“Coptic folklore is Egyptian folklore. The word ‘Copts’ denotes the people of Egypt before and after the Arab Muslim Conquest in 641 AD. It is incorrect to link the term solely with Christianity, because Christianity is a religion whereas Copts are a people; one could easily say that there are Coptic Christians and Coptic Muslims. Coptic folklore includes the essence of both the Christians and Muslims of Egypt.”
So writes Khairy Shalaby in his introduction to the second edition of An Introduction to Coptic Folklore by researcher Essam Setaty, recently published by the Egyptian General Book Authority’s Family Library. The first edition was published in 2010 by the General Authority of Cultural Palaces.
The importance of this book lies in the fact that researching Coptic folklore is a search into the Egyptian identity and in its human and cognitive elements dating back to prehistoric times, long before religions and faiths were established. “Written documents may vanish, engravings may be wiped off the temple walls, and historical monuments may be destroyed. Nevertheless, customs, traditions and rituals survive in popular games, folk songs, lamentations, legacies, proverbs or habits that may be incomprehensible by our modern-day standards. The only way to explain them is to understand that the Egyptian collective conscious has lived on from the dawn of history regardless of whatever natural disasters or foreign occupation ravaged Egypt,” Setaty writes.
The commoners, not the elite
This search into Egyptian identity explains the historic and geographic backdrop of many of the rituals and celebrations of Christian feasts such as Christmas, Epiphany, Palm Sunday and the Resurrection. The popular celebrations that accompany these feasts, despite their Christian connotations, have purely Egyptian origins and do not resemble celebrations related to the same feasts in other cultures. One can say they were specific to the Egyptian identity before being the product of Christianity.
The author says that, throughout history, it has been the common people who have preserved their identity more than the educated and members of the elite who very often mimicked foreign cultures, even in the names they gave their children. The middle and lower classes in Egypt, by contrast, still hold on to ancient Egyptian names such as Mina, Ramses, or Bishoi for Christian boys and Bayumi, Borei, or Bastawi for Muslim boys. Girls are still named Isis, Hamees and Bassant.
This is a small example that reflects the common popular legacy that fuels and cements national unity. It is also important to note that Egypt is not a country formed of ethnic minorities: Egyptians come from the same origin, and it is practically impossible to differentiate between a Christian and a Muslim based on the physical features. The language spoken in Egypt is another factor which further enhances national unity. The colloquial Arabic dialect was formed by weaving the syntax and semantics of the ancient languages of ancient Egyptian, demotic and Coptic together with literary Arabic into one fabric. Moreover, Egyptians cannot be differentiated according to their diet, eating habits, customs and traditions which are also common to all Egyptians.
Another aspect that astonishes all foreigners who visit Egypt is that Copts share in the celebrations of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and spend their evenings in the neighbourhoods surrounding the ancient mosques where Islamic chants and rituals take place. Similarly, Muslims, especially in the countryside, share in the celebrations of Coptic mulids and the veneration of saints such as the mulids of the Holy Virgin and of Mar-Girgis (St George).
The author defines the mulid as a popular religious celebration of a Muslim or Christian ‘man of God’. It is seen as the extension of a feasting tradition that existed in ancient Egyptian history long before Christianity and Islam. The tradition dates back to ancient Egyptian times when each district had its own protector, honoured by an annual celebration. As time passed and Christianity, then Islam, entered Egypt, the Egyptians substituted the saints for the ancient deities, each becoming a symbol of a town or village. Similarly, the tomb of a waliy (holy man) brought a blessing to the surrounding area. Sometimes neighbourhoods, even villages, grew up around the shrine of a waliy in the hope of blessings and protection through his intercession.
Sometimes the feast of a saint or a waliy takes place at the same place of an ancient celebration. Such is the case with the boat ceremony which takes place during the mulid of Abu Haggag in Luxor.
Some celebrations are held on the same date of an ancient Egyptian celebration. The Islamic mulid of al-Imbaby for instance, does not follow the Hijri calendar but rather follows the Coptic calendar and is celebrated every year on 12 Baunah (19 June). This date coincides with the day when ancient Egyptians expected the fall of Isis’s teardrop, believed to mark the beginning of the annual Nile flood. “The Night of the Teardrop” was a feast when people would sail in feluccas (the traditional flat-bottomed Nile boat). Until today Christians and Muslims alike celebrate this day on feluccas. Interestingly, Copts celebrate the feast of the Archangel Michael on the same date.
The mulid has strong links to folk theatre, including magicians, singers, lighting, décor, costumes, music, movement, space and time, beginning and end, and psychodrama.
When Christianity came to Egypt, it ‘baptised’ many pagan practices of ancient Egypt, aligning them with the new religion or at least ensuring they did not contradict its teachings. Coptic religious celebrations have special characteristics that allow for the blending of many components of their Egyptian cultural legacy.
On the eve of Epiphany, people take a midnight dip in the Nile despite it being in the Coptic month of Touba (January), the coldest time in the year. On Palm Sunday people weave the palms and wheat ears into beautiful designs. Even more interestingly, people strew palm fronds on graves in some parts of Egypt as they are associated with death and the resurrection. The date of Easter Monday, celebrated as the spring feast of Sham al-Nessim, was moved from the ancient 14 April because this frequently coincided with Lent.
The book also describes the Copts’ tradition of visiting the tombs of their departed three times a year, on the days preceding Christmas, Epiphany and the Resurrection. Some people distribute bread and pastries to the poor. The origin of the ritual dates back to ancient Egypt when Egyptians used to give offerings of meat, bread, agricultural produce—especially dates—and sometimes butter and honey. These offerings were presented by the family of the deceased to the poor in the hope that the god would accept them and forgive the sins of the deceased. It highlights the ancient Egyptian belief in immortality of the soul and that whatever good deeds the deceased makes in his life will help him when judgment day comes.
Many other rituals still performed are drawn purely from Pharaonic times. These include prayers for the deceased on the third and 15th day after death and of course the 40th day arbaeen and one year sanawiya memorials.
The Coptic calendar
The Coptic New Year begins with the Feast of the Martyrs, but before adopting the Coptic calendar, Egypt used the ancient Egyptian calendar. The calendar year was connected to the important cycle of the Nile. The first month of the calendar coincided with the beginning of the overflow of the Nile. The first year of the calendar was defined by the first year a king sat on the throne and went on until the years of his death, when the count would start again with the new king. The Coptic calendar was a continuation from the ancient Egyptian calendar, but the Copts marked 284 AD as the start of their calendar. This is when Diocletian became Emperor of Rome and began his reign of terror by persecuting Christians. Egyptian Christians offered so many martyrs to Diocletian’s persecution that they decided to begin their calendar with that date.
Celebrating the Coptic New Year (1st Thoot) was given special importance under Fatimid rule (973 – 1171) when the rulers took part in the occasion. To mark the holiday markets were closed; the Fatimid Caliph distributed clothes to his statesmen and their families and allowances to the poor. The Coptic calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar in 1875 when Khedive Ismail tried to ‘Europeanise’ the country.
Cross-culture in song
Setaty’s research led him to discover a huge amount of Coptic folk literature in need of study. It is impossible to study Egyptian folk literature as merely textual because, except for the simple stories written in prose, musical tunes constituted an integral part of the genre. Egyptian folk tradition applies equally to Coptic and Islamic tradition, because they were all drawn from the same source, whether the mulid, the harvest, agricultural work, hunting, weddings or grief. The only place where the components of folk literature differ is when it comes to literature involving religious issues. Yet even in this type of tradition it is possible to find similarities in terms of text or especially music since all religious folk literature was derived in general from ancient Egyptian literature.
The author cites many examples of this interaction. Many children’s songs had their origins in the ancient heritage before being adapted. Sometimes an Islamic folk song is adapted from words in the Coptic language, or vice versa. One of the best known examples of this interchange is the song Muslim children sing during Ramadan. The words of this song “Halo ya halo” have absolutely no meaning in Arabic but are derived from the Coptic word halol (congratulations). Another song sung in Ramadan using ancient Egyptian words is “Wahawi ya wahawi eyoha”, (“Arise, arise moon”). Not only do these Islamic folk songs use words adapted from ancient Egyptian and Coptic, but their melodies also follow the chromatic scale which is a feature of Coptic music. This proves that the Coptic language and hymns are not dead, but on the contrary are very much alive and used in the very core of everyday life.
Coptic folklore is an integral part of Egyptian folklore. There need to be thorough studies to determine the relation to ancient Egyptian folklore and to determine the missing link in the social and cultural legacy of the Egyptians. This would enable us to see Egyptian history as a continuous unit rather than several disconnected parts.
Egyptian folklore also constitutes a reflection of Egyptian social history which enables us to better understand the features of the Egyptian personality. It is not a personality that is divided into ethnicities, races or religions; but it has the exceptional feature of having fused together into one the many civilisations that shaped Egypt’s history.
8 July 2015