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Monday, 30 March 2015

Easter, Onions and Sham el-Nessim

So Easter is coming up and the Egypt Centre is preparing. The festival of Easter originally derives from earlier pagan festivals associated with spring and rebirth, which is what we are going to celebrate in the Centre. So coming up we have children’s workshops ‘The Magic of Mummies’ from 7th-10th April. If you are looking for a non-fattening Easter treat you could do worse than to purchase from our shop. Our shop has loads of things to do with rebirth and Egypt, such as jewellery decorated with flowers and also scarabs.

So what has this got to do with onions? Well the link is the modern Egyptian festival of Sham el-Nessim (literally smelling the breeze) which falls on the day after the Coptic Christian Easter and is celebrated by both Muslims and Christians. The day may possibly date back to an ancient Egyptian festival!

It is said that the festival takes its name from the Egyptian harvest season, called Shemu. Over time the ancient name Shemu morphed into the Arabized Sham el-Nessim. In the modern festival traditional food is eaten such as feseek (a salted grey mullet), lettuce, onions, lupin beans and coloured boiled eggs.
In his book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Edward William Lane wrote in 1834:
A custom termed 'Shemm en-Nessem' (or the Smelling of the Zephyr) is observed on the first day of the Khamaseen. Early in the morning of this day, many persons, especially women, break an onion, and smell it; and in the course of the forenoon many of the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, or go in boats, generally northward, to take the air, or, as they term it, smell the air, which on that day they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect. The greater number dine in the country or on the river. This year they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the neseem; but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to 'smell' it.

According to Plutarch, in the 1st century AD the ancient Egyptians offered salted fish, lettuce and onions to their gods on this day.

So, do we have anything onionish in the Centre? Well nothing in the shop. But we do have a couple of things on display. Firstly, clay offering tray which shows onions.....W480 shows two long water channels, two forelegs of oxen, bread and three bundles of leeks or onions. The onions favoured by the ancient Egyptians would have been more like leeks or scallions. Onions were a staple food, so no wonder the living wanted to provide the dead with them.

But more than that, onions appear to have been associated with rebirth!

Onions appear three times in resurrection scenes on our 21st Dynasty coffin!

Firstly, they appear in the above scene (more about that here). Between Isis and Nephthys is an object which looks like a bag with fringes.

Secondly a bunch occurs here, in the in front of Embracing of Horus (the far left) in the Osiris on the mound scene, and again in front of the right-hand Heka (Heka is the god on the far right), in the same scene.

On noting these strange fringed bags, my first thought was actually that that it was the Abydos or Abydene symbol (ta-wer symbol). The ‘Abydene’ or ‘Abydos symbol’ which had the shape of a bee-hive was considered from the 19th Dynasty to be the reliquary of the head of Osiris. It is usually shown on a pole and is said to represent a wig, suggesting the head of Osiris. As one would expect, this symbol often occurs and both mound scenes and on scenes of the enthroned Osiris. However, the Abydene symbol does not seem to be shown without the pole. So maybe not the Abydene symbol.

However, as was pointed out to me this is more likely to be a bunch of onions! As Graindorge (1992) has shown, depictions beginning in the New Kingdom show celebrations involving the offering of bunches of onion which look very similar to this depiction (for example in TT255, the tomb ofRoy). 

On 25th of Khoak, when celebration concerned the triumph of Osiris, relatives of the deceased offered onions associated with Sokar (onions are also used in the opening of the mouth ceremony). Onions grow both under soil and above it and thus mirror the solar-Osirian theology which is a common theme on this coffin. Sokar is himself associated with Osiris. They also drive away snakes and are thus protective.

So there you have it, maybe we should sell onions in our shop for Easter.


Graindorge, C. 1992. Les Oignons de Sokar, Revue d'Égyptologie 43, 87-105.

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