Monday 21 April marks Sham El-Nessim, a festival that takes place in the same breath as Easter, falling on the day after Easter Sunday each year.
The rituals and beliefs associated with today’s Sham El-Nessim celebrations link it directly to Ancient Egyptian feasts linking. Much like Easter, the festival deals with notions of creation and renewal.
Sham El-Nessim has been celebrated since 2700 BC by all Egyptians regardless of their religion, beliefs, and social status. The name Sham El-Nessim (Inhaling the breeze) is derived from the Coptic language, which is, in turn, derived from the Ancient Egyptian language. It was originally pronounced Tshom Ni Sime, with tshom meaning “gardens” and ni sime meaning “meadows”.
Like most Ancient Egyptian feasts, Sham El-Nessim was linked to astronomy and nature. It marked the beginning of the spring festival, with day and night equal in length and the sun in the Aries zodiac, marking the beginning of creation. The Ancient Egyptians, who called it The Feast of Shmo (The revival of life), determined the exact date each year by measuring the sun's aligment with the Great Pyramid in Giza.
These days, many Egyptians rise at the crack of dawn and head out to parks and gardens for a family picnic. There they enjoy the spring breeze with a traditional meal of fish, onions and eggs.
Fish figured large in Ancient Egyptian beliefs, and this translated into a range of dishes. Salted mullet fish (known as fesikh), was offered to the gods in Esna in Upper Egypt. Indeed, Esna’s ancient name was Lathpolis, reflecting the original name of the fish before salting.
Another traditional Sham El-Nessim practice, the colouring of eggs, reflects the Ancient Egyptian view of eggs as symbolic of new life. The symbolism featured in the pharaonic Book of the Dead and in Akhenaten's chant, “God is one, he created life from the inanimate and he created chicks from eggs.”
Ancient Egyptians would boil eggs on the eve of Sham El-Nasim, decorating and colouring them in various patterns. They would then write their wishes on these eggs, tuck them in baskets made of palm fronds and hang them on trees or the roofs of their houses, hoping that the gods would answer their wishes by dawn.
The habit of eating onions on the feast day is equally ancient. According to Egyptian legend, one of the pharaoh’s daughters had an incurable disease. Doctors were clueless until a high priest gave her onion juice by way of medicine. Her condition improved and her father, thrilled at her recovery, declared the day an official celebration in honour of onions.
From that day forward, people would roam the city of Menf each year, offering onions to their dead.
Ancient Egyptians also considered certain flowers and plants to be holy, with the lotus flower used to symbolise of the Egyptian nation.
Families in Ancient Egypt would combine these various elements at Sham El-Nessim. They would gather the day before to colour boiled eggs, preparing meals of fesikh and onions. Some would hang onions in their doorways to ward off evil spirits or place them under their grandchildren’s pillows that night to summon the god Sukar. Before dawn, people would head to meadows and gardens or the banks of the Nile to watch the sunrise, bringing with them food and flowers.
They would then spend the day in the open air, welcoming the spring with joyful singing.
Little has changed since the time of the Pharaohs, apparently.
Happy Sham El-Nessim!
* This story was first published in April 2014