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The ancient Egyptian theatre:
Religious performances
The theatre in the Graeco-Roman period

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The ancient Egyptian theatre

    The Greeks may have believed that they were the inventors of theatre, but, depending on how one defines "theatre" and interprets ancient records [5], it can be claimed that the Egyptians, while they did not construct special venues for their plays, preceded them in the public performance of shows, which were mostly pageant-like, religious in character, ritualistic and to a large extent devoid of drama.
    Few sources refer to anything which could be interpreted as theatrical, the oldest dating to about 2600 BCE. The Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus was written during the Middle Kingdom,[16] Ikhernofret, whose stela contains his description of a festival play, lived under Senusret III [15] and the Horus festival inscriptions in the Edfu temple are Ptolemaic.[16] There are fortunately also the travelogues of the visiting foreign writers, who since Herodotus attempted to describe the strange culture of Egypt, and refer to extraordinary scenes occurring during festival performances.

Religious performances

    The Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus, which was published by Kurt Sethe in 1928, was seemingly written by the master of ceremonies and is an account of the coronation or a jubilee of Senusret I, a script of the ritual in which the king took part.[11] It contains, among other things, illustrations of the scenes, the words spoken by the actors representing the various gods and explanatory remarks.[12]

    One of the texts accompanying temple reliefs at Edfu describes aspects of a New Kingdom Horus temple at Edfu; Source: University of Erlangen website religious drama performed during the Horus festival while the statue of Hathor was carried from her temple at Denderah to the festivities at Edfu.

Horus temple at Edfu [7]

This text contains what has been interpreted as staging instructions concerning the actors for a grandiose play where a great number of performers including supernumeraries, props such as statues, and backdrops were used. Symbolic dances which may have been holy rituals and ballet scenes formed part of the performance.
    According to accounts Seth, represented by a live hippopotamus, was killed on stage by a priest or even by the king himself in the role of Horus. The final annihilation of Seth occurred when a hippopotamus cake was carved up and eaten.
    Other texts were somewhat like morality plays with psychological aspects, Isis and the seven scorpions for instance, where gods were treated like humans. These were written in verse and required choruses.
    Creation Dramas were also performed in temples, which were considered to had been the abode of the creator god before the act of creation had occurred.[10] Nothing is known for certain about the venues and the contexts in which these performances were staged. The event at Edfu may have been annual, taking place during the Horus festival on the shore of the holy lake.

Anubis mask Anubis mask, the only surviving ancient Egyptian helmet mask.
Source: Brown 2001, p.94

    The Osirian mysteries were among the most important public displays. The murder of Osiris by Seth, his dismemberment and resuscitation made for emotive theatre and was frequently shown, with the main roles possibly played by priestly actors who may have worn masks, representations of the gods they incorporated,[14] and extras who were members of the public. Abydos and Busiris were important centres for these activities.[13]
    The festivities were divided into three parts: the defense of Osiris by his son Upuaut, the fight of Osiris himself and his demise, and lastly the triumph of Osiris when his enemies are defeated.
[2.170.1] Here too, in this same precinct of Minerva at Sais, is the burial-place of one whom I think it not right to mention in such a connection. It stands behind the temple, against the backwall, which it entirely covers. There are also some large stone obelisks in the enclosure, and there is a lake near them, adorned with an edging of stone. In form it is circular, and in size, as it seemed to me, about equal to the lake in Delos called "the Hoop."
[2.171.1] On this lake it is that the Egyptians represent by night his sufferings whose name I refrain from mentioning, and this representation they call their Mysteries

Herodotus, Histories II [8]
Project Gutenberg

    The bearer of the royal seal Ikhernofret [2], who was sent to Abydos to supervise the renovation of the temple of Osiris, described his experience at the Mysteries:
I celebrated the Procession of Upwauet when he proceeded to champion his father...I repulsed those who were hostile to the Neshmet barque, and I overthrew the enemies of Osiris...I followed the god in his footsteps...I sailed the divine barque...I equipped the barque called Shining in Truth of the Lord of Abydos with a chapel...I led the god to his tomb...I championed Osiris on that Day of the Great Battle, overthrowing all the enemies on the shore of Nedyt...I caused him to proceed to the barque, and it bore the beauty of Osiris...I gladdened the heart of the eastern highlands and knew the jubilation of the western highlands when they saw the beauty of Osiris upon the barque...the barque landed at Abydos and we brought Osiris, First of the Westerners, Lord of Abydos to his palace...I walked with Osiris.
    The involvement of the public during these public displays was at times frighteningly enthusiastic:
    ... at Papremis they do sacrifice and worship as elsewhere, and besides that, when the sun begins to go down while some few of the priests are occupied with the image of the god, the greater number of them stand in the entrance of the temple with wooden clubs, and other persons to the number of more than a thousand men with purpose to perform a vow, these also having all of them staves of wood, stand in a body opposite to those: and the image, which is in a small shrine of wood covered over with gold, they take out on the day before to another sacred building.
    The few then who have been left about the image, draw a wain with four wheels, which bears the shrine and the image that is within the shrine, and the other priests standing in the gateway try to prevent it from entering, and the men who are under a vow come to the assistance of the god and strike them, while the others defend themselves. Then there comes to be a hard fight with staves, and they break one another's heads, and I am of opinion that many even die of the wounds they receive; the Egyptians however told me that no one died.
    This solemn assembly the people of the place say that they established for the following reason:--the mother of Ares, they say, used to dwell in this temple, and Ares, having been brought up away from her, when he grew up came thither desiring to visit his mother, and the attendants of his mother's temple, not having seen him before, did not permit him to pass in, but kept him away; and he brought men to help him from another city and handled roughly the attendants of the temple, and entered to visit his mother. Hence, they say, this exchange of blows has become the custom in honour of Ares upon his festival.
Herodotus, Euterpe (Histories II), § 63
Project Gutenberg
    Juvenal [1] was witness to similar displays at Ombus in Upper Egypt and commented on the perceived enmity between Ombus and Denderah, how the inhabitants of one town would disrupt the celebrations of the other. There were fist fights at first, then stones were thrown and at last arrows shot. The fleeing inhabitants of Denderah left behind one of theirs, who was cut to pieces and devoured - probably a slight exaggeration on behalf of the writer.

    Ihy was the son of Hathor and Horus or Re. In a mammisi in the temple complex of Denderah the birth of the god and also of the pharaoh was reenacted since the reign of Nectanebo I. The play seems to have been a lengthy affair with its thirteen acts and two intermissions.[6] Apparently the birth of the child god was celebrated with annual festivals at the major temples dedicated to triads. This tradition may have been the development of the recounting of the birth and coming into power of the new pharaoh which was used to legitimise his rule. With the decay of the indigenous kingship in the first millennium BCE, the hopes for a legitimate and just rule in this world were transferred into the realm of the divine. These performances may have had little dramatic content and could possibly be classified as happenings.


    Local myths supplied story lines for many plays which often had satirical overtones: The pharaoh received five hundred lashes, his wives deceived him, he couldn't make up his mind and became a slave to his advisors; and his architects robbed his wealth.

    The gods did not fare any better in these texts: In the Contendings of Horus and Seth [4] the council of gods deliberated for twenty four years about who should inherit Osiris - Seth or Horus. The debauchery of Seth was equal only to his stupidity and Horus wept like a baby on being beaten. Hathor, when called before the creator, dropped her clothes to show how little she valued his decisions.
    While this is not theatre in our sense, it is certainly dramatic dialogue, funny and at times bawdy, which was probably recited before audiences:

After a considerable while Hathor, Lady of the Southern Sycamore, came and stood before her father, the Universal Lord, and she exposed her vagina before his very eyes. Thereupon the great god laughed at her. Then he got right up and sat down with the Great Ennead. He said to Horus and Seth: "Speak concerning yourselves."
    Seth, great in virility, the son of Nut, said: "As for me, I am Seth, greatest in virility among (the) Ennead, for I slay the opponent of Pre daily while I am at the prow of the Bark of the Millions, whereas not any (other) god is able to do it. I should receive the office of Osiris."
    Then they said: "Seth, the son of Nut, is correct."
    Onuris and Thoth let out a loud cry, saying: "Is it while a bodily son is still living that the office is to be awarded to a maternal uncle?"
    Then said Banebdjede, the living great god: "Is it while Seth, his elder brother, is still living that the office is to be awarded to the (mere) lad?"
The contendings of Horus and Seth
Chester Beatty papyrus I

The theatre in the Graeco-Roman period

Theatre at Oxyrhynchos     The Greek colonists brought with them their own theatrical traditions, which were part of the cult of Dionysos. Under the Ptolemies some regions of Egypt became quite hellenized, most famously parts of the western Delta and the Fayum, and the settlers followed the customs of their forefathers, little influenced by native Egyptian usages.

Plan of the Roman theatre at Oxyrhynchos [9]

    The theatre at Oxyrhynchos, partially excavated by Petrie, could hold more than 10,000 spectators, a large venue for any city of the time, let alone a town in provincial Egypt. According to papyri found in tombs, they would have been watching the same plays as did the Greeks all over the Mediterranean: satyr plays by Euripides (480-406) and others, comedies by Aristophanes (c.450-388), Menander (342-291), or Philemon (361-263), tragedies by Sophocles (496-406), Aeschylos (525-456) or Euripides. Some of these plays were preserved partially or fully on papyri found in Egypt: Menander's Dyskolos and The man from Sikyon, The Persians by Timotheus of Miletus, Euripides' Hypsipyle, or the satyr play Ichneutai by Sophocles. Mask

New Comedy mask made of terracotta
Source: Petrie Museum website [3]

    In the Greek theatre all roles were enacted by men wearing masks. The number of actors was limited: the protagonist was supported by the deuteragonist and opposed by the tritagonist. This conflict was accompanied by the chorus. In the later tragedies the chorus was omitted and the drama took on the classic five act form: prologue, three episodes and the exodus.


James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Chicago 1906 Part One
John Russell Brown, The Oxford illustrated history of theatre, Oxford University Press, 2001
Eric Csapo, Margaret Christina Miller, The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama, Cambridge University Press 2007
[1] Decimus Junius Juvenalis, a Roman poet who lived from about 58 to 140 , wrote five books of satirical hexameters, in which he criticised human frailties and vices.
[4] Some accept this text at face value and interpret it as a non-ironic account of the struggle between Seth and Horus.
[5] Cf. Naomi L. Gunnels, The Ikhernofret Stela as Theatre: A Cross-cultural Comparison, Studia Antiqua, Fall 2002, Volume 2, Number2, Brigham Young University
Generally speaking, it is much easier to recognize what is theatre than to define it.
[6] Ian Shaw, Paul Nicholson, The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press 1995, p.169
[7] Source: University of Erlangen website
[8] Translation by George Rawlinson
[9] After W.M.F. Petrie Tombs of the Courtiers and Oxyrhynkhos, London 1925
[10] E. A. E. Reymond, Mythical Origin of the Egyptian Temple, p. 104
[11] Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian mythology: a guide to the gods, goddesses, and traditions of ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press US, 2004, p.12
[12] Jan Assmann, Death and salvation in ancient Egypt,Cornell University Press, 2005, p.350
[13] Pierre Montet, La vie quotidienne en Egypte, chapt.11, § 8
[14] Brown 2001, p.94
[15] Breasted 1906, ?? 663ff.
[16] Brown 2001, p.537

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-[3] Petrie Museum collection
-El teatro en el antiguo Egipto por María Inés Peyrallo
-The Origins of Drama and Theatre (Powerpoint)
-Abedjou: The Passion Plays of Wesir
-Menander: Dyskolos
-3D VR Reconstructions: Oxyrhynchus
-Menander (c. 342 - c. 291 BC)

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Ancient Egyptian theater

© February 2002
July 2009
November, June 2003