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The ‘Lychnapsia Philocaliana’ and the Birthday of Isis

  • M. S. Salem


So far as I am aware, no classical scholar has devoted much attention to the interpretation of a lamp-festival assigned to the 12th August in the calendar of Philocalus. Mommsen, Wissowa, Wilcken, Nilsson and Cumont have made some reference to it, but none of them has attempted to identify it with any of the numerous lamp-festivals of Egypt. And so this feast, though suspected by almost all scholars to be an Isiac ceremony, has remained a mystery. The only Egyptologist who tried to solve the riddle, and who all but succeeded, is Brugsch Bey. The fundamental theory of Brugsch is sound, namely that the ‘Lychnapsia Philocaliana’ should be linked with the most important festival of lamps in Egypt, which began with the five epagomenal days added at the end of Mesore, the twelfth and last month of the Egyptian calendar, in order to harmonise with the solar year a calendar of 360 days divided into twelve equal parts. But the question is with what particular rite in this festive period the ‘Lychnapsia Philocaliana’ should be linked.



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1 CIL i2, p. 270.

2 Ibid., p. 324.

3 Religion und Kultus der Römer 2 (1912). 448.

4 Hermes, xx (1885), 457.

5 Gött. gel. Anz., 1916, 52.

6 Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romain 4 (1929), 243, n. 93.

7 Thesaurus, 470, 488.

8 In a demotic papyrus dated 148–7 B.C. (Spiegelberg, Die demot. Denkmäler, ii; Die demot. pap. (Cat. gén. des Antiquités égypt. du Musée du Caire), no. 31179, p. 290 ff.; Sottas, CR Acad. des Inscript., 1920, 227), the epagomenal days are called lamp (-days). The savage Osorkon (800 B.C.), who burnt at the stake the priests of Amen at Thebes, likened the blazing bodies of his victims to the ‘Feuerbecken am Feste des Sothisaufganges’ (Erman, , Zeitschrift f. ägypt. Sprache, 45 (1098), 5; idem, Rel. der Ägypter, 320).

9 Brugsch, Matériaux, 5; idem, Thesaurus, 334; Palanque, Le Nil à l'époque pharaonique (Bibl. École des H. Études, sc. hist, el philos., fasc. 144), 82.

10 Schemseddin Moh. ben Abilsorour, Le livre des étoiles errantes, summarised by Silvestre de Sacy in Notices et Extraits, i, 273; Savary, Letters, from Egypt ii2, no. 8, p. 101 (Eng. tr.); cf. also Thevenot, Travels, i, 234 (Eng. tr.); Lane, Modern Egypt, ch. 26; Frazer, Adonis, ii3, 37 ff.

11 Al-Siuty, Hosn E!-Mohaiarah, chap. ‘Nile’; Savary, l.c.

12 Prince Omar Toussoun, Mém. sur l'Hist. du Nil, i (= Mém. Institut d'Égypte, viii), 238 ff.

13 CIL, i2, p. 333 f. Mommsen's theory still holds the field as the most satisfactory explanation which has yet been advanced to account for the celebration of the ‘Isia’ on the 28th October–3rd November, dates which do not seem to have been borrowed from the Alexandrian calendar, in which the I7th–19th Athyr would correspond with the 13th–15th November. The only serious challenge to Mommsen's view has come from the pen of Weill, a notable champion of the Sothic theory. Weill, , Étude d' Égyptologie; bases, méthodes et résults de la chronologie égyptienne, i, 138 ff., belives that the ‘Isia’ marked in the ‘Fasti Philocali’ should be linked with the feast of Osiris-Sokaris in the month of Choiak, and not with the Osiris-Isis festival in the month of Athyr. He thinks that, when the Alexandrian reform was adopted, the dates of the feasts were shifted back, or rather transcribed, into the Alexandrian calendar in accordance with their nominal distance from the rise of Sirius, which was put in the new calendar on the 25th Epeiph. By comparing the Sothic and Julian calendars he found that the 12th Choiak (Sothic), the commencement of the Osiris-Sokaris rites, corresponds with the 28th October (Julian), the first day in the ‘Isia Philocaliana.’ He concluded therefore that the ‘Isia Philocaliana’ were the preliminary rites in the Osiris-Sokaris feast. The weak point in Weill's argument is not hard to seek: he overlooked a very important piece of information given in the ‘Fasti Philocali.’ This calendar puts the ‘Hilaria’ on the 3rd November, a rite which is certainly an integral part of the ‘Isia’ (cf. Lydus, , de mens. iv, 148), but which cannot be interpreted by Weill's theory.

14 Wissowa, op. cit., 353 ff.; Cumont, op. cit., 52, 78; Nock, Conversion, 74 f., 124; Bailey, Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome, 186; cf. also Wilcken, , UPZ, i, 401402; Bilabel, Neue Heidelherger Jahrhücher, 1929, 41.

15 The mobile calendar of Egypt continued to be used, long after the adoption of the Alexandrian reform, among natives and astrologers (London P., 130, 37 ff., Kenyon, Cat. Gr. P. BM, i, 134; Wilcken, , Griech. Ostraka, i, 794; Weill, op. cit., i, 135 f.).

16 Ginzel, , Handbuch ii, 583; Kubitscheks Grundriss der antiken Zeitrechnung (Müller-Otto, , Handhuch, i, 7), 224.

17 The Hibeh calendar (300 B.C. ) mentions only the birthday of Isis (Grenfell-Hunt, , Hiheh P., 27, 205), and from a letter of Herodes to Apollonios it is clear that the nocturnal sacrifices on the birthday of this popular goddess were attended by men of the highest social standing among the Greek population (Wilcken, , Die Bremer P., 15, 33 ff.).

18 Maqrizi, , Khitat, i, p. 267 ff. (= ed. Wiet, iv, ch. xc, 38 ff.), 493 f. (ed. Bulaq); Al-Qalqashandi, , Suhh El-Asha, ii, 419 (ed. Khéd, Bibl..).

The ‘Lychnapsia Philocaliana’ and the Birthday of Isis

  • M. S. Salem


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