For much of ancient Egyptian history, there was no class of full-time professional priests. The king served as Egypt's archetypal high priest of all divine cults, and is the only individual shown carrying out cultic activities in the temples. Until the New Kingdom, most priests served on a part-time basis while continuing to hold other administrative positions in the state or local government. Priestly service was prestigious, since the practitioner of cultic duties was filling an essentially royal role, acting as a liaison between humanity and the gods. It was also potentially lucrative, as priests on duty received a portion of the offerings presented to the gods and deceased kings in whose cults they served.
Yet there is relatively little firm evidence regarding the qualifications for priesthood. The Egyptians attributed all priestly appointments to the king himself. Private “autobiographies,” such as that of the Middle Kingdom chief priest at Abydos, Wepwawet-aa, describe the official's promotion to the priesthood as taking place within the royal palace—in the case of Wepwawet-aa, this was perhaps a ceremonial palace used by the king on visits to the sanctuary of Osiris. In actual practice, highly ranked priests and officials (other than the king) must also have played an active role in selecting priests, just as they did in the performance of cult rituals in the gods' temples. In the Old and Middle Kingdoms, local officials served as priests, often apparently inheriting the role, as did the local governor (ḥʒty-ʿ), who acted as the chief priest. In the New Kingdom, when Tutankhamun restored the temples following the Amarna period, he stated that he selected the sons of prominent dignitaries as priests. By the Late period, according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, many priestly titles were inherited.
Categories of Priests.
Numerous categories of priests existed in Egypt, varying with different cults, regions, and historical periods. Among the earliest documented and longest-lived categories of priest were the ḥmw-nṯr (hem; “god's servants” or “prophets”), who are first attested in the first dynasty. Associated primarily with temples rather than funerary cults, these priests performed rituals, prepared offerings, and participated in the economic activities of the temples, including the maintenance of temple estates. They were among the limited number of people who had access to the innermost parts of the temple and to the hidden cult image, the tangible manifestation of the deity. In temples of local deities, particularly during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, the overseer of hem-priests (ἰmy-r ḥmw-nṯr) was almost invariably the local governor of the district.
A lower-ranked class of priests, the wʿbw (wab; “pure priests”) assisted the hem-priests in the maintenance of the temple and the performance of cultic activities. Priests in this category had apparently been initiated into the priesthood, but had not yet advanced to the rank of hem-priest; biographies refer to wab-priests being promoted to the office of hem-priest later in their careers. While wab-priests were not permitted to enter the temple's innermost sanctuary, or come face to face with the god's image, they did handle sacred objects and cult instruments. They were therefore required to observe strict rules of purity, and they can be identified in some representations by their shaved heads. In New Kingdom temples, wab-priests are shown carrying the god's image in processions.
In temples, the ḫntἰw-š, often viewed as secular officials associated with the temple, appear to have performed many of the same functions as the hem- and wab-priests, at least during the Old Kingdom, although they did not enter the sanctuary or see the god's cult statue. In ceremonies and rituals, including funerals, another priest, designated as the ἰmy-ḫnt (“the one who is in front”), appears to have led the activities.
The priest who actually recited the spells and rites, both in temple ceremonies and at funerals, was a “lector-priest” (ẖry-ḥbt). Priests of this category are recognizable by their characteristic attire of a kilt and wide sash, worn diagonally over the shoulder, and they are often depicted holding or reading from a papyrus scroll. Lector-priests are first attested in the Old Kingdom cult of Re at Heliopolis. Although the earliest holders of the title were members of the royal family, by the Middle Kingdom, any literate official seems to have been able to serve in this capacity. Egyptian literature often portrays lector-priests as wise men and sages who can foresee coming events. In the Tale of King Khufu and the Magicians, for example, lector-priests perform miraculous feats, and are privy to secret knowledge, unknown even to the king. The Middle kingdom prophet Neferti, who warns of disaster, followed by salvation, is also said to be a lector-priest. Owing to their knowledge of the appropriate spells, lector-priests were among the principal practitioners of magic and medicine. They also took part in funerals, reading the necessary spells and assisting in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. The significance of chief lector-priests in researching and preserving ancient religious texts is demonstrated by evidence such as the twenty-fifth dynasty tomb of the chief lector-priest Petamenophis, who revived the long-dead Pyramid Texts, along with the Coffin Texts, the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), and the Amduat (royal Underworld Books).
From the Old Kingdom, sem-priests (smw) were associated with the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. In mortuary religion, they played the role of Horus in the funeral ceremonies, while the deceased was cast in the role of Osiris. Originally members of a high-ranking class of priests associated with the Memphite funerary deity, Ptah-Sokar, sem-priests came to be relatively common. From the end of the Old Kingdom onward, they are depicted in tomb scenes showing mortuary rituals. In the New Kingdom, they regularly take part in funeral ceremonies shown in the Book of Going Forth by Day and on tomb walls, especially in the Ramessid period, where they can be identified by their panther-skin robes. Sem-priests were the first priests to wear robes of this type, although by the New Kingdom, they were worn by high-ranking priests of Amun and others as well. Another attribute sometimes associated with sem-priests is the sidelock, a sign of youth that identifies them with Horus.
Women in the Priesthood.
During the Old Kingdom, women frequently held priestly titles, a practice that declined appreciably in the Middle Kingdom, and then reappeared later, in the Third Intermediate Period. Among the titles commonly held by elite Old Kingdom women was ḥmt-nṯr (“god's servant” or “priestess”) of Hathor, or less often of Neith. Queens and princesses also served in this capacity in the mortuary cults of their fathers and husbands.
Although no female wab-priests have been identified during the Old Kingdom, the Abusir Papyri (see below) refer to women carrying out some of the duties of the wab-priest and receiving the same pay as their male counterparts. Two Middle Kingdom stelae identify women holding the title of wʿbt. By the New Kingdom, when the priesthood developed into a full-time profession, women rarely played a role other than as musicians. Rare exceptions do exist, however, including a female second prophet of Amun and a female second prophet of Mut. At no period did women serve as overseers of priests (ἰmy-r ḥmwt-nṯr).
Upper-class women served as singers and musicians in the temple cults of a variety of deities from the Old Kingdom onward, and many of the priestesses of Hathor may have been involved in musical performances during religious festival and other rites. From the Middle Kingdom until the end of the New Kingdom, the role of singer was almost the sole priestly activity of women. The ḫnr (“musical troupe”) included women who danced and played music under the leadership of a woman identified as the wrt-ḫnr (the “chief of the musical troupe”). Prior to the New Kingdom, the usual term for a woman serving as a singer in the temple was ḥsyt. The term šmʿyt was first used in reference to individual singers during the New Kingdom, at which time it became one of the most frequently attested feminine titles. In addition to singing, temple chantresses apparently played a variety of musical instruments. In many instances, they are shown holding a sistrum or a menat (a type of necklace sacred to the goddess Hathor), which was shaken to create music.
Three Middle Kingdom women are known to have borne the title of “god's wife” (ḥmt-nṯr) of a deity, serving in the cults on Min, Amun, and Ptah. Although the duties associated with this title during the Middle Kingdom are unclear, by the early New Kingdom the title of “God's Wife of Amun” had taken on considerable importance, the earliest examples being associated specifically with the queen. The first queen to hold the title was Ahmose-Nefertari, the wife of Ahmose and first queen of the eighteenth dynasty. Ahmose-Nefertari had served as the second prophet of Amun, an exceptional rank for a woman, but arranged by contract to exchange the title for the position of god's wife. Following her death, she was succeeded by Hatshepsut and her daughter Neferure, and, from the reign of Thutmose III on, by a series of lesser-known women, who seem to have been related to the royal family only by marriage. New Kingdom “God's Wives” are shown taking part in temple rituals at Luxor and elsewhere, and sometimes bear the additional titles of “Divine Adoratrix” (dwʒt-nṯr) and “Hand of the God” (drt-nṯr). In the Late period, “God's Wives” rose in significance to become the principal priests of the cult of Amun at Thebes (see below).
Temple reliefs typically portray the king as the sole practitioner of all divine cults, the quintessential high priest of every god's temple. Although the king presumably performed cultic activities on special occasions at major temples, a hierarchy of local priests was responsible for performing the daily cultic rituals in temples throughout Egypt. These rituals, recorded in scenes from a number of temples (notably the temple of Sety I at Abydos), were performed three times per day in major temples. These ceremonies involved: the ceremonial breaking of the sanctuaries' seals; the recitation of prayers and offering of incense; the awakening of the cult statue and its removal from the shrine by the hem-priest; the undressing, cleansing, anointing, and reclothing of the cult image; the performance of the Opening of the Mouth to revivify the deity; the offering of food and other gifts; and, ultimately, the return of the cult statue, wrapped in clean linen, to its shrine. The Opening of the Mouth was perhaps the most vital element of the ritual, since it enabled the deity to act through his or her statue. Priests utilized a number of implements in this ceremony, one of the most characteristic being the psškf, a blade with which the officiating priest touched the mouth of a statue or of the mummy, thereby animating it. Finally, the priest backed out of the sanctuary, sweeping away his footprints behind him, and the shrine was resealed.
During festivals, the priests at major temples were responsible for carrying the cult statue from the temple in a bark or palanquin and bringing it into public view. Because the priests themselves are rarely labeled in scenes of these activities, it is not clear whether those who conducted the divine image were particularly important members of the priesthood or the priests who happened to be on duty at the time. From the New Kingdom onward, chief priests were also instrumental in interpreting oracles—when asked a question, the god would answer by directing his portable bark, carried by priests, in the direction of the written response it chose.
At least three institutions associated with the temple were devoted to storing and disseminating information and skills required for specialized categories of priests. In the “House of Gold” (ḥwt nbw), master craftsmen put the finishing touches on cult statues, which were then transformed into suitable residences for the deity by ceremonies, including the Opening of the Mouth. The “House of Books” (pr mḏʒt) housed the manuscripts of sacred texts, such as transfiguration spells, litanies of gods' names, religious treatises, and instructions for rituals. The “House of Life” (pr ʿnḫ) not only housed the texts of rituals, including those for crowning the king and mummifying the dead, but also served as a point of reference for both priests and royalty, thus preserving ancient ceremonies and cult practices for future generations of priests.
Funerary and Mortuary Cult Priests.
Although stelae and tomb scenes usually show burial offerings being brought by family members, professional mortuary priests are documented serving in private memorial cults as early as the first dynasty. A class of specifically funerary priests included the servants of the ka (ḥmw-kʒ), who provided for the immortal life force of the deceased person. Scenes in tombs from the Old Kingdom onward show priests participating in the funeral—wab-priests pour libation offerings, while lector-priests read aloud the funerary texts critical to transforming the deceased person into an immortal being. Lector-priests also perform the ἰnt-rd ceremony, sweeping away the footprints of the celebrants after the ceremony has been completed.
Mortuary literature, from the Pyramid Texts on, provides evidence that the funeral ceremony included not only the reading of religious texts, but also the performance of acts such as playing the role of deities associated with the myth of Osiris. The Coffin Texts, for example, include directions for those taking part in the ceremony, along with texts that must have been spoken aloud, presumably by a lector-priest. Women, who had served as funerary priests (ḥmwt-kʒ) during the Old Kingdom, thereafter acted as ḏry-mourners, impersonating the grieving Isis and Nephthys.
Sem-priests are identifiable by the end of the Old Kingdom, after which they are shown offering incense and performing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony on the mummy of the deceased. Beginning in the New Kingdom, scenes of the funeral accompany several chapters of the Book of Going Forth by Day, and form an increasingly significant part of tomb decoration. A priest wearing a mask of the god Anubis is shown preparing the mummy for burial, and supporting the upright coffin in front of the tomb entrance, while the Opening of the Mouth takes place. The heir of the deceased is typically shown performing this ritual, touching the mouth with a ceremonial implement, such as an adze tipped with iron or flint.
Wealthy and influential officials established mortuary endowments in the same way as kings, to perpetuate their memorial cults and to provide for mortuary priests. Several Abydene stelae refer to contractual arrangements with mortuary priests, and the twelfth dynasty tomb of the vizier Djefai-Hapi I at Asyiut preserves the complete text of his mortuary contracts. According to the contracts, the priests are responsible for delivering offerings of bread and other items to the vizier's statues in the local temple, in exchange for being paid a portion of the offerings dedicated in the temple.
Domestic Cult and Magic Priests.
Many domestic cults, aimed in large part on protecting the home and its inhabitants from harm, required literate or learned individuals to perform the appropriate rites. Hence, priests were often called upon to serve in this capacity. Lector-priests, with their specialized knowledge of religious texts, were the principal practitioners of apotropaic magic. They also appear to have been consulted in times of medical emergencies, as the Old Kingdom biography of Washptah attests. A group of men identified as ḥḳʒw (“magicians”) appears in association with the House of Life. Both lector-priests and physicians (swnw) also held specialized titles associated with specific types of magic, such as “Scorpion Charmer.” Along with written and spoken prayers, these priests were familiar with, and able to produce, the correct amulets for protection and talismans for blessing.
Among the best preserved evidence for the organization of the priesthood during the Old Kingdom are the archives of the royal cult temples of the fifth-dynasty king, Neferirkare Kakai, at Abusir. According to the carefully recorded temple accounts, the priests and other temple staff worked on a rotating basis, serving full-time in the temple for one month in every five-month period. Some staff members were employed on the temple estates in other capacities during the remainder of the year. The priests on duty were organized into workgroups, or “phyles.” Each phyle was in turn subdivided into two subgroups, each headed by a sḥḏ, (“inspector”). The temple's inventory, income, and expenditures were meticulously registered at the end of each watch.
During the Old Kingdom, while local rulers headed the temples of their own provinces, the chief priests of the state-sponsored temples of major deities were often members of the royal family, sons, or sons-in-law of the king. This pattern suggests a strong degree of royal control over the temples during this period. Certain deities and cult centers had specific titles for their chief priests: at Heliopolis, the chief priest of Ra was known as the “Greatest of Seers,” while the chief priest of Ptah at Memphis was the “Greatest of Directors of Craftsmen,” in recognition of Ptah's role as the god of craftsmen. The chief priest of Thoth at Hermopolis was the “Great One of the Five,” referring to the creator god and the four pairs of deities that made up the Hermopolitan Ogdoad.
In the Middle Kingdom, the local governor continued to serve as the chief priest of the local temple, although in many cases these men were now appointed by the king. The excavations at Illahun, the town built for the priests maintaining the mortuary cult of King Senwosret II, produced a series of papyri, including the archives of the temple scribe, Horemsaf, who recorded both the temple's accounts and the correspondence of the chief priest. As in the Old Kingdom, priests served in rotating watches, but the number of watches was now reduced to four. The records document the distribution of offerings to several categories of priests, indicating their relative rank. The chief priest (ἰmy-r ḥmw-nṯr) was the highest-paid, followed by the chief lector-priest (ẖry-ḥbt ḥbt ḥry-tp), the lector-priests, the phyle regulator (mty m sʒ), the wab-priests and other priests associated with offerings and cult maintenance, and finally the temple scribe. The homes of the priests, and the layout of the town itself, corroborate the written evidence of the organization of the priestly community and relative status of the priests. At Abydos, the state constructed a town of similar structures to house the priests associated with the cult of Senwosret III, whose temple and cenotaph lie nearby.
No temple archives of the New Kingdom has survived to provide evidence similar to that of the Abusir or Illahun material. Nevertheless, the priesthood is reasonably well documented, owing to the better overall preservation of temples and private tombs. Although secular administrators continued to serve as priests of many cults (at least early in the period), the priesthood emerged during the New Kingdom as a full-time profession. During the first half of the eighteenth dynasty, the old title for the chief hem-priest was replaced by a new one, the “first prophet” (ḥm-nṯr tpἰ). At first, this new, full-time position was held exclusively by members of the royal family, but soon thereafter by other officials appointed directly by the king. The first prophet enjoyed considerable authority in the major divine cults, particularly that of Amun at Thebes, and his wife typically served as the leader of temple musicians and dancers. In the largest cult centers, such as Thebes, a series of full-time second, third, and occasionally fourth prophets assisted with the running of the temple.
The first prophet of Amun at Karnak, responsible for the cult and revenues of Egypt's largest temple complex, was one of New Kingdom Egypt's most important officials. A pair of inscriptions dedicated by the priest Bakenkhons record the progress of his career, stating that fourteen years of schooling and public service preceded his appointment to the rank of wab-priest. Thereafter, he served as “god's father,” third prophet, and second prophet—a process that took nearly four decades—before he received the title of first prophet. In the early part of the eighteenth dynasty, the first prophet at Karnak also held the title of chief prophet of Upper and Lower Egypt, and with it the duty of supervising, on the king's behalf, the affairs of all the temples in Egypt. During the reign of Thutmose IV, this office was transferred to another official, often the chief priest of Ptah, serving in Memphis. The first prophet of Amun became extraordinarily influential by the end of the New Kingdom, by which time the office had come to be hereditary.
Also serving a crucial role in New Kingdom temple rituals was the chief lector-priest (ẖry-ḥbt ḥry-tp), who, as in previous periods, oversaw the preservation and recitation of the texts, prayers, and rituals. In the larger temples, he was now assisted by a second, third, and sometimes fourth lector-priest. Lector-priests are also documented announcing the verdicts of the oracles that took place at festivals. Wab-priests continued to function on a rotating basis as earlier, with four phyles of priests serving a one-month term. The “God's Father” (ἰt-nṯr), occasionally attested in the Old Kingdom, became a regular priestly title in the New Kingdom. Among other responsibilities, “God's Fathers” led the processions held at festivals. The wives of priests, organized into phyles as were their husbands, served as temple musicians.
Although the classes of priests continued essentially unchanged into the Third Intermediate Period and the Late period, the status of the priesthood of Amun skyrocketed. At the end of the twentieth dynasty, generals used the title of first prophet to take actual political control over southern Egypt, contributing to the disintegration of Egypt's central government. Some additional changes in the temple administration also took place during this time. The full-time priests were now assisted by part-time hem-priests, arranged in phyles and serving on a rotating basis, resuming a priestly title that had gone out of use early in the New Kingdom. Most priestly offices by this period had become hereditary.
When Egypt was reunited under the Saite and Kushite dynasties, the volatile office of first prophet of Amun was eliminated, and the “God's Wife of Amun” became the highest priestly title in Thebes. Although earlier “God's Wives” had clearly married and had children, those of the Late period were celibate, unmarried daughters of the ruler or a powerful priest, who adopted their successors. Their chosen successors eventually came to be known as the first prophets of Amun. In the twenty-fifth dynasty, the Kushite ruler Kashta enlisted the “God's Wife of Amun,” Shepenwepet I, to adopt his daughter Amenirdis as her successor, thus solidifying his own claim to power in Thebes. Amenirdis was in turn followed by Shepenwepet II and Amenirdis II, during whose term of office Psamtik I expelled the Kushites to found the twenty-sixth dynasty. In order to establish his own rule, Psamtik, with the aid of the “Overseer of Upper Egypt,” Montuemhat, arranged for his own daughter, Nitocris, to be adopted as heiress. The stela recording her installment as god's wife describes the elaborate ceremony involved, and lists the enormous endowment allotted to the office during this period. The invasion of Cambyses and the Persians brought the significance of the “God's Wives” to an end; although the title continued to exist in later times, it never regained its political importance.
During the Greco-Roman period, the full-time clergy of major cults continued to be assisted by part-time priests, divided into four phyles; until 238 BCE, when Ptolemy III reorganized the system, adding a fifth phyle. Virtually all offices were hereditary. The highest-ranking member of the priesthood in this period was the high priest of Ptah at Memphis, although the priests of Amun at Thebes retained significant status. Several categories of priest below the rank of prophet included (among others): the sacred scribes known as hierogrammates (of which Manetho was one); the hierostolistes, who tended the cult statue; the horologoi, astronomers who maintained the calendar of festivals; and the pastophoroi, who carried the gods' shrines in processions. “God's Wives” continue to function, albeit in a reduced role, and female wab-priests and hem-priests are also documented.
- David, A. Rosalie. Religious Ritual at Abydos. Warminster, 1973. Discusses in detail the daily temple ritual.
- Fischer, Henry G. “Priesterin.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 4: 1100–1105. Wiesbaden, 1982. Provides a summary, in English, of the evidence regarding priestesses and their roles.
- Gitton, Michel, and Jean LeClant. “Gottesgemahlin.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 2: 792–812. Wiesbaden, 1974. Gives the fullest available summary, in German, of the title “God's Wife,” with reference to individual holders of the title.
- Helck, Wolfgang. “Priester.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 4: 1084–1097. Wiesbaden, 1982. A comprehensive summary, in German, of the major categories of priests and their organization.
- Pinch, Geraldine. Magic in Ancient Egypt. Austin, 1994. An informative and easily readable account of Egyptian magical practices and practitioners.
- Quirke, Stephen. Ancient Egyptian Religion. London, 1992. An excellent survey of Egyptian religious practices accessible to the general reader, as well as the student or scholar, including a full discussion of the organization of the priesthood, the role of priests, and the development of their offices.
- Robins, Gay. Women in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, Mass., 1993. An excellent survey of the role of women in Egyptian society, with a chapter dedicated to their position in the temple and their role in cultic activities.
- Roth, Ann Macy. Egyptian Phyles in the Old Kingdom. Chicago, 1991. A full scholarly study of the organization of temple phyles in the Old Kingdom, with a discussion of evidence for phyle organization in Middle Kingdom.
- Sauneron, Serge. The Priests of Ancient Egypt. New York and London, 1960. One of the most complete available works in English regarding the function and activities of Egyptian priests, with reference to original sources and to events of individual priests documented in Egyptian texts.
- Shafer, Byron, ed. The Temple in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, 1998. A thorough summary of the major categories of priests and their organization, along with an excellent study of historical developments in the priesthood.
Denise M. Doxey