The Heb-Sed, a festival of divine kingship, and its representation in the art of Archaic and Old Kingdom Egypt
Hummel, Linda Lou
MetadataShow full item record
The Heb-Sed is probably the most researched festival of ancient Egyptian kingship. Through the years, modern scholars have attempted to fathom its intricacies and to explain its central significance. It is generally thought that the rites of the Heb-Sed, commonly called a "Jubilee," were periodically celebrated to renew the vigor and potency of the reigning king. However, it is not fully understood which attribute of kingship is being renewed, and for what specific religious aim. This scholarly interest in the Heb-Sed is a reflection of the supreme religious importance placed upon it by both the king and his subjects. Throughout the dynastic period, evidence has survived to attest to its continuous solemnization and the desire of each royal celebrant to record its occurrence. Furthermore, the Heb-Sed was believed to renew the monarchic vigor and potency necessary to fulfill the cosmicizing duties of omnipresent priest, warrior, and provider, vital for the well-being of the land and the people. The power to perform these cosmic duties was vested in his divine status. From the beginning of historical kingship, each occupant of the throne was considered an incarnation of Horus, the Lord of Heaven, who is frequently indistinguishable from Re, the sun god. On the strength of his divinity, the king was also entrusted with the awesome responsibility of sustaining Maat, the cosmic order instituted at the time of universal creation. There are two epochs in the history of ancient Egyptian kingship and the Heb-Sed that are critical: The Archaic (Dynasties I-II, c. 3100-2686 B.C.) , period of nascent cultural development,, and the Old Kingdom (Dynasties XIX-VI, c. 2686-2181 B.C.), period of the greatest monarchic absolutism. For this time, art and architecture are the primary sources available for the study of the festival. At the Step Pyramid Complex of Zoser (Dynasty III, c. 2650 B.C.), the essential festal buildings are incorporated into its fabric. They are styled the "Festival Hall," the "Palace," and the "Heb-Sed Court," whereas the reliefs from the Sun-temple of Neuserre (Dynasty V, c. 2410 B.C.) constitute the most complete pictorial record of the Heb-Sed to survive from the Old Kingdom. From the study of the Zoser complex buildings, the Neuserre reliefs, and other artworks, some dating from the earliest historical period, two rites emerge to identify the Heb-Sed. They are the so-called enthronement and the "Dedication of the Field"; they probably formed its supreme festal events. From the examination of the artistic evidence and the ideology of kingship, it is possible to appreciate the greater religious benefit this festival effected on the people than is now generally realized. With a fuller understanding of the Heb-Sed, the importance of the king in the life of ancient Egypt will become manifest.