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high priests, chaotic forces, natural tendency, mundane level

Egyptian Temples, part II: The Priesthood

Author: Mirjam

Brought to you by Akhet

The basis for the country, for society and for the individual was the maintaining of Maat. When the earth is a reflection of the sky, which is lorded by Re, then Pharaoh, "son of Re", Horus incarnated, becomes accordingly the lord of the earth.

But Maat did not exist by itself, without effort. The natural tendency was for the chaotic forces to invade and engulf creation and so a continuos countereffort had to be made and this was the responsibility of the cult in the temples.


The foremost of all priests was Pharaoh. As the son of the god he was expected to perform the cult ritual every day. This entailed offering and the foremost of all offerings was Maat:

"O Re, Lord of Maat

who lives by Maat

who rejoices in Maat

who is complete because of Maat

who persists because of Maat

who is praised by Maat

who is powerful through Maat

who rules through Maat

who is crowned by Maat

who ascends in Maat

who descends in Maat

who nourishes on Maat

who is joined with Maat

O Re, eternal in deed, perfect in plans

righteous in heart, who establishes Maat

in everything which he creates...!

Pharaoh lives by Maat and for Maat. By reciting and offering he is performing his duty; he represents mankind and personifies Egypt. He was the ruler by the grace of the gods and as such he had the task of fighting the disintegrating forces and uphold balance in society.

As Pharaoh could not be present in every temple of Egypt, there was instead reliefs depicting him performing these rites, and there was his deputies - the high priests. Their duty was to see to the same needs for Egypt as Pharaoh did - the maintaining of good order in society, thus preserving it for future generations. This task is done on two levels at the same time, the mundane and the cosmic. The ritual transcends the mundane level and reaches the realm of the god. Therefore it might be said that the work of priests and priestesses was at the same time functional and mystical.

The High Priest

These came from the highest educated levels of society and the position was often hereditary. Except for at certain instances in history only men could hold it. Herodotos recorded that: "No woman holds priestly office either in the service of goddess or god; only men are priests in both cases...." There is Old Kingdom evidence to the contrary, when wives of the nobles frequently became chantresses and temple dancers. In the Third Intermediate Period the title God's Wife of Amen was given a daughter of the royal family and she became at least the equal of the High Priest, at the Karnak Temple. The God's Wife, had a staff of female acolytes, was a celibate priestess herself and "adopted" another royal lady to succeed her.


Their duties consisted of caring for the god by performing rituals three times a day; at sunrise, at midday and at sunset, the purpose of these being to ensure the god's reawakening to life in the morning and welfare during the day. He was also the only one allowed to see the image of the god when the doors to the shrine were opened. Other attendants kept out of sight.

The High Priests were required to know and understand the liturgy belonging to all rituals and ceremonies in the temple, and they were expected to know their specializations, and teach these in the temple school, the "House of Life". That is, physicians could be priests of Sekhmet and a lawyer was most likely serving as a priest of Ma'at.

What they did not do was to take care of the spiritual need of a congregation, or offer advice or religious guidance to commoners the way it is done in modern days. We will take a look at these questions during the subtitles Magic and Oracles, which will be coming later on these pages.

A Part-time Occupation

The priesthood in general did not serve full-time in the temples. Probably only the High Priests and other administrative top positions did this, to ensure stability and organizational effectiveness. Other members of the priesthood lived normal lives in the society, maintaining their occupations and their families, but for three months each year they lived in the temple and performed the duties of a priest. There they were divided into four groups and took on a specific temple duty for one month.

The High Priest in his turn could delegate duties to priests just below him in rank. Below them there were ordinary priests, the so called Wae´b priests who were trained to be responsible for the purity of the god's possessions like ritual tools and such.

Other specialized priestly duties was horology, the art of measuring the time, which was important for knowing exactly when sunrise would occur, and for judging when the Nile would overflow and when crops could be planted, and astrology for its mythical connotations and for the architectural and calendrical systems. These and other topics were taught at the , the Temple School, the "House of Life"

Regulations and Purity

When doing temple duty the regulations were strict; a priest could not eat fish, which was considered impure, he had to abstain from sexual activities, wear clothes made of pure linen, as things that came from animals were unclean, and shave his head and body daily. Further he had to purify himself in the Sacred Lake several times each day. These lakes, which were found at every temple, and which were also used to cleanse the ritual tools etc in, probably had the symbolic connotation of the Primeval Waters. They were placed inside the temple enclosure, often near the living quarters and where the preparations for offerings were done. Butchering was never made in front of the god, it was considered ugly for the god's eyes to witness.

Female Chantresses and Other Temple Workers

While the rituals were taken care of by men, the music and dancing which accompanied the services, were performed by women. At Karnak there were women of high rank who were called "Chantresses of Amun". In the 23rd Dynasty these priestesses were of equal rank to the priests and more or less ruled the theocracy, their priesthood centered around Hathor, Isis and many other goddesses and gods.

Besides the priesthood there were other workers both in the temple and on the surrounding estates belonging to it. There were bakers, cooks, farmers, weavers, gardeners, craftsmen of all kinds. In effect the largest temples took a vast organization to manage.

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