Status. Priests in ancient Egypt were members of the larger society. They were religious specialists, but many priests also held civil positions simultaneously or before and after serving in the temple. They cannot be conceived to be like modern priests.
Dual Positions. From the Old Kingdom (circa 2675-2130 b.c.e.) through the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.) few details of the lives of individual priests are preserved. Individuals had their priestly titles carved on statues and in tombs, but without further details. These lists, however, demonstrate that men who held priestly titles often also held civil titles. Moreover, the highest priestly posts seem to have been held by men who also held the highest civil ones. For example, Hapuseneb was both First Prophet of Amun and vizier (prime minister) in the reign of Hatshepsut. Montuemhet, who lived in Dynasty 26 (circa 664-525 b.c.e.), was both Overseer of All the Priests of All the Gods of Upper Egypt and vizier.
Inherited Post. There was a tension between the priests’ desire to have their sons follow them in office and the king’s right to appoint and confirm high officials of the priesthood. Most priests assumed that their sons would follow them. In one case, a priest sold his right to be priest to another man, and the son of the priest claimed the rights to the proceeds of the sale.
Temple Autonomy. Each temple priesthood was autonomous, as was each deity. A First Prophet, the highest priestly title at a temple, was responsible only to the king. There was no other hierarchy outside the temple itself. As a result, it is important not to imagine that the ancient Egyptian priesthood was similar to the Catholic Church or that the priesthood was separate from the civil/secular hierarchy. Thus, modern people should not view internal conflict within Egyptian society as a contest between civil and religious authorities as is sometimes the case in European history. The two kinds of authority were too closely entwined. Further, each priesthood served the local god only. No formal hierarchy existed among gods except that Amun was King of the Gods. The only national god was the king himself and there was no real national priesthood even of the king. Thus there was no national priesthood to serve as an alternative to royal power.
Responsibilities. The priests were responsible for religious ritual and the administration of the temple and its property. Each temple was rich, had a large staff, and owned land, which it farmed. Therefore, priests’ duties ran a wide spectrum of functions that were both religious and secular.
Hierarchy. The hierarchy of the priests started with the First Prophet. He reported directly to the king. He was assisted by the Second, Third, and Fourth Prophet. The next level of priest was called Servant of the God. These priests were divided into four groups; each group served the god for three months per year in rotation. These men had other jobs in the civil administration the other nine months of the year.
God’s Fathers were the next lower rank. The Pure Ones, who also served in groups for three-month periods, followed them. The exact functions of Servants of the God, God’s Fathers, and Pure Ones are not understood. Lector Priests, however, were specialists who read the ritual aloud, while Hourly Priests computed the exact moment when particular rituals were enacted.
Women. Priestesses served the deities, and they, too, were arranged in a hierarchy. The God’s Wife was often the wife or daughter of the king, making her a high-ranking official. Parallel to the king’s harem, there were also Concubines of the God. As with the priests, it is difficult to determine the exact function served by these priestesses. The major function of lower-level priestesses was to serve as musicians. There were a large number of singers, instrumentalists, and dancers who served the god in an official capacity.
Henri Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation (New York: Harper, 1961).
Sergio Pernigotti, “Priests,” in The Egyptians, edited by Sergio Donadoni (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 121–150.
Gay Robins, Women in Ancient Egypt (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).
Serge Sauneron, The Priests of Ancient Egypt, translated by Ann Morissett (New York: Grove, 1960).