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KRT: Priesthood Here & Now

A long long long time ago I wrote a post detailing how the priesthood existed in antiquity. At the end of that post, I had asked Kemetics to weigh in on what it meant to be a priest now. Originally, I was going to write a response to my own question, once I sorted out what being a priest entails now that we have no state structure to support us.

I never wrote a response.

As it turns out, figuring out what being a priest should be is much harder than what it appears at first glance. And despite all of the reading and poking and musing that I’ve done regarding our religion in the past few years, I am still not very solid on what I think our priests should be, or what qualifications our modern priests should have. The closest I’ve managed to get to writing about priests is this post where I talk about how I don’t feel priesthood is the most pressing concern in our community and this post where I outline that we need more roles in our community beyond laity and priests. While both posts are helpful, neither really answer the question of where I personally see our priesthood fitting into the modern Kemetic community.

But for the sake of KRT, I shall now try to take a stab at what I feel modern priesthood should entail.

 Priesthood: What it Isn’t

It’s easier for me to start off by figuring out what I don’t think should necessarily be encompassed by Kemetic priests. I’ve had the fortune or misfortune of sitting in on many discussions regarding priesthood, and it seems that most people want priests to do a little bit of everything. They want priests to be grief counselors and wedding facilitators. They want priests who engage the community, produce accurate resources on the religion or their patron deity. They want priests that basically do all of the hard work without paying them or compensating them for their time and efforts.

I personally think this is a horrible idea, and I have a couple of reasons for it:

  • One: we’re not other religions. We’re not Wicca where everyone is a priest. We’re not Christians with priests that stand in front of clergies and give mass. We’re not these other religions, and I don’t think that we necessarily need to emulate these religions simply because they are what is familiar to us.
  • Two: resources. I know people are tired of me wailing about resources, but it is what makes things run. People don’t have the time to do all of this stuff, and the only way they would have the time is if we were paying them. Which I’m pretty sure our community doesn’t have the funding to do.
  • Three: second cousin to point two would be education. How do we educate our priests in all of these things? There is no Kemetic college you can go to. And most people don’t have the ability to become an Egyptologist (not that that really deals with the religion, either). Taking a general theology class might be useful, but it still wouldn’t arm the priest with all of the tools needed for what everyone seems to want them to be able to do. And that still doesn’t address the cost in both money and time to learn how to do these things effectively. Both of which our community is lacking in.
  • Four: It sets up a damaging expectation about our community. It will bring back the ‘priesthood-laity’ dichotomy that I think we desperately need to move away from. It will create a structure where you are either a super cool priest that does everything, or you are a lame layperson who does nothing. It doesn’t allow for diversity in our community or diversity amongst our community roles.

From my perspective, priesthood is not really about helping the community. I do think there should be some overlap with the community, but at the end of the day, that’s not what being a priest is really about. I don’t think priests need to be grief counselors. I don’t think priests need to be community facilitators. I don’t think priests need to be holding retreats or opening the doors of their shrine to other Kemetics to enjoy. I don’t think that priests should necessarily be any of these things (though obviously, they can be these things if they so choose to). I feel that too many times the members of our community want to place all of these expectations and responsibilities on priests for personal reasons. And I feel that these personal desires shouldn’t be conflated with what the actual role is meant to entail, or what the community actually needs from it’s priesthood.

Priesthood: What it Could Be

So that leads me into what I think priests should be, or more accurately, what they could be. I personally don’t feel comfortable putting up too many requirements for priests because I am not one, and will never be one. However, I will give some suggestions on what I think would be the most logical and beneficial for the community in a long term sense.

A lot of what colors my ideas about what priests could or should be comes from antiquity, to be honest. In antiquity, the priesthood kept the house of the god in order. They kept the gods clothed and fed, and made sure that the temple precinct was maintained. To an extent, I think that modern priesthood should mirror this. Priests take care of the god’s quarters.

This means you have an established house for the god that you venerate. You perform daily rituals that involve food offerings, libations, and words of power. I know that a sort of standard for priests has been that they perform state rituals, but I personally don’t think that is mandatory. What I do think is mandatory is that your daily rituals are more involved than simply placing down and offering plate and wandering off. I also think that priests should be doing more involved rituals on a regular basis, and honoring days that are special to the deity that they are serving.

I add these extra caveats in because I want to differentiate between someone who is a ritualist (aka: does a lot of rituals, or has a very rituals driven practice) and someone who is acting in the capacity of a priest. In my experience, there is a difference between quick daily rites, and rituals that are more involved and are aimed towards keeping the god’s place and body clean and renewed every day.

Beyond the basic rituals of feeding and caring for the gods, I believe that a priest needs to ensure that the house the god resides in is well maintained. This means making sure that the shrine doesn’t collect 2 inches of dust before you clean it. This also means making sure that the shrine upkeep is as important as the deity upkeep because you’re there to facilitate a living space for the gods, and that living space should be kept tidy.

In addition to everything above, I don’t think it’s mandatory to have an Open icon. Once upon a time, I thought that maybe it would be, but I personally feel that maintaining the shrine and the god inside of the shrine is more important than whether the icon itself has gone through a specific ritual. This is probably also due to the fact that I believe that the gods can cause an icon to become Open, regardless of what rituals you may or may not have performed on the icon.

You’ll notice that my list of “requirements” is pretty short, and that is on purpose. We don’t need priests to do everything because we have non-priests who can do those things as well. I think the biggest role for the priest is maintaining the house of the god, and the god that resides inside of that house. Anything more than that is at their own choosing. It is also this focus on rituals and shrine work that lead me to believe that I will likely never become a priest, because I don’t do a whole lot of either. I’m fairly certain that my views on priesthood are too narrow for some people’s preferences (“priests should do more!” they’ll say) and too loose for others (“they need to do state rites and have an Open icon!”), but that is my current line of thought regarding priesthood in the modern era. I guess we’ll see if my views shift in different ways over the course of the next few years as I continue to poke at this topic.

To read other responses to this topic, check out the KRT Master List

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2015 in Kemetic Round Table, Kemeticism

 

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Why Priesthood is Pointless

It seems like discussion about priesthood is an almost yearly thing. That at least during some point of the calendar year, we Kemetics feel obligated to discuss what on earth it means to be a priest, and how we can define it, how do we know who is a priest and who isn’t… and and and. And every year, we kick the idea around for a bit, realize we don’t really have any answers…. and we put it back up on a shelf to stare at until next year. I’m not sure what causes this revolving door to occur, but if you sit around long enough on various non-temple affiliated forums, you’ll find that it crops up almost like clock work.

The debates that arise from discussing what is necessary for priesthood can get pretty heavy. There are a lot of factors at play when it comes to clergy, and there are a lot of social and economical dynamics that you have to consider when you talk about priesthood. Many of us come from a Christian background, where the priesthood does a lot of stuff that Kemetic clergy wouldn’t had to have even considered in antiquity. Many of us also move into the Pagan/polytheist sphere through Wiccan information, which also promotes that everyone is a priest. Combine that with the very stark definitions of priesthood from antiquity, and you’ve got an organizational nightmare on your hands.

But this post is not about how we could tackle the priesthood topic (I’m working on that, still). This post is about why this isn’t a discussion that is really worth having right now.

There are a lot of reasons behind this, but the most important reason is resources, and whether we like it or not, priesthood, whether affiliated with a temple or not, requires a lot of resources that our community doesn’t really have. We don’t have many resources in just about every sense of the word. We lack people, the people we do have often lack time or money, and we also lack knowledge (in some cases) as well as structural support from our religious community. All of these things compound to make the discussion about priesthood (and many times, temples as well) very interesting, but pointless because priesthood at this stage of the game is the equivalent of putting the cart before the horse.

A Frame of Reference: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Back when I was in college, I was taking a writing class where we discussed how to make stories believable and how to flesh out character development. During this writing class, I was introduced to the concept of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. For those who don’t know about Maslow’s Hierarchy, it’s often represented with a triangle or pyramid (as seen above). Each level of the pyramid shows a person’s needs for survival. When a tier’s needs are met, the person is able to move forward to the next tier.

The tier on the bottom is considered the most basic and the most important. If you’re not eating, sleeping, or healthy, your concerns about other stuff become heavily diminished. You’ve no time for soul searching and ethical dilemmas if you’re not getting your basic health requirements, or so the theory goes (a relatively simple explanation of Maslow’s hierarchy can be found here).

When I see our community, I see something very similar to a Maslow’s triangle. I see that we have needs, we have stuff we need to accomplish if we want to be a viable community that lasts for a couple of generations, and priesthood is near the top of the pyramid. And much like the golden capstones that you’d find on real life pyramids and obelisks- if there is nothing beneath that capstone to support it, that capstone has nowhere to rest and ultimately falls to the ground.

Another way to frame this is that without a lay person base, without a community and all of its trappings, without these very precious resources, there is no priesthood. The capstone that would be the priesthood (not because priests are better than everyone, but because priests are a small percentage of the larger group) would be stuck on the ground, if not missing entirely. Much like the Egyptian kingship that folded in on itself at the end of the Old Kingdom due to overspending and lack of resources, we too will ultimately fail if we try to move too far too quickly. As it is said, you have to be able to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run. Placing priesthood at the forefront of our concerns puts us at running before we’ve even really started taking our first steps.

First Steps First

I once wrote about the various considerations needed to make a temple or organization. When I view the community at large, I tend to look through the same lens as I did for that post. As mentioned above, we have needs. Our community needs things if it is to survive. Instead of talking about how we want priests to be around to help the community (because that’s what most people want modern priests to be- facilitators for our non-existent community), let’s talk about what the community can do to help start the formation of it’s own “Maslow’s Hierarchy”. If priesthood is, in fact, the end goal for some people, then we need to start re-framing the question by looking at what the community itself needs in order to build up to the priesthood pinnacle.

I often call what I do in the community “laying foundations” because from where I am standing, we need a good foundation to build off of before anything else within the community can become possible. Our community at large needs more foundations laid out in order to help facilitate the bigger and better things that everyone wants.

These foundations can come in many forms. Some examples would be:

  • People: We need people in order to actually be a thing. Compared to most other groups in the Pagan/polytheist community, Kemetics are pretty small in number; and when you take out the Kemetics who are already affiliated with a temple (where our priesthood discussion doesn’t apply), that number gets even smaller. Small numbers means small resources. As much as some folks like being niche and obscure, at the end of the day, more people = more ability to do things.
  • Religious Structures: When I say structure, I don’t mean buildings. I mean we need calendars and rituals. We need guidelines and methodologies that people can adopt. We need to actually have guides for “this is how we do things” so that others can come in and do those things.
  • Knowledge: This goes hand in hand with the last bullet point. We need to know enough information to be able to format that information into something we can actually use. Slowly, we are getting more useful information for religious practices, but it is a slow progress, and one that may need to progress a bit more before we actually have enough to work with.

The list for foundations could go on and on, but I think that these points sum up the most important parts, and they are the parts that I regularly focus on in my community building activities. If we want to make priesthood a viable thing in the future, this is where I think we need to start, and you will notice that most of these topics have little to nothing to do with priesthood on the surface. That’s probably why many people don’t want to focus on them: they are unglamorous and difficult to establish. However, these things are vital to our longevity. They are necessary in order to bridge the gap between here and where we want to be.

Much like with the logistics post above, when I see someone mention that a priest should help the community, I have to ask: what community? Where are these people that the priest will help? Or if someone mentions the requirements for rituals that a priest needs to perform, I have to ask: where will they get these rituals? When people mention priests helping with funerals, marriages, or counseling, I again have to return to: where will they learn all of this stuff? Where will they get the resources, the time? Our community is only starting to grow. We’re just barely establishing a presence in the larger communities, and we haven’t even crossed the threshold into having good printed resources that newcomers can utilize. We’ve just barely gotten started. And while I don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of ideas about where priesthood could go, or what it could be, but I just don’t see many people actually doing anything to get us from point A to point B.

It is my belief that until we start focusing on the foundations, on the basics of our religious community, and building those foundations up (much like a pyramid), the discussion of priesthood is pointless. And only once those things are somewhat in place will the concept of priesthood actually be able to take hold within our community (in whatever fashion it chooses to ultimately take). Perhaps instead of discussing everything that we’d like to see in the community, people can actually get out and start doing the leg work (or supporting others who are doing the leg work) and we can get from A to B even faster.

 How important do you feel having an active priesthood is for the community? What changes or improvements do you think the community needs to make in order to facilitate a future priesthood? Do you think a cohesive priesthood will ever be a “thing”?

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2014 in Kemeticism

 

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Kemetic Priesthood: Then and Now

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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Book Review: The Priests of Ancient Egypt


I managed to get a copy of The Priests of Ancient Egypt by Serge Sauneron, and I finally got around to reading it. This book is considered a staple for Kemetics in many circles, and it doesn’t disappoint. This book goes far more in-depth into the priesthood of AE than almost any other book that I have read so far.

The book starts off discussing the generalized idea about what priests are and do. Sauneron shows us that while many people have an ideal about what priests were like (morally speaking) there were examples of priests who were less than savoury in their dealings. I would guess he does this to break any romanticism we have with the notion of being a priest. Priests were people just like us- and they were fallible as we are now.

Sauneron also discusses the basics of temple ritual, what a priest’s day might entail while in the temple. Most of this was not entirely new to me, but it was still interesting to read another perspective on it. After reading this, it really does validate a lot of what I’ve read in Reidy’s book. One confirms, in many ways, the other. He also goes into detail about different areas priests would have studied. He made a point to mention that each priest within the temple would have had a specialty. There was rarely a priest who knew EVERYTHING. Usually, you had someone who read stuff. Someone who oversaw just the offerings. Someone who spent their day making the linen and clothes for the icon. Someone who was there to deem if an animal was pure enough to be sacrificed to the god. Someone who knew the music that the god liked… etc. I think this is an important concept for modern Kemetics to consider, since it seems like we all have to know everything about everything in order to get somewhere. He also gave a generalized history of AE and how the priesthood could have played a role in it. It was interesting to see his ideas about how the Ramessides were trying to placate the priests of Amun while trying to promote their own god- Set. I’ve never seen anyone really discuss whether the 19th dynasty had problems with the temple of Amun or not. So the concept was interesting to consider.

I liked learning little facts that I’ve seen asked around the forums, yet never knew answers to. For example, Sauneron does mention that there was likely some type of initiation ritual for new priests. He says not a lot of information is known, but that something happened to transition them from outside to inside. In the case of higher priests appointed by the King, they would receive a ring and ceremonial staff, which I thought was interesting to know.

I also found out that there was mandatory ‘rules’ for animals that were butchered for the temple. Usually, related to markings (or lack thereof) – the beast had to be deemed pure in order for it to be served to the gods. I wonder how the Netjer feel about the types of meat we are serving them now 😛

Apparently each nome of Egypt kept some sort of master list relating to what grew there, the mythologies of the area, common offerings, and a whole slew of other things. I would love to get my hand of a whole lot of these. Imagine the things we could learn.

I also found out that in the typical inner sanctuary of the temple, there would be a kar shrine, the boat, and usually a table- and that offerings were left outside of the kar shrine, on the table. I had thought that perhaps the offerings went in the shrine itself, so it’s good to have this cleared up. I guess for most temples, the shrine was sealed up after the morning ritual, and wasn’t opened the rest of the day. Which I was unaware of as well. I also found out that for some temples, there were lesser and greater morning rituals. Every 5 days or so, there would be a more involved morning rite that involved the changing of the clothes for the god, etc. But that on the lesser days, just the four strips of linen were swapped out.

He also confirmed that Open statues had their joo-joo renewed once per year. I would guess through another Opening of the Mouth rite.

Overall, the book had some interesting stuff to it. I learned a few new things and it reinforced a lot of what I have already read. Here are a few excerpts from the book I placed in my FB feed:

A priest is any man who, through bodily purification, puts himself in the state of physical purity necessary to approach the holy place, or to touch any objects or dishes of food consecrated to the god.

Maat is the aspect of the world that the gods have chosen, it is the universal order as they established it from its basic constituent elements, such as the course of the starts and the succession of days, down to the humblest of its manifestations” the harmony of the living, their religious piety; it is the cosmic balance, and the regular recurrence of the seasonal phenomena; it is also the respect for the earthly order set up by the gods – truth, and justice.

The Egyptians distinguished in the sky, beyond the sun and the moon, the stars which never rest- our planets: Mercury, Venus (the star of the evening and the morning), Mars (the red Horus), Jupiter (the glittering star), and Saturn (Horus the bull).

I think the biggest complaint I have about this book is that he cites late sources a lot. It seems like the majority of his information comes from Greek writers. While I know that it’s possible that this was his only major resource to pull from, I would certainly enjoy to hear more about priests from the Egyptians themselves- not outsiders who came to Egypt at the very end of her life.

All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the priesthood of Egypt, and whoever might be interested in creating a priestly role for themselves (or taking on such a role) in the modern era. I think by looking back at how the ancients did it, it can create a lot of ideas about how we can approach the concept today, and translate it into something that works in this time and place. I also feel this book does a good job at clearing up some of the misconceptions one might have about what bring a priest in AE was about.

See this book review over on Pagan Book Review!

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2012 in Kemetic Book Reviews, Kemeticism

 

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