Priesthood Organizations in Ancient Egypt

Among  the  best  preserved  evidence  for  the  organization  of  the  priesthood  during the Old Kingdom are  the  archives  of  the  royal  cult  temples  of  the fifth-dynasty king, Neferirkare Kakai, at Abusir. According  to the carefully recorded  temple  accounts,  the  priests  and  other  temple  staff  worked  on  a  rotating  basis,  serving  full-time  in  the  temple  for  one  month  in  every  five-month  period.  Some  staff  members  were  employed  on  the  temple  estates  in  other  capacities  during  the  remainder  of  the  year.  The  priests  on  duty  were  organized  into  workgroups,  or  "phyles."  Each  phyle  was  in  turn  subdivided  into  two  subgroups,  each  headed  by  a  shd,  ("inspector").  The  temple's  inventory,  income, and expenditures were meticulously registered at the end of  each watch.

During the Old Kingdom, while local rulers headed the temples of  their own provinces, the chief priests of the state-sponsored temples of major deities were often members of the  royal family, sons, or sons-in-law of the king. This pattern suggests  a strong degree of royal control over the temples during this period.  Certain  deities  and  cult  centers  had  specific  tides  for  their  chief  priests:  at  Heliopolis,  the  chief  priest  of  Ra  was  known  as  the  "Greatest of Seers," while the chief priest of Ptah at Memphis was  the  "Greatest  of  Directors  of  Craftsmen,"  in  recognition  of  Ptah's  role  as  the  god  of  craftsmen.  The  chief  priest  of  Thoth  at Hermopolis was  tile  "Great  One  of  the  Five,"  referring  to  the  creator  god  and  the  four  pairs  of  deities  that  made  up  the  Hermopolitan Ogdoad.

In the Middle Kingdom, the local governor continued to serve  as the chief priest of the local temple, although in many cases these  men were now appointed by the king. The excavations at Illahun,  the town built for the priests maintaining the mortuary cult of King  Senwosret II, produced a series of papyri, including the archives of  the  temple  scribe,  Horemsaf,  who  recorded  both  the  temple's  accounts and the correspondence of the chief priest. As in the Old  Kingdom,  priests  served  in  rotating  watches,  but  the  number  of  watches  was  now  reduced  to  four.  The  records  document  the  distribution of offerings to several categories of priests, indicating  their  relative  rank.  The  chief  priest  (imy-r  h-mw-ntr)  was  the  highest-paid,  followed  by  the  chief  lector-priest  (hry-hbt  hbt  hry- tp).  the  lector-priests,  the  phyle  regulator  (mty  m  sy),  the  wab- priests  and  other  priests  associated  with  offerings  and  cult  maintenance,  and  finally  the  temple  scribe.  The  homes  of  the  priests,  and  the  layout  of  the  town  itself,  corroborate  the  written  evidence of the organization of the priestly community and relative  status  of  the  priests.  At Abydos,  the  state  constructed  a  town  of  similar  structures  to  house  the  priests  associated  with  the  cult  of  Senwosret III, whose temple and cenotaph lie nearby.

No  temple  archives  of  the New Kingdom has  survived  to  provide evidence similar to that of the Abusir or Illahun material.  Nevertheless, the priesthood is reasonably well documented, owing  to  the  better  overall  preservation  of  temples  and  private  tombs.  Although  secular  administrators  continued  to  serve  as  priests  of  many  cults  (at  least  early  in  the  period),  the  priesthood  emerged  during the New Kingdom as a full-time profession. During the first  half of the eighteenth dynasty, the old title for the chief hem-priest  was replaced by a new one, the "first prophet" (hm-ntr tpi). At first,  this new, full-time position was held exclusively by members of the  royal  family,  but  soon  thereafter  by  other  officials  appointed  directly  by  the  king.  The  first  prophet  enjoyed  considerable  authority  in  the  major  divine  cults,  particularly  that  of  Amun  at  Thebes, and his wife typically served as the leader of temple musi- cians  and  dancers.  In  the  largest  cult  centers,  such  as  Thebes,  a  series of full-time second, third, and occasion ally fourth prophets assisted with the running of the temple.

The  first  prophet  of  Amun  at  Kamak,  responsible  for  the  cult  and revenues of Egypt's largest temple complex, was one of New  Kingdom  Egypt's  most  important  officials.  A  pair  of  inscriptions  dedicated  by  the  priest  Bak-enkhons  record  the  progress  of  his  career,  stating that  fourteen years  of  schooling and  public  service  preceded his appointment to the rank of wafo-priest. Thereafter, he  served  as  "god's  father,"  third  prophet,  and  second  prophet—a  process that took nearly four decades—before he received the title  of first prophet. In the early part of the eighteenth dynasty, the first  prophet at Karnak also held the title of chief prophet of Upper and  Lower  Egypt,  and  with  it  the  duty  of  supervising,  on  the  king's  behalf, the affairs of all the temples in Egypt. During the reign of  Thutmose IV, this office was transferred to another official, often  the chief priest of Ptah, serving in Memphis. The first prophet of  Amun  became  extraordinarily  influential  by  the  end  of  the  New  Kingdom, by which time the office had come to be hereditary.

Also serving a crucial role in New Kingdom temple rituals was  the chief lector-priest (hry-hbt hry-tp}, who, as in previous periods,  oversaw  the  preservation  and  recitation  of  the  texts,  prayers,  and  rituals.  In  the  larger  temples,  he  was  now  assisted  by  a  second,  third,  and  sometimes  fourth  lector-priest.  Lector-priests  are  also  documented announcing the verdicts of the oracles that took place  at festivals. Wafc-priests continued to function on a rotating basis  as earlier, with four phyles of priests serving a one-month term. The  "God's Father" (It-np-), occasionally attested in the Old Kingdom,  became a regular priestly title in the New Kingdom. Among other  responsibilities,  "God's  Fathers"  led  the  processions  held  at  festivals. The wives of priests, organized into phyles as were their  husbands, served as temple musicians.

Although the classes of priests continued essentially unchanged  into the Third Intermediate Period and the Late period, the status of  the  priesthood  of  Amun  skyrocketed.  At  the  end  of  the  twentieth  dynasty,  generals  used  the  title  of  first  prophet  to  take  actual  political  control  over  southern  Egypt,  contributing  to  the  disintegration  of  Egypt's  central  government.  Some  additional  changes  in  the  temple  administration  also  took  place  during  this  time.  The  full-time  priests  were  now  assisted  by  part-time  hem- priests, arranged in phyles and serving on a rotating basis, resuming  a priestly title that had gone out of use early in the New Kingdom.  Most priestly offices by this period had become hereditary.

When Egypt was reunited under the Saite and Kushite dynasties,  the volatile office of first prophet of Amun was eliminated, and the  "God's Wife of Amun" became the highest priestly title in Thebes.  Although earlier "God's Wives"  had  clearly  married  and  had  children,  those  of  the  Late  period were celibate, unmarried daughters of the ruler or a powerful  priest,  who  adopted  their  successors.  Their  chosen  successors  eventually came to be known as the first prophets of Amun. In the  twenty-fifth  dynasty,  the  Kushite  ruler  Kashta  enlisted  the  "God's  Wife of Amun," Shepenwepet I, to adopt his daughter Amenirdis as  her successor, thus solidifying his own claim to power in Thebes.  Amenirdis was in turn followed by Shepenwepet II and Amenirdis  II, during whose term of office Psamtik I expelled the Kushites to  found the twenty-sixth dynasty. In order to establish his own rule,  Psamtik,  with  the  aid  of  the  "Overseer  of  Upper  Egypt,"  Montuemhat, arranged for his own daughter, Nitocris, to be adopted  as  heiress.  The  stela  recording  her  installment  as  god's  wife  describes the elaborate ceremony involved, and lists the enormous  endowment allotted to the office during this period. The invasion of  Cambyses and the Persians brought the significance of the "God's  Wives" to an end; although the title continued to exist in later times,  it never regained its political importance.

During the Greco-Roman period, the full-time clergy of major  cults continued to be assisted by part-time priests, divided into four  phyles;  until  238  BCE,  when  Ptolemy  III  reorganized  the  system,  adding  a  fifth  phyle.  Virtually  all  offices  were  hereditary.  The  highest-ranking  member  of  the  priesthood  in  this  period  was  the  high  priest  of  Ptah  at  Memphis,  although  the  priests  of  Amun  at  Thebes retained significant status. Several categories of priest be- low the rank of prophet included (among others): the sacred scribes  known  as  hierogrammates  (of  which  Manetho  was  one);  the  hierostolistes. who tended the cult statue;  the'fwrologoi,  astronomers  who  maintained  the  calendar  of  festivals;  and  the  pastophoroi,  who  carried  the  gods'  shrines  in  processions. "God's Wives" continue to function, albeit in a reduced  role, and female wab-priests and /tem-priests are also documented.

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Domestic Cult and Magic Priests

Many domestic cults, aimed  in large part on protecting the home and its inhabitants from harm,  required  literate  or  learned  individuals  to  perform  the  appropriate  rites. Hence, priests were often called upon to serve in this capacity.  Lector-priests, with their specialized knowledge of religious texts,  were  the  principal  practitioners  of apotropaic magic.  They  also  appear to have been consulted in times of medical emergencies, as  the Old Kingdom biography of Wash-ptah attests. A group of men  identified  as  hkyw  ("magicians")  appears  in  association  with  the  House of Life. Both lector-priests and physicians (swnw) also held  specialized  titles  associated  with  specific  types  of  magic,  such  as  "Scorpion Charmer." Along with written and spoken prayers, these  priests were familiar with, and able to produce, the correct amulets  for protection and talismans for blessing.

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