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 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.
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.
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.
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:
- Kemetic Orthodoxy: Kemetic Priesthood Q&A Part 1
- Kemetic Orthodoxy: Kemetic Priesthood Q&A Part 2
- Priesthood discussion on KIN
- The Role of Priesthood in Modern Kemeticism on eCauldron
- The Priests of Ancient Egypt: Serge Sauneron
- Egypt: Priests in Ancient Egypt: Tour Egypt
- Eternal Egypt: Ancient Rituals for the Modern World: Richard Reidy
- The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt: Richard Wilkinson
- Temples of Ancient Egypt: Byron Shafer
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