It’s worth mentioning that the main source for this post is Emily Teeter’s book, Religion and Ritual. If you’re look for a great, in-depth look at how the priesthood functioned in Ancient Egypt, I highly recommend it!
As many are aware, Ancient Egypt had next-to-zero separation of church and state. The state actually felt they functioned best the closer it kept its roots in their religion. The Royal family would refer to themselves as descendants of Gods, and therefore placed a high priority on the spread of the Good Word, as it was. And with what could be a range of gods numbering in the thousands, it should come as no surprise that the priesthood was a huge foundation in Egyptian society. Large cults could employ as many as 300 individuals, and even the smaller temples usually had 50-80 priests in varying positions of power.
The entire institution of the cults would be too long to cover in one post, so consider this the beginning of our first Library Friday ongoing series! The Ancient Egyptian Cult, Part one: The priests. We’ll cover how one came to work in the temple, and the hierarchy of the priesthood in temples. It might not sound like a lot of content, but unlike many aspects of Ancient Egypt, this is well-recorded and much has survived over the years.
There were two great ways of getting into a temple, the first being family. A lot of the time one would inherit the role from their father, to the point that Herodotus is said to have commented ‘When a priest does, his son is put in his place.’ The second way would be be established social status. Higher-ranked priests were often chosen by the King, and even Tutankhamun would say he picked out priests
‘chosen from among the sons of the local dignitaries and the children of men whose names were known’.
As far as coming in cold, there’s little known about formal training or initiation. The only reference was ‘to a test on a religious matters that priests had to pass before assuming their posts’. There may have also been a form of ‘presenting’ the initiate to the god ceremonially. There’s mention of this at the Temple Karnak in the Third Intermediate Period, texts saying there were specific days when priests would be ‘introduced to the god’ in particular inner temple halls.
Once you were in the temple, there was no real priestly behaviour to uphold. They weren’t monastic, which when you think about how freely they talked and worshipped fertility and conception, that’s not a big surprise. They could drink, be merry- they didn’t even have to serve their particular god full-time. You could work in multiple temples at once for different gods, or even different trades.
What was required was purity, and to them that meant cleanliness. Priests would bathe four times a day; twice in the morning and twice at night, and would wash their mouths out with natron water. Cleanliness to the priests was of the utmost importance. Temple doorways and statues warned against those entering without being ‘pure’ enough. It came to the point that most temples had a sacred lake for priests to ‘purify’ themselves before entering.
The temple itself was built with inner sanctums, the deepest part housing a small statue of their specific deity, acting as its vessel. Your permission into these halls depended on your rank as priest, as only the highest were allowed in the same hall as the statue. Your rank also dictated your responsibilities and dress. The hierarchy was built as follows:
The majority of priests were Wab, as this was the entry level position into the temple. The word Wab translates to ‘pure one’. There were ranks within the Wab position, either as regular Wabs or Great Wabs, translated as wab aa. Wabs served in temples and tombs, and had no distinguishing dress or hairstyle. In mortuary cults, a wab was to carry offerings during the funeral procession- and thereafter, periodically supplying the tomb chapel with additional offerings. During ceremonies and festivals, they would carry the sacred boat for the god. Although this is the lowest level of purity and had the least amount of access to the temple, it was still considered a prestigious title.
Translated to ‘servant of the Ka’, this rank belonged to funerary cults, and meant you were responsible for the offerings left by individuals for the deceased’s tomb. Hem-kas also handled the deceased’s family disputes.
‘With regard to these (priests) who deal with the invocation offerings for us, and who act on our behalf in the necropolis. They shall not let our children, our wives or any people have power over them.’
-text from Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep tomb at Saqqara, 5th Dynasty.
This rank had no distinctive dress or hairstyle, and could be passed down by family.
The lector priest, or Khery hebet, has one main requirement, and this requirement is what sets it apart from most other positions within the temple. To be a lector priest, you needed to be literate. A lector priest’s duty was to recite religious texts in both temple and mortuary rituals. This might not sound very flashy- but if you take into consideration the fact that 99% of Egypt was illiterate, being literate was a major accomplishment and could afford you high positions within state and temples. In the Old Kingdom, lectors were often members of the royal family, but by the Middle Kingdom, it widened out to any literate man.
Because they were literate, this class was considered the keepers of ‘specialized knowledge’, referred to as ‘seshta’, often translated as ‘mysteries’.
Lectors were an important part of funerals, as they would recite the spells that guided the soul of the deceased from the time of death to its transition to an akh (a transfigured spirit). They also acted in the King’s coronation. They announced the prenomen, the name the pharaoh took when ascending to the throne.
Lectors would wear a sash that crossed the shoulders to the hip.
The It Netjer was involved in both temple and funerary cults, acting almost as priest shift supervisors. They participated in the daily offering service with the other priests and offerings for the deceased, and supervised the temple food and supply delivery. They were also be responsible for inspecting the temple property. Commonly seen in New Kingdom administration texts (often with that of wab and lector priests), they were also often associated with the cults of Min, Amun and Ptah.
From the Old Kingdom, the title was usually for men with royal blood ties, being a father-in-law of the King, or on rare occasion, a son-in-law. But by the 18th Dynasty, the title was about being a priest rather than family.
There were ranks within this title that one could work they up from Third, Second and up to First God’s Father.
This priest is very distinctive, and would wear a leopard-skin robe and their hair in a side-lock. in the Ptolemaic Period (around 300 BC), the Papyrus Jumilhac tries to tie together an explanation for the leopard skin with a story about Set’s defeat.
The Papyrus claims Set attacked Osiris, and then transformed into a leopard. The god Anubis appears to defend Osiris, and then defeated Set. He then branded Set’s pelt with spots. Thus the story not only explains the leopard’s spots, but commemorates Set’s defeat.
Sem Priests are mentioned as far back as the Early Dynastic era, and functioned in both temple and funerary cults. The rank is highly prestigious, enough that the son of Ramesses II gave his title of Sem priest precedence over his title of the King’s Son.
This title meant you were responsible for the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ritual at funerals, the temple lands, priests and craftsmen that worked for the temple. Each temple would only require one Sem.
This priest also wore a leopard skin and side lock, but only worked in mortuary temples, royal and private. The title translates as ‘Pillar of His Mother’, and was possibly a reference to his supporting the sky goddess whose body formed the vault of heaven.
The High Priest, the title that translates to ‘Servant of God’, was selected by the King and afforded a person a huge amount of economic and political power, as temples consumed massive amounts of food and other goods. It comes as no surprise that from the Old Kingdom, the High Priest was usually the local governor as well. This title was arranged from 4th to 1st High Priest, and while there could be several 3rd and 4th priests, there could only be one 2nd and 1st priest.
Some First Priests had specific titles for the God they serviced. A first Priest who served Ptah, the patron of craftsmen, was called ‘Great Chief of All the Artisans’, and wore a garment adorned with stars.
In the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period, there came a First Priest of Amun powerful enough with his control over Amun’s holdings throughout the country to rival the king himself. He managed the temple’s huge farms and livestock and the non-priestly staff that worked them.
There’s still a good amount of information to cover when it comes to priests. Their daily rituals, the festivals they’d throw, the history of priestesses and their roles. We'll come back to all of that next month!