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Temple Personnel - STAFF., PRIESTLY FUNCTIONS., PURITY., GANGS OF THE SERVICE., SPECIALISTS., SOURCES

priests women served called

In view of the numerous activities which went on daily in an Egyptian temple, it should come as no surprise that a large staff of priests, priestesses, and other support staff was necessary for the efficient functioning of the temple. For example, the temple of Amun-Re at Karnak employed 81,322 men, while the temple at Heliopolis employed 12,963, and the temple at Memphis a paltry 3,079. Technically, only the king could officiate in the cult before the gods. He was the high priest of all the gods and goddesses of Egypt. In actual practice, the king delegated this responsibility to the priest-hoods of the various gods throughout Egypt. Many priestly appointments came directly from the king. Some priestly appointments could be made by local administrators. Frequently, priestly offices could be inherited. Yet priests could also hold civil offices in addition to their priesthoods.

PRIESTLY FUNCTIONS.

There were two main classes of priests. The higher class of priest was the hem-netjer , “god’s servant.” These priests functioned in the cult before the god’s statue. The Greeks translated hem-netjer as “prophet,” an equation that derived from the priests’ role in interpreting oracles. The lower class of priests was the wabu , or “pure ones.” They carried the god’s barque (sailing vessel); poured water for the various libations required during the temple service; oversaw craftsmen, artisans, or scribes; or served as craftsmen themselves, making such sacred objects as the gods’ sandals. In addition to these two priestly titles, there was a third, the it-netjer , or “god’s father.” It has been suggested that the title “god’s father” was given to senior wab priests who had reached the level of prophet but were not yet formally inducted into that office. One of the it-netjer’s functions seems to have been to walk in front of the god’s image when it was in procession and sprinkle water on the ground in order to purify the path.

PURITY.

Inherent in one of the Egyptian words for priest is the concept of purity. Priests were required to maintain a status of ritual purity while serving in their office. Priests attained and maintained such purity through several means. During the Ramesside Period (1292–1075 B.C.E. ), priests had to bathe in the sacred lake of a temple three times a day; the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century B.C.E. ) wrote that in his day priests bathed twice a day and twice during the night. Priests had to cleanse their mouths with natron (a salt-like substance) dissolved in water, and remove all hair from their bodies. Herodotus wrote that they shaved their whole bodies every third day. Furthermore they were circumcised. They also had to abstain from sexual activity for several days before entering their service as priests and during the period of their service. While serving in the temple, they were not allowed to wear wool, and were required to wear white sandals. Priests had to observe certain food taboos, which differed from nome (province) to nome. For example, in the Third Upper Egyptian nome, eating fish was forbidden, and in the Sixth Upper Egyptian nome, honey could not be eaten.

GANGS OF THE SERVICE.

Priests were divided into four groups, called “gangs of the service,” to which the Greeks gave the name “phyles.” Each phyle served one lunar month in rotation, so that during the year each gang served for a total of three months, with three months off between each month of service. This free time allowed individuals to hold priesthoods in several temples. The chief priests of a temple were designated by ordinal numbers; the high priest of the temple was called the first prophet, the next most senior priest was the second prophet, followed by a third and a fourth prophet. The high priests of some gods bore special titles. The high priest of Ptah was called “he who is great at directing the crafts.” The high priest of Re was “he who is great at seeing.” The high priest of Thoth was called “the arbitrator between the two,” while the high priest of Khnum was called the “modeler of limbs.” These titles derive from the various spheres of influence or mythological roles these gods played.

SPECIALISTS.

In addition to these classes of priests, there were also priestly specialists. The hery-heb (“he who carries the festival roll”) was responsible for reading the hymns and spells which accompanied many of the rituals in the temple. The sesh per-ankh (“scribe of the house of life”) was responsible for copying the papyri used in temple and funerary rituals. Women also played a role in the temple priesthood. During the Old Kingdom, women of high social station could hold the office of priestess ( hemet-netjer ) of Hathor or of Neith. Prior to era of the New Kingdom, women served as priestesses in the cult of a god, but only rarely, due to the fact that women had numerous other duties in the culture and were not allowed to hold any job that would detract from these duties. Only select women who never married and dedicated themselves to a life of religion were allowed to serve the cult of a god. This changed in the era of the New Kingdom with the introduction of a professional class of priests, members of which gained title and property. Since women could hold no titles nor own property in ancient Egypt, they were no longer able to serve in the role of priestess. Instead they served mainly as musicians, singers, and dancers in the temple.

SOURCES

Serge Sauneron and Jean-Pierre Corteggiani, The Priests of Ancient Egypt (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000).

Temple Ritual - ENSURING PROSPERITY., CARING FOR THE GOD., COLORED CLOTHS., BREAKFAST., THREATS TO EXISTENCE., FESTIVALS., BARQUE SHRINES., ORACLES. [next] [back] Temple Architecture and Symbolism - GOD’S HOUSE., BUILDING MATERIALS., TEMPLE COMPLEX., GOD’S ROAD., INTERIOR DESIGN., HOUSE OF LIFE., SACRED LAKE.

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