The tomb of a senior person of the 18th Dynasty plays an important role in the memory he leaves of himself (and to a lesser extent his family) and is a point of contact with the ancestors. On the earth, it contributes to the maintenance or the extension of the social bonds through the rites which are celebrated in it and participation in the prestige of the owner.
Moreover, a tomb is, by its very nature, a liminal space, between the kingdom of the living and the underworld: thanks to the creation during a festive banquet of an appropriate environment through ritual, music, dance and alcohol, the boundaries between the worlds become permeable and the living can interact with the dead.
Under the modern name of "banquet" (which has no equivalent in ancient Egyptian) we group together the scenes that are mostly found in the transverse hall section of the Theban tombs chapels and the longitudinal hall at Elkab. The deceased, alone or together with his wife, sits at a table which is already well stocked with food and floral offerings.
The master presides over a "meal" whose guests are arranged in several registers on the wall (sometimes at a distance from one another). It brings together alive or dead relatives, friends and colleagues of the deceased. We can distinguish two forms of this meal that we will call "funerary feast" where guests have food at their fingertips, and "festive banquet" where servants of both sexes encourage the guests to drink until inebriated, while musicians and dancers entertain them. We will see that these seemingly trivial representations also convey powerful symbolic messages, which revolve around a theme: the perpetual renewal of life..
In the XVIIIth Dynasty, a solitary, sometimes blind, obese or deformed harpist appears sporadically near the deceased and a little apart from the guests. He declaims a song which is addressed primarily to the owner of the tomb and secondarily to all the living. The chant begins with an introductory formula (incipit), a constant of the genre; then follows a text which most often describes life in the afterlife positively, but in some cases is more sceptical and expresses doubts,
"because no one has returned". Finally, the singer encourages listeners to enjoy their lives.
Opposite is a striking example of such a person: upon the , Chief of priests, and his wife Renesankh and dating from the twelfth dynasty (Leiden museum), the harpist Neferhotep declaims one of the first examples known of a harpist's songs.
The "banquets" can be divided into two types (Nicola Harrington): the funerary feast and the festive banquet, which can appear in the same tomb, near each other or apart; thus, in Horemheb TT78 and Rekhmire TT100, one is in the transverse room and the other in the longitudinal hall.
The funerary feast is a unique event since it is the breaking of the fast after death. There are representations of it since the end of the Old Kingdom.
The guests, often only men, appear with a formal attitude, without any depicted movement. They are all sitting in an identical manner, facing the deceased and his wife (or mother) who is at the focal point of the composition. Food is very often represented, sometimes in front of each participant. There are very rarely musicians, servants or maidservants, present and never scantily clad girls. This meal shared by family members, friends and co-workers is very formal, and the artist does not allow anything unconventional. No eroticism appears in these representations which are not intended to encourage sexuality.
The engraved or painted banquet scenes will progressively spread among the tombs of the New Kingdom, to peak during the XVIIIth dynasty, where they are seldom missing (Lise Manniche), before then decreasing in number. They disappear during the Amarna period: in the private tombs of Tell el-Amarna, representations of Akhenaten and the royal family replace those of the tomb owner.
Besides these scenes, widely present in the Theban tombs, they are also found in Elkab, Saqqara, in votive chapels of Gebel el-Silsileh as well as on steles, wooden boxes, and door lintels…
Images and texts combine, in a symbolic form, the themes of sexuality and rebirth with those funerary themes, the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, and other memorial meals held in the tomb. Eroticism is undoubtedly present, and banquets are placed under the patronage of Hathor, the goddess of joy, drunkenness and love; thus, in the TT100 of Rekhmire, one sees the Vizier and his wife receiving the Hathor sisters whom their daughters present to them (see opposite).
The legends that accompany these banquet images are rarely explicit: we are not told where the guests are (chapel, tomb court, elsewhere?), when, or on what occasion they are being held (funerals, fete day (s), or other?); the same imprecision is seen in the inscriptions accompanying the offering tables. One can see there the expression of a deep tendency of the Egyptians: to create timeless scenes which have several levels of meaning.
Where are these banquets held?
This question is still debated. Some continue to think that there was an event shown in the chapel which occurred elsewhere. But most specialists agree that the meals are really served in the chapel and / or in the tomb courtyard.
An additional argument is that we now know that the owner of a tomb institutes his own funerary cult during his life time, a cult which, thus "started", is functioning by his death.
When are they?
Some great celebrations provide special moments for festive banquets, which is confirmed by the fairly frequent inscriptions where the deceased asks to participate in this or that fete.
The most important is the (Beautiful) Festival of the Valley. During this festival, the boat of Amun crosses the Nile to visit the Temple of Millions of Years of the reigning Pharaoh, then those of his ancestors, before going on to Deir el-Bahari. In doing so, the procession also passes in front of the chapels of the necropolis – or at least in front of those whose access is easiest.
Parents and friends are expected to meet on this occasion and participate in a banquet in the chapel or in the courtyard of the tomb. One can even see the owner of the tomb still represented as living and participating in the fete and find him a little further away shown as a blessed deceased receiving the offerings! This kind of temporal paradox posed no problem to the ancient Egyptians.