The priesthood of ancient Egypt has a far reaching and deep history, rooted within the traditions of Ancient Egypt. Unlike the orthodox priesthoods usually found within Western society, the role of the Egyptian priest or priestess was vastly different within the society as a whole. Rather than seek the divine and develop a rapport with the gods, the role of the priest was akin to an everyday job. For, as the pharaoh was seen as a god himself, the priests and priestesses were seen as stand-in's for the pharaoh; as it was the greater job of the priests and priestesses to keep Egyptian society in good order, as is the case with most theoretically based societies. The mystical attributes of the priests and priestesses take on a secondary role, when one considers the heightened role religion played within Egyptian society. Not only was religion a way to attain the ethereal and basic needs of the Egyptians, but it also served as a mechanism to order society, to create a hierarchy, and to preserve the culture for future generations. As such, the role of the priests and priestesses was both functional and mystical on both levels.
A priest or priestess in ancient Egypt was generally chosen by either the king, or attained their post by hereditary means. In either case, the priests who received their positions hereditarily and through the king were not set apart from mundane life. In fact, such priests were made to embrace the mundane life to keep Egyptian society functioning properly (and as stated above it was a job of fairly high status). Though the priesthood had started out simply, with relatively few temples, in the later dynasties the temples expanded into the hundreds. With such growth, a large bureaucracy was needed to keep the temples in good standing; and thenceforth, the small priesthood's of the Egyptians grew from an estimated hundred priests into the thousands, and with it came a priestly hierarchy.
The daily life of a priest or priestess depended on their sex and also their hierarchical standing within the priesthood. Priests were often rotated from position to position within the priestly hierarchy and were integrated in and out of mundane society. This rotation system generally went, that a priest would enter into temple life one month, at three times a year. This rotation system had a direct connection to the often stringent purity rites of the priests. Regardless of what status the priest was, there were numerous taboos and tradition's a priest had to or could not partake of. Of these taboos and traditions, a priest or priestess could not eat fish (a food thought to be ascribed to peasant life), could not wear wool (as nearly all animal products were unclean), were generally circumcised (only common among the male priests), and it was not uncommon for priests to bathe three or four times a day in "sacred" purificatory pools. It was also not uncommon for the "oracle" tending priests (one of the most sacred positions), to shave off all of their body hair, partially to get rid of lice, but partially for purificatory functions. These "oracle" priests symbolically gave food to the statues of the gods, clothed the statues of the gods, sealed the temple chamber in the evening, and were known as stolists. As can be seen from the example of the stolists, the need for purity extended not only upon the mundane level, but also held true within the afterlife as well. Further, from such purificatory rites the priests were often times known as the "pure ones" regardless of status within the temples.
The hierarchy of priests consisted of a milieu of offices and duties. At the top of the hierarchy of priests was the high-priest, also known as the sem-priest, and as "the First Prophet of the God". The high-priest was often very wise in years, and old. Not only did he serve as political advisor to the pharaoh, but he was also a political leader for the temples he belonged to as well. The high-priest was in charge of over-seeing magical rites and ceremonies as well as advising the pharaoh. Maintaining a fairly ceremonial position, the high-priest was often times chosen by the pharaoh as an advisor, however, it was not uncommon for a high-priest to have climbed through the ranks to his official status.
Below the high-priest were a number of priests with many specialized duties. The specialization of these second tier priests ran from "horology" (keeping an accurate count of the hours through the days, extremely important during the time of the sunboat worshippers, but also for agricultural reasons as well), "astrology" (extremely important as well to the mythology of Egypt as well as to the architectural and calendrical systems of Egypt), to healing. As is obvious by the specialization of the priests, the cycles of the cosmos were extremely important, as they decided when crops would be planted, when the Nile would wax or wane, and further when the temple rites were to begin in the morning. The result of these Egyptian priests studies can be seen in both the mythological studies of Egypt, as well as within the agricultural practices, which rival even the modern Caesarian Calendar still used within the western world today.
In addition to the political administration, the priests and priestesses took on both magical and economic functions, however set apart from the hierarchy of priests are the lay magicians who supplied a commoners understanding of Egyptian religion. Through the use of magic and their connection to the gods, lay magicians provided a service to their community, usually consisting of counseling, magical arts, healing, and ceremony. Lay magicians who served within this last and final caste of the Egyptian priesthood belonged to a large temple known simply as "The House of Life". Laymen would come to "The House of Life" to meet with a magician, priest or priestess to have their dreams interpreted, to supply magical spells and charms, to be healed and to counteract malevolent magic, and to supply incantations of various types. Though the House of Life provided it's Laymen with many prescriptive cures for common ills, it was largely shrouded in mystery in ancient times. In fact, the library of The House of Life was shrouded in great secrecy, as it contained many sacred rites, books, and secrets of the temple itself which were thought could harm the pharaoh, the priests, and all of Egypt itself. Though the magicians of The House of Life, were seen as another step from the ceremonial duties of the priests, they were by no means less important, and as is evidenced by the presence of many magical wands, papyri text, and other archeological evidence, The House of Life took on a role direly important to the way of life of Ancient Egyptians.
One final position within the priesthood highly worthy of mention is that of the Scribes. The scribes were highly prized by both the pharaoh and the priesthood, so much so that in some of the pharaoh's tombs, the pharaoh himself is depicted as a scribe in pictographs. The scribes were in charge of writing magical texts, issuing royal decrees, keeping and recording the funerary rites (specifically within The Book of The Dead) and keeping records vital to the bureaucracy of Ancient Egypt. The scribes often spent years working on the craft of making hieroglyphics, and deserve mentioning within the priestly caste as it was considered the highest of honors to be a scribe in any Egyptian court or temple.
Finally, worthy of mention, though there is considerable historical evidence telling of the role of priests within the priestly hierarchy, the status of the priestesses was at times equal if not mirror to that of the male priesthood. The female priestesses held the main function within the temple's of music and dancing. At Thebes, however, the chief-priestess of Amun bore the title of ‘god’s wife’; she was the leader of the female music-makers who were regarded as the god’s harem and were identified with the goddess Hathor, who was associated with love and music. In the Twenty-third Dynasty and afterwards such priestesses were practically rulers of the theocracy, their duties centering around the reverence of Isis, and many other female and male goddesses and gods.
|Archaeology of Egypt||History||Hieroglyphs|