Priests in Ancient Egypt
By Marie Parsons
Priests in ancient Egypt had a role different to the role of a priest in modern society. Though the Egyptians had close associations with their gods ,they did not practice any form of organized religion, as modern times would define it.
The priests did not preach, proselytize, or care for a congregation. They were not messengers of any "divinely revealed truth." There was no single Holy Book on which the religious system of Egypt was based. In fact, the various cosmogonies developed at Heliopolis, Memphis and Hermopolis are each different and even contradictory. The various myths and legends surrounding the gods were totally incompatible with the development of one coherent system of belief. One version of how the sun traveled across the sky described how Ra was ferried in his sacred boat, the Solar barque, whose divine crew the deceased King hoped to join upon his resurrection. According to another myth, the sun was born each morning on the eastern horizon to the sky-goddess Nut and traveled across the vault of heaven, which was her body, to be swallowed by her at sunset on the western horizon. A third explanation was that a giant scarab beetle, the god Khepri, pushed the fiery ball up through the horizon at dawn and rolled it across the sky.
No preaching was required because every Egyptian accepted the validity of the traditional religious theology, i.e. the world was created, ordered and governed by the gods, through the intermediary the king, the only actual priest in Egypt. It was accepted that people tried to live good lives in the hope of earning merit for the life to come; they didnt need to be "converted" to a way that was already considered to be theirs. The authors of religious works had no responsibility for instructing the people as a whole in the ways of the gods. The same was true for the ritual priests.
Egyptian priests did have a vital role in the religious ritual of daily and festival life. Whereas today a god may be worshipped who is believed to bestow his grace upon his followers, the Egyptian priest offered and performed material and ritually magic services to the god of his temple, to ensure that gods presence would continue on earth, and thus maintain the harmony and order of the world as it had been created. That was why the priests were called "servants of the god," or hem-netjer, the traditional title for a priest.
Every temple in Egypt had a claim to be the site of the First Occasion, the place where the first moment of creation had occurred. This powerful concept was the basis for the conservatism in Egyptian religious practice. But often too, the priests were administrators and record-keepers. Temples were the residences of the gods, but the enclosure also included workshops, libraries, and estates. The priests and their scribes and assistants had a lot to take up their attention.
Evidence for the forms of religious observance from predynastic times are sparse. It is apparent that deities were known and worshipped, though the forms that worship took in that early period are unknown. Quite probably, with this early worship, came the early establishment of a priesthood, or at least, setting apart some members of the community to perform rituals to honor the deities. The Painted Tomb of Hierakonpolis, stone artifacts, and votive figurines, found in the remains of settlement and shrine areas, show that the presentation at temples or shrines was part of the respect shown to gods. It is also likely that the community was prepared to support its members who were removed out of the workforce in order to perform the rituals.
One easily identifiable emblem is the horned female head known as Bat, associated with Hathor. Such a head can be seen on the Narmer palette and on a jar from the Gerzean period, wherein a female figure is shown performing a ritual dance before a Bat head standard.
The priestly class of society grew continually, playing an increasing role in the economy and in government as the dynasties went by. At the end of the 20th Dynasty, the High Priests of Amun aspired to, and even attained, the power of the king.
By the way, we believe that the name Egypt is from the Greek Aiguptos, derived from the Hwt-ka-Ptah, the temple or Mansion of the Spirit of Ptah attributed to Menes, the founder of the city of Memphis and the traditionally recognized unifier of Egypt. So, the Greeks pretty much named Egypt after a temple to the Egyptian god Ptah. The Palermo Stone also records several major festivals of deities, and the founding, building and embellishing of their shrines and temples.
The most common title for priest was hem netjer, meaning servant of the god.
Career priests were appointed to each temple, their numbers depending on the importance of the deity and the wealth of the temple.The King was the chief priest of every cult of Egypt, though to be practical he delegated his authority to his appointees.
Though there was no Sacred Holy Book of Scripture, there were ritual and religious texts, applicable to temple practices, which the priests used. The phraseology of spoken ritual must have been transmitted by word of mouth for generations before the written language could deal with it. The surviving religious literature of the Old Kingdom suggests the existence of priestly colleges or centers of religious learning where the mythologies were developed. The largest body of religious literature from this time is the Pyramid Texts.
The sacred texts were read or performed by a very special type of religious functionary known as kher heb, the lector priest. The aura of mystery surrounding the written word gave lector priests a powerful position and their feature in several stories such as King Khufu and the Magicians. One of the sons of Ramesses II, Prince Khaemwse, is portrayed as a seeker after wisdom in Late period stories. In one he comes to hear of a sacred book written by Thoth himself. The lector priest had a duty to recite the sacred texts exactly as they were written in the rituals performed before the cult statue of the deity. Deviation from the ordained words would have offended the god, so the words were always read from the book, not from memory.
Cult temples were the earthly residences of Egypts deities, where they were treated as the first citizens and fed and clothed and provided for. The mortuary temples were the places where the memory of the deified kings was perpetuated so they might continue to exist in the company of the gods forever.
Before the priest could enter the innermost parts of the temple, the sanctuary, where the god resided, the priest had to purify himself. This did not involve a spiritual act involving forgiveness of sins, but symbolic of ritual purity, nonetheless. The priest had to perform a series of procedures. There is evidence that at least in the New Kingdom and thereafter, priests shaved their entire bodies, and they cleansed with natron, which was used for everything. They also abstained from certain foods, though this did not involve ritual fasting. Priests were permitted to wear only garments of linen, and white papyrus sandals, no leather or wool.
On the other hand, priests normally married, had children, and enjoyed family life. During the New Kingdom, which is the source of most information about priesthood, the priests served in four phyles, each working for one month in three. For eight months they carried on their normal profession or business, whether political, administrative or commercial, then came into the temple. Before entering a temple for their service, they did abstain from sexual contact.
When they were ready to enter the temple, the priest first washed at a stone pool or cistern kept on the premises for just such a purpose. The water not only rinsed away the dirt of the streets, but it was also believed to confer energy and rejuvenation, just as the First Mound had risen from the waters at Creation and the sun acquired energy from the waters for another day. Priests also rinsed their mouths with a natron-water mixture.
It should not be thought that, since priests were often bureaucrats, and they had no recourse to special indoctrination in sacred scripture, that it was an easy matter to become a priest, or that just anyone did. There are of course instances when a father passed his priestly office to his son, grandson, or other family member, or the office was in fact purchased. The office was coveted, for its privileges and its prestige. And of course, the King could in fact appoint anyone he wished to any priestly office anywhere in Egypt.
But priesthood entailed duties and responsibilities and expectations as well. In any case, however the priestly candidate came to the office, he was inducted by virtue of a ritual. His hands were anointed, and he was presented to the god. It is thought that the 42 segments of the Declaration of Innocence, part of the Judgment of the Dead, represented an ethical code to which the priests had to live up.
The daily temple rituals were not for the benefit of congregation, nor an act of appeasement or sacrifice performed on behalf of the people. They were to honor the god by paying him courtesy and respect, and to return the blessings and gifts, which he had bestowed upon the land, and in return receive more blessings. The statue of the god was housed in a shrine in the innermost sanctuary of the temple. It was made of stone or gilded wood or even solid gold inlaid with semi-precious stones. It was considered the receptacle of the spirit of ka of the deity, not merely an idol.
As the morning sun appeared first over the horizon, the priests would intone the dawn hymn that began "Awake in peace, great god" (often the name of the specific god would be inserted herein). The most senior priest approached the sanctuary within the dimly lit temple, and break the door seal and open the sanctuary door. A ritual prayer would be spoken four time over the image of the god, giving the god back his soul so that he could reassert his physical earthly shape.
The gods image was cleansed, rubbed with oil, and purified, its old garments removed, and incense burned to fumigate the sanctuary. The image was re-dressed in new linen garments of white, red, blue and green colors, had perfumes and cosmetics applied to his face, and was adorned with jewels.
The breakfast meal was then laid out before the shrine and the god. There was bread, joints of meat, roasted fowl, baskets of fruit and vegetables and jars of beer and wine. All the offerings were prepared in the temple kitchens, using produce from the temple estates, awarded to the temple by the king, from tithes given by tenants of the estates, or from wealthy landowners. When animals were prepared for their meat, no blood was spilt on the gods altar, nor was the animal slaughtered in the sight of the god.
Once the god had his fill, the food was removed, perhaps first to be placed before the shrines of lesser deities, and then returned to the kitchens to be distributed as wages to the temple personnel. The image and the entire sanctuary was then sprinkled with water, five grains of natron and resin were placed on the floor, and more incense wafted. The doors of the sanctuary were then closed and resealed.
These rituals were performed three times, morning, noon and dusk, though the latter two were briefer. After the evening meal, the gods vestments were removed before the cult statue was returned to the shrine and the Evening Hymn was recited and/or sung.
The regular feast days celebrated within the temple included First of the Month festivals and the New Moon festivals. On these days, the cult statue may have been paraded around the temple precincts, pausing for offerings to be made at places designated. At other temple rites, the statue would not move outside the innermost rooms. People could come to the outermost courts of the temple to seek the gods help and advice. Judicial functions were also performed at the temple gates.
During major festivals such as the Opet festival at Karnak, the gods image was taken outside of the temple enclosure in an elaborate procession. At times such as these, the people could even come forth and seek the gods advice in the form of an oracle.
Earlier it was mentioned that priests must also serve as administrative bureaucrats, managing the temple estates and keep records of the temple storehouses and workshops. During the reign of Ramesses III, the temple of Amun at Karnak comprised 433 orchards, 421,000 head of livestock, 65 villages, 83 ships and 46 workshops, with hundreds of acres of farmland, and a total labor force of more than 81,000. The temple of Ra at Heliopolis owned hundreds of acres, 64 orchards, 45,544 head of livestock, 103 villages, 3 ships and 5 workshops, with a personnel force of 12,700. The overseers of the estates and granaries, scribes, soldiers, all reported to the high priests of their temple.
Priests had to learn writing and reading, and learn certain religious manuals by heart to understand some theology. Ritual texts however, were often read directly from scrolls, not said by heart, since even one word out of place would negate the powerful ritual act in progress.
The highest-ranking priests also attended councils of state in the royal palace, and accompanied the king during his jubilee celebrations or on his trips abroad.
People of the Pharaohs by Hilary Wilson
Life of the Ancient Egyptians by Eugen Strouhal
Priests of Ancient Egypt by Serge Sauneron
Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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