Staff . In view of the various activities that 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 considered to be the high priest of all the gods and goddesses of Egypt. In actual practice the king delegated this responsibility to the priesthoods 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.
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 served as the carriers of the god’s bark, as the pourers of water for the various libations required during the temple service, as overseers of craftsmen, artisans, or scribes, or as craftsmen themselves, making such sacred objects as the god’s sandals. In addition to these two 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 his functions seems to have been to walk in front of the god’s image when it was in procession and sprinkle water 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. Such purity was attained and maintained through several means. During the Ramesside period, priests had to bathe in the sacred lake of a temple three times a day; Herodotus says that in his day priests bathed twice a day and twice during the night. Priests had to cleanse their mouths with natron dissolved in water, remove all hair
from their bodies (Herodotus says they shaved their whole bodies every third day), and be circumcised. Before entering their service as priests, they had to abstain from sexual activity for several days 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 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, and the high priest of the temple was called the first prophet, the next most-senior priest was the second prophet, followed by third and fourth prophets. 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,” and 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 that accompanied many of the rituals in the temple. The “scribe of the house of life” was responsible for copying the papyri used in temple and funerary ritual. Women also played a role in the temple priesthood. During the Old Kingdom (circa 2675-2130 b.c.e.) women of high social station could hold the office of priestess (hemet-netjer) of Hathor, or of Neith. Women only rarely served as priestesses in the cult of a god. Prior to the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.) the priesthood was not viewed as a fulltime occupation, but with the introduction of a professional class of priests, women no longer were able to hold priestly titles. They then served mainly as musicians, singers, and dancers in the temple.
Stephen Quirke, ed., The Temple in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1997).
Serge Sauneron and Jean-Pierre Corteggiani, The Priests of Ancient Egypt, translated by David Lorton (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000).
Byron E. Shafer, ed., Temples of Ancient Egypt (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997).
Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000).