(special thanks to the members of www.blue-semiramis.de! Pictures by A. Napp, if not other noted)
Entering the Service
At least since the New Kingdom, some initiation rituals were part of the introduction to priesthood, involving with high probability vows to keep purity, not to take advantage of the office, and perhaps obedience to the superiors. Some scientists believe, that the 42 "Declarations of Innocence" written in the Book of the Dead are actually such vows from the initiation ceremony. The recently discovered "Book of the temple", written in Middle Egyptian and probably already dating back to the Middle Kingdom, tells us - as far as can be read in the fragments - of such vows. Amongst other things, the candidate had to attest he has committed no murder. Becoming a priest in Ancient Egypt was an initiation similar to the one undergone by the deceased during their journey through the "underworld". It was a transition to the sphere of the gods and eternity. That initiation became the central part for all followers of the cult in the Graeco-Roman Mysteries of Isis (told for instance by the Roman poet Apuleius).
In some later texts from the 21st/22nd dynasty is written from an "Introduction to the God" for the high ranking priests, which might be some special "higher ordination". But this was already the time of the "God's State", when the High Priests of Amun had taken control of Upper Egypt. In some cases, priests choose names with special connection to the god, whom they served, for their children; or adults perhaps changed their names, when they entered the temple-service.
From the third Intermediate Period on, priests had to live within the walls of the temple. In the Late Period and during the Graeco-Roman time, the priests defined themselves more and more as an elite of knowledge and keepers of sacred traditions - probably in order to compensate the loss of real political power under the foreign rulers of Egypt. Education and purity became even more important than before and the rules became more detailed and sophisticated. So to speak, the Egyptian temples and their priests formed the very embodiment of Egyptian culture and religion. The Egyptologist J. Assmann calls that a "clericalisation of the Late Period".
- Assmann, Jam.: Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, München 1992.
- Assmann, Jan: Ägyptische Geheimnisse, München 2004, bes. S. 135ff , p. 150.
- Jaquet-Gordon, Helen : The Graffiti on the Khonsu Temple Roof at Karnak, possibility of download here
- Kruchten, J. M.: Les annales des prêtres de Karnak (XXIe-XXIIIe dynasties) et autres textes contemporains relatifs à l'initiation des prêtres d'Amon ( Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta , 32), 1989
- Quack, J. F.: Königsweihe, Priesterweihe, Isisweihe (Assmann, J.: Ägyptische Mysterien, München 2002 GERMAN
During their service in the temple all priests had to observe special purification and cleansing rites. Among them, ablutions and baths (according to Herodot, twice at night, and twice at day), and sexual abstinence. Diodorus Siculus (1st. cent. B.C.) tells that the priests only were allowed to have one wife, while all the other Egyptians could have 'as many as they wished'.
The shaving of head and body hair is known since the New Kingdom. Circumcision was required, too. During the Roman period, therefore a special decree had to be issued, which allowed the practise for Egyptian priests, although it was generally forbidden in the Empire. There were many alimentation tabus, which had to be observed before some ceremonies or in certain times. These could include the meat of goats, some birds, but also fish. Fish-tabus are known in particularly from the late periods of Egyptian culture. However, these tabus did not mean that the animal was considered generally 'unclean'. On the contrary, the reason not to eat it could be that it was held in high esteem or even regarded as sacred.
Razorblade, Thebes, New Kingdom, 1550-1070 B.C. (Hamburg, Museum für Völkerkunde)
Chairemon (1st. cent. A. D.) transmitted by Porphyrios (3rd. cent. A.D.) describes an ascetic lifestyle of the Egyptian priests The account reminds much of the later descriptions of good Christian monks. According to Porphyry, purification rituals which could last for days were required from every priest. During this time, they had to avoid sexual contact and some sorts of food; they avoided to laugh, held their gaze lowered. Everything they did, had an allegorical meaning. Strenghtened by this ascetic lifestyle, they fulfilled not only the daily and nightly duties in the temples, but devoted themselves to arithmetic and geometric speculations and philosophy. They didn't like to leave Egypt, because of the luxury and temptations waiting in the world outside. Because of the fact that Porphyry wrote in the 3rd century A.D., we cannot simply conclude his account is valid also for the earlier centuries, moreover for the Middle and Old Kingdom.
---> what Porphyrios tells
Inscriptions, bas-reliefs and modern research on mummies give a good picture of the alimentation prescriptions, the actual situation and the health of the priests. Because they got their share in the (in most case very opulent) offerings for the gods after the rituals, their alimentation was rather good, at least in the great, rich temples. A lot of bat-baked bread, cakes, milk and roasted meat was part of the offerings. Thus, a team from the University of Manchester examining the mummies, discovered some 'modern diseases of affluence'. Nonetheless, there were times of scarceness and hunger, too.
A stuffed offering table (Kom-Ombo, Greek-Roman time)
- Article from the University of Manchester("Times")
- David, R. (ed.): The mummy's tale : the scientific and medical investigation of Natsef-Amun, priest in the temple at Karnak, New York 1993.
The Greek historian Herodot (5th cent. B.C.) wrote that no "products of living animals" must be worn in an Egyptian temple (book II, 81). This meant wool in particular. So they had to cloth in linen and wear sandals made of papyrus. There is no particular costume in the Old and Middle Kingdom. From the New Kingdom on we know elaborate skirts and dresses, similar to the ones which can be found in the representations of the Egyptian upper class. The "cheriheb" (=lecturer) can be seen often with a linen sash over their chest, and sometimes he is portrayed with two feathers in the hair.
Lecture priest with feather crown (left: Book of the Dead, Turin, Egyptian Museum, right: London, British Museum)
Diodorus Siculus (1st. cent. B.C.) tells a legend explaining the use of feathers by the lecture priests: this is done, because in ancient times, a hawk brought them a book wrapped with a purple twine, holding all the regulations for the divine service.
Various Papyrus sandals (Turin, Egyptian Museum)
Representations of priests from the Old Kingdom to the Greek-Roman time
Merib, Mummification priest of Anubis, Priest in the Necropolis of Pharaoh Cheops, Head of the Palace, General etc. and his mother, Priestess of Neith (Mastaba of Merib, Beginning of the 5th Dyn., ca. 2480 B.C., drawing by K. R. Lepsius, expedition 1842-45, picture: Freier, E., Gruntert, S.: Eine Reise durch Ägypten nach den Zeichnungen der Lepsius-Expedition in den Jahren 1842-1845, Leipzig 1988, p. 38)
Priest for the royal funerary cult, 6th Dyn., ~2400 B. C. (Hildesheim, Pelizaeus-Museum, Katalog)
Anch-Chephren, First of the Priests of the pyramid of Chephren, with leopard skin and ceremonial baton (tomb of Anch-Chephren, 5th-6th Dyn., ca. 24th-22nd cent. B.C., drawing by K. R. Lepsius expedition 1842-45, picture: Freier, E., Gruntert, S.: Eine Reise durch Ägypten nach den Zeichnungen der Lepsius-Expedition in den Jahren 1842-1845, Leipzig 1988, p. 29)
Two brothers in the divine service: to the right: Anch-Chephren as young man with the sash of a lecturer priest. To the left, his brother and successor Iteti with a leopard skin. (tomb of Anch-Chephren, 5th-6th Dyn., ca. 24th-22nd cent. B.C., drawing by K. R. Lepsius expedition 1842-45, picture: Freier, E., Gruntert, S.: Eine Reise durch Ägypten nach den Zeichnungen der Lepsius-Expedition in den Jahren 1842-1845, Leipzig 1988, p. 30)
Priest Djasha, serving at a royal funerary temple, Statue from a Mastaba at Gizeh, today: Egyptian Museum of the University of Leipzig (5th Dynasty, 25042347 B.C., Source: Krauspe, R. (Hrsg.): Das Ägyptische Museum der Universität Leipzig, Mainz 1997, image 32)
There was no distinctive priestly clothing during the Old Kingdom. - Provincial officer and priest Merire on his funerary stela (23rd or 22nd cent. B.C., Dendera, Picture: Manley, B.: Die 70 großen Geheimnisse des Alten Ägyptens, München 2007, p.208)
Priest with leopard skin and ceremonial sceptre, probably a Sem-priest, on a false door of a tomb (Ancient Kingdom, Turin, Egyptian Museum)
Detail from a procession scene, 15th cent. B.C (Red Chapel of Queen Hatschepsut, Karnak). The priests, even the high ranking ones, are still clothed in short skirts with a sort of wrapped sash. The one in second row underneath the shrine wears a leopard skin (arrow), and two others sceptres, with a papyrusflower and the ornament of a feather (arrows).
(Picture: Manley, Bill: Die siebzig grossen Geheimnisse des Alten Ägyptens, München 2003)
During a Barque-Procession, 14/13 th cent. B.C. (Bas-Relief, Temple of Amun, Hypostyle Hall, Karnak). Pleated linen clothing.
Pharao Ramses as priest accompanies the Holy Barque to Abu Simbel (Relief in the temple of El-Derr, Nubia. Photo: Ch. Desroches Noblecourt: Gifts from the Pharaohs, 2007, S. 244)
Priest and astronomer Taitai, 18th Dyn. ~1380 B. C. (Berlin, Neues Museum, Ägyptische Sammlungen)
A priest with a papyrus scroll in his right hand; on his skirt the first words of a prayer to Osiris (Middle Kingdom, Pelizaeus-Museum Hildesheim, Picture: Das Geheimnis der Mumien (Kat.))
Priests during an offering, New Kingdom, 1320-1290 B. C. (tomb relief from Sakkara, today: Berlin, Neues Museum, Ägyptische Sammlungen)
Officer and later priest Ptahmai mit seiner Familie, 13. cent. B. C. (from Saqqara, today: Berlin, Neues Museum, Ägyptische Sammlungen)
(Tomb of Samut, 13th cent. B.C.)
Neferenpet, High Priest of Ptah of Memphis and Vizier, 13th cent. B.C. (New York, Metropolitan Museum). He wears a simplier garment and some sort of skirt.)
Priest of Amun Neje with his mother Nofret (from Thebes, 19th Dyn., about 1300 B.C.., München, Glyptothek. Image: J. H. Breasted: Geschichte Ägyptens, Phaidon-Ausgabe Leipzig 1936, Abb. 161.)
Priest (18. Dyn., about 1360 B.C.., Kairo, Ägyptisches Museum. Image: J. H. Breasted: Geschichte Ägyptens, Phaidon-Ausgabe Leipzig 1936, Abb. 142a)
Priests of Osiris, Szene from the legend of Hercules: The fight against Busiris (Caetaner Hydria, about 530 B.C., now in Vienna)
Barque Procession Graeco-Roman period (Temple of Horus, Edfu). Note that they now wear cloths with fringes and some sort of hat.
Statuette of the priest Hori, ~525 - 450 B. C. (Berlin, Neues Museum, Ägyptische Sammlungen)
Cushite prince as priest, 25th dyn. about 690-664 B.C. (New York, Metropolitan Museum)
Priest of Amun Harnefer, late 4.cet. B.C., from Karnak (New York, Metropolitan Museum)
Priest of Isis (Roman Time, Paris, Louvre. Photo: Mendoza, B.: Bronze Priests of Ancient Egypt from the Middle Kingdom to the Graeco-Roman Period, 2008, p. 346)
Isis worship (Frescoe at Pompeji, 1st century B.C.). The cloths nearly match the ones represented in the procession scene above.
Isispriest holding a statue of Osiris-Canopus, found off the coast of modern Alexandria, 1st. cent. B.C. (Photo: Franck Goddio - Hilti Foundation. Christoph Gerigk)
Procession of priests, perhaps 4th cent. A. D. Attention at the laurel on their heads! (Column was found in Italy, today: Turin, Egyptian Museum)
Statue, Roman period, showing the mixture of traditional Egyptian elements with Roman sculptural tradition (Munich)
Isis priest with cat (Pompeji, Source: E. A. Arslan, Iside. Il mito, il mistero, la magia, Mailand 1997)
Isis priest with laurel, marble (Rom, Musei Capitolini, Source: E. A. Arslan, Iside. Il mito, il mistero, la magia, Mailand 1997)
The high ranking priests wore sashes, probably with gold ornaments similar to the ones the Pharaoh used, and a leopard skin. The leopard was considered a sacred animal, personification of the ancient sky-Goddess Mafdet. Perhaps the spots on the skin reminded the Ancient Egyptians of stars. Artificial leopard cloths had star-shaped items on it for the spots. A leopard skin was also seen connected to the beliefs of regeneration and rebirth in the afterlife, and with sun-God Ra. This can be traced back to the pyramid texts of the 5th dynasty. So in particular the Sem-priests, who had to perform the rituals of inspiriting the mummy before the funeral, wore this special garment, but also the deceased person! It can be seen as some sort of christening robe. Apart of the sash, they do not wear any jewellry.
1st and 2nd Servants of Amun (Temple of Amun, Hypostyle Hall, Karnak)
The priest Anen with a leopard skin imitation and a decorative sash. He served under Pharaoh Amenhotep III., 14th cent. B.C. (Statue was found in Karnak, today: Turin, Egyptian Museum)
A High Priest with leopard skin and his assistant with a standart or sceptre (Temple of Medinet Habu, 13th cent. B.C.)
Sem-Priest, Tomb of Maja (today: Turin, Egyptian Museum)
Priest with leopard skin and papyrus scroll in his hand. On his skirt is an image of Osiris. Third Intermediate Period, 25th Dynasty, ca. 945-712 B.C. (London, British Museum. Bild: Hill, Marsha: Gifts for the Gods (Catalogue Metropolitan Museum of Art, NewYork, 2007, p. 61)
Diodorus Siculus: The Library of History, vol 1 (English Translation)
Leopard skin - real ones or imitations?
It might have been an imitation in some cases, a respective item has been found in the tomb of Tutanchamun. But it could have been just grave furniture like other imitations given the deceased, the Ushebti, for instance. In any case, already the expition of Harkhuf (around 2225 B.C.) to the kingdom of Jam - probably situated in Upper Nubia or even further south - aquired leopard skins amongst other things. And leopard skins were part of tribute payings from Nubia and also brought back in high quantity from Hatshepsut's expedition to Punt.
Head of the leopard imitation from the tomb of Tutanchamun (Picture: James, T. G. H., De Lucca, Araldo, Tutanchamun, Köln 2000). Compare with the representation of the leopard's heads of the bas-relief in the Hypostyle Hall in Karnak above! A leopard-skin imitate from the tomb of Tutanchamun. The head is gilded plaster, the 'body' woven with star applications (Source: Griffith Institute
Real leopard skins or imitations because of scarcity? (Fresco-Facsimile, New York, Metropolitan Museum)
The priest Anen (serving during the reign of Amenhotep III.) with a leopard skin imitation (Turin, Egyptian Museum)
Nubians with tribute payments, among them a leopard skin (Tomb of Hui, Qurna, Valley of the Nobles, 18th dynasty)
- Manley, B.: The seventy great mysteries of Ancient Egypt, London 2003. Look here for a review, this is a scientific, but easy to understand book!
Most informations about personal piety and relations to a specific god we do have from the late New Kingdom and the Greek-Roman time. The "Voyage of Wenamun", which describs the journey of a priest of the temple of Karnak to Syria or the inscriptions in the tomb of Petosiris provide literary examples. Iconographic examples give these statues of donators:
Statue of the priest Amenmose, 11th cent. B.C. He kneels and holds the chapel with Goddess Hathor (Turin, Egyptian Museum)
The priest Qen with a shrine of Goddess Anuket - the position looks a little disrespectfull for the modern eye, but certainly was not in the ancient times, 11th cent. B. C. (Turin, Egyptian Museum)
Priest of Amun with a ram-headed stela, 11th cent. B. C. (Turin, Egyptian Museum)
Block-Statue of the Priest Sennefer, with dedication to Hathor, about 1360 B. C. (Berlin, Neues Museum, Ägyptische Sammlungen)
Cube statue of Petamenhotep,showing the adoration of Osiris (Berlin, Neues Museum, Ägyptische Sammlungen)
Cube statue with Hathor stela, High priest of Amun in Thebes, 19th dyn. about 1220 B. C. (London, British Museum)
Priest Amenhotep, 12th dyn. about 1985-1773 B. C. (London, British Museum)
Priest holding a statuette of Osiris, Late Periode, probably 29th/30th Dyn., 4th cent. B.C. (Berlin, Neues Museum, Ägyptische Sammlungen)
Adoration of Thoth as Ibis (New York, Metropolitan Museum)
From the 1st millenium B.C. on, many statues of donors found in temples are decorated with images from gods and goddesses, that are placed directly onto the statue's body. It has been discussed that those might be references to tattoos or embroideries on the clothes, but there's no evidence. The background of these images is the belief of building a direct contact between the statue (or better: owner, represented in the statue) and the deity. Other images might have been similar to amulets used in the funeral rites. The representation of scenes of the cult can be seen as the wish to perpetuate those cultic rites into eternity.
Priest Pediamun with a Sekhmet-Amun-Nefertem Pectoral, Third Intermediate Period, ca. 8th cent. B.C., (Photo: Hill, M.: Gifts for the Gods, p. 64)
"God's Father"Khonsumeh. At the side of his skirt an offering scene is depicted, showing "God's Father" Pasheriense - probably a relative of Khonsumeh. Third Intermediate Period, ca. 10th-9th cent. B.C. (Berlin, Neues Museum. Bild: Hill, M.: Gifts for the Gods, p. 77)
Source: Taylor, John H.: Figural Surface Decoration on Bronze Statuary of the Third Intermediate Period, in: Hill, M.: Gifts for the Gods, 2007, p. 65-113.
Caring for the afterlife
High ranking priests often held other political or military posts in addition to their office. They were important persons of the Ancient Egyptian society, and that status is reflected by their tombs and sarcophagi.
The requests found on stelae and in tombs, asking for prayers and offerings for the Ka of the deceased, do not differ much from those of other high ranking officials or members of the court.
A request from the 6th dynasty:
A request from the 26th dynasty (now it had become important to note the priestly lineage and it is the God himself who gives the goods, not the people living in the future:
(Texts from Edwards, A.: Egypt and its Monuments, 1891)
Reconstruction of one othe shrines of the priestesses of Hathor, belonging to the temple of Montuhetep II., 11th Dyn. (New York, Metropolitan Museum)
Mummy mask of Herishef-Hotep, serving at the funeral temple of Pharaoh Niuserre, Abusir, today: Egyptian Museum of the University of Leipzig(1st Intermediate Period, 2216 2025 B. C., Source: Krauspe, R. (Hrsg.): Das Ägyptische Museum der Universität Leipzig, Mainz 1997, image 50)
Sarcophagus of Meryt, officer of the auxiliary forces, High Priest of Ra, New Kingdom, 1540-1075 B. C. (Berlin, Neues Museum, Ägyptische Sammlungen)
Sarcophagus of Hori, High Priest of Memphis. The deceased bears the amulet of Isis and a Djed-pillar in his hands, 19th Dyn. 1292-1185 B. C. (Berlin, Neues Museum, Ägyptische Sammlungen)
Third Intermediate Period until Late Periode
Left and Right: Painted Coffin of Chonsu-maa-teru, Thebes, about 900 B.C. (Hamburg, Museum für Völkerkunde)
During the 3rd Intermediate Period - the Theban Theocracy - mummies of members of the temple-community were equipped with special insignia showing their status and rank, such as two crossed leather braces (known from images of mummy-form Gods such as Osiris) and a so-called Menchet tassle.
Mummy of Chonsu-maa-teru with specific insignia of his priestly status, about 900 B.C. (Hamburg, Musuem für Völkerkunde)
Wooden coffin of Amenemope, priest of Amun, also showing the leather straps, about 950-900 B. C. (London, British Museum)
Coffins of the priests of Amun from Thebes, Deir el Bahri, 3rd Intermediate period, 11th-10th cent. B.C. (London, British Museum) Above: Detail of the coffin of Baketamun, God's Father of Amun, late 21st dyn., 10th cent. B. C. (London, British Museum)
Above: Shabtis of the priests of Amun, from different tombs, 11th-10th cent. B. C., aus Bab el-Gasus
Below: wooden Shabti box of Amenhotep, 21st dyn., about 1070-945 B. C.,from Thebes (London, British Museum )
Detail of the Book of the Dead of Pinudjem II, High Priest of Amun about 990-969 B. C., Deir el-Bahri (London, British Museum)
Statue of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, made for a temple scribe and priest of the Temple of Montu, about 700-670 B. C. (London, British Museum)
Mummy and coffin of the priest of Montu Hor. In between the gods and godesses on the panel, parts of the Book of the Dead are written, 3rd Intermediate period, about 700-680 B. C., from Thebes(London, British Museum)
Coffin of Denytenamun, Incense bearer at the Temple of Amun, 22nd dyn. about 945-850 B. C., from Thebes (London, British Museum)
Time of the Ptolemaics
Coffins of Hornedjtyitif, priest of Amun in Karnak, about 246-221 B.C. (London, British Museum)
Burial equipment of Djedhor, priest of Hathor and Min, Ptolemaic era, 200-150 B.C. (New York, Metropolitan Museum)
Coffins were recycled - in priestly circles as well as in secular ones. This is the sarcophagus of the last God's Wife of Amun before the Persian occupation, Ankhnesneferibre, about 530 B. C. In Roman times, the priest Amenhotep-Pimentu used this sarcophagus and replaced the name of the princess and the female pronouns. (London, British Museum):
- Strudwick, N.: The British Museum. Masterpieces. Ancient Egypt, 2012.
- Tomb of a priest of the 5th dynastie, Abusir
- Tomb of a priest in Sakkara (16.12.2018)
- Tombs of high priests of the Late Period in Tuna el-Gebel (31.1.2020)
Petamenhotep, Detail of the Block-Statue
(Berlin, Neues Museum)
Ptahmai, Detail of the Family Group
(Berlin, Neues Museum)
So-called "Green Head of Berlin", ~500 v. Chr. (Berlin, Neues Museum, Ägyptische Sammlungen)