Off all the many ancient Egyptian festivals, local as well as nationwide, there was one which differed quite a bit from the rest. While they all were aimed at the relationship between the gods, the king and the people, the Heb Sed was more directly focussed around the kingship as such and its complete renewal.
The name Heb Sed, also known as The Sed festival or Feast of the Tail, derives from the name of an Egyptian wolf god, one of whose names was Wepwawet or Sed. The less formal feast name, the Feast of the Tail, is derived from the name of the animal's tail that typically was attached to the back of the pharaoh's garment in the early periods of Egyptian history. This suggests that the tail was the vestige of a previous ceremonial robe made out of a complete animal skin.
A Heb Sed was first held during the 30th regnal year of a pharaoh, and from then on, every three years, but several pharaohs however, held their first Heb Sed at a much earlier date: Hatshepsut held her first jubilee during her 16th regnal year, while Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten chose to dedicate his festival to his solar-god Aten at the early beginnings of his reign. Ramesses II often left two instead of three years between his Heb Seds, he was able to celebrate 14 such jubilees during his 67 years of reign.
Early signs and evidence
The Heb Sed festival was undoubtedly accepted as a one of the most important and most distinguished royal ceremonies. Its origins are strongly rooted in Predynastic times and pastoral cultures. The earliest sign of the Heb Sed comes from an ebony label found in Pharaoh Den's tomb at Abydos. The seal depicts the paying of homage to the enthroned pharaoh and the claim to territory, two of which were the most important ingredients in the proceedings.
From the 4th Dynasty onwards, there is plenty of evidence all throughout the different time periods that the Heb Sed was celebrated. One of the more remarkable signs of the Heb Sed can be found at the Djoser Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara. To the southwest lies the so called Heb Sed Court with its remarkable stylized buildings. No inscriptions have been found to inform us of the purpose of this court, or even of its name. Its modern-day name, Heb Sed Court, used throughout Egyptological publications, is based on what is believed to have been this court's function. Representations of the Heb Sed, dated before and after the reign of the Horus Netjerikhet, often show the king twice, seated on a throne which is placed on a raised podium. As in the Heb Sed Court, there are two stairs leading up to the dual thrones. The chapels in this court are likely to have symbolised Egypt's most important shrines. It is therefore believed that this vast open court was related to the pharaohs Heb Sed.
There is more evidence at Saqqara, at the pyramid complex of King Pepi II, where remains of reliefs have been found which show the king performing the ritual run, which was an important part of the Heb Sed. At Dashur a stela was found in the enclosure of the Bent Pyramid, depicting King Sneferu wearing a Heb Sed robe. Karnak has several traces; there is a small Heb Sed temple of Amenhotep II, and then there is of course the famous "Festival Temple of Thutmose III".
Preparations for the festival
Elaborate preparations had to be undertaken once it was decided that a Heb Sed should be celebrated. Sometimes a whole new festival temple was built and dedicated to the purpose, or a festival hall was constructed on already existing premises. Obelisks were cut at the quarries at Assuan and transported on the Nile, to be set up in front of the temple where the festival took place. One of its courts were dedicated to be the Court of the Festival, if no special building had been erected for that purpose. The god of this temple was considered the one which the king expected most from, and elaborate gifts and offerings were handed down here. Gods from other temples would travel to the festival, and be housed in special temporary Sed shrines.
Apart from the Court of Festival, there were two more important buildings: the Festival Hall, where the Great Throne stood, and the "Palace" which the king used to change costume and insignin between the various rituals. He probably stayed there during the festival and the place was fitted with bedrooms, bathroom and a throne room.
Rituals, processions and ceremonies
A great procession opened the festival on the first day on the first month of the "Season of Coming Forth". Statues of the gods were carried by the priests and gifts and offerings were presented, not only to give thanks for past loyalty or to secure a good relationship in the future, but also to throw an impression of prosperity over the future, to show his effectiveness as a regent. In the Court of Festival, the king visited all the shrines where the visiting gods were housed.
On one of the three days, the king crossed a piece of land in its length and breadth. First he performed it as Ruler of Lower Egypt, wearing the Red Crown, and then as Ruler of Upper Egypt with the White Crown. He was accompanied by the standard of Wepwawet, carried by a priest of the "Souls of Nekhen". By this crossing of the land, the king asserts his power to rule it, and at the same time he dedicates it to the gods.
More ceremonies which conclude the festival then ensues. Among these there is one where Pharaoh as king of Lower Egypt is carried by the "Great Ones of Upper and Lower Egypt" to the chapel of Horus of Libya where he receives the Was sceptre, the crook and the flail. Then his power is proclaimed. Next Pharaoh as king of Upper Egypt is carried to the two chapels of Horus of Edfu and Seth of Ombos. Here the king is handed a bow and arrow, with which he shoots an arrow in each one of the four directions. Then the procession returns to the Court of The Great Ones where homage is paid to the Royal Ancestors.
With the conclusion of the Heb Sed, a long stretch of no less than ten days of festivals, rituals and ceremonies were over. With the most central theme of all the rituals in the Heb Sed, the renewal of the social order with the king as ruler, his power of kingship was confirmed.
Sources: www.philae.nu, www.ancient-egypt.org, wikipedia, Henri Frankfort - Kingship and the Gods, Richard H. Wilkinson - The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt