The History, People and Culture of the Nile Valley
Ancient Egypt Magazine
Volume 7 issue 4 February 2007
Per Mesut - for younger readers
One of the first signs of civilization is the development of agriculture. People who grow cereals instead of gathering food from wild plants have to stay in one place long enough to prepare the fields, allow the crops to ripen and collect the harvest. All these activities leave evidence: the buildings where people lived, the tools they used and the remains of the crops they grew.
In Egypt, the earliest evidence for crop growing comes from Lake Fayum, to the west of Cairo. Plant remains show that barley, hordeum vulgare, and a primitive form of wheat known as emmer, triticum dicoccum, were grown in Egypt from as long ago as 5000 BC. Egyptian agriculture was the main reason for the success of the whole civilization.
Grain provided the bulk of the ancient Egyptian diet, and was used in place of money to “buy” goods and to “pay” workers. When Egypt became a Roman province, the Fayum region was the most important corngrowing area in the whole Roman Empire.
Sennedjem and his wife harvesting grain. This scene is from the couple’s tomb at Deir el Medina.
Some of the Egyptians’ most popular gods were those associated with agriculture and the growing of crops. The oldest of these was called Neper, whose name was written with the hieroglyphic symbols for grain. His body was drawn spotted with seeds of corn showing that he was an early corn deity. Neper was linked with Hapi, the god of the Inundation (the annual flooding of the river Nile) and people prayed to him to make the corn grow well and to bring a good harvest. Later, Neper’s place was taken over by Osiris who became by far the best known Egyptian god of agriculture.
The stories told about Osiris and his family were not properly written down until Greek times by the classical author Plutarch. His version of these myths was influenced by Greek tradition so they may be very different from the tales of Osiris recognised in more ancient times.
Osiris’s name is first recorded in the Fifth Dynasty, but the Pyramid Texts show that he had been a powerful royal god for a long time before this, and his role as King of the Dead and the god of the Afterlife is well known. Osiris was said to have been the first King of Egypt, so he is shown wearing a crown and holding the crook and flail sceptres of royalty. He taught his people how to make agricultural tools and how to cultivate the land. Pharaohs, who claimed to be descended from Osiris, were shown, in scenes decorating their temple walls, ploughing the fields or reaping the corn, proud to continue the work of their divine ancestor. Ordinary people, like Sennedjem, the owner of a beautifully decorated tomb at Thebes, had themselves shown carrying out the same agricultural tasks to provide a never-ending supply of grain for their afterlife.
At each stage of the corn cycle, people made offerings to Osiris. At planting time, they prepared Osiris “beds”.
These shallow trays, shaped like the silhouette of Osiris, were filled with a layer of Nile mud and sprinkled with seed corn.
If the seeds began to germinate, the sprouting of the grain was seen as a sign that the year’s crop would be good. When an Osiris bed was placed in a tomb, the germination of the corn represented the revival or rebirth of the dead person, who would then join Osiris in the Afterlife. Osiris was sometimes shown as a mummy, lying on a funeral bed, with newly sprouted stalks of corn emerging from his body. The Egyptians believed that Osiris had power, from his realm beneath the earth, to influence all growing things. As the successor to Osiris on the throne of Egypt, Pharaoh was also thought to have this power. The King could bless the land simply by walking over it or by being shown symbolically sowing the seed.
A scene from the tomb of Nakht at Thebes, showing the winnowing of the grain, to separate the husks from the grain.
At harvest time, people gave thanks to Osiris and prayed to the snake-goddess Renenutet to protect the grain from pests such as mice. Renenutet was the goddess of the threshing floor where the process of removing the seeds of wheat or barley from their inedible husks was started. The grain was threshed by being trampled by cattle or donkeys, or by men dragging a heavy wooden sled round and round the threshing floor. Next the grain was winnowed, tossed into the air so that the lightweight chaff blew away as the heavier grain fell to the ground ready for collection.
The Osiris myth is an allegory, a story with a hidden meaning, describing the corn cycle. According to Plutarch, Osiris was killed by his brother Seth, who was jealous of Osiris’s popularity. To make sure that he did not come back to life, Seth ordered that his brother’s body should be cut into many parts, each to be buried in a different place. But Osiris’s wife, Isis, searched for the pieces and had her nephew, Anubis, bind them together again in the form of a mummy, which explains why Osiris is always shown wrapped in a shroud or mummy cloth. By her magical powers, Isis breathed life into Osiris, enabling him to resume his place as a king, but this time as ruler of the Realm of the Dead. Osiris was the god of corn whose death represented the reaping of the grain. The cutting up of his body symbolised threshing and winnowing, the burial of his body parts was the planting of the seed corn, and his revival after death was the germination and growth of the new crop. Similar cycles of stories are found in many cultures including English folklore, where the spirit of the grain is known as John Barleycorn.
The Egyptians had several words for grain but perhaps the most meaningful was ankh, meaning “life”.
Agriculture provided work for the vast majority of the Egyptian population. Their lives were totally dependent on the produce of the fields, which provided the main ingredient for bread. But I shall leave this subject until next time.
Further Reading: A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses and Egyptian Myths, both by George Hart.
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