What did it mean to be a priest in ancient Egypt?
Roving mendicant, parish pastor, fiery evangelist or vodoun mystic – so many stereotypes joust for attention when you speak the word. Egyptian priests, however, were very different from the typical modern western image of a minister. Their primary obligation was to conduct daily and seasonal rites in order to perpetuate the balance between the neteru (gods) and the earthly realm. Healing, magical and literary and musical arts developed around these rites. But preaching, converting, pastoral care for a congregation, and the like were not part of the job.
A hem-netjer (servant of the god) might be attached to a temple for life as a permanent vocation. Other priests served in rotation, living at home with wife and children most of the year. Celibacy was not a requirement for priesthood, though married priests during the New Kingdom abstained from sex before coming to the temple for their period of service. In the large temples, divisions of labor resulted in specialties like the wab priest (a sort of ritual helper), sem priest (performed funeral rites), and kherheb (lector) priest, who recited texts and often performed magic.
In Osireion practice, we look at the figure of the priest as an allegory or type for our own daily living. That does not mean we go live in a stone temple, but that we contemplate the devotion of the priest to spiritual practice. We do not feel that we are inherently unclean, but we do find it meaningful to dip our hands in clean water before a ritual, to signify that we are washing away what is unwanted in our lives and coming to the altar with a clear and open heart. We burn incense before the statues of our gods, but we are well aware that the scent has a powerful effect on our own human minds, instantly connecting us to the realm of spirit. We shake the sistra, not only because it was believed that the gods like the sound, butmodel of devotional practice, in particular.
Today, however, we live in communities which are accustomed to a pastoral culture of ministry. This need not be a conflict for independent-minded Pagans; humans naturally congregate and form groups based on shared values and practice. Within those groups, some will emerge as possessing specific skills needed by the others. There is honor and beauty in the idea of caring for others in our spiritual communities. Intentional nurturing of one’s own spirituality, in addition to learning about ethics, leadership, ceremony and pastoral care, brings about a model for priesthood which can serve the growing new Egyptian spirituality communities.
“O Ra, Lord of Light, Giver of Life and taker of it, cast your light of peace unto the world. So commands the Chief Lector Priest, Haroeris M7, everliving in Ma’at.”
From Selections of Ancient Egyptian Prayer, © Copyright 2009 Michael J. Costa (M7), All rights reserved.