Ancient Egyptian Priesthoods

Those who spoke to the Gods and Goddesses were the Priests and Priestesses supposedly a carry-over from the time of Atlantis. They were the souls who carried the sacred knowledge about creation and the nature of our reality. There were initiates who studied the knowledge of both the sacred mystery teachings and the religious philosophies of the times. This sacred knowledge would be passed down in many forms including the genetics of certain souls. That information would one day be brought out into the open in its truest form.

Because the Pharaoh could not perform ceremonies at all the temples throughout Egypt, he appointed high priests to carry out the sacred rituals at each temple. Priests often passed down their positions from father to son. They enjoyed great power and wealth in Egyptian society. The priests' duties were to care for the gods and attend to their needs. They also performed funeral rites, teaching school, supervising the artists and works, and advising people on problems.

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 priesthood was a civil function in ancient Egypt. Recruited from the local population, the priests served three months at a time then returned to their daily lives. A small core of superior priests, or adepts, served the temple full time. During the New Kingdom, every temple, no matter how small, had at least one resident priest. The function of a priest was to maintain the universal order as dictated by the Gods in the Zep Tepi, or the First Time, the original Golden Age of the High God. To this end, their primary function was to perform the rituals of the Divine Drama, the Great Myth, at the appropriate time and in the correct way. By involving a large portion of the local population in its services, the temple became the center of local culture.

The initiation, or installation, of a priest was essentially the same in all temples. A baptism in a sacred pool, symbolic of the waters of Nu, the Cosmic Ocean, washed away all evil. Then the candidate was sprinkled with oil and water as purification, led to the statue of the Goddess and instructed in the secret ways of touching and working with the statue. The candidate then undertakes a ten day fast, at the end of which the mysteries are revealed by some sort of psychic/shamanic experience.

Within the temple structure, there were classes of priests. The administrative officials in the large temples, such as Karnak, functioned as a separate group, one not too concerned with religious perspectives. They took care of the business end of the temple and its property. The religious establishment also had its classes. The temple of Amun had five different priestly sections, each with its own sub-divisions. The High Priest of Ptah at Memphis was called "the great chief of all artisans," as all crafts were under the protection of Ptah. These first and second "prophets," mis-translated by the Greeks from the Egyptian "servants of the God," were mostly royal appointments and could be chosen from any level of society. They led the higher ranks of the priesthood in the ritual functions of the temple.

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 minor 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.

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.

The Kher Heb or the Lector Priest

Sacred scrolls are read out loud by the Kher Heb, the Lector Priest, who is obliged to read them directly from the papyrus book held open in his hands. He has to recite them exactly as they are written, even if he has read them many, many times before, for making a mistake can offend the god. This was done at the official ceremonies and at the head of the processions, when the god was carried out before the people.

The Hem Netjer or the High Priest

It was not regarded as important to spread teachings about the god's superiority, nor was it the Hem Netjer's task to see to the people's spiritual or moral welfare. His job was to take care of the god and the god's needs, to act as a servant of the god. By treating the god as an important citizen of Egypt, it was ensured that the god would live on and care for the people of Egypt. And the highest priest was Pharao, who acted as a servant to all the different gods, in all the different religious centre throughout the land. He appointed High Priests to act for him at the different temples, their number depending on the size of the temple and the cult's popularity. This appointment to High Priest was both a religious and a political one and sometimes it was held within a powerful family for several generations.

Female Servants of God

Women from noble families were accepted as Hem Netjer already in the Old Kingdom. Usually they were attached to the goddesses. It's uncertain what work they really performed, more than being singers, dancers and musicians. At one occasion in the Third Intermediate Period there was a royal lady titled God's Wife of Amen. She was served by female acolytes, lived in celibacy and adopted another royal lady to secure the successorship.

God's Father

The High Priest is also called the First Prophet and could in his turn delegate Second, Third and Fourth Prophets as deputies. The brother-in-law to Amenhotep III, Aanen, was for a long time Second Prophet of Amen at Karnak and High Priest of Re-Atum. Aanen's father Yuya was High Priest of Min at Akhim and also held the title of God's Father, which is believed to mean Father-in-law of the King. But "father of the god" was also used as titles for the priesthood directly below the First Prophet and these persons often held other important duties outside the temples. Yuya was therefore Master of the King's Horses and Overseer of the Cattle of the temple of Min, besides being the High Priest of Min.

Temple Work and Purity

The priesthood was divided into four phyles, i.e. groups, and each phyle worked one month out of three. The servants of the god kept up their normal profession, whatever it was, for eight months of the year, and the remaining months were served at the temple.

When in the temple, ritual purity was of utmost importance. Each temple had its own lake where the priests purified themselves and the ritual vessels that were used in ceremonies, and from where water was taken for the libation offerings. Priests could only wear white linen and sandals made from papyrus, all animal products were considered unclean. The priest who held the leading role in a procession or other ceremony, used the cheetah- or leopard skin robe draped across his back. But that one might also have been an imitation.

During temple duty, a priest had to shave off all his bodily hair, even the eye brows and was expected to abstain from sexual activity. Outside of temple duty, they could marry, raise families and live normal lives.

Services and Rituals

The god, in the form of a statue, was seated in a shrine, or naos, which was built of stone or wood and kept in the innermost chamber of the temple. The statue could be made of stone, gold or gilded wood, inlaid with semi-precious stones and it was not always life sized. It was not regarded as an idol, but as the receptacle of the deity's ka. Three times a day, if not more, rituals were performed at the shrine. At dawn the temple singers awoke the god by singing the Morning Hymn. And after having purified himself, the priest conducting the Morning Service, broke the seal and drew back the bolts that had been tied last night, and the doors to the god was opened. Now the god received the same purification process as the priests already had undergone. Incense was burned and the god was dressed, perfumed and had cosmetics put on, in the same way as the King would have been prepared for the day.

The Offerings

Then food and drink was put before the god. This was a display of the best that could be found; joints of meat, roasted fowl, bread, fruits, vegetables, beer, wine, and everything in large quantities, out of the templeīs own kitchens, gardens and farms, and of superior quality. The meat came from animals that had been slaughtered out of the sight of the god, and overseen by a priest who had ensured it was fit to put before the god.No blood or unsightly scenes were allowed before the god.< The offerings always included flowers, bound in garlands and in large temples there were gardens with gardeners and florists to ensure the supply and prepare the offerings.

Over these offerings the priest poured libations of water, and in a spoon-like saucer, shaped like a forearm with an open palm holding a small pot, incense was burned. Incense was considered the "Perfume of the gods" and as the intention was to stimulate all the senses of the gods, it played an important part in the rituals. Food and drink meant taste, music and singing meant sound, and flowers were added to make the offering beautiful and presentable. So while the god's ka was believed to be absorbing these offerings, musicians, singers and dancers enteratined him. The text of the hymns was simple, with many repetitions of the godīs attributes and names, and the music could be rattling of the sistrum or menat, percussion, and for special occasions, harp, flute, drums and cymbals.

Temple Organization

The larger temple centres were like veritable cities and employed all kinds of workers. There were temple bakeries and breweries, and some temples had a fleet of boats and fishermen, hunters and stables with donkeys, there were farms or tenants of land. The produce arrived daily to fill the godīs storehouses and everything was recorded and kept in books by the temple scribes. On top of that the temple employed craftsmen like stonemasons, painters, carpenters, weavers, scribes and administrators, not to mention the priests. It was a huge organization and as an example there is Karnak, with a list of more than 81.000 employees!


During the time of service in the temple, any employee enjoyed a higher standard than normally. The god's wealth was for all to share, depending of status and type of work. So large, well functioning centres usually held large properties of land, the workers, stone masons, farmers etc. kept their families there too, which enlarged the population, and ensured there were all these extra kinds of needs and doings to keep women and children fed and clothed. A large religious temple complex was bested in riches only by the Royal House.

Festivals and Processions

The temples celebrated regular festive days, the First of the Month and the New Moon. The god's statue was then paraded around the temple grounds, and at certain places the procession stopped for offerings. These "resting places" of the god usually had something in common with the particular festival.

Then there were the larger religious festivals where the god was carried outside the temple precinct in front of the people. As they were not allowed inside the temple, this was a popular occasion, the god carried on his bark, although veiled from the direct look of the commoner, and the sacred books carried on the shoulders of a priest walking in front of the procession.

Priests fanned and sheltered the god from the sun with ostrich plumes or fans made from palm fibre. Incense was burned and offerings were made at the resting places along the route. Some of these were permanent little temples, others were erected just for the event. Here, the bark was set down on an "altar" while the rituals were performed. At some occasions the bark was put on the god's own barque from the temple quai and was towed further along the Nile, escorted by a flotilla of boats, sometimes even the royal family was present to watch. These were great occasions, in which everybody took part and they usually lasted for several days, when eating and drinking was abundant.

Festivals could also be shared between two temples, like the commemoration of the Sacred marriage of Hathor and Horus at Dendera. All these celebrations had to be held at the right time and day and it was the task of the temple star watcher to keep track of the religious calendars.

Ancient Egyptian Temples

Egyptian Initiations