Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
Rāhetep, a Priest. (IVth or Vth Dynasty)
The duties of the priesthood were arduous. A most stringent and exacting code had to be followed so far as cleanliness and discipline were concerned. Constant purifications and lustrations succeeded each other, and the garb of the religious must be fresh and unspotted. It consisted entirely of the purest and whitest linen, the wearing of woollen and other fabrics being strictly forbidden, and even abhorred. The head was closely shaven, and no head-dress was worn. The priest's day was thoroughly mapped out for him. If he was on duty, he duly washed himself and proceeded to the Holy of Holies, where he repeated certain formulæ, accompanying them by prescribed gestures, preparatory to breaking the seal which closed the sanctuary. Standing face to face with the god, he prostrated himself, and after performing other ritualistic offices he presented the deity with a small image of Maāt, the goddess of Truth. The god, powerless before this moment to participate in the ceremonial, was then supposedly regaled with a collation the principal items in which seem to have been beef, geese, bread, and beer, having consumed which he re-entered his shrine, and did not appear until the morning following. In the entire[Pg 54] ritual of these morning offerings it would appear that the officiating priest represents Horus, son of Osiris, who, like all dutiful Egyptian sons, sees to the welfare of his father after death. Thus the ritual is coloured by the Osirian myth. The remainder of the day was passed in meditation, the study of various arts and sciences, theoretical and manual, and officiation at public religious ceremonies. Even the night had its duties; for lustration and purification were undertaken in the small hours, the priest being awakened for that purpose about or after midnight.
Early Greek travellers in Egypt, and especially Herodotus and Strabo, speak with enthusiasm of the abilities of the Egyptian priests and the high standard of philosophic thought to which they had attained. The great college of priests at Thebes is alluded to with admiration by Strabo. Its members were probably the most learned and acute theologians and philosophers in ancient Egypt. Colleges of almost equal importance existed elsewhere, as at Anu, the On or Heliopolis of the Greeks. Each nome or province had its own great temple, which developed the provincial religion regardless of faiths which existed but a few miles away. The god of the nome was its divinity par excellence, Ruler of the Gods, Creator of the Universe, and giver of all good things to his folk.
But it must not be imagined that, if the priesthood as a body was wealthy, some of its members did not suffer the pinch of hardship. Thus, although the best conditions attached to office in the great temples, these were by no means overstaffed. At Abydos only five priests composed the staff, while Siut had ten attached to it. Again, the smaller temples[Pg 55] possessed revenues by no means in proportion to their size. A study of this subject shows the stipend of the chief priests of the smaller shrines. "On the western border of the Fayûm," says Erman, "on the lake of Moeris, was the temple of Sobk of the Island, Soknopaios as it is called by the Greeks. It had a high-priest who received a small stipend of 344 drachmæ, and all the other priests together received daily about one bushel of wheat as remuneration for their trouble. They were not even immune from the statutory labour on the embankments, and if this was lessened for them, it was owing to the good offices of their fellow-citizens. The revenues of the temple, both in regular incomes and what was given in offerings, was used for the requirements of the ceremonies, for at every festival fine linen must be provided for the clothing of the three statues of the gods, and each time that cost 100 drachmæ; 20 drachmæ were paid on each occasion for the unguents and oil of myrrh employed in anointing the statues, 500 drachmæ were for incense, while 40 drachmæ were required to supply sacrifices and incense for the birthdays of the emperor. And yet these priests, who were in the position of the peasantry and of the lower classes of townspeople, maintained that their position in no way diminished their ancient sanctity."
Priestesses also held offices in the temples. In earlier times these officiated at the shrines of both gods and goddesses, and it is only at a later date that we find them less often as celebrants in the temples dedicated to male deities, where they acted chiefly as musicians.
There is a popular fallacy to the effect that 'volumes' have been written concerning the Egyptian 'mysteries,' those picturesque and unearthly ceremonies of initiation which are supposed to have taken place in subterranean dusk, surrounded by all the circumstances of occult rite and custom. The truth is that works which deal with the subject are exceedingly rare, and are certainly not of the kind from which we can hope to glean anything concerning the mysteries of Egyptian priestcraft. We shall do better to turn to the analogous instances of Grecian practice or even to those of savage and semi-civilized peoples concerning whose mysteries a good deal has been unearthed of recent years.
Regarding the Egyptian mysteries but little is known. We have it on the authority of Herodotus that mysteries existed, possibly those in the case cited being the annual commemoration of the sufferings and death of Osiris. Says Herodotus:
"At Saïs in the Temple of Minerva, beneath the Churche and neere unto the walle of Minerva, in a base Chappell, are standinge certayne greate brooches of stone, whereto is adioyninge a lowe place in manner of a Dungeon, couered over wyth a stone curiously wroughte, the vaute it selfe being on euery side carued with most exquisite arte, in biggnesse matching with that in Delos, which is called Trochoïdes. Herein euery one counterfayteth the shadowes of his owne affections and phantasies in the nyghte season, which the Aegyptians call Mysteryes; touchinge whiche, God forbid, I should aduenture to discouer so much as they vouchsafed to tell mee."