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Papyrus of the month - Calendar of lucky and unlucky days

written by Micòl Di Teodoro

Predictions for each day of the year

Among the papyri on display in Room 6 is Cat. 2104 + CGT 54022. The papyrus is mounted in two frames, one of which is that on display. The papyrus presents on the front (recto, image on the right) side a version of the calendars of lucky and unlucky days, while the back side (verso) contains a letter and three administrative texts. The calendar dates to the time of king Ramesses II (19th dynasty). The verso was later reused to record texts documenting the economic and social life of Deir el-Medina during the 20th dynasty.

What are the calendars of lucky and unlucky days?

The calendars of lucky and unlucky days provided predictions for each day of the year. The Egyptian year was 360 days long and included three seasons – Akhet (Nile flood), Peret (sowing time), Shemu (summertime) – of four months each. Every month was 30 days long. At the end of the year were added 5 supplementary days, the so called epagomenal, in order to solve the concurrence problem with the solar year. The predictions of the calendars of lucky and unlucky days were dictated by mythological events which were thought to affect human life. These events were taken from different versions of ancient Egyptian stories such as the story of Isis and Osiris, the struggle between Horus and Seth, the story of the Eye of Horus, and the daily journey of the Sun-god Ra in the underworld from sunset to dawn, and his victory over the forces of chaos. As a mean to discover what happens in the future, the calendars of lucky and unlucky days may be considered a form of divination. Among the various forms of divination practiced in the Ramesside Deir el-Medina were dream interpretation, predictions by thunder, divination by interpretation of the shapes of oil in a bowl of water, and consultation of the healer-medium ta rekhet. 

Divination was the response to affliction, distress, and fear. Predestination could be altered by wearing protective items such as  oracular amuletic decrees, by performing prophilactic rituals, or through spells for protection and healing. The oracular amuletic decree was a small papyrus with protective spell which was folded up and hung around the neck with a linen band (see image on the left Cat. 1858)

There were two types of calendars of lucky and unlucky days: bipartite and tripartite. The difference depended on a bipartite or tripartite division of the day: daytime and nightime in the first case, morning, midday, and evening in the second case. The calendars assigned different prognosis for each division of the day, so that each day could be wholly adverse (unlucky), wholly favourable (lucky), or mixed. The prognosis for each division of the day was indicated by hieratic sign nefer for “lucky/favourable/good” in black ink or four signs for “unlucky/adverse/bad” in red ink. 

The bipartite calendars focused on festivals and were usually short, while the tripartite calendars were rich in details with mythological narrative. The calendars of lucky and unlucky days contain also several references to astronomical events like rising, transits, and settings of stars and asterisms, which proves the high level of astronomical knowledge among Ancient Egyptians (image left statue of Anen Cat. 1377).

A unique calendar

Cat. 2104 + CGT 54022 is an unique bipartite calendar with a focus on feasts but at the same time long and detailed. It covers months 3 and 4 of the season Akhet, the time of the annual flooding of the Nile river. The dates are written in red ink in the format: month, season, day. Each date is followed by one or two designations of lucky, unlucky, or mixed. After these is a list of celebrations occurring on that day, and the name of a female deity who presides that day. 

This is followed by instructions about how to behave, and predictions. The mythological event affecting the daily prognosis may conclude the section dedicated to a day. The instructions include obligations and prohibitions. The former involves offerings to gods or ancestors and holidays. The prohibitions, introduced by the formula “the great abomination”, comprise food and drink taboos associated to the chronocrator deity such as fish, birds, lion’s meat, milk, and figs. Prohibitions dealing with movements, activities, and work introduced by the formula “you should not” can also be present. Examples are: “you should not go out”, “you should not go out on the river”, “you should not do anything”, “you should not do any work”. Death linked to the specific taboo is foreseen. Its causes vary from animal attacks, especially crocodiles and snakes, to illnesses like blindness, to drunkenness, fire, and cuts of heads.

Example 1 of prognosis

"Month four of the season Akhet, day 6: lucky, lucky! Feast of Hepui, offerings throughout the country. The deity who presides this day is Horit. The great abomination (taboo) is: the meat of every type of fish... It belongs therein: everyone (who breaks the taboo) will die painfully on this day; all sort of people will die. You should not go out of your house on any road, as this is the day of the going forth of Sekhmet and her followers."

Example 2 of prognosis

"Month four of the season Akhet, day 12: unlucky! Feast of Osiris of Abydos, of Wepwawet, 7th day festival in Abusir, feast of Onuris, feast of Wpwawt in Sais and Abusir; the deity who presides this day is Iry-Inebet. The great abomination is: eat djais plant, figs, and the roots? of the djais plant…everything which is in water, bowls of milk? It belongs therein: everyone will die painfully by birth on this day; nobody born on this day will live."

Museo Egizio