There are three little messages that we pass along to each other in my family. One, spend a little time to pray around midnight to be grateful for the year that has passed and ask for blessings for the coming year. Two, if possible, despite perhaps the long night of partying, get up early in the first day of the New Year to watch the sunrise. Lastly, don’t travel long distance so near the major holidays. If one does need to travel, try to travel one or two weeks before 25 December at the latest and ideally wait for one or two weeks after the holidays to return. These are all ancient advice.
Nowruz is not only an ancient holiday that is still celebrated globally, it has the distinction of being one of the longest continually celebrated holiday in the world. Although there even records of it being celebrated in 550 BCE by Cyrus the Great, versions of the same celebration were also known to be observed 2,000 years earlier in the Kingdom of Aratta.
Nowruz is traditionally observed on the day of the vernal equinox, when the coming of spring also heralds the new year. The first five days of the ancient Nowruz celebration were very public, then followed by a more reverent observance. On the thirteenth day of the festival, people would throw wheat grass into rivers and canals to throw away bad luck and misfortune.
In Babylonia, the festival of Akitu honored Marduk and marked the beginning of the growing season. For the general population, the beginning of the festival meant a week of holidays and celebrations. The king would begin the festival by going to the temple of Nabu, where the priests presented him with a royal scepter reminding him of his responsibility. He then travelled to the city of Borsippa, where he spent the night participating in religious ceremonies in this city’s temple such as the re-enactment of their creation myths to remind him of his past and the past of his people. When the king returned to Babylonia, he would go to a temple and stripped off his weapons and royal regalia to approach his god with humility befit someone given their rule by a supreme deity.
The hieroglyph for the Egyptian word renpet (“year”) is a woman wearing a palm shoot, symbolizing time, over her head. She was often referred to as the Mistress of Eternity. She also personified fertility, youth and spring. The New Year, Wepet Renpet (“the opening of the year”), was based on the annual flooding of the Nile River, an earthly cycle which also coincided with a heavenly cycle. Therefore, the New Year was marked with community feasting and a mix of hope and fear. To the ancient Egyptians, every year was potentially their last, because they didn’t know how the flood would impact them. The annual flood left behind rich deposits of silt, which fertilized crops to feed the entire country. Just the right amount of flooding assured a fruitful harvest – too little means famine, too much means destruction.
The festival for the annual flood celebrated the death and rebirth of Osiris and, by extension, the rejuvenation and rebirth of the land and the people. The legend behind this celebration was that the god Set and his accomplices murdered Osiris by drowning him in the river and dismembered him – scattering his limbs up and down the valley. Osiris’ death brought about the annual floods that brought life to the valley. It was then believed that Osiris arose from the dead, but needed the constant supplication of his devoted followers to strengthen his return. The priests mourned his death, prayed for his return and, at the moment of his resurrection, celebrated with dancing, singing, and feasting. Traditionally, young boys chosen for their exceptional beauty were thrown into the Nile to drown, just as Osiris had drowned, as a sacrifice for the benefit of the living. Those who drowned in the Nile were then considered to have become gods, especially if the water responded the following year with a flood.
Solemn rituals related to the death of Osiris were observed as well as singing and dancing to celebrate his rebirth. The call-and-response poem known as The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys was recited at the beginning to call Osiris to his feast.
The lamentation is when the two goddess-sisters call the soul of Osiris to rejoin the living. The dual entreaties of the two sisters echoed each other in their attempts to symbolically revive Osiris. The best-preserved version of this work comes from the Berlin Papyrus dating to the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323 – 30 BCE) although the work itself is much older.
Another ancient Egyptian interpretation is that the New Year’s Day itself was also regarded as the birthday of the god Ra-Horakhety. The belief was that, on New Year’s day the sun was reborn and grew increasingly frail over the year’s final few months. This is another reason why the end of the year was considered dangerous. At the end of the year, the sun god was weak and vulnerable to attack from his enemies. If he were to be defeated, the New Year might never arrive.
Therefore, it was a time of great relief when the sun rose on New Year’s day, because the end of the world had been averted. People would then make offerings to Ra-Horakhety at sunrise, pour black ink into the Nile for the goddess Nut and the god Nun as a sign of gratitude, then cleansed themselves by bathing in the Nile. Afterwards, they wore their best clothes and went off to riotous banquets to celebrate their opportunity to see another year.
Another belief is to do with the fact that the Egyptian civil calendar consisted of 360 days, with five “extra” days added to the end. These five extra days were regarded as a dangerous, transitional time, when the goddess Sekhmet controlled twelve demonic murderers who travelled the earth shooting arrows from their mouths and cause plague wherever they went. To protect themselves, the ancient Egyptians performed rituals and wore charms around their necks to pacify Sekhmet, ensuring her protection instead of her wrath. This is similar to the Aztec calendar where the passing of the old year and the coming of the new were two very different sets of days. The last five days of the year were called nemontemi, and they were considered very dangerous days where dark spirits wander the land. People mostly stayed indoors, kept to themselves, and kept quiet to avoid attracting the attention of these spirits.