Ancient Egypt 2675-332 BCE: Theater

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Defining Theater

Few Clues Remain

Egyptian theater has been a mystery to modern scholars. The fact that the Egyptians had no words equivalent to the English words “theater,” “actor,” or “stage,” leads many scholars to believe that Egypt had no theater, as theater is understood in modern times. Yet Egyptologists (experts who have made a special study of Egyptian culture) have recognized that while there is no vocabulary pointing to theater, there are certain ancient Egyptian texts that are dramatic in nature. Many dialogues between gods and kings have survived and much of the music that was recorded on stone walls or papyrus is accompanied by illustrations of people in dramatic poses. There is also a recorded history of Egyptian priests impersonating different gods during ceremonies and festivals. If theater did exist in ancient Egypt it would have occurred during the various festivals held throughout the year, as it mainly did in ancient Greece and Rome in the later centuries before the common era. Even if theater was performed during festival periods, however, Egyptologists concede that it may have lacked many of the major components found in modern theater including entertainment value, professional actors, a stage, action and even an audience since many of the activities considered to be theater took place in small temple areas.

Not Entertainment

It is clear that if Egyptian theater existed, it did not serve as an independent form of entertainment. Instead it functioned within religious rituals as either a teaching method or as an offering to the gods. This type of theater is similar to the function theater played in various other cultures of this time period such as the Japanese Noh drama that took stories from religious myths and presented them both for religious edification and for education. This designation puts Egyptian theater in contrast to more Western civilizations, such as Greece which developed theater as an independent institution from religion, education, or government, even though these institutions were still heavily influential in determining dramatic content.

No Actors

Because theater was not separate from the institution of religion in Egypt, there were no professional actors or acting troupes. Instead, it was the religious class that performed all acting duties. While priests and, on the rare occasion, priestesses were the main performers in theater rituals, statues also played a large role in the dramatic telling of stories. The best known example of how these actors and statues functioned in a theater production comes from a surviving Osirian drama most likely performed in the cult center at Abydos. The statues used to represent gods were usually made of stone and thought to be small based on remains that have been found. For instance, the figures of the gods Henty-imentyu and Sokar were approximately 22 inches tall. The coffin for the god Osiris used in the drama was about the same length, suggesting that the figure of Osiris used in the drama was also small. Lesser gods, such as a small hippopotamus that was used to represent the god Seth in the Osiris play, were rendered not in stone, but in bread. Priests also represented gods in this drama and they wore masks that allowed them to impersonate the gods and provide a narrative by reciting a ritual. Priestesses mimed the parts of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, who performed a mourning ritual. Some reliefs that allude to the Osiris drama indicate that the king, for whom all theater would be performed, would sometimes portray himself during performances. A variety of archaeological and textual materials have revealed many of these details of the Osirian Khoiak festival.

No Stage

Since all theater was related to religious rituals and festivals, Egyptian dramatic presentations took place at various venues within a temple. Chapels at the god Osiris’ temple in Abydos bore names related to different scenes in the drama and were perhaps the venues for the performances of these different scenes. The priests, however, often presented other scenes on the temple lake within the sanctuary, and at specific stations on the processional way to different temple locations. Hence, there was no necessity for a central theater in ancient Egypt due to the fact that religious rites were mobile.

No Action

Based on the surviving texts thought to be dramatic in nature, action was most often reported rather than performed. The characters were often statues and thus could not be manipulated to perform actions. Furthermore, the course of the story was never a surprise to the audience. The dramatic presentation was instead the reenactment of a ritual that was most likely performed yearly and would be familiar to all in attendance. While there was little action during Egyptian drama, there were various different elements during a performance that told the story of a myth within the context of a temple ritual. These included song, dance, instrumental music, pantomime, and dialogue.

Evaluating Performances

Though comparisons with ancient Greek or with modern drama can clarify the differences between modern expectations and Egyptian reality, those expectations cannot be used to define or evaluate Egyptian theater. Since all of the stories were centered around the religious rituals which were taken from the myths surrounding the god Osiris, his wife Isis, their son Horus, and Osiris’ brother Seth, there was most likely very little originality in the performances. There would not have been one ritual that was more highly favored than any other due to the fact that each ritual honored a different god. Hence, unlike festivals in other cultures where theater was judged and prizes awarded, the Egyptians saw theater more as a necessity and not worth the fanfare.

Spoken Drama

Determining Texts

Though Egyptologists generally agree that some Egyptian texts were dramatic, there is little agreement on which texts fall into this category. The most commonly identified drama is the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus, but there are other texts thought by some Egyptologists to constitute dramas, including the Shabaka Stone, parts of the Coffin Texts, parts of the Book of the Dead, the Metternich Stele, the Papyrus Bremner-Rhind, the Louvre Papyrus 3129, and the Horus Myth carved on the walls of the Edfu temple. The lack of agreement on which texts constitute drama leads to difficulties in studying drama as a distinct class of text. The following reviews the evidence that these texts represent dialogue and stage directions for dramatic presentations.

Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus

The Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus received its name from its first editor, Kurt Sethe, the distinguished German Egyptologist who worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The English archaeologist James Edward Quibell discovered the papyrus in a tomb near a temple built by Ramesses II, called the Ramesseum, in 1896. The text most probably dates to the Twelfth Dynasty (1938-1759 B.C.E.). The text describes the coronation of Senwosret I, the second king of the Twelfth Dynasty (1919-1875 B.C.E.). The ceremony portrayed in the text is probably even older than Senwosret I’s reign. The funeral ceremony for Senwosret’s father, Amenemhet I, begins the text. The culmination of the funeral is Senwosret’s coronation.

Structure of the Ramesseum Papyrus

The structure of any Egyptian text must be interpreted by the modern reader. The Egyptians used no punctuation. Thus sentence and paragraph division is sometimes a matter of opinion, though usually no Egyptologist disputes the order in which the lines are read. Sethe believed that the author of the Ramesseum Papyrus had divided it into scenes. Each scene included stage directions, provided as a narrative. The actor’s dialogue followed the narrative. The narrative, according to Sethe, describes the actions that the actors perform. It begins with the phrase “what happened was …,” but often the second sentence in the narrative is a comment on the religious meaning of the action in the previous sentence. Thus such stage directions would also include religious interpretation. The dialogue always begins with the Egyptian formula, “Words spoken by …,” found often at the beginning of Egyptian prayers and magic spells. Sethe called the third section of each scene “scenic marks.” The scribe wrote these marks horizontally, in contrast to the vertical columns of the dialogue. The first scenic mark included either the name of a god, the name of a ritual object, a ritual theme, or a ritual action. The second scenic mark gave an earthly equivalent of the divine antecedent in the first mark. The third scenic mark was the name of a place, an action, or a person. The scenic marks seem also to interpret the preceding action and dialogue.


“Vignette” is the name Egyptologists give to the illustrations found in a papyrus manuscript. Sethe noted that the vignettes included in the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus do not relate directly to the texts. Sometimes the vignette combined more than one scene. At other times, the vignette bears no clear relationship to the words found near it in the papyrus. Hence, Sethe concluded that the vignettes were used only for reading the text, not for performing it. This situation is similar to that found in illustrated examples of the Book of the Dead.

Other Theories on the Ramesseum Papyrus

Sethe was not the final word on the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus. Two Egyptologists working in Germany during the 1960s and 1970s believed that the currently known copy of the Ramesseum Papyrus included both the original script as well as comments made after the composition of the script. According to these scholars, the comments are part of the interpretive comments found in the second sentence of Sethe’s narrative stage directions and in the scenic marks. They believed this commentary to be religious in nature and evidence that the Ramesseum Papyrus was a religious ritual. Even Sethe implied such a conclusion because he referred to it as a festival play and emphasized its ceremonial character. Other Egyptologists have debated the proper order of the scenes. Egyptian writing on papyrus is most often arranged right to left. Indeed the individual lines of the Ramesseum Papyrus are arranged in this typical fashion. Some Egyptologists, however, have attempted to arrange the scenes from left to right, while reading the individual lines from right to left. This sort of arrangement is not otherwise known in Egyptian texts. The motivation for rearranging the scenes was to make their order more closely resemble the order of some relief sculptures carved in the Tomb of Kheruef, an official of King Amenhotep III (1390-1352 B.C.E.), nearly 550 years after the date of the papyrus. Though the scenes in Kheruef’s tomb contain some of the same subject matter as the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus, no scholar has been able to convincingly argue that the order of the scenes in the papyrus should be read in the same order as the relief scenes.

Shabaka Stone

Sethe’s second example of an Egyptian drama was the Shabaka Stone. Egyptologists named this inscribed black slab of slate after King Shabaka (716-702 B.C.E.) who ordered that it be carved. The inscription begins with the note that it is a copy of a papyrus that was written “in the time of the ancestors.” Some problems in understanding the text stem from the fact that millers used the Shabaka Stone as part of a millstone at some time. Many parts of the center of the inscription are so worn away that they are illegible. Furthermore, Egyptologists continue to question the true date of this text. The first commentators thought it was a Fifth-or Sixth-dynasty text which would date it to approximately 2500-2170 B.C.E. These scholars saw similarities between the language used in the Shabaka Stone and the Pyramid Texts, known to be written at that time. Others believe that scribes in the time of Shabaka purposely created a text that sounded old to validate current theological ideas and imply these ideas had an ancient pedigree.

Debate Over Text

When Sethe studied the text of the Shabaka Stone, he concluded it was a drama, expanding on the ideas of his teacher, Adolf Erman. He came to this conclusion based on the existence of dialogues through which the gods give speeches and others reply. Again he used the formula “words spoken by …” to recognize the dialogue. The text also contains some free spaces and squares that Sethe believed divided the text. Other commentary on the Shabaka Stone, however, has suggested that the gods’ dialogue only reinforces ideas in a philosophical treatise. The major themes of the text concern the gods Horus and Seth quarreling over which is the rightful heir to Osiris, the first Egyptian

king. Horus, son of Osiris, and Seth, brother of Osiris, each claim to be the next legitimate king. The god Geb judges between them, first giving Horus the north and Seth the south, then finally proclaiming the whole inheritance belongs to Horus. Much of this plot is also known from the Ramesside story, the Contendings of Horus and Seth. But in the Shabaka Stone the story then places the god Ptah as the chief of the gods. The author describes Ptah as the ultimate creator god who created the world from speech. Memphis, Ptah’s home city, is further declared the proper capital of all Egypt. Hence, many commentators regard these themes as strictly political and religious and do not regard it as a ritual drama.

Coffin Texts

Scribes wrote the Coffin Texts on the inside of coffins, beginning in the First Intermediate Period and throughout the Middle Kingdom (2130-1630 B.C.E.). There are many different spells, mostly concerned with the deceased gaining admittance to the next world. The French Egyptologist Emile Drioton believed that spells 148, 162, and 312 represented extracts from dramas. Though few Egyptologists today accept this view, these spells represent dramatic dialogues and monologues that offer a view of the drama inherent in certain religious rituals for the Egyptians.

Coffin Text 148

Much of Drioton’s conjecture comes from the dialogue between the deities Isis, Atum, and Horus in Coffin Text 148. According to Drioton, the text begins with a title and the stage directions that Isis awakes, pregnant. She then speaks, describing in outline the conflict between Osiris, her husband, and Seth, his brother. She proclaims that the child within her womb, Horus, will become the next king. Atum first questions her knowledge, but then agrees to protect her after she insists that this child belongs to Osiris. Isis repeats Atum’s assurances and describes Horus. Horus himself then gives a speech to the gods, claiming his right to the throne. The action thus is magical and not clearly logical. The inherent drama from this text comes from the audience already knowing the story and making other connections to mythological tales while hearing this recitation. The speeches thus belong to the realm of ritual and could possibly have been acted out by priests during the ritual.

Book of the Dead 39

The Book of the Dead contains spells designed to enable the owner to enter the afterlife. They replaced coffin texts during the New Kingdom and through the end of pagan Egyptian religion (1539 B.C.E. to the second century C.E.). Some of these spells, such as the one contained in Chapter 39, also resembled drama to Drioton. Chapter 39 bears the title “Repelling a Rerek-snake in the God’s Domain,” and it contains long speeches made by the god Re and an unnamed speaker, and short speeches made by the deities Geb, Hathor, and Nut. Again the situation is heavily dialogue-based. It concerns saving the god Re from the attacks of a snake. Again the text resembles a typical Egyptian ritual, but unlike the Coffin Texts, there is no clear evidence of stage directions or the intention to stage the recitation of these speeches.

Metternich Stele

The Metternich Stele received its modern name because it was once in the collection of the early nineteenth-century Austrian prince Klemens von Metternich. An artist carved the stele (a slab with an inscribed or sculpted surface) in the reign of Nectanebo I (381-362 B.C.E.) during the final native Egyptian dynasty. Most Egyptologists today consider the stele a cippus, a magical device used to protect the owner from snake bites and scorpion stings. Drioton, however, regarded the story carved on the stele as a drama. The text describes the rescue by the goddess Isis of a rich woman’s son from a scorpion bite, and her subsequent curing of her own son, Horus, with the help of the gods when he is poisoned. Though Drioton understood the narrative as stage directions and the magic spells as dialogue, no other Egyptologist accepts this interpretation.

Return of Seth

Drioton draws the drama The Return of Seth from the Louvre Papyrus 3129 and the British Museum Papyrus 10252. The Louvre papyrus dates to the Ptolemaic period (332-30 B.C.E.) while the British Museum papyrus dates to the reign of Nectanebo I (381-362 B.C.E.). These texts describe the god Seth’s return from banishment after losing his battles with the god Horus. These battles resume upon his return. This story relates to the narrative in the Shabaka Stone and, like the Shabaka Stone, it has a mix of dialogue and narrative. Yet no other Egyptologist recognizes these texts as drama.

Papyrus Bremner-Rhind

Drioton also recognized a drama in Papyrus Bremner-Rhind. A scribe wrote this papyrus during the Ptolemaic period (332-30 B.C.E.). The story concerns a battle between the god Thoth and the demon-snake Apophis. The papyrus contains neither stage directions nor the formula that introduces speech, the criteria Drioton used to identify drama in other texts. Hence the Papyrus Bremner-Rhind is the least convincing of Drioton’s examples.

Fairman’s Dramas

The English Egypotolgist H. W. Fairman believed that the best evidence for drama in ancient Egypt came from the texts and relief sculptures carved on the walls of the temple at Edfu. These texts and reliefs date to the Ptolemaic period (332-30 B.C.E.) and concern the conflict between Horus and Seth. At Edfu, Seth takes the form of a hippopotamus, a theme found also in the Ramesside story that considers the same topic. Fairman advanced the discussion of drama in Egypt by showing concrete proof that drama was most likely connected to a festival. From the reliefs he identified musical instruments included in the performance as well as a chorus of singers and dancers. Fairman also believed that the king participated in the performance from the evidence of the reliefs. Most Egyptologists accepted Fairman’s analysis of the scenes as accurate. The question still remains as to whether it represents only a festival ritual or whether that ritual can be identified as a drama.

The Osirian Khoiak Festival Drama

Osiris Myth

The Egyptologist Louis B. Mikhail argued that the ritual associated with the god Osiris, performed during the Egyptian month Khoiak (mid-September to mid-October) was the best example of a festival drama known to modern scholars. The subject of the drama was the struggle between Osiris and his brother Seth, Osiris’ death, and his resurrection. The festival itself lasted for ten days, culminating with Osiris’ resurrection at the end of the month that paralleled with the planting of new crops at the beginning of the agricultural year.

The Story

No one Egyptian text narrates the story of Osiris’ life, death, and resurrection, but the outline of the story can be reconstructed. The good King Osiris ruled Egypt with his devoted wife Isis, a great magician. Osiris’ brother, Seth, was jealous and believed he should be the king. Seth murdered Osiris—in this version through drowning—and dismembered his body into sixteen pieces that he scattered around Egypt. Isis gathered together the pieces of Osiris’ body and reanimated his body so that they could conceive a child, the next legitimate king, named Horus. Osiris proceeded to the next world where he ruled over the dead. This story and its various elements were dramatized in the Osirian Khoiak Festival.


In order to reconstruct the Osirian Khoiak Festival ritual drama, Mikhail drew on festival calendars inscribed on temple walls, texts on stele, reliefs in temples, and archaeological remains such as the statues of Osiris used in the performance. One problem with these sources is that they originate from widely different time periods. The oldest material dates to the Middle Kingdom (2008-1630 B.C.E.) while the newest sources date to the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 B.C.E.). The sources thus would also reflect variations in the importance of the different parts of the festival at temples widely separated both in time and space. Thus it is not really possible to understand fully the development of the festival, but only to reconstruct it in broad outline.

Festival Calendars

Mikhail drew on festival calendars from temples at Medinet Habu, Edfu, Dendera, and Esna. All these temples are located in Upper (southern) Egypt. They date as early as the time of Ramesses III (1187-1156 B.C.E.) and as late as the end of the Ptolemaic Period (30 B.C.E.). Mikhail reconstructed the scenes of the play that took place between the twenty-first and thirtieth of Khoiak. Each day witnessed a particular festival scene that included purifications, processions, feasts, and erection of obelisks and pillars that symbolized Osiris’ resurrection.


Different texts supply different kinds of information about the festival drama. Inscriptions at the Temple of Isis at Dendera supply information about preparations for the festival between the twelfth and twentieth of Khoiak before the festival began in earnest. These preparations include creating the figures used in the drama. The figures represent the gods Sokar and Khenty-imentyu, two forms of the god Osiris. Priests buried these figures so they could resurrect them later in the festival. It was also necessary to create and decorate a coffin for Osiris and to create a shroud. These preparations also took place on designated days between the fifteenth and twentieth of the month.


The Dendera texts also record specific ceremonies that took place during the festival drama. On the sixteenth of the month the god Horus, in the form of a crocodile, conveyed Osiris’ body to the temple from the water. It is possible that crocodile mummies, known from many temples, actually portrayed Horus at this point in the drama. The priests then held a procession that included the gods Sokar and Anubis, other gods with their emblems, and the obelisk tops called benben stones. They traveled through the temple and the necropolis. This procession marked the divine transformation of Osiris’ body. On the twenty-second of the month, 34 boats bearing different gods participated in the search for the drowned remains of Osiris. They searched on the sacred lake within the temple. The boats were small, about 63.5 centimeters (25 inches) long. Though the measurements of the statues of the gods on the boats are not recorded, clearly the statues were also fairly small. It is not clear why the gods continue to search for Osiris if Horus had already conveyed his body to the temple on the sixteenth. Perhaps this ceremony is a kind of flashback. On the twenty-fourth of the month, the figures of Sokar and Khenty-imentyu were shrouded and the procession of the sixteenth was repeated. This time the procession preceded the burial of Osiris’ body. On the thirtieth Sokar and Khenty-imentyu were buried under a persea tree.


The overall dramatic qualities of the play cannot be determined from the existing source materials, but certain details emerge. The drama took place over at least ten days and the priests performed only certain episodes on each day. The actors played different gods, but the main character, Osiris, was played by a small statue. The drama thus proceeded as interactions among human actors (priests), statues, in one case possibly a crocodile mummy, and small props such as boats. Thus dialogue was probably much less important than it is in modern drama.

Masks and Props

Reliefs on the roof of the Dendera temple illustrate scenes from the Osirian Khoiak drama. The reliefs portray a priest wearing a jackal mask, designating him as the god Anubis. Another priest wears a falcon mask, indicating that he plays the god Horus. Actual jackal masks are known from archaeological evidence. The small statues seem to be made from gold, silver, or wood. They are both props and characters in the drama. Archaeological examples of the Osiris statues are known. They were hollow, made from bitumen, resin, and natron and filled with barley seeds. The seeds sprouted, symbolizing Osiris’ resurrection.