The Egyptian Priestly class

In ancient Egypt only the pharaoh could talk with the deities and the human and divine world. He celebrated all the ceremonies of the Egyptian religion: the daily rites and the special celebrations that take place in the various temples. It was a very hard work and difficult to handle even for the divine Pharaoh. In fact, a group of royal officials was appointed to represent the pharaoh in the ceremonies: the priests. The priests ran the religious, ceremonial and economic activities of the various temples.

As a substitute for the Pharaoh, a purely religious vocation was not required of them. In order to fulfill their task, they had to be able to read and recite the formulas during the cults. It was bureaucratic and often temporary. In the Middle Kingdom, it was usual to entrust the office of priest for three months a year. In this way the sovereign could control the priestly caste and could entrust to more people the profits deriving from the offerings of the faithful. This subdivision of the offer was made conditional on the role played by the priest.


063During the New Kingdom, the priest’s position became fixed. At that time, the pharaoh subsidized the major temples with money and land. We can cite the case of the temple of Karnak in Thebes, where at the time of Ramses III 81,322 men worked, who were involved in worship but also in the management of the properties of the temples, including 1478 kilometers of land and 421.362 heads of cattle. This created a great power of the temples and of the caste and was one of the major concern of the farone to maintain their fidelity. He carefully and personally chose the head priest of each temple.

Here is the text of the nomination of Nebunefef to the High Priest of Amun:

“He led himself to the presence of Ramses II Nebunenef, who was then High Priest of Onuris-Shu and of Hathor, Madame de Dendera.” His majesty told him, “From now on, you will be, Grand Priest of Amun, his treasures and his barns. they will be under your seal, you will be the head of the temple, all his goods will depend on you, as for the temple of Hathor, I will attribute the priesthood to your son “.

The day of the priest began before dawn when the priest immersed himself in the sacred lake of Karnak or washed with water taken from it. After the purification, the priest was sprinkled with fragrant incense and wiped his mouth chewing a handful of natron salt also used in mummification. After the dressing and the consecration of the offers he could access the sacred area of ​​the temple where only he and the pharaoh could enter. Before entering this space the priest lit a torch and illuminated the environment, then proceeded to perfume everything with incense. At this point he broke the seals of the latch and opened the “House of the God”, a skylight closet with gilded wooden doors in which the statue of the god was placed.


039The High Priest then prostrated and kissed the floor, then performed a ritual round about the “tabernacle” before presenting offers of myrrh, aromatic oils, and a statuette of the goddess Maat. This was the moment to extract the statue of the god after having piled on the floor a bit of clean sand that was used to support the statue. Put the statue on the floor, the priest cleaned the wardrobe with the utmost care. Then he embraced the statue and then cleaned it from the oils and ointments advanced from the previous rites.

Finally he undressed the statue of the god and washed it with water and incense, before covering it with clean clothes: a headband, fresh linen clothes, a gold necklace, a breastplate and the insignia of the deity. The cleaning operations ended by greasing the god with precious oils, putting on the eyes with kohl powder and spreading the floor with other clean sand, which was purified with water and natron. At this point the priest lifted the statue from the floor and placed it in the stone closet without closing the doors.


maat_02This is because one had to nourish the divinity with the offerings of foods displayed on the altar. The priest listed the foods one by one taking one portion each and depositing them on trays. At the end of this list, he implored the deity to accept the offers presented, to give him greater strength, he offered him two small amulets, one in the form of the key of life (ankh) and the other of heart (ib). Recited other songs, closed the wooden doors of the closet by sealing the bolt.

At sunset the High Priest was to perform the Ritual of the Evening, almost identical to that of the morning. Between these two rituals the priest took care of the organization of the temple, the management of his assets and the daily issues he was called upon to decide.

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