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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2012

2 - Priests


In one sense, we know a lot about priests in ancient Egypt. We have the names and titles of thousands of priests, and numerous biographies and autobiographies that describe their duties. Yet in some cases, we do not know exactly what differentiated one type of priest from another. Further, little is known about the training of priests, and there is much debate about some aspects of the priesthood, including priests' specialized knowledge, initiation, and mysticism.

Economic records indicate that the priesthood was a major institution in Egyptian society. For example, the funerary cult of Neferirkare (Dynasty 5) had between two hundred and fifty and three hundred individuals associated with it. Even smaller temples, such as those of Anubis at the Fayum and in Teudjoy, employed between fifty and eighty priests. Though we lack similar rosters for the major temples like Karnak, the number of priests they employed must have been enormous.

In contrast to the many written records and the statues of priests that survive from the dynastic period virtually no visual record of priests remains in the temples themselves. Instead, temple walls are covered with endless scenes showing the king carrying out religious ceremonies (Fig. 6), for, in theory, he was the sole officiate before the gods. But texts make it clear that many priests were actually engaged in the temple workings as proxies for the king. Only in the Greco-Roman Period do we find priests depicted on temple walls.