A Very Weird History Lesson

A First Dynasty pharaoh named Den is shown running his Sed Festival race course.

Egypt’s civilization is almost unimaginably old, and there’s always something new to learn about it. Although I’ve read about ancient Egypt all my life, I have only just learned of an Egyptian custom called the Sed, or the Festival of the Tail (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sed_festival). It dates back at least 5,000 years, and was celebrated for at least 2,000 years.

In the beginning, the reigning Pharaoh–going back to at least the First Dynasty–after ruling for 30 years, held a Sed Festival. Originally its purpose was to demonstrate Pharaoh’s continuing fitness to rule. A kind of race course was set up, and Pharaoh had to run it successfully. Thereafter, it would be held again every three years.

What if the pharaoh couldn’t run the course?

He would be ritually murdered and replaced by someone younger. I can think of a few American leaders who’d be in deep trouble if they’d lived and ruled back then.

Another charming First Dynasty custom: when the pharaoh died, his servants would be put to death and entombed with him. This custom is also known from ancient Sumeria and China. The Egyptians gave it up in the Second Dynasty, replacing the doomed servants with figurines.

By and by they abolished the custom of killing a pharaoh who couldn’t stay the course; but they kept the Sed Festival as a national holiday. Rulers learned to look forward to it: sort of an antique Fourth of July, Egyptian-style.

And why did they call it The Festival of the Tail?

Because, way, way back in time, the pharaoh used to wear a wolf’s tail as part of his regalia.

Even in ancient Egypt, things changed with time. And the farther back we go, the weirder it looks.

7 comments on “A Very Weird History Lesson

  1. I wonder, during the years of murdering unfit pharaohs, if the pharaohs were considered gods. Also, I’d love to see Biden run the Sed. Of course, we know he bicycles, so maybe he could do it.

Leave a Reply