Kemetic Priesthood: Then and Now

30 May

There is a lot of discussion out on the Internet about priesthood. What is it? How do you know when you are a priest? What does being a priest involve? I thought I would make a bit of a guide for everyone that discusses what priesthood was like back in ancient times, and how that can translate into a modern practice. This is by no means the be all and end all of priesthood knowledge or ideas- but I felt that having a general guide would be useful!

Priesthood Then:

Priesthood back then was a job. There is no escaping this. Men and women worked in the temple serving a particular set of gods for payment. Priesthood itself was very wide and varied. And how you define priest could vary depending on how you look at things. For a large temple, it took many many people to make things work. For the temple of Amun in Thebes, it’s rumored that at one time there were about 80,000 people working there (Sauneron). People who farmed the land for the food to make offerings for the gods. People who created the linen for the god to wear. People who painted the temple, repaired the temple. People who created bread, pottery and jewelry for the god. People who did the administration so that everyone could get paid and everyone knew when they needed to be in a certain location at a certain time- all of this (and more!) to make the temple run smoothly. If you wanted to cast a very wide net, all of these people were a priest in some capacity.

However, most of us are interested only in the priests that entered the ‘holiest of holies’. The priests that had direct contact with the icon of the god- the Open statue that the god resided in. These are the people we want to know about the most.

Offering Bearers

The day of a head priest (Hem Netjer or First Prophet, depending on who you ask) began early in the morning. There were usually three rites performed for the gods every day- one in the morning, one in the afternoon, or around noon, and one in the evening. The work for the morning ritual would begin before the sun rose. Everyone would begin to prepare offerings and undergo rites of purity so that they may enter the holy areas of the temple. The rituals themselves could take a while. You had to redress the Icon, pacify the god with dance and music, recite words of power, give offerings of food, drink, natron, incense and ma’at (among other things, depending on the day). All these things were done with specific texts and motions. Nothing was spur of the moment or freelanced- everything is precise and done with purpose. This is the power of heka working through these rituals, and there is power in repetition. According to Sauneron, the sun could be high in the sky before the head priest and all of the attendants were done with morning ritual.

And then, they got to repeat the process (to a lesser degree) at noon and in the evening.

Some days, they would get to take the god out on the town. They’d place the Icon in the sacred barque and walk along a procession throughout the city- stopping at roadside shrines and to act as a divinatory tool for those who had questions for the god to answer. This could take the better part of a day- if it wasn’t one of the longer treks (such as Hathor visiting Heru in Edfu for the Beautiful Reunion), which could last weeks.

Depending on the temple the priests served, the would have to uphold certain purity standards. These can vary time to time and location to location. It is thought that there could be rules about what types of food and drink  you could have, the amount of hair on your body, sex, blood, clothing- you name it. Each shift was only 3 months at a time, all of these rules had to be minded while you were serving your term. I have yet to read why the temple shifts were run this way. I imagine there could be numerous reasons.

Presenting Offerings

One could easily argue that during these months, the First Prophet’s life revolved around the temple and the gods therein. And that pretty much every day in the temple was more or less the same- the same rituals. The same structure. The same rites. The same movements and epithets. Because there is power in repetition.

Regardless of whether a priest was on duty or not, there were no moral obligations (as far as we know) for the priests to uphold (so long as purity wasn’t compromised). There are even recorded cases of priests stealing gold foil off of the temple doors, priests taking offerings, etc. Priests were not moral compasses for the common people, and they had no specific active role outside of maintaining the god’s cult within the temple. And the rites that occurred within the temple were entirely hidden from the average people. Unlike modern churches, there was no congregation, no mass of people for the priests to preach to- nothing like that. And unlike now, the average people of Egypt might have never known what occurred inside of the temple every day. They were unable to read or write the glyphs that covered the walls. Unlike today, the actions and goings on inside of the temples were completely hidden from the profane world outside.

Priesthood Now:

It’s a lot harder to define the modern Kemetic priesthood for a variety of reasons. The main reason being that there are very few Kemetic temples around and most people don’t have the luxury of spending hours everyday in ritual. So what defines a modern Kemetic priest?

Unlike many pagan traditions where everyone is some type of priest, most Kemetic temples follow the same rules of ancient Egypt. Only certain members of the organization become priests, and there are usually certain rules and requirements you must meet before you can be considered for priesthood.

If you belong to Kemetic Orthodoxy, you have to undergo certain rites of passage within the group. Eventually, if the gods permit, you will be trained by the leader of the group in the specific rites and regulations of priesthood. Within Kemetic Orthodoxy, there are multiple levels of priesthood, with varying requirements for time- both in the shrine, and with the community as a whole. Unlike ancient priests, there is a larger emphasis in community work and playing an active role in the community around you. I do not know a lot about the inner workings of the priesthood within Kemetic Orthodoxy, as I am not a priest there.

There are two other temples that are in the US that seem to have some form of priesthood- most of which require daily rites to the gods that the person serves. These temples also require that you show up to group rituals as well, among other things.

For most temples, the priesthood follows a similar path to the priests of old- you perform rites daily for the gods. You maintain a level of purity as deemed by your temple before you enter the shrine area. And in some cases, the Icon of the Netjeru in question is an Open icon.

But what about those of us who aren’t in a temple organization? Where does this leave us?

That partially depends on how each of us define priesthood. For some ‘Independents’, the answer is performing daily rituals for the gods as the priests did back in ancient Egypt. These rituals can be hand made or from books like Eternal Egypt.

For others, the gods can request a different angle- such as community service, cleaning and maintaining local cemeteries, or other active forms of dedication. Each deity is different, and each relationship is different- so the possibilities can be numerous.

And at the core of it, we as a community need to ask ourselves what do we want the definition of a modern priest to be? And even more than that, what does the community need the modern priest to be? The original phrase for a priest was Hem (or Hemet) Netjer- meaning servant to the God. And back then, that meant maintaining a cult center and the Open Icon that resided at the center of the temple. But is that really relevant to modern standards? Does it really help the Kemetic community to have our priests stored away in front of an Open shrine? Or do we need something more from the modern priest?

What is your take on priesthood then and now? What do you think the modern Kemetic community needs from its priesthood, if anything?

Other places to learn about Egyptian Priesthood:


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Posted by on May 30, 2012 in Kemeticism


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23 responses to “Kemetic Priesthood: Then and Now

  1. kiya_nicoll

    May 30, 2012 at 11:12 am

    I think this is one of the genuinely hard questions of Egyptian reconstruction, and different people are going to be happy with different structures.

    Personally, as a matter of exoteric, ordinary-life focused religion, I will not put efforts into rebuilding a priesthood. I do not feel that that is appropriate for a diasporic religion. (And I know other people disagree with me. Good luck to them on building something where it works.) I feel that trying to reconstruct priesthood is building something that is so disconnected from the ordinary lives of ordinary people that it’s not functional in the day-to-day. It’s not just that we’re not centred in a culture that has actual ordinary-folks practices that support that, or even that the world has changed immensely, it’s also extremely top-heavy. It can work in something more akin, structurally, to Wicca, with small groups of people working together in a priestly role – something I see in groups where everyone is expected to take on some sort of liturgical function. I think some of the Kemetic organisations kind of try to straddle that gap, actually, with the core priesthoods functioning kind of like a coven, and then a bunch of people around the fringes following the motions – but I see a lot of the ordinary folks kind of at a loss for what to do, or how to go about it, because there’s so much focus put on proper ceremony and so much less on proper life.

    This is one of the reasons I study Judaism, which – you know, a couple thousand years ago – had a theocratically organised state focused through the Temple, and the Temple was even built on similar theological underpinnings to Egyptian temples. The central organisation was destroyed and the people scattered, so what did they do? Well, many people still track the hereditary priest lines, sure, but they don’t have jobs because the Temple was destroyed. So we got rabbinic Judaism, from which I steal enthusiastically. If I am eventually to grow into some kind of Kemetic religious leader, it will be in rabbinic mode, not priestly.

    And yet.

    At the same time, I am training to be a priest. I am … no longer angry about this, though I still bitch about it. (I was tricked.) But this is an additional thing, this is a mystery tradition, this is not something that is important to anyone who is not called to the mystery, which is not the same as being called to the netjeru or even being called to ma’at. I am building it, not exactly under duress but certainly as something additional on top of the work of reconstruction, and I suspect I will teach it to someone someday, but that is not Kemetic reconstruction, it is a Kemetic mystery school, and talking about it is a cast-iron bitch anyway.

    • Seshat Anqet Het Her

      May 30, 2012 at 1:22 pm

      I largely agree. I fantasize about having a temple someday, it would be a temple largely for my own pleasure and whatever Kemetic community I have nearby. It would function much like a retreat center or ashram. The role of the modern priest, I think, is still ceremonial. We who have studied and been initiated may have an edge regarding knowledge (and confidence during ritual) that a devotee may not have. There is room for the community priest putting on public rituals, providing readings, counseling, rites of passage – if there is a local market for such things. Is there a NEED for a Kemetic priest caste? Probably not. But I believe there is a calling that people like me answer to, to take on that mantle of priesthood. I liked what you said about the Kemetic mystery school. I also feel that it is within the role of the modern priest to study the mysteries, to speak to the gods and be a steward of that wisdom. In that sense, the community may not be aware, or care, however it is a service to the netjeru that’s still valid.

      • von186

        May 31, 2012 at 1:01 pm

        So you think the role of the modern priest should be expanded from the definition that was used in Egypt?

    • von186

      May 31, 2012 at 12:58 pm

      (please forgive me if I butcher the concepts- I know next to nothing about Judaism). It sounds like they created a new word to fit what the religion needed. They went from having priests to having rabbis. Do you think the Kemetic community would be well served to do something similar? Instead of trying to redefine “priest” or hem netjer in this day and age, focus on creating a new role or term that suits what is needed?

      • kiya_nicoll

        May 31, 2012 at 8:32 pm

        I think it’s mildly more accurate to say an extant role evolved to replace something that no longer functioned because of the way the world had changed. And that’s a luxury we don’t have, as there are no extant roles to start with – priestly or otherwise. We are all perpetrating a giant ass-pull, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that what we do is not a continuous tradition, that whatever initiatory secrets there were are entirely lost, that every structure we put together is making shit up that we are trying to assemble in a way that has some sense of resemblance to ancient traditions. But we haven’t actually got the ancient traditions, only a combination of what we think we know and what the Powers guide us to.

        I genuinely don’t think the Kemetic community would be well-served by anything; it is far too fractured a system. (Hence the gist behind The Kemetic Diaspora As Told By Finches, after all.) Some people are trying, on their particular island ecosystem, to build something for which the concept of “priest” is functional. I’m not going to should all over them and tell them that they on their island need to be doing something different. Maybe they can make it work. It’s not my call; it’s not my island. All of us are trying to adapt to a niche or have our work die with us.

        All I know is that the work I do, and the community that I am trying to speak to, are not served by reconstructing the concept of priesthood. So yes, I want different words, different understandings of what the fundamental structure is. But I also recognise that that isn’t all the work out there in Egyptian reconstruction; it’s not the only community there is.

        It doesn’t matter what titles we claim, anyway, if we don’t acknowledge that we are building something new.

    • von186

      May 31, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      I don’t know if WP actually put this as a reply to you… or to myself. So I’m re-posting it here, just in case. Stupid WP :< Ignore this, if it's a double.

      (please forgive me if I butcher the concepts- I know next to nothing about Judaism). It sounds like they created a new word to fit what the religion needed. They went from having priests to having rabbis. Do you think the Kemetic community would be well served to do something similar? Instead of trying to redefine “priest” or hem netjer in this day and age, focus on creating a new role or term that suits what is needed?

  2. Sage

    May 30, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    As a high priest/soon-to-be reverend of Wicca (with a strong Egyptian influence/personal practice and possibly multi-faith or even straight-up-KO-pending-priest-lessons, depending on where I find myself after the beginner’s course), I have plans for a temple, which would be interfaith and healing-based. I’ll omit the details for now, but reading this article is very interesting. Yinepu already considers me his priest-in-training and who knows where that will take me. I personally view priesthood of any type to be a service to those who seek it. What the Kemetic community needs- I’ll answer in time when I come to be able to answer properly.

    But this article is very interesting. It echoes the ‘solitary vs coven’ witch debate- which is better and why, for the/an individual. I’m interested in seeing where it goes.

    • von186

      May 31, 2012 at 1:00 pm

      In your eyes, would there be a difference btwn a priest, and someone who is really devoted to their god/s?

  3. Khenneferitw

    May 31, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Modern priesthood in my eyes is by and large community leadership. It means wrangling the cats, and then making sure they’re fed and watered before breaking out the catnip. I think Kiya is onto something when making rabbinical comparisons. I expect a priest to be someone doing things for other Kemetics (or Heathens, or Hellenics, or…) in the name of their god(s) – readings, teaching, holding ritual, creating a space (physical or not) for the congregation. I think a lot of this comes from growing up in a church where this was expected of any pastor or pastoral candidate.

    Given that, I think (modern) priesthood outside of an organization is an empty title, a boost to our egos. Anyone can do priestly rites. Sure, they might not be doing them properly, but the resources are there for those who look.

    A lot of this comes from my nature. I have strong attachments to communities and genuinely enjoy building them. It’s my opinion that with more pagan/polytheist organizations serving particular locales, things will get better as far as misinformation and discrimination go, and we will be stronger ourselves for the frequent interaction with others who share out beliefs.

    • von186

      May 31, 2012 at 2:28 pm

      What about those who ‘wrangle cats’, teach, perform ritual, hold seminars, etc. that are outside of an organization? Is using the title of ‘priest’ still an ego boost? In your eyes, why does priest hold more weight in an organization than outside of an organization?

  4. Bezenwepwy

    June 1, 2012 at 2:34 am

    The more I settle into this role I’ve been led to (whether one wishes to call it priesthood or not), I’m finding it does actually lean more towards the older model. But you’ve left some things out. While it’s true that priesthood was a job and that it largely dealt with the maintenance of the god’s cult (and the tending of his statue and the keeping of knowledge), it may not have been totally insular. Perhaps they didn’t act as ministers or were otherwise considered responsible for upholding morality and morale, but there were priestly services available to the common people as well. Amongst these are such things as dream interpretation (actual dream incubation on-premises seems to be a Late Period feature however), and there’s evidence of priests being hired to hold private processions. Don’t forget that many priests may also have been magicians as well, available for amulet making and the like. I can’t imagine that priests didn’t also guide the public festivals, including female ones who would have done so in the role of chantress.

    There’s also the really awesome case of Djehutiemhab, who after being approached by Hathor in a dream, declared himself to be Hathor’s “real priest.” It was clearly an intensely personal relationship where she acted as his guide and mentor, and he was her student and disciple.

    I will never be a minister, I have no desire to lead any congregations, it will never be my responsibility to be some public example of morality. But I will work to revive my god and his cult while I tend to his sacred objects and reclaim as much knowledge about him as I can. I will seek him out in all of his places. Like Djehutiemhab, what I have is intensely personal however. It is also based firmly on a relationship with my god rather than one with the community. That said, I will always be available to people in regards to anything which concerns him and I may one day offer a variety of private services. I’ve begun with that in some ways, as I have already seen to the ‘birthing (ms)’ of cult statues.

    Am I a priest?

    • von186

      June 1, 2012 at 7:10 am

      That is true, though as I understand it- the extra amuletic services, doing heka for the locals, etc. was outside of the temple. They didn’t *have* to do those things, they just chose to, which is why I didn’t include it in this write up. As for festivals, I kinda meant to include that stuff in mentioning that the gods would go out of the temple, and priests had to handle that. I wonder if it didn’t come out clear enough :\

      You are correct about dream interpretation. I understood it to be more of a Late Period thing, though. Is there more of a history of it during all periods? If it’s strictly LP, I tend to leave it out- because LP is too late for my taste.

      Do you have a place where I could learn more about Djehutiemhab? That sounds interesting.

      The simple answer is- I don’t know. I have asked the same question of myself, and others who are either a. extremely devoted to their gods, or b. extremely active/leaders in the community. If I knew what a priest is in this day and age, I probably would have left a list of questions at the end of the entry XD I like how you use the cultic aspects- because it takes a lot of the baggage from the word ‘priest’ out of the equation (instead, you just have to contend with the baggage from ‘cult’).

  5. Bezenwepwy

    June 1, 2012 at 7:43 am

    Dream interpretation seems to have began in the New Kingdom actually. There are extant dreambooks from the time period. And as I have written down in my notes: “Dream interpretation was as just one of many priestly duties under umbrella of ‘House of Life’.”

    As for Djehutiemhab, just google him. You’re looking for his hymn to Hathor, whom he calls by the nickname Hely. 🙂

    And yeah, there may be a line to draw between being a kemetic priest and being a cultic priest.

  6. thefirstdark

    May 3, 2016 at 4:36 am

    Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light.


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