Stars and the flow of the Nile were all very important. Each of these came to form the basis of the complex calendars and seasonal festivals that were such an intricate part of their life. Unlike modern western calendars used today, the Egyptians had at least two different systems that ran simultaneously, linked together through a series of celestial events. The calendar that regulated mundane affairs was termed the ‘civil' calendar by Egyptologist Richard Parker, considered by many to have been the foremost authority on the subject. While the calendar which governed the timing of spiritual festivals was lunar based.
To understand these calendars we must first take a look at the most important aspect of the ancient's environment, the Nile river. Without the Nile Egypt as we know it would not have existed. Each year after the harvest had been completed the hottest season soon set in. This was a time of great anticipation and fear because the waters of the Nile were at their lowest ebb. Yet, without fail, an incredible phenomena would occur; the Nile would suddenly begin to rise, eventually filling the entire length of the valley. Known as the inundation or ‘Akhet' this flooding lasted approximately four months. During the initial stages of this the Nile would turn a brownish-red as it carried rich soil from the interior of Africa down river. Once the waters receded a layer of black soil was left on the banks. This soil became the farm land for the next agricultural season.The 'Civil' Calendar
Because of this event the Egyptian year was divided into three distinct seasons: Akhet meaning inundation, Peret meaning emergence or growth, and Shomu meaning low-water and harvest. The word Shomu may well be an ancient root for the English word "summer". While Akhet was the season in which the Nile was depositing soil, Peret became the time of planting, cultivating and maintaining the crops. Shomu then followed with the beginning of this being a time the season of harvest. However, as noted above, Shomu quickly moved on to be a very hot-dry period in the year (Parker 1978.707). Each of these seasons lasted approximately four lunar months (Parker 1950.32).
There was no accurate way to predict when the Nile would actually begin to rise from year to year. Studies done in the late nineteenth century (well before the building of the High Dam at Aswan) show that this could occur anytime between April and June in our current calendar (Parker 1950.32). However, each year a celestial event occurs that the Egyptians took as representing the spiritual cause for the inundation (Krupp 1983.21-22). This was the heliacal rising of the star Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Known as Sopdet, the "bright one," this star would remain hidden from view for approximately seventy days before making its appearance on the eastern horizon at sunrise. This was seen as a very powerful, spiritual moment. So much so that it was commemorated with elaborate temple rituals by the priesthood and mass celebration on the part of the public. It is for this reason that, ideally, this cosmic event came to be seen as the starting point of the year both for the system which evolved into the civil calendar and the lunar calendar.
The civil calendar was introduced some time between 2937 B.C. and 2821 B.C. As such this occurred later in Egyptian culture than the older lunar calendar which had been in effect since predynastic times (Parker 1978.708). The civil calendar is actually quite simple in its design and was fundamentally a tool used for "accounting and administrative purposes but devoid of religious significance" (Parker 1978.708).
Originally this calendar was engineered to begin with the day of the appearance of Sirius/Sopdet at sunrise. Despite the fact that the Nile may have already begun to rise, this date was considered to be the beginning of the season of Akhet. In the civil calendar each season is composed of four months, each month is made up of three weeks, and each week consisted of ten days. The total number of days in the civil year is 360. At the end of the last month of the civil year five days were added that were considered to be independent from the year. These were viewed as the days in the year on which several gods were born as these days were outside of the mundane civil calendar and thus of a spiritual nature. These were termed the Heriu-renpet or "the Days Upon the Year," however Egyptologists refer to them as the epagomenal days.
It needs to mentioned that the actual stellar year/solar year is 365 1/4 days. Due to the additional quarter day that this event accrues each year, it isn't hard to see that the civil calendar soon would move out of sync with the actual rising of Sirius. This wasn't too important to the Ancient Egyptians as pointed out above the civil calendar was largely used for managerial purposes. It wasn't until 239 B.C. that Ptolemy III Euergetes issued a decree making every fourth year a leap year with the addition of a sixth epagomenal day that an attempt was made to keep the civil calendar in-line with the natural Sirius-Sothic cycle. However, the actual heliacal rising of Sirius remained the primary component in calculating the lunar calendar.
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