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The coronation ritual of the falcon at Edfu : tradition and innovation in ancient Egyptian ritual composition

Carina van den Hoven defended her thesis on 16 February 2017.

Carina van den Hoven
16 February 2017
Leiden Repository

A profound cultural transition took place in the Ptolemaic period in Egypt (304-30 BC), entailing large-scale innovations and fundamental change in many areas of society. At the same time, the indigenous religious institutions seem to have been unaffected as temple building projects continued in the indigenous pharaonic style. Based on this outward appearance of stability it has often been argued that the indigenous Egyptian culture and religious institutions survived largely unaltered in the Ptolemaic period. The existence of an age-old tradition in Egypt is usually offered as an explanation for this survival. However, this romantic view of an eternal Egypt that did not need to adapt to the changing times is unlikely to reflect the reality of the situation. Changes indeed took place in more subtle ways. A closer examination of the Ptolemaic temples shows that they actually underwent substantial change and innovation in their architectural appearance, building techniques and wall decoration. Yet in the composition of new ritual texts the priests seem to have been particularly interested in their own past and traditions.

This research project investigates the role and function of tradition in the composition of new ritual texts in Ptolemaic Egypt on the basis of an in-depth analysis of the structural organisation and ritual composition of one the most elaborate and complex temple rituals known from Ptolemaic Egypt: the coronation ritual of the sacred living falcon, which was celebrated each year in the temple of Edfu. The ritual is depicted in great detail in hieroglyphic inscriptions and associated imagery in the form of eight ritual scenes in the temple of Edfu. The unique character of the ritual lies in the fact that during the ritual, a living falcon was crowned king. The purpose of the ritual was the renewal of royal power and it is therefore remarkable that the presence of the king himself was apparently not deemed essential. As such, the ritual illustrates particularly well how a new attitude towards the representation of kingship developed during the later period of Egyptian history. Divine kingship was now considered to be incarnated in the sacred living falcon rather than in the human ruler. In performing the rituals for the confirmation and renewal of royal power on the sacred animal, the renewal of royal power was realised on a cultic level by the priests, without the presence of the human ruler being required. The role of the human ruler as a historical person was now limited to providing the means for the temple cult, in the form of temple construction projects and material provisions for the cult.

The analysis of the structural organisation of the ritual on the temple walls has shown the intricate textual and iconographic interrelations between each of the individual ritual scenes, which testify to a carefully thought-out decoration strategy. Contrary to what has often been suggested, the order of the ritual scenes on the temple walls does not necessarily reflect the order in which the ritual took place in reality. Furthermore, the ritual was not necessarily carried out in the specific location where it is depicted on the temple walls. These findings resulted in a new reconstruction of the ritual sequence of the coronation ritual of the falcon based on the hieroglyphic inscriptions. On the basis of textual, iconographic and lexicographic material combined with an analysis of the archaeological sources a new identification was proposed of the various locations in and around the Edfu temple domain where the various stages of the ritual were carried out.

The available source material suggests that the coronation ritual of the falcon was a new composition of the Ptolemaic period in which tradition was merged with contemporary ideas. An investigation of the interrelations of the ritual texts and iconographic themes of the coronation ritual of the falcon with other textual and iconographic materials enabled us to investigate the role and function of tradition in the ritual, to identify the editorial processes to which the new ritual composition was subjected and to reach conclusions on the extent of originality and the conceptualisation of innovation in ancient Egyptian ritual composition. The analysis has shown that a large variety of textual and iconographic materials known from other sources and often dating to earlier periods of Egyptian history was used in the composition of the ritual, which suggests that the composers had at their disposal age-old documents stored in archives such as temple libraries. The creation of new ritual compositions was the result of a complicated process of editorial activities, which involved a constant interchange of textual and iconographic materials as well as the use of earlier materials which were subjected to processes inherent to the transmission of textual and iconographic materials, such as creative copying, borrowing, reinterpretation and recontextualisation. As such, the new ritual composition was anchored in traditional texts and iconographic themes. This emphasis on tradition clearly constitutes a wilful strategy on the part of the composers of the ritual.

The importance of tradition in the temples of the Ptolemaic period has often been explained as a way of preserving the indigenous and religious traditions in the face of a dominant Greek culture. The phenomenon of the composition of new religious texts in which tradition was important has often been explained as a statement by the Egyptian priests against their marginalisation under foreign rule, which is thought to have led to a loss of indigenous culture and identity. However, the idea of the marginalisation of the Egyptian priesthood in the Ptolemaic period is difficult to sustain. In fact, the Ptolemaic temples themselves are clear evidence against this idea; they were a major contemporary cultural phenomenon in themselves and constituted the intellectual centres of the indigenous culture, in which the Egyptian cultural identity was defined. The intensive religious life in the Ptolemaic temples, including the composition of numerous new religious texts, indicates that processes of redefining cultural and religious identity on the basis of tradition were at work rather than processes of preserving cultural and religious identity. By involving the creative use of traditions and traditional models, newly composed rituals were presented as authentic, authoritative and consistent with older cultural precedents. The role and function of tradition in the composition of new ritual texts should therefore be explained not only in terms of cultural memory and the preservation of tradition, but also in terms of the acceptance and conceptualisation of innovation. In order to be acceptable, innovations and new creations were anchored in tradition and conceptualised on the basis of models and materials from the past.

This doctoral dissertation is the result of an international joint PhD-research project carried out at Leiden University and the École Pratique des Hautes Études, leading to a double doctoral degree. The research project was funded by the generous financial support of the Conseil Régional Île-de-France, Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, Dr. Catharine van Tussenbroek Fonds, Leids Universiteits Fonds and Leiden University Institute for Area Studies.

Supervisors: O.E. Kaper (LIAS), C. Zivie-Coche (École Pratique des Hautes Études Paris)

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