November 19, 2010

The Priests of Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, priests filled the crucial role of performing all necessary rituals and maintaining the temples, which were believed to be the actual residences of the gods. Unlike in today’s houses of worship, there was limited outreach to the lay public, who were not allowed within.

The priesthood of each temple was comprised of a small, permanent staff of professionals, and a revolving coterie of high-ranking male and female “volunteers” called saw (later, Phylae, in Greek), who each served for a month at a time. As in any bureaucracy, there was a hierarchy to the priesthood: one could advance to the next level only after fulfilling the function of the preceding one.

What is a Wab-Priest?

The novice level, Wab (Wabet for women), is defined as “Pure Priest”. The purity that they embodied was reflected in their assignment – to maintain and insure the cleanliness of the ritual area and implements and to consecrate. As closely detailed here:
It appears that all members of the priesthood began with the level of Wab ... In ancient times the Wab generally were not allowed in the inner sanctuary. Rather, the training of a Wab or Wabet began with performing many of the lesser ritual functions of the temple.
Once these duties were mastered, a priest or priestess could rise to the rank of Great Wab (Wabet) or Senior Wab (Wabet), in which capacity he or she would supervise the novices. A subdivision of the Wab-priest class was that called Imi-Unut, concerned with astronomy. The members of this group observed the stars and planets in order to calculate the correct timing of festivals and rituals.

Although at a low classification in priesthood, a Wab was still highly regarded in society (especially as many progressed in the hierarchy) with many notable and beautiful funerary figurines of ancient Egyptian Wab-priests prominent in the historical record.

The higher levels of clergy were Jemjra Hem-Neter (high priest or priestess), often with additional titles; Dewat-Neter (Worshiper of the God/God’s Wife/Hand of the God), a rank of powerful priestesses; Iunmutef (Pillar of His Mother), possibly the male counterpart to the preceding rank; It-Neter (Father of the God), an early position of high rank and later an intermediate one, concerned with the sanctity and consecration of the inner sanctum; and Hemet-Neter (Servants of the God), divided into three levels and responsible for the most important rituals of the inner sanctuary.

Additionally, Sem-priests, itinerant practitioners of the mortuary arts, were identified by their youthful side lock hairstyle and leopard-skin cloaks, Sunu-priests were healers, Rakhet were priestesses who, although uninitiated, participated in some rituals, mainly as seers, and lastly Sau were workers of apotropaic spells.

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